B) Mission: Larger Congregations

A foundational document created at the 1980 Federation of Centenary United Methodist Church  and Aburndale Congregational Church expressed a commitment to:

1.  Nurturing a personal a communal faith through the acquisition of disciplines of the spirit.  We will seek to ground a Christian witness in Biblical teachings and theological resources.  At the same time we will reevaluate our beliefs and values in light of rapid change around us.

I wrote at length about this statement last week focusing mostly on the importance of actually committing to discipline.  I did not write about the expectation around reevaluating our beliefs and values in light of rapid change around us, but that is a topic I will take up this week as I reflect on the second missional expectation of the 1980 Federation:

2.  Deepening our corporate worship experience through larger congregations and shared celebrations.  We will seek to develop a more caring community, to cultivate responsible and remedial relationships with each other. (The Purpose of Church Union:  A Call to Renewal.  February 3, 1980).

Did our predecessors expect the church to develop additional congregations?  Was our mission to seed new churches or offer alternative worship times?

Diana Butler Bass researched progressive churches across the country seeking signs of vitality and recalls a conversation with the pastor of Scottsdale (AZ) United Church of Christ.  Butler Bass writes:

For a generation, Scottsdale Congregational had trouble holding on to its young people.  When Eric Elnes arrived in 1995, he tackled the problem by creating something he called the “World’s Most Dangerous Bible Study.”  WMDBS intermixes rock music with scripture reading; the teenagers loved it and responded by getting more involved in church.  “Yet despite our youths’ newfound enthusiasm for seemingly everything having to do with church, “ Eric recalls, “there was one place they absolutely would not go.  Worship.  They avoided worship like you or I would stay clear of a nuclear reactor meltdown.”

This realization led Eric into a period of introspection about the nature of worship.  During one summer study-leave as a lakeside cabin on the Oregon coast, he sat on the dock thinking about the question “What is the basis of worship?”  As he stared at the water, the largest bass he had ever seen swam past, leaving the water rippling in its wake.  “I stood up,” Eric said, “and gasped as a sense of awe and wonder provoked a surge of adrenaline through my body.”

Diana Butler Bass goes on to explain how Eric eventually came to define worship as opening people to an experience of God laced with awe and wonder (like Eric’s experience with the big bass), something both Eric and Diana recognize is largely absent from congregational churches founded in more “sedate, intellectual” approaches to faith.  The Scottsdale Church created an alternative worship service “centered more around experience than message.”   It combines elements of “jazz, performance art, film clips and video, multimedia reflection, live camera feed, testimony, readings, silence, contemplative prayer, and journaling.”  The service is not called “worship,” but rather “The Studio.”[i]

In 2011 I visited over twenty-seven worship services around the Northeast and enjoyed talking with participants about their reason for sticking with their particular church.   I was often disappointed by mainline, traditional churches which failed to inspire their own members, let alone visitors.  If an ideal worship is something akin to seeing a big bass under a pier, these worship services were the picnic table in the shade, far removed from the water where any sighting might happen.

At what point will such churches “reevaluate [their] beliefs and values in light of rapid change around [them]?”  Of the three kinds of churches I observed, Traditional (like Wesley UMC), Contemporary (Like Holden Fellowship) and a Blend of Traditional and Contemporary (like Hadwen Park UCC),  I found young families were present in Blended services more than in Traditional worship and that teens and young adults were absent from both Traditional and Blended choosing, instead, Contemporary.   Many growing churches seeking growth in their witness to all three segments offer all three kinds of services—a Family (Blended) service early on Sunday, a Traditional service later on Sunday and a Contemporary worship some other day or later on Sunday.    Is this what the two uniting churches of 1980 envisioned?  Might there have been three unique worshipping congregations which additionally met outside of those settings to accomplish mission and enjoy food and friendship in shared celebrations?

[i] Diana Butler-Bass, Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church is Transforming the Faith (Harper One, 2006), pp.173-174

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