As Big as it Gets: New England Methodism

Posted on March 7, 2012

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Sudbury United Methodist Church.

I recently visited and reviewed two of New England Methodism’s largest churches, First United Methodist Church of Westborough, MA and Sudbury United Methodist Church in Sudbury, MA.  They have the largest worship attendance, a statistic which is gaining greater attention among United Methodist hierarchy. Considering such measurements as “worship attendance”, church consultant Gil Rendle offers the following from his book, Journey in the Wilderness:  New Life for Mainline Churches (2010):

“As a culture driven by a scientific worldview, we respect numbers, and so we hope to be able to count the product of our ministry.  Membership, average attendance at worship, and dollars are easily counted but may be faulty measures.  Counting membership at a time when people participate in organizations without feeling the need to officially join as members misrepresents the actual ministry by under-counting, as does average attendance at worship at a cultural time when people choose a relationship with a church that may or may not include worship.  Such measures as membership, average attendance, dollars, and other things easily counted are flawed because they don’t tell us what we really need to know about the impact or outcome of ministry.

Nonetheless, we need to measure.  Without measuring we cannot learn how to be more effective (Rendle, 126).”

Since August 2011 I have been visiting churches to gain a better appreciation of the impact and outcome of their ministries, subjective information no Excel spreadsheet can communicate.

In my REVIEW of Sudbury UMC, I praised:

  • Aesthetics.  A video in my review reveals some of that beauty.
  • Use of Picture Bibles in the Pews.  In each pew–a hymnal, a Bible and a picture Bible.
  • Commitment to Social Justice.  Will Green was the guest preacher and he offered a dynamic message about maintaining the march toward a fully inclusive denomination.

I criticized Sudbury’s:

  • Poor Hospitality.  The pastor was the only one to greet me.  I did, however, receive a loaf of banana nut bread for having the nerve to stand up and introduce myself as a guest when urged by the leader to do so.
  • Paper Tracts.  No, these were not “Are You Saved?” tracts but rather more like church tracking cookies to indicate pastoral care needs.  Six different kinds.  Crammed together in a tiny little slot.
  • Distracting Lighting.  Fanciful is not necessarily useful.

In my REVIEW of First UMC Westborough, I praised:

  • Authentic Pastor.  When we hear a pastor speak, do we find ourselves wishing we could sit for a cup of coffee with him or her?   I suspect many in Reverend Taylor’s church enjoy coffee with him.
  • Strong Education Program.  The church appears to use a rotation model which made my 12-year-old son want to attend.
  • Engaged Children and Youth.  Apparently every Sunday is “Youth Sunday.”  All ages lead worship.

I criticized Westborough’s:

  • Congested Hallways.  The largest congregation in our conference is nevertheless expected to funnel through a relatively small church building.
  • Authoritarian Images of Jesus.  I wondered why every image of Jesus chosen for worship featured the man looking down on someone.  I offered an alternative.
  • Music Focused on “Me.”  Every hymn was in the first person:  He Touched Me, I’m Trading My Sorrows, Pass Me Not.  Is this Ayn Rand Objectivism run amok?

Although the communities are not very far apart geographically, there are differences economically (Westborough average household income is $63,436 while Sudbury is $152,222) and politically (Westborough for Obama in 2008, 56% [42% McCain] while 64% of Sudbury went for Obama and only 34% for McCain) and theologically.  Sudbury UMC is a Reconciling (explicitly “gay friendly”) church.  FUMC Westborough is…not.

Still, I found two major sources of cohesion beyond the reality that the two churches share a denominational connection.

First, both churches invest heavily in a good musical experience.    When I asked people why they return to these churches they mentioned their appreciation for the pastor first and then they mentioned music.  One woman told me she loves listening to jazz alone, “But,” she continued, “There is something truly holy about feeling the organ’s bass notes reverberate through a room, knowing it is passing through each of us just like the Spirit of God.”   Maybe that note continues out through the community.  “It does,” she smiles.

Second,  worship leads participants to action.  At Westborough I left the service understanding why the church offers shelter for Families in Transition and why the church invests so heavily in its youth.  Were I a member there I would be invested too.  At Sudbury I left the service understanding why Sudbury cherishes equality for the g/l/b/t community and found myself willing to sacrifice time and money to be at General Conference to advocate for that equality.

These effective ministry outcomes really have very little to do with the attendance, membership or dollar figures.  This is something a District Superintendent or Bishop can only finally appreciate by visiting a church, not as the preacher of the day, but as a hungry pilgrim.

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Posted in: Memoir, Uncategorized