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Stories from the Ugly Couch

August 11, 2021

The story of the “ugly couch” goes back a few years to when Beth Fellinger was the leader of a youth group at a large church.

After some discussion, the church leaders set aside a spacious room in the church in which the youth could meet — and Fellinger suggested obtaining some comfortable leather couches to sit on.

But the kids told her they didn’t want leather couches. They were afraid they might crack the leather or cause other problems with furniture that was so nice.

“They said they would rather have ugly couches — couches that you find by the side of the road or that have been donated” — that they could feel safe to use and that would make them feel comfortable and welcome, said Fellinger, the final speaker for Inspire “Light,” which offered a series of presentations Aug. 2-6.

Every time one of those ugly couches wore out, said Fellinger, the church got rid of it and found another one just as ugly and just as pleasing for the young people to relax on. Fellinger so appreciated the notion of the ugly couch that she uses those words as part of her email signature.

And the use of ugly couches has continued as a theme in her work in ministry, she said — except that they have now evolved into blue-painted picnic tables, one in her backyard and another in her front yard.

But those picnic tables serve the same function, she said: they are comfortable places on which to sit and where people can gather — and they serve as a way for Fellinger to share in many ways the message of the gospel.

“The gospel is deep in my heart,” said Fellinger, a regional leader for Resonate Global Mission in eastern Canada.

Before opening her home — and the blue picnic tables — to her neighbors, Fellinger worked to plant and lead a church called Destination in downtown St. Thomas, Ont., for a decade. But even there, as now, she said, she is only part of the process — she gets out of the way and doesn’t let being a pastor keep others from doing the sacred work needed to keep a community intact.

“Each of us are church planters. If you have the kingdom of God in you, you carry the church wherever you go.”

Because Inspire 2021 has been postponed till next year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Inspire “Light” took place last week instead, offering online plenary talks, worship, and group time together — to spark people’s interest in making the trip next summer to Inspire 2022 in Chicago.

Starting on Tuesday, Katie Ritsema-Roelofs, a catalyzer for Worship Ministries, spoke about “Music as a Spiritual Discipline,” and she was followed on Wednesday by Rick Zomer, director of Therefore Go Ministries, who spoke about “Engaging Youth and Emerging Adults.” Reggie Smith, the CRC’s director of Diversity, then spoke Thursday on how “Diversity Changes Everything.” And Fellinger wrapped up the series with a talk on Friday titled “The Ugly Couch Cafe Goes 3D.”

Fellinger explained that there were couches scattered throughout Destination Church, which had once been a bar — so she had kept the “ugly couch” theme going while working at the church plant.

Then, when she stepped down from Destination, she moved the focus of her ministry to her neighborhood. And with the help of her husband, she said, they found ways to connect with and get to know their neighbors.

They baked muffins and delivered them up and down the block, leaving an invite for people to come to their home to get to know one another and share stories. “That has turned into having eight couples over once a month, and we share meals together,” said Fellinger.

But they didn’t stop there. They also had a Christmas open house, to which some 150 guests came, mingling and sharing stories, said Fellinger.

They also bought and distributed Easter plants, she said, and they held a “Christmas in July” party.

At some point, Fellinger said, she and her husband decided that one picnic table in their backyard was not enough, and it wasn’t particularly inviting since it was pretty much out of sight. So they bought another one. It showed up on Easter and is stationed prominently in their front yard.

“My husband and I used to play chess on the porch, but now we play it at the table,” which draws people’s interest — and neighbors often spend some time watching and talking, said Fellinger.

But the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic put a stop to much of what they were doing, she said. Even so, they were undaunted. They offered the picnic table as a place for prayer for anyone in the neighborhood. So even during the pandemic, as people were careful to avoid spreading germs, they ventured out for prayer.

“God was asking us to rethink what he is asking us to do” and how to connect with people, said Fellinger.

She said she particularly recalls how her neighbor from across the street came over and said his wife was undergoing treatment for cancer. Before he left that day, he agreed to have them pray for him. Later, he brought his wife by for prayer as well.

“We knew God was up to something in our neighborhood, and we needed to be open to discover what that was,” said Fellinger. “I think something is shifting in our hearts [throughout the neighborhood]. When you are vulnerable and open your doors, God can come in knowing that hospitality lives there.”

Despite the trauma of having to deal with all of the COVID restrictions, Fellinger thinks now is a time to envision a new future for the church.

In a way, she said, “COVID-19 can be a gift. This is a time to repent and rethink about how we can recreate the church. . . . There will probably be more home churches and porch churches.”

From the ugly couch in the youth room to the picnic table on their front lawn, said Fellinger, the Holy Spirit has been at work drawing neighbors close, touching lives, and making church a new experience for many.

“God has been transforming people. As we gather, amazing things are happening. Stories are shared, friendships are healed, community is strengthened,” said Fellinger.

“In all of it God has been present and invites us to dream where God wants us to be to plant our own churches.”

If you missed the presentation, you can watch the recording here.