With a pandemic pivot to tech, Christ Church Fox Chapel builds flock – TribLIVE

A former British barrister turned minister in Fox Chapel has turned to technology to boost membership during the pandemic.

The Rev. Alex Shuttleworth, 43, a native of Liverpool, has been at Christ Church Fox Chapel since 2014. Since then, membership has grown by 50%, with 44 new members added during the pandemic.

He credits recent growth to the addition of a podcast featuring Bible study sessions and the Sunday sermons. The church services are broadcast on YouTube and cataloged. Both are also available via a smartphone app the church created.

“The podcast is our attempt at letting people listen in to a staff Bible study. It’s grown, and now we have guests most weeks. It’s a great place to share stories of what God has been doing in your life,” Shuttleworth said. “Our most popular episodes are ones where someone speaks for an hour about their own faith.”

The church has a total of 186 congregants today. Shuttleworth said he inherited a church with a 15-year consecutive decline in membership. “And about 25 years of stagnation before that,” he said.

Christ Church is part of the Anglican Church of North America, based in Ambridge, and the Anglican Diocese of Pittsburgh.

Shuttleworth said about 40% of new people attending Christ Church have joined since the start of the pandemic.

Marion Ahlers, 52, of O’Hara is a new congregant and regular podcast listener.

“It’s incredibly accessible. Anybody can sit down and listen and enjoy. That’s what brings me back,” said Ahlers, who left a Presbyterian church for Christ Church. “I was drawn to its authentic sense of community. And over the pandemic, they increased their technological reach.”

Shuttleworth and his podcast crew broadcast from an upstairs room at the church that was once a maid’s quarters — the building is a former mansion, built in 1929 for the Gould family.

In the 1940s, it was transformed into Fox Chapel Episcopal Church. After a split in the Pittsburgh Episcopal Diocese in the 2000s, the congregation aligned with the newly formed Anglican Church of North America and became Christ Church.

“It feels like home,” Shuttleworth said of the church’s prior residential status. “There’s a fireplace in the lobby and a bath in my office. How weird is that?” A $450,000 renovation was completed in 2016.

Another epochal shift

Shuttleworth sees the changes resulting from the pandemic in the context of church history. Over the centuries, radical changes have been brought about by crises and new technologies.

“For example, there was a health crisis in the early church that changed the way people were baptized,” Shuttleworth said. With the invention of the printing press, “a lot of things changed because people could suddenly read the truth for themselves.

“Covid was the perfect combination of both a health crisis and a time in history when technology had really changed. I suspect this will be the biggest change for the way we do church since the Reformation.”

At Christ Church, Shuttleworth takes what some might say is an unorthodox approach to welcoming new members. He prefers to be called Alex and brings an informal approach to spreading the Gospel.

“I don’t use titles,” Shuttleworth said. “Jesus tells us not to show off or take pompous church titles.”

He said the majority of new church members said their first experience worshipping at Christ Church was via the broadcasts on YouTube.

The church production staff have invested in new broadcast software, a camera, sound board and computer. With catchy music and his unassuming demeanor, Shuttleworth aims to make the podcasts intimate, comfortable and welcoming.

After the shutdown was lifted and parishioners returned to in-person worship, Shuttleworth said, the popularity of the podcasts has remained.

Shuttleworth said he always inquires how folks find Christ Church when he meets new visitors.

“Before the pandemic the answer was always either, ‘I googled you’ or ‘my neighbor invited me.’ Now, everyone says, ‘I watched you online for a few weeks’ and ‘I heard your podcast. It felt good so I came in person.’ ”

Two new small groups for men and women were added, along with two satellite congregations in retirement communities — Blawnox Apartments and Longwood at Oakmont.

Christ Church operations manager Bridget Michael began developing the church’s app before the pandemic hit and expedited the launch when the shutdown occurred. The app is available on GooglePlay and the Apple App Store.

Michael said the podcasts are here to stay.

“We weren’t planning on keeping the podcasts, but it’s turned out that they’re like a storefront window because people find us and try us out online,” Michael said. “It’s been a huge benefit.”

The path to the New World

In his 20s in London, Shuttleworth was on a successful track as a barrister specializing in international insurance, construction and energy law.

The career, despite its financial rewards, left him unfulfilled. He found himself drinking too much and failing in relationships.

“My sense of self-worth was invested in work, money and other people,” he said.

Seeking direction, he became involved in a church, often leading weekend trips for youth groups. As his faith deepened, Shuttleworth began to question and doubt his life choices.

An encounter with a stranger near London Bridge in 2005 proved to be a light-bulb moment. Walking during his morning commute, Shuttleworth said he was praying about whether to leave his job and go to seminary.

“As I prayed for a sign, I wasn’t looking where I was going. I bumped into someone and, to my surprise, he was holding a sign,” Shuttleworth said. The person was a “crazy street preacher” and the sign read: “Jesus loves you.”

That did the trick. Shuttleworth went on to earn theology degrees from Canterbury and Bristol universities, and became ordained in the Church of England.

Shuttleworth met his wife, Kat, an American, in London, where she was a social worker in child protection. She attended the church where he was a part-time pastor.

At a service one Sunday, she called attention to herself by coming up for Communion at the wrong time.

“The pastor sent her back to her seat, and she was mortified,” Shuttleworth said, “but I fell in love immediately.”

They married in London and today have two young children — Ben and Hannah, who goes by “Han.”

“Kat argues that Ben and Han are Bible names,” Shuttleworth said. “I claim they’re from Star Wars.”

Shuttleworth said he’s always loved America. As a young boy growing up in Liverpool, he even had an American flag hanging above his bed.

His journey to Pittsburgh was, in part, thanks to the British sport of rugby.

Working in London as a pastor, Shuttleworth met the Rev. Robert Duncan, then serving as archbishop of the Anglican Church in North America. They repaired to a pub while a rugby tournament played on TV.

“He asked me to explain the game, as well as many, many questions over the night. I discovered at the end of the game it had been a sort of stealth interview,” Shuttleworth said. Duncan, based in Pittsburgh, brought him to Christ Church.

Shuttleworth, who retains his British citizenship, plans to remain.

“We’re very happy here,” he said. “I love the scale of the city, variety of downtown and the countryside. I love the attitude of the people.”

The Shuttleworths try to visit England annually. He said that while he misses British humor, the constant banter and Cornish pasties, he has embraced American breakfasts and Mexican food — “we don’t have that in England.”

Joyce Hanz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joyce at 724-226-7725 , jhanz@triblive.com or via Twitter .