United Methodist

Wesley United Methodist Church
114 Main Street,  Worcester, MA

May 13, 2012

Should a worshiping congregation be open to all people?  If so, at what point does behavior dictate removal?

Two weeks ago a visitor to worship at  Wesley UMC Worcester was surrounded by three police officers seeking his removal.  The church leadership did what one may expect of mature, sensitive servants of Jesus:  the pastor stopped his message, walked to the apparent fugitive in the pew and asked the police officers to wait in the lobby for the man who was not threatening anyone; an usher notified a children’s leader to keep young people who were not in the sanctuary away from the sanctuary for the remainder of the service; the church council later wrote a letter to the congregation supporting steps taken that morning yet also recognizing the need for clear policy around safe sanctuary.

I had already planned to worship with this congregation on Mother’s Day and this recent development only heightened my interest in a church with a reputation for inclusive worship.  We parked about a block away from Wesley UMC directly in front of the First Unitarian Church of Worcester, a church I reviewed last year.  In that review I criticized a certain church member for taking the best spot near the door with her blue

First Unitarian Church in the background. The owner of the Miata is a member who takes one of the best parking spots every week.

Miata, a cute convertible  freckled with progressive bumper stickers.  On the day of my visit the car was yet again parked at the front door of her church.  I took the picture which appears in this post.  After I put the camera away a police guard standing in front of the Unitarian Church made his way over to the suspicious guy taking pictures of a member’s car.  Suspicious indeed.  Why was a security guard standing in front of the Unitarian Church?  Had the church heard that a “wanted” man sought refuge across the street at the United Methodist Church?  Had they hired security detail to protect themselves from such surprising strangers who stroll the streets of this urban center?

I learned from the police officer that the visitor who attended Wesley UMC for worship at 10:30 that day had been attending worship at the Unitarian Church thirty minutes before.  The man disrupted the service with suggestions that he served a prophetic role.  The pastor of the Unitarian church left the pulpit to sit with the man, encouraging him to be considerate of those gathered for worship.  The man remained indignant and the pastor walked him out of the church where the conflict intensified, escalating to the point where police were called.  It turns out this visitor had a history of mental illness and a criminal history of violence.  I learned all of this not from the police officer but from the Unitarian Church letter written to the congregation.  Read the letter HERE.

Churches have public buildings, yet they reserve a right to deny access to dangerous people, do they not?  The pastor of the Unitarian Church offered the analogy of a shell:  organisms naturally protect themselves.  Each church must consider the extent of their welcome and inclusivity.  Are level three sex offenders welcome?  One of the most progressive congregations in Worcester, Hadwen Park Congregational Church (UCC), recently affirmed that the safety of children supersedes the magnanimous welcome of all God’s children.

My son and I continue past the convertible Miata toward our destination for Sunday worship, Wesley UMC–the church that offered sanctuary to a stranger carrying criminal baggage.  How would the church welcome and include us?

WINDOWS:  Where did some message from God come shining through?

Gaaawwwthic Majesty.  Wesley was created as a merger between Grace and Trinity Methodist churches in the 1920’s.  It is reported that the trustees and other members personally guaranteed the loan of $350,000 needed for construction.  Members of the women’s group sold their own jewelry in order to purchase a proper, marble altar.  The windows and altar are quite spectacular.  The organ and interior design are breathtaking and lead naturally to awe and wonder.  I recently re-read a sermon given to me by John Saunders Bone months before his death by pancreatic cancer.  John pastored a church on Madison Avenue in New York City but also worked across the street from Riverside Church, a building similar to Wesley UMC Worcester, architecturally.

“I was a lad of 13.  My father and I were on a day trip from Boston to New York.  Seeking relief from the heat, we rode a double-deck bus north from midtown Manhattan. Coming up Riverside Drive we saw the church, and getting off went inside, walking directly to the great nave, a space rising to groined ceiling 100 feet above the aisle.  There were many people moving about me as I started down the center aisle.  Quite suddenly, I was overcome with a strange sensation.  No longer aware of people, even of my father close at hand, everything and everyone receded into background.  In the dimness of that place, I experienced a stillness and coolness, but something more–a presence such as I had never experienced before, and have not experienced with quite the intensity since…I remember now little else about that New York trip except that, for a moment or two, I lived with God.”

These cathedrals continue to tax modern members, yet they still pay dividends.  Some of us still sense the living God in such majestic places.

Church of All Nations.  The man I interviewed after service spoke of the congregation as a church of all nations where “Black…White…does not matter.”  The choir director of the Ghanaian Choir died this past week and the man I interviewed told me the church would be gathering that afternoon to mourn together.  I sensed that people of the church would gather not for a simple funeral but something more like a long, informal wake.  I wondered if both whites and blacks would attend the gathering.  Given the way folks tended to segregate themselves during the worship hour it seemed unlikely that many white congregants would attend.  The segregation is obvious at fellowship time too.  So it isn’t as though this congregation has solved the riddle of “Identity Theory” or “Why Black Kids Sit Together in the Cafeteria.”  A congregation that aspires to be a place for all people is at least asking the right sets of questions and presumably offering safe space for answers to be heard.

The King Had a Lively Court.  At Wesley UMC Worcester it is hard to dispute the claim that the organ is king of all instruments.  My son and I viewed the action movie “The Avengers” at a local cinema the day before attending worship together.  The seats rumbled in similar ways on Saturday at the Cinemark and Sunday at Wesley leading to a visceral sense of power.  Some may well come to this building solely for the strength of this one instrument in capable hands.  The hymns of the day were well chosen to accentuate the great instrument.  “Praise to the Lord the Almighty” (previewed below) is such an example.  On this particular Sunday we were also treated to a brass trio,a very quite bell choir, and to a Ghanaian choir rhythm section!  The French horn player did not quite sound professional as the trumpet and trombone, but the sound of brass in that space was angelic, all the same.   To those Ghanaians gathered around me who had remained motionless through all of those great antiquated hymns and classical orchestrations, the drumbeat-driven praise song offered welcome, hip gyrating, familiarity.

WALLS:  What obstructed some message from God from shining through?

A Long, long, long, long road to Emmaus.   After offering a greeting “Happy Mother’s Day to all of you mothers out there,” an informally attired woman  continued the welcome: “You can probably tell that I am not Pastor Shandi!  He is taking a well-deserved break today.”  It did not seem to me that the church was well-served by the pastor’s replacement today.  She did not speak from the pulpit or lecturn where we might easily see and hear her or even from the raised chancel but rather from the nave.  I could not see her at all.  She kept her back to the congregation throughout the children’s message.  However the major obstacle to hearing the leader this day was boredom.  She used five minutes to tell young people the story about the Road to Emmuas, then moments later the exact story from the Bible was shared in it’s entirety (Luke 24:13-35) with little feeling.  The message was entitled “Lessons from the Road to Emmaus”, but we did not get to any “lessons” about the passage until 11:18am, fifteen minutes after hearing the story of the road to Emmaus again, this time with what seemed to be a touch of midrash (naming the unnamed disciple “David”).   But no amount of midrash could keep me interested in a third telling of this story!

I learned that the speaker of the day is the youth director.  I believe it is a temptation for clergy who need “well deserved breaks” to accept damn-near-anyone who will fill the pulpit cheaply in these cost-cutting times.  But I was surprised to see such a substitute on this unofficial high-holy-day  when it seems a good crowd of 146 attended on Mother’s Day.  If leaders are going to invite inexperienced substitutes to preach, I recommend they receive a book which was given to me by a colleague, “Communicating for Change” by Andy Stanley and Lane Jones.  I like their suggestion that a sermon should follow a somewhat prescribed path toward a destination in what they call “ME-WE-GOD-YOU-WE.”  It starts with the speaker’s credibility these days and not necessarily with the Bible’s credibility.  That no longer works as it did when these big cathedrals were built.  Then the message engages hearers to connect with the speaker’s dilemma.  Our speaker Sunday skipped both of these and simply gave us 15 minutes of the third step “GOD.”  So when she finally tried to circle us back to caring with three very brief points–“How does Jesus work? Through encounters like Emmaus; ” How do we recognize its Jesus? Feel our hearts warmed; How do we respond? Share our story– most of us were checking our watches.    ME-WE-GOD-YOU-WE.

Poor Communications.  I searched the church website for history of the church and found nothing.  A Google search led me to an extensive study completed by WPI around the possibility of installing solar panels on the roof.  It would take 22 years of energy savings to recover the cost of the installment.  That report gave me the history of the church; it did not come from the church’s site.  The website had a menu option for “Ghanaian Association,” but there is nothing listed there.  I checked “Youth Group” and found details written in early 2011 for summer programming that was “TBD.”  A separate web page for the youth group was similarly out-of-date.   Once we arrived at the church I found one more piece of communication out-of-date:  the bulletin.  Now, this will seem petty, I’m sure, but here goes.  The program did not list several key pieces of information for the service.  1.  The gospel reading was not listed.  2.  A collection for Church World Service was taken by the children, but no words in the program helped us to understand what this mission was all about nor did they prepare us to empty our pockets of change. 3.  At one point ushers walked down the aisles with blue cards held high in the air, but I had no idea why.  I presume these were prayer cards?  Parking validation?  Daily horoscopes?  But here is my biggest gripe:  The bulletin cover.   Yet another church has printed a picture of its building on the front cover.  We’ve already seen the church building from the outside!  Is there no symbol that communicates who the church is on the inside or better yet, that communicates the day’s lesson or theme in art?  The worst part to me was the cross and flame.  Was that worth the cost of using a color printer?  That tiny bit of red?  Is there no United Methodist clip art with a higher resolution graphic that will not make the flame look like it is made with Legos?  I know, I’m being picky.  But look at some other examples from churches who do not use images of their buildings or color ink.

Announcements were a let-down.   Announcements are like the squeaky brakes on a school bus, you know they are coming and you know they are part of the whole package of transportation, but you dislike them all the same.  The church across the street asks members to attend a meeting thirty minutes prior to the worship service in order to hear church announcements and business.  I liked that.  Contemporary churches like Life Song meeting at the local theater offered announcements via PowerPoint.  I liked that too.  I am less enthused by announcements that take place at the beginning or end of service, though I can articulate a rationale for placing them at either point, in spite of the way they interrupt the flow of worship and response.  But I need for the announcements to be given by one, good, informed presenter.  Wesley UMC invites everyone with an announcement to “come on down” at the conclusion of the service just before the final hymn.  There were seven people offering announcements about the men’s group, youth group, liturgical dance group, the “Esther Circle, ” an announcement which was completely garbled to me, and an invitation to offer $600 to help the Ghanaian choir get to Virginia.  It was exhausting to this visitor.  Why must we all listen to announcements which do not pertain to us (men’s group, youth group, etc.).  That’s what the website and the program are for!

Missed Opportunity:  Awareness of Culture and History.  From my research I learned that Wesley UMC Worcester held its first service on May 6, 1923.  I was in worship on what could have been an anniversary celebration.  Or maybe it was held the week before?  Given the lack of history on the website, I suspect the anniversary came and went with little recognition.  On this Mother’s Day I again felt a conflict about elevating “mothers” above other women.  Just this week Time magazine featured a cover with the title “Mom Enough” which raised old controversies and shame around being proper mothers.  Churches have the opportunity to mitigate against those feeling of alienation felt by many women and their children on days like this.  Instead, the Wesley UMC bulletin listed Proverbs 31:  “A good woman is hard to find…”  along with a simple, short prayer for which mothers were expected to remain standing while the rest of us…the REST OF US…sat down:

Loving God, as a mother gives life and nourishment to her children, so you watch over your church.  Bless all these women, that they may be strengthened as Christian mothers.  Let the example of their faith and love shine forth.  Grant that we, their sons and daughters, may honor them always with a spirit of profound respect.  We pray this through Christ our Lord.

As I researched the Ashanti people (like the man I interviewed), I learned that their is matrilineal, tracing ancestry from mothers rather than fathers.  What a great opportunity for cultural awareness at Wesley UMC, but it was a missed opportunity.

INTERVIEW:  I ask four questions regarding this service, beliefs about Jesus and the Church, and about personal preferences.  Subject was a fifty-something man with a thick accent.

What kind of message came through for you today?

We ought not to think that Jesus isn’t around.  The empty tomb proves he is still here.

Why do you come to this church? 

This is a church of all nations and all people.  It doesn’t matter here if you are black or white.  I started coming with my wife.  She died three years ago, but I keep coming.

What kind of music do you listen to in your car?

I listen to gospel music in my native language, Ashanti–Twi is the language.

 

Church Hill United Methodist Church
630 River Street
Norwell, MA
www.CHUMCNorwell.com

May 6, 2012

I had visited Cape Cod on Friday and Saturday and planned to drive to the oldest continually active church in the country, The Old Ship Church in Hingham, MA (Unitarian).  I stopped in the town of Norwell for some iced-coffee and heard church bells.  It was close to 10AM.  I typed “church” into my GPS and found an Episcopal Church (the source of the bells) and a United Methodist Church (Church Hill UMC).  I cruised past the quaint church and found one worship service in session while another was slated for 10:30.  Instead of waiting 30 minutes, I drove on to the United Church of Norwell and attended service for a few minutes before returning to the United Methodist Church.  I was given a rare opportunity to compare two churches on the same Sunday.

Unlike my other reviews, this review will compare the two church experiences.

Parking:

Norwell UCC:  The 100 car lot was full.  I entered through the rear, climbing steps in order to reach the sanctuary.  At the top of the steps I met cheerful woman in a T-shirt that said “Alpha and Omega” who shook my hand with her two hands, the way I imagined Mitt Romney would do it at a rally.  She looked beyond me toward the next visitor about the same way I suspect a politician would do it too.  After her greeting a man handed me a program and encouraged me to sit wherever I could.  The sanctuary was completely full!  The pastor, a 40ish man in a black academic robe, was seated in the back of the room.

Church Hill UMC:  The 30 car lot was one quarter full.  It seemed that people-in-the-know parked in the dirt closer to the front door.  I took the long trek from the lot and entered through the front door where a woman stood and stared at me; I believed she was a greeter.  She was not unfriendly, but neither did she seem glad to see me.  Further inside a friendlier man offered a program.  The preacher (a stand-in for the pastor who was on a leave of absence) was wearing jeans, a black pullover crew-neck shirt and a casual blue cotton blazer and sat in one of two “thrones” within the raised chancel area.  I had no problem finding a seat in a pew as the small sanctuary was about half full.

Service Music

Norwell UCC’s opening hymn, # 386 from the Chalice Hymnal (Disciples of Christ) “We Come as Guests Invited” to the tune WIE LIEBBLICH IST DER MAIEN, seemed a bit much for the congregation to sing.  I could hear only the choir.  In the video I see several guys who aren’t even pretending to sing.

Church Hill UMC’s opening hymn, # 310 from the UM Hymnal, “He Lives,” was a sprightly tune offered in the spirit of Easter.  I looked over my shoulder at four teenagers sitting in the corner.  They were giggling through the hymn, so I doubted they cared much for the tune.  But the old timers seemed to love this familiar tune.

Leadership

The pastor of Church Hill UMC started her renewal leave the very week I show up to hear her preach!  Good for her!  Good for the church?  Eventually, it will be, especially if she stays and manages to bring renewed passion to her ministry in Norwell.  But in the the short run it is a shame to hear (and see) that the congregation is 20% smaller than it was the Sunday she left for renewal.  Are they prepared to carry-on for three months without her, or will the church simply lie dormant over the summer time?  Maybe they will all be on renewal leave?

The pastor of UCC Norwell will also be “away” from his typical pastoral duties for several months.  He is not going away, however, but is assuming the role of gift development coordinator for the church’s capital campaign.  In the church newsletter he reasons that an outside firm would charge up to $100,000 for someone to go around asking for commitments.  Why can’t he do it and save the church some money?  So the pastor asks understanding from congregants who will not be visited by the pastor this year except to be asked for money.  Can the laity compensate for the pastor’s leave from pastoral care?  According to a church flier, a Ministry of Caring group was formed in 1984 when the pastor explained “There simply was not enough time in his day to cover all of the demands of [of caring?].”  These days the team mostly sends cards, telephone cards and meals.  I have a feeling they will need to expand their repertoire in the coming days!

Youth Group

The youth room at Norwell UCC is one of the largest classrooms and can be found quite close to the sanctuary and parking lot.  The room is not tucked-away in the bowels of the building but is rather in a place where a parlor might once have been.  This suggests to me that the ministry is a source of pride for the church.  The used couches suggest otherwise, however.

The youth room at Church Hill UMC is one of four typically sized classrooms over in a building completely removed from the sanctuary.  I learned that teens are not expected to participate in worship but instead come this room for a conversation while the adults sing “He Lives.”  After service I asked a junior high participant what they learned over there while we were in worship.  She said the topic had to do with healings offered by Peter.  Pretty cool, but it is shame that the same girl missed the moment in worship when her father praised God for his daughter’s healing from cancer in the joys and concerns sharing time.

I interviewed my seventy or eighty-something pew mate from Church Hill UMC, asking her the same questions I ask at each of these churches.  “What kind of message from God came through to you today, why do you need Jesus and why do you need the church?” Her response to the question about a message from God?   “Well, it was different.”  She couldn’t remember anything that the guest preacher had said in his sermon.  All she could remember was the time during communion when he had the audacity to step over the chancel rail, hurdling it like a fence at a barbecue, in order to replenish his bread supply for the sacrament.  She answered the question about Jesus by saying there was a lot of trouble in her family and she relied on Jesus to help her with that.  Finally, when I asked her about why she needs the church she claimed it is like home to her.  She especially likes to sit with her friends at fellowship hour.    I’m preventing her from doing that and get the hint, so I clear out.

I left Church Hill UMC feeling kind of low.  The fellowship hall smelled musty and looked frozen in time compared to the UCC church just a few miles away.  The youth room at the UCC church was painted with vibrant colors while the youth room at the UMC church was as lively as a water closet.  The congregation and church felt very small as did the sense of mission–just a few generic, denominational brochures haphazardly strewn across a fellowship hall table, while just down the road the UCC church organized numerous pamphlets and let me know they have an active lay ministry of caring in which I could participate.  Given the choice of attending either church I would easily choose the UCC church.  It seems most people have.  Or they have chosen the Unitarian church (full parking lot) or the new church start in town which meets in an old town center meeting (I saw six young adults, three of whom were carrying ice-coffees, walking from cars into the building).  I am a United Methodist and I felt depressed knowing that my brand of church does not compare favorably to the other church.  Sure, you can argue that there is a place for each kind of church and this is the great kaleidoscope of worship taking place nationwide.  I would argue that some churches lack the resources to upgrade their facilities and ministries because they lack the conviction that they should.  The church on a hill becomes a chapel on a hill and then a memorial on the hill.  But at that point the memorial speaks less of a living God than of a cadre of saints who held the Alamo of the Almighty just as long as they could.

Windsor Village United Methodist Church
6000 Heatherbrook Drive
Houston, TX

www.kingdombuilders.com

I had planned to visit a different church than Windsor Village UMC on Saturday night. I planned to see the “emergent” new church “Ecclesia” while visiting Houston from my home state of Massachusetts. Two things happened to my plan: First, I bought a copy of Rudy Rasmus’ book “Touch” which chronicles the re-start of an inner-city ministry at a largely abandoned United Methodist Church. I was “touched” by reading about the transformation of Rudy’s life largely as a result of a chance meeting with his future wife Juanita who brought Rudy to Windsor Village United Methodist Church. I knew the story of how Kirbyjon Caldwell had also transformed a declining church into that Windsor Village powerhouse (from 25 members to over 11,000) a decade before the Rasmus’s rebirthed Saint John’s UMC in Houston. My attention was shifting away from a church that looked online like a white kid frat party for Jesus (Ecclesia) toward a church mediating “Holistic Salvation” defined by Pastor Caldwell in his book “Gospel of Good Success” this way:

In this place there is no such thing as a halfway God—or partial person. Here, God doesn’t restrict his grace to your soul, but watches over every aspect of your well-being…All the pieces of your life—your financial, emotional, relational, professional, physical, and spiritual pieces—will be in synch…Only those willing to make the sacrifices of the journey enter the place where all of your dreams line up with God’s purposes for your life (Caldwell, p.12).

Pastor Caldwell was explaining the existence of the “Power Center,” a ministry that grew from the more traditional Windsor Village church community and took up occupancy at a former Kmart. I visited the Powercenter which offers “27 business-style suites and commercial lease space” which includes three banquet rooms that seat over 2,000 clients in the “fourth largest banquet facility in Houston.” Clearly this is a unique model of ministry flourishing in south Houston. After I visited both the PowerCenter and “The Kingdom Builders Center” just down the road, I was stunned by the enormity of the project. (I will write a separate post about those two places of ministry.) I began wondering how the old church building and congregation at Windsor Village fit into this dynamic scheme of “Holistic Salvation.” There was a service at Windsor Village on Saturday at 6pm, about the same time as “Ecclesia” in downtown Houston.

The second thing that reshaped my plans for Saturday was news of the shooting of a young man in Florida, Treyvon Martin, by a neighborhood watch captain who assumed the black boy in the gated community looked suspicious. I felt the same way I did when I heard in 1998 about James Byrd, Jr. who was dragged to his death behind a pick-up truck in Jasper, Texas by three white supremacists. I felt rage. I needed to be in a place of worship that day and I wanted to worship in a place that might help me usefully channel those feelings of rage. I could choose either a largely white gathering or a largely black gathering. I chose black.

6PM Saturday Worship at Windsor Village UMC
March 24, 2012

Windows: This is where some message from God came through for me.

Touch of Welcome. The entrance to the tabernacle was obvious because two men wearing white stoles stood waiting to greet us. We tried to enter the sanctuary at around 5:50pm, ten minutes before the listed start time, but were asked by a woman wearing a blue polo shirt to wait in the hall a moment. The altar candles were being lit. The rejection was jarring at first, but as I watched the sacred act and thought about it, I realized that the rule fostered a sense of reverence. The guide was firm, but friendly. Once into worship, during the welcoming time, my family and I were greeted by at least eight neighbors. On a separate occasion the worship leader asked visitors to stand. In a room full of 250 to 300 people our party of three were the only ones to stand. These same eight people plus a few more were quick to greet us again, this time with even more fervor. We received a “Visitor’s Card” which was to be placed in the offering plate. The card included a few surprises:

  • Married? Yes? No? If yes, spouse’s name?
    Is your family here today?
    Are you visiting with a group? Confirmation? Family Reunion? Other?
  • Have you received Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?
    If not, do you wish to choose Him today?

This was my first visit to Windsor Village and it was my mother and father’s first time attending a predominately non-white worship service. They were powerfully touched by warmth they experienced from members that night. They expected to feel out of place and found they were right in the center of God’s grace.

Invitation to Fast. When visiting the gigantic new Kingdom Builder’s Center, I noted a fancy Seder table setting directly in the center of the lobby. An image of that table was projected on screens at our Saturday worship service along with a reminder of the four “Feasts” to be commemorated by the entire 14,000 member congregation:
Feast of Passover April 7th
Feast of Unleavened Bread April 8th
Feast of Unleavened Bread April 14th
Feast of Pentecost May 28th

A pastor reminded us that the Fast would begin Sunday after 6pm. We were given the following choices: Novices—meal before 6AM and after 6PM with no snacks of lunch between. Water only. Those who had fasted the year before were encouraged to skip breakfast as well as lunch. Then those who were on the “Special Team” were encouraged to follow doctor’s orders around fasting. Although the Seder meal was sold-out, members were reminded they could purchase $30 Seder Kits from the bookstore at the KBC.

Here’s what I like about the fast: First, I like the intentional connection with a Jewish past. Second, compared to other faith traditions like Islam and Hinduism, there seem to be very few widely practiced daily rituals that encourage spiritual discipline in Christianity. Windsor Village has created a disciplinary norm. Third, I was reminded of something Pastor Kirbyjon Caldwell wrote in Gospel of Good Success:

“When you discover your spiritual gifts and practice them, your own faith increases. If you want to grow in your faith, practice it. In East Texas, there are some pigs that eat and eat and never grow. That’s the definition of a runt. The world is full of spiritual runts. People who come to church, who come to Bible study, who suck up all the meat and milk and never grow” (Caldwell, p. 120).

I liked how this ritual connected to an ancient past and offered a tangible, daily, sacrificial practice that ensures believers are “working out their salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12) rather than becoming overstuffed sheep of “Bashan” (Deuteronomy 32:14).

The Choir Singing “Don’t Be Discouraged” First, have a listen:

Don’t be discouraged
Joy comes in the morning
Know that God is nigh
Stand still and look up
God is going to show up
He is standing by
There’s healing for your sorrow
Healing for your pain
Healing for your spirit
There’s shelter from the rain.
Lord, send your healing…for this we know,
There is a balm in Gilead to heal the soul.

I have never been so profoundly awakened by a song. Maybe it had to do with what happened to Treyvon and the never-ending suspicion my brothers and sisters in this place must experience that I never have. Maybe it cut directly to swirling doubts about God’s presence which are never far from me. I was truly, completely, sure that God would indeed show up. The experience deepened further when the worship leader, the first (and only) white clergy member at Windsor Village, invited the song leader to offer a touch of “There is a Balm in Gilead.” As the soloist reached the apex of that song and tears streamed down my cheeks, a second voice joined to create harmony. I couldn’t see who was singing, but I knew from the way that the men of the choir stood with respect, folding their arms, that the singer was in the congregation. The one singing beautiful harmony was the white pastor. I came to the service with raging anger over what happened in Florida, but when the pastor invited any who needed healing prayer to assemble later, including those troubled by what happened in Florida, I did not need to go forward. The Spirit healed me when these two powerful singers completed a sacred circuit singing together…”To heal the sin-sick-soul.”

Watching Four Men Support Those Seeking Healing. A good deal of worship time was dedicated to individual participants moving to the chancel area to receive healing by a panel of eight to ten lay people. This went on for about fifteen minutes. In that time I noticed how two and then three men moved rapidly to a space behind people who were receiving healing prayer. I wondered if people would fall back in dramatic herky-jerky spasms as I had seen on televangelists shows by Binny Hinn and the like. No one fell out in this way as every participant remained upright. It wasn’t as hokey and contrived as the act appears on TV or has been in smaller Pentecostal churches I have visited. To me, the reassuring presence of those four “spotters” gently supporting the elbows of each one receiving prayer seemed every bit as comforting and healing as whatever was coming through the hand and words of the healing minister.

Walls: These are the obstacles that interfered with God’s message for me.

Kirbyjon Caldwell Makes a Surprise Visit. There was a buzz around us when people spied Reverend Caldwell during the time of prayer. I’ve read that he does not sit on stage but rather prefers a place among the people, yet it seemed to me that Caldwell emerged not from a chair but from the parking lot. When he spoke to the assembly he admitted that his presence suggested something was afoot. Earlier that day journalist Geraldo Rivera suggested that Black and Latino children stop wearing hoodies like the one worn by young Trayvon Martin, because people assume non-white kids wearing hoodies are dangerous. Pastor Caldwell was wearing a grey sport blazer and brown slacks and no solidarity hoodie as other pastors did on Sunday, yet I still expected him to reference the shooting. I assumed that was why he had come—to offer wisdom about an obvious instance of racial profiling. He said nothing of the shooting.

The beloved architect of this radically changed church was not there to offer a sermon but rather a bit of promotion. He was there to celebrate that a final bit of funding had been secured for a permanent sanctuary and prayer center. The announcement came after several minutes of build-up and suspense, complete with Hammond organ emphasis of each point, culminating in the pastor’s stance of victory cheered by standing, applauding parishioners. Well of course they were happy. They had no doubt worked and prayed for such a day. Caldwell seized that momentous wave to tell participants that the church should not have such a thing given to them without some sacrifice, therefore a special capital campaign would begin in a few weeks to raise additional money. More applause, though somewhat less intense.

As a visitor I felt no great joy at this announcement. It felt like a pep-rally sales pitch from the executive office to the management ranks. Had he mentioned an awareness of the recent shooting first I might have perceived Caldwell as part pastor and part CEO, but with no prophetic word to offer around the shooting, I experienced Kirbyjon Caldwell as nothing but a CEO descended down on us from his corporate Kingdom. He wrapped up his speech and exited through the side door.

Mixed Message Metaphors. The preacher spoke with a thick Texas drawl and I admit that she looked and sounded like a southern caricature when she donned a gardeners bib, gloves and hoe in order to modernize Jesus’ parable of the “Wheat ‘N Weeds” in Matthew 13:24-30. The sermon did not really fit the stylishness of the place or the people there, though I suspect it would be remembered as “a hoot” by a few rural New Englanders. So I am already filtering-out some distracting visual cues when the pastor begins cycling through parable metaphors with impunity.
1. We are the owners of the garden who have received good seed—the Bible.
2. We are the good plant which will produce fruit. (She shows us a tomato plant.)
3. We are the bad plant too. (She pulls out a dandelion and tells us they are edible and can be bought at her local grocery store—“God can work with who you are now, even with sin in your life.”)
4. (She pulls out a squirt-bottle of Round-Up poison…) Jesus’ death on the cross went to the root of the weed problem, so now there are only tomatoes.

I needed to be trusted to figure out Jesus’ parable for myself. Instead I would have derived more benefit from hearing how this particular pastor felt like she was a weed or wheat or a farmer. It never got that personal or useful.

Bored Boys. I enjoyed the hymns at the start, in spite of my unfamiliarity with them, but after forty minutes I had had about as much as I could handle in one night. Three teenaged boys sitting in front of me were done after only five minutes. While the adult woman sitting with them remained standing, they sat and leaned-over in the universal posture of adolescent boredom, eyes open, like kids sitting under an umbrella waiting for rain to pass. I don’t know what the solution to bored teens in worship might be, but I know it is ubiquitous across cultures in intergenerational gatherings. If young men are turned-off by music in church (my own son has admitted as much to me), how can we balance a worship service for them? Will they find greater depth hearing a testimonial in place of that fifth song of praise? There was an announcement about a gathering of men for prayer during the week; could there be a period in worship where three or four male mentors invite young men to the side for something that would speak to their yearnings the way that music seemed to uplift numerous women and girls who were standing and swaying?

Memorial Drive United Methodist Church
12955 Memorial Drive
Houston, TX
www.mdumc.org

The expensive homes along Memorial Drive in Houston, Texas are staggering. One home is listed for $7.5 million. George H. W. Bush lives in the neighborhood. So do members of Memorial Drive Presbyterian Church and, a bit further west, Memorial Drive United Methodist Church. The United Methodist church has a larger membership than the Presbyterian church, 7,000 compared to 4,000, but who’s counting, right? I’d love to visit and review a service at this massive United Methodist Church (though certainly not the MOST massive…see review for Windsor Village UMC in Houston) but almost all of them are held on Sunday, the day I have to leave town. But wait; there is a mid-week evening worship service! I hear the service is preceded by a meal which is prepared by a gourmet chef. Gourmet chef? Yes, the chef is on staff at the church. No way! I check the online staff listing and find seven (!) clergy and forty-six other staff members, but no gourmet chef. Neither do I find on that list the names of custodians or buildings and grounds staff. Maybe volunteers maintain the compound? I check to see if the Presbyterians list their custodians and sadly, custodial staffers are invisible at both ends of Memorial Drive. However the Presbyterians have listed their staff chef. http://www.mdpc2.org/cms/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=28&Itemid=55

Now that I know a church may indeed have a chef on staff, I’m determined to purchase my dinner at Memorial United Methodist Church and then experience worship afterward. Dinner and a moving!

March 21, 2012 6:30pm Worship

WINDOWS: What led me to God?

Table fellowship.The visit did not start well. I parked in the lot near two entrances, one led to the sanctuary and the other to offices. I chose

Anybody home? Dark foyer of sanctuary with no greeters or sign of 6:30 worship.

“sanctuary,” but I doubted that choice when the big wooden door opened to a dark hall devoid of people. I heard voices and poked my head into the gorgeous sanctuary finding only a small group of adults who appeared to be surveying the space for a potential wedding. Awkward. I moseyed across to another building and found five people seated in a worship-like chair seating, talking with each other. They didn’t seem to notice me nor did they attempt to welcome me. That made sense to me when I realized the meal in the other room was offered not just to 6:30 worship participants but also to participants of bible studies, bell choirs and children’s groups. Why should these early-arrivers greet every dinner guest? Still, I wondered how carefully the church had considered the presence of newcomers at any of these events.

Fried catfish served before worship. I was joined at dinner by the senior pastor’s daughter-in-law.

Things improved rapidly as I brought my dinner plate of Cajun delights to a round table. A child initiated a conversation with me and that quickly evolved into a brief but meaningful connection with the child’s mother. The worship service also offered a table for connection. The pastor’s blessing of the meal was not the typical prayer but rather a conversational invitation to be part of a rich story and a healing meal. The highlight for me was the moment when I followed my neighbor toward the communion meal and she silently turned to me and made sure I noticed the walking cane jutting into our path. She didn’t want me to trip. I didn’t know the woman, but in that moment the relationship felt long and warm.

“I know you are having kidney dialysis.”  I was a little late for the start of worship at 6:30 (I needed a second fudge brownie), yet I found a nice upholstered chair in the semi-circular arrangement during the “Words of Grace and Greeting.” The leader wore no liturgical garb. She shared her own struggles with cancer treatment and invited us to be mindful of others we know who struggle as well. I was mind-full. My sister-in-law will find out next week whether or not her treatment is working. I was really touched by the pastor’s vulnerability and by the opportunity to admit, at least internally, my fear about the results of that upcoming test. What impressed me most was the pastor’s awareness that a woman sitting in front of me faced not cancer treatment but kidney dialysis. Henri Nouwen once wrote about “Wounded Healers,” and this service helped me appreciate the necessity of those leaders who do not shy away or wish away deep pain and anxiety but rather perhaps tame it by naming it.

Just enough music. The capable pianist gently led us into only two hymns; one was a response to the evening prayer (inserted below), and the other was the song “There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy.” The author of the book Why Men Hate Church maintains that music repels men. I may be an exception, because I happen to enjoy music most of all. But I enjoy music less when it is redundant, when it has no complexity and depth and when it offers more images and poetry than I care to process. Give me one or two hymns to sing outwardly and two pieces that help me sing inwardly and that is plenty. This service minimized the scriptural reading to one lesson, Romans 4:13-25, and it minimized hymn offerings to only two. It was a thirty minute service which included communion, so perhaps there was not time for more. But even with a full hour I wonder how many men or women would mind minimizing lesson and carols in worship to make room for silence or message or sharing stories of faith?

WALLS: What created obstacles to experiencing God?

No chance for “breathing out tension.” The exterior of the program indicated this was “A service for the end of the day…in the middle of the week.” Lutherans call this service “vespers” (evening) and Roman Catholics call it “compline” (end of day), but such nomenclature must seem antiquated to United Methodists who feel the need to define what such terms mean. From my experience with “vespers” or “compline” in other places, what I missed most here at Memorial Drive UMC were the use of ancient Psalms and time for meditation and perhaps, especially given the season of Lent and the presence of the Eucharist, confession. The program indicated we would have “Time of Silence, Prayer and Contemplation: silent prayers…breathing in peace…breathing out tension…breathing in peace.” Yet the short service moved breathlessly from Message to Holy Communion. I couldn’t catch my breath…

Hard to hear preacher. The space for worship was an attractive, multi-use area (see video) which probably works fine as a fellowship hall, but I had trouble hearing the pastor. Part of the problem had to do with her rapid, casual speech. She was seated relatively low, relative to her hearers, which further garbled the message. But the worst part for me was having the speakers up in a raised section of the ceiling. That seemed to me like installing an automobile horn facing the engine rather than oncoming traffic. I think people in the middle of the room heard just fine, but those of us on the edges strained to hear a message on the necessity of trust.

Scowling at children/parents. Young people were busy next door woofing-down brownies and making typical kid sounds that accompany sugar. Even with the glass doors closed, these sounds competed with the words of the leader (see above criticism). I saw no fewer than eight people turn to face the source of these sounds, and most had looks that conveyed to me a sense of disapproval. I am not always the best at interpreting the human face, judging whether or not an older person is truly mad or has learned to completely relax to such an extent that even the lips and eyebrows hang peacefully. As a parent, I assume they are mad at me for not restraining my child.  So if the goal of worship is to find peace in God’s presence, then participants need to resist any curious urge to turn around.  Just focus on what matters. But what if the goal of turning toward the noise was to communicate judgment?  I have been in churches that print tiny pamphlets for the pews explaining how corporate worship is communal and that interruptions are natural when diverse people gather.  The pamphlet reminds participants of the necessity of humility when approaching our infinitely loving Creator.

INTERVIEW

What message came through for you in this service?

I’ve only attended this service for a few months. I’ve tried them all here, but I am most drawn to the more traditional services. I like this one. Tonight I heard that I need to really trust Jesus.

Why do you need Jesus?

I was really touched by the pastor admitting she is feeling some fatigue and that is why she needed to sit down to preach. None of us can do it on our own. The church is basically Jesus for me.

Why do you need this church?

I was Lutheran at first. I used to park my car in this church’s parking lot in order to ride share into downtown Houston. I was always attracted to the architecture, so one day I came inside for worship. I felt like the clergy were so vulnerable, just like [tonight’s preacher]. You could call them by their first names. That never happened in my former church! I really learned the Bible from people in this church in a way I never did from the other church. I love the charity here. I take “Word on the Street” bags to people on the streets who carry those “need help” signs. Socks, water, meat, and a helpful booklet of emergency phone numbers and addresses. I keep extra bags in my car and actually look for homeless people to help! There are tons of programs like that here. That’s why I love this church.

What kind of music do you listen to in your car?

Josh Groban, Celtic Women/Tenors, Yanni.  I also listen to a Christian radio station.

Sudbury United Methodist Church

251 Old Sudbury Road, Sudbury, Massachusetts

http://www.sudbury-umc.org

March 4, 2012

The following story is included in Jonathan Dudley’s 2011 book Broken Words: The Abuse of Science and faith in America Politics:

On August 19, 2009, a tornado formed just outside Minneapolis…The incident most likely would have been written off as a random occurrence, unfortunate but not devastating—except for the fact that the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) was holding its national convention that day.  On the list of topics for discussion was the moral status of same-sex relationships. A vote was to follow the discussion, though the tornado delayed both till later in the day.  But the ELCA ultimately voted to welcome those in gay relationships into the communion and ministry of the church.

For one local onlooker, the combination of public Christian support for homosexuality and the tornado on the same day, in the same city, could not have been mere coincidence.  John Piper, pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, whose influence is so wide he is often thought of as a kind of pope of evangelical Christianity, declared, “The tornado in Minneapolis was a gentle but firm warning to the ELCA and all of us: Turn from the approval of sin.  Turn from the promotion of behaviors that lead to destruction (Dudley, 66).

This week the U.S. was battered by almost one hundred tornadoes across the southeast.  What did the Lutherans do this time?  Or is this a wake-up call for Republicans to choose the right candidate on Super-Tuesday?  Or is God still peeved about homosexuals?

I need to be in a church that is not peeved about homosexuals.  I search “gay friendly churches, MA” and find a pretty extensive list mostly populated by UCC churches.  I especially love their 2006 ad campaign around this issue:

But I visited a UCC church last week.  I was hoping to find a United Methodist Church nearby that is gay friendly.  I found Sudbury United Methodist Church, a Reconciling Congregation since 2004, which offered this welcome:

The United Methodist Church is a community of believers and seekers, with differences in age, class, nationality, race, gender, marital status, sexual orientation, abilities and limitations.  We at Sudbury UMC recognize that there are attitudes, concerning these diverse characteristics, which violate the integrity of individuals and deny the richness of God’s creation.  Therefore we affirm our welcome to all people into our community of faith.

What does the welcome look and feel like at Sudbury UMC?  How will worship reflect the “diverse characteristics” of the human family and the richness of God’s creation?

March 4, 2012  9:30 Worship

WINDOWS:  Enabling a Message to Come Through.

Simple, Attractive Visuals.  I liked the way the cross stood out against the plain, purple fabric screen bordered by the white wood.  The pastor wore a white alb covered by a dramatic purple chasuble, which is liturgical garb I rarely see outside of Episcopal, Lutheran and Roman Catholic settings.  The choir also sported the color purple.  I imagine the color changes with the church seasons.  On the altar were five or six violet, pillar candles along with some decorative, dry branches.  The candles were lit prior to worship but then extinguished as part of the opening liturgy:  “As we extinguish these lights, we acknowledge that humanity’s failures to heed God’s call cast shadows of injury over the earth and its ecosystems.”

Children’s Bible.  This is the first time I have found a children’s picture Bible there among the other service books.  Every pew seemed to have three or four copies which represent a pretty significant investment in children.  I respect that.  I would respect it even more if worship leaders indicated where to find the day’s lesson or at least the appropriate book of the Bible either in print or verbally as they do for older readers.  That would suggest more thorough integration.  But having the Bibles there as means toward engaging younger folks in the pews is a great idea, nonetheless.

A Church that Marches Forth.  A guest speaker had traded pulpits with Sudbury’s senior pastor, so I did not get to hear a typical Sunday sermon.  The guess speaker was invited by the Social Justice Committee (how many churches have a social justice committee?) to speak on the topic of an upcoming decision that United Methodists must make globally, like Lutherans, around the “moral standing of same sex relationships.”  He affirmed Sudbury’s commitment to inclusion and urged the church to resist a tendency toward “inward-gazing cliques” choosing instead to walk the way of the cross, spreading holiness.  He offered a clever juxtaposition of the day’s date, March 4th, with the day’s theme, “March Forth.”  He was a great speaker and deserved a round of applause not only for his message, but for his courage and resolve.  Unfortunately Sudbury reserved their applause only for the organist at the conclusion at the service.  It is obvious from the applause that music is perhaps the most important draw for this congregation, but I could tell from the bathroom that

A well-appointed, accessible bathroom.

sensitivity to human diversity is also key.  Just look at that bathroom:  a chair for the caregiver, a booster seat for the aged, a rail for those with handicaps, a flier urging those in abusive relationships to call for help (sometimes a bathroom is the safest place to make such a call), and, just beyond the frame of the picture, a diaper changing station.

I also liked not only the presence of a ministry called Stephen Ministry, which pairs non-pastors with those who are facing “challenges and change” (aren’t we all?), but also the bulletin indication that one of these ministers would be waiting for such people in a quiet room near the sanctuary after the service.  How thoughtful!  How proactive.  That is my word for a church which puts a booster seat near the commode and “Welcoming and Reconciling Statement” on the worship attendance pad, proactive.

WALLS:  Interfering With the Message.

Inward Gazing Cliques.  If only all churches could live up to the standards of their statements!  I read the senior pastor’s weekly newsletter online in which he urged the church to be particularly mindful of newcomers like me:

After all, whether we like it or not, our church, and every church, is in the customer service business. From the music, to the sermon, to the Sunday School classes offered each week, the quality of our service will decide if newcomers return to our sanctuary or go somewhere else. But the product that potential customers come looking for in our church, or in any church, I‘m convinced, is not a good sermon, or great music, or things as tangible as that. Those who study church marketing report that newcomers decide whether or not they will return about two minutes after they enter the sanctuary.

Member cars clustered around entrance. There is a small visitor’s parking sign, but I didn’t see it before I parked.

I arrived in the massive parking lot around 9:10 for the 9:30 worship service.  Though I could have parked near the entrance to the sanctuary, my instinct was to park on the side where most of the other cars were parked.  I assumed the front doors might not be open but instead, guests use the ramp on the side.  But I couldn’t find any parking there as those spots were all taken.   I noticed that about eight cars were parked intentionally away from the entrance while ten were parked in the closest spots.  I’d like to believe those ten cars belonged to people, choir members perhaps, who were physically infirm and needed closer spots, but I have been in enough churches to know that not every member believes Jesus’ maxim that the last shall be first.

I entered the sanctuary and found three adults with their back to me, trying to corral four or five young children who seemed to be waiting to perform some function.  I stood there for a few seconds before a little girl handed me a sheet of paper.  I quickly glanced at it to see a bunch of boxes with arrows.  I saw the words “RAISE MONEY” and “HIDE AND FIND GAME” and was instantly nervous that I was going to have to participate.  The girl offered no explanation.  Then, as I stood there confused, an adult said “Oh, did she give that to you without saying anything?”  I smiled.  She smiled back.  Then nothing more was said.  Very awkward.  I walked past the group and into the sanctuary.  Two guys who were probably tasked with handing out programs were deep in conversation, standing in the pews on the right side.  I didn’t want to disturb them for a program but I needed the restroom.  I had to find it in my own.  It was not easy.  I walked past a choir room and eventually found it near the offices.  While I was there I felt like I was in a special bathroom that perhaps I shouldn’t use.  The general bathrooms must be somewhere else.  Somebody tried to open the door.  I hurried things along  so that someone who needs an accessible bathroom could use it.

That’s how my first two minutes went.  Aside from an important recognition by the associate pastor who was milling around the sanctuary when I returned, no-one else engaged me in welcome.

Recipe Box of Pew Tracts.  There were five unique fliers or tracts stuffed together in the bracket behind each pew:  A prayer card, a pledge envelope, two kinds of Stephen Ministry cards, an introduction to Sudbury, and an “I Wish” card.  I particularly like the “I Wish” card for some of its suggestions:

  • I wish to have a visit from a lay person.
  • I wish to talk to a minister when it is convenient for both of us.
  • I wish a minister would call on _____ who is A) sick at home, B) in hospital, C) just needs a call.
  • I wish a minister would call on ______who is a prospective member/friend.

Now that’s customer service!

Actually I understand that these cards are not meant to be commands for a congregation to play an unhealthy game of “pastor fetch” but rather a means for opening communication.  People often assume pastors will hear about needs through a grapevine and this leads to bitterness, blame, and of course missed opportunity.  My problem with the tracts is that they are not really accessible, like that recipe clipped from a newspaper that is stuck down in a box with mom’s family recipes.  If these fliers are really important could the church not invest in a different display system?  Maybe the fliers could be made into book marks for the hymnals and Bibles?

Harsh Lighting.  I loved the hanging chandeliers but the wall fixtures behind the speaker were a constant distraction as he preached (I sat at the rear on the right).   I also liked that the speaker was illuminated from the front, but again the lighting was harsh and cast angry shadows.  I’ve seen this in other churches too and, while the single flood light is better than nothing, I have also seen churches which have invested in proper stage lighting.  It changes the character of the room a bit, but in a church where the proclamation of the Word seems so important, multi-position/color stage lighting seems like a worthwhile consideration.

INTERVIEW:  White woman, late fifties (with adult children)

What kind of message came through for you today?

I don’t come here enough, but when I do there’s a message of unity.  I also like the way that we are open to people, like the speaker said.

Why do you need Jesus?

Well, why do I need Jesus and God.  I pray to him every day.  I need that connection.

Why do you need this church?

I have two homes and attend church in two different places.  The other church is small and there are lots of pastoral changes.  I like the stability here.  I’ve been here since the eighties and my children were married here, so I have some important history at Sudbury UMC.  [I ask, How would you describe your children’s faith now?]  My [adult] kids don’t attend church.  For my one child I think the reason has to do with her spouse whose upbringing was very anti-religion.

What kind of music do you listen to when you are not in church?

Jazz, trumpet.  It’s particularly good for Zumba. This church sometimes offers special ensembles that give me a taste of that.

First United Methodist Church of Westborough
120 West Main Street, Westborough, MA

February 12, 2012

Kevin Hendricks offered “Church Websites 101” on ChurchMarketingSucks.com:

Be Specific
There has to be a single action you want people to do. It can’t be vague and wishy-washy. It needs to be concrete: Visit a Sunday morning worship service, contact your pastor, fill out a form requesting more info, attend a welcome bash, think about Jesus, etc. Pick something very specific.

Be Clear
You need to make it crystal clear what you want people to do and how to do it. This should be the main feature of your homepage. It should be obvious in the navigation. You need to funnel users directly to accomplishing this action. If you want people to visit on a Sunday morning, you should have an entire section devoted to new visitors. It should be highlighted on the homepage and be accessible from every page in the site. You can’t let them miss it.

I visited the website for Westborough, MA Chapel of the Cross months ago when I met a group of adults who had defected from that church to form a new one.  Nice website.  I quickly located and clicked the “I’m new here” button and found everything I cared to know at a glance.  My Google search words “Westborough MA Church” also brought me seven other churches and I compared the websites.  I see this over and over:  mainline church websites “suck.”

  • The Lutheran Church welcome included a note from two pastors, a mission statement and a vision statement.  Yawn.
  • The United Church of Christ offers a welcome that includes this bewildering pronouncement: “We are proud of our tradition and seek to build on it, as opposed to be governed by it.”    Sounds like a committee voted 5 to 3 in favor of “tradition” but with a minority report.
  • There was no “welcome” button to click at the Roman Catholic Church site.
  • The United Methodist Church’s welcome looked similar to the opening page; it was a long letter of welcome from the pastor.  Actually it was a long introduction to the pastor.  If I want to know when worship is held I have to click on “worship.”  I found two services listed there–9am and 10:30am–and both have identical names and descriptions.  Both are “traditional family services.”  So I’m wondering why they need descriptions.  Now I am planning to attend service, but where do I go?  That’s another click and another page called “location” which uses a black-n-white map (haven’t seen one of those in a while).

I also call First United Methodist Church to try to get clearer about which service is a family service, but the message does not help.  In fact I am surprised the message offers no church address or directions and no indication of childcare options.

Fine, I’ll use GPS and we’ll attend at 10:30.  I talked to my son about dressing in Hawaiian-print shirts for the occasion–the long letter from the pastor says February 12th is annual “Sonshine Sunday” and we are encouraged to dress brightly.  “That’s not happening,” my son protests.  It’s Saturday night and he’s grouchy about going to another “boring” church Sunday, but I remind him that someone there will be wearing  Hawaiian print.  “Even the pastor?”  We’ll see!

10:30 Worship


WINDOWS:  Where something of God came through.

Authentic Pastor.  My son and I both enjoyed being in the pastor’s presence.  He did wear a Hawaiian print shirt!  Although he said it made him feel silly (I could see a nice business shirt and tie under the loud exterior shirt), I think it made him more approachable.  Pastor Rick Warren in California shepherds his flock of thousands wearing fun Hawaiian shirts, so it must not be too silly. But the warmth of the pastor extended beyond dressing casually for “SONshine Sunday” and his clever opening joke, made in reference to a church leader wearing shorts and a white blazer on this 24 degree February Sunday,  “How come the Gingerbread man didn’t wear shorts?  He had crumby legs!”  No, our sense of the pastor’s authenticity came mostly from his sermon illustrations and direction of prayer.

The pastor seemed uniquely vulnerable in his sermon anecdotes.  One example illustrates.  Early in his career, the pastor was a chaplain for an “AIDS ward” in a hospital (back when AIDS was more misunderstood) along with a Roman Catholic priest.  The priest would not administer communion until AIDS victims confessed and repented of their homosexuality.  Our pastor shared that he had no such objection to offering AIDS victims, gay or straight, the gifts of God.  I was touched by this, because I know admitting one’s compassion for gay people in worship is a risk in some churches.   Scott Peck wrote about this in his 1987 classic book, The Different Drum: Community Making and Peace.

If Jesus, the healer, taught us anything, he taught us that the way of salvation lies through vulnerability.  So it is that when he was alive he walked vulnerably among Romans and tax collectors and other unfitting characters, among outcasts and foreigners, among the diseased, the demoniacs, and lepers and infectious.  And when the time came that he should die, he vulnerably submitted himself to killing wounds of the entrenched Establishment of his day, which is why the theologian Dorothee Solle has referred to Jesus as God’s unilateral disarmament (227).

The pastor came down from the chancel to listen to our “joys and concerns,” and as each person shared, the pastor was often able to add further detail.  It seemed evident that he had entered the messy lives of individuals in his congregation, walking vulnerably with them.

Educational FOCUS.  A respected church educator once told me “The church doesn’t have an education program; the church IS an education program!”  We entered the church building from the parking lot and this led us through a labyrinth of educational hallways.  What we found impressed us.  Teenagers filled couches in a youth room.  An art board revealed the way children felt about Joseph’s betrayal by his brothers.  One room was dedicated to kids music and was part of a rotational model of learning where learners experience the same story told through four or five different mediums:

Note the ice chests above the couches. A nice juxtaposition between action and reflection.

Science, Music, Heifer Project, Games.  My son said “You wouldn’t have to drag me to Sunday School if it was something like this.”  As good as the education “department” looked, the educational component spread beyond that.  When we entered worship, my son was given a Children’s bulletin.  This actually repelled him.  I showed him the ages listed at the top, “7 to 12” and he responded, indignantly, “What 12-year-old-boy wants to connect the dots, dad?”  However, five minutes into the sermon, my son was working out word puzzles that related to the scripture of the day!  In my adult bulletin I found opportunities to be involved in such classes as: “Social Principles,” “12-Step Meditation Group,” “Fishers of Men,” and something called “FOCUS,” which I later learned is a spiritual conversation for youth to help them integrate into their lives the concepts shared in worship.  So we have high praise for the directors of Christian Education and youth ministry.

Youth Leading Worship.  I’ve been to churches which featured a “Youth Sunday” or “Children’s Sunday” which left responsibility for service leadership with young people at least once a year.  I’m ashamed to say I know many adults who chose not to attend on those days, avoiding the silliness and sounds of children, presumably.  It looked like “Youth Sunday” here.  Kids were acolytes.  Two teen-aged girls were asked to distribute gift crosses to any visitors who had the gumption to raise their hands when the pastor asked “Are there any visitors here?”  Elementary-aged children rang bells for “Come Christians Join to Sing” (Carillon Ringers) and Teens rang bells for “Adante Maestoso” (Joyful Sound), both of which sounded better than most adult bell choirs we have heard!  A young teen shared the call to worship.  Another shared a testimony of his time at a local camp.  It looked like they were in charge!  But when I asked a leader about this after service she said “Aside from the Hawaiian shirts, this is pretty normal.”   It’s only normal at First United Methodist Church of Westborough.  I would love for my child to grow-up in place rich with education and opportunity like this.

Clear Windows.   The sanctuary was bright because the sunshine outside was bright!  The windows beside and in front of us were big, beautiful and clear with no stained glass.  I loved looking out at the bare trees and the occasional birds stopping to rest.  All that natural light made it hard for me to see the slides and I wished this church had placed LCD screens up there instead of relying on video projection.  But the struggle to see the screens is worth the joy of seeing there is a season for everything.   It’s winter and these trees raise their limbs in praise!

WALLS:  Obstacles to me experiencing God.

Like Getting Nachos at Halftime.  The flow of foot traffic in the church felt like a bottle neck under the bleachers at halftime.   We made it to the church at 10am while the first service was still in session. We found the last remaining parking spot out back.  There were no signs outside telling us which door to use, so we followed the sidewalk directly to one of the doors.  Locked.  We entered through the other back door and found ourselves in an educational wing.  No greeters.  No signs helped us find our way.  When we finally made it to what sounded like the sanctuary,  138 participants of the 9AM service were  filing out through a narrow aperture while 127 10:30AM service participants were trying to enter.  I could smell food being prepared below us and for a moment I remembered the feeling of being under a stadium at halftime, exuberant families trying to stay together, making choices about whether to eat or use the restrooms.  Heavy traffic is a good problem to have.  It was nice to be in a crowded church where people were exuberant.  But my heart was racing until 10:45 when the pianist finally played a prelude and the buzz in the air finally hushed.  When it was time to leave we had to wait a relatively long time to get out of the sanctuary because it seemed that everyone was expected to pass by the pastor for a greeting.  This is a long tradition in many churches, but it makes more sense in churches which have multiple sanctuary exits.  We felt trapped.

Leaders Looking Down on Us.   The bulletin featured a black and white classical image of a man kneeling before Jesus as Jesus blesses him.  “If you are willing, you can make me clean.”  Jesus responds “I am willing” (Mark 1:40).  I liked the image.  The slides used during the sermon also featured classical images of subservience to Jesus.  Jesus is never depicted crouching down with the suffering.  That is how I picture Jesus doing it.  These images made me more sensitive to the way the pastor stood over the children as he spoke to them at children’s time.  He was encouraging the kids to sing a song, so it seemed that perhaps he felt the need to stand as they were standing.  Maybe he typically sits among the children?  I hope so, because it seems important to balance images of a powerful, erect Jesus, with images which also depict his sense of equality and love.

The Decision.   The boy who had recently attended a Bible retreat with twenty other teens from FUMC Westboro made a comment about the retreat that made me pause.

The  promo video for the Monadnock Bible Conference event this church likely experienced shows dozens of activities ranging from harmless fun with inflatable structures, snow sledding and swimming, to more nefarious offerings like dodge ball, laser tag, and this outrageous scene where an adult selects a teen victim and “shoots” them.  What you don’t see is an expectation that the kid will come to a Decision about following Christ.

Just looks like fun right?  I checked-out the conference center based on what the boy shared in worship.  He talked rather calmly about a time in the retreat where a leader put a white board up on the stage and encouraged anybody who wanted to give their life to Jesus to sign their name on the board.  The boy admitted that everybody did it.  Well of course they did!  Who wants to be that kid in school who doesn’t stand for the pledge of allegiance?  Yet what part of competing with other kids, being blown away by adults and dressing like a Sumo Wrestler offered a meaningful vision of Jesus, one we would serve with humility, even if at age 13 we had a clue of what that meant?

The pastor spoke immediately after the boy’s witness and affirmed that all twenty kids from FUMC Westborough gave their lives to Christ that evening.  Odd as this may sound, as a parent, I would hate hearing that my son went along with everyone else in this altar call.  It is not that I don’t want him to follow Jesus.  I do.  But I think his sense of God’s call on his life is meant to emerge gradually along with his sense of vocation.  David Fitch claims, in The End of Evangelicalism (2011), that this “Decision for Christ” is one of three practices which have destroyed Evangelical Christianity’s credibility.  Even Billy Graham admitted that such decisions only led to people actually be born again only 30% of the time.  More scientific studies put the figure closer to 5%.   Kids make dozens of decisions about Christ: one day he is an anchor, another day his is a sail and on still another he is dangerous plank we walk.  I want my kid to be in a safe place for asking questions about those perceptions of Jesus and I am persuaded that FUMC Westborough offers the kind of broad education and warm adult mentoring that my son would need across the years and raging seas of adolescence.

But I am less inclined to participate at FUMC if “the decision” to give one’s life to Jesus is a one-time deal that is outsourced to some supercharged event center where the call to discipleship is somehow linked to playing laser-tag, the confession is a shame-filled manipulation, and the covenant is coerced by anyone but the Holy Spirit.  So I think the pastor missed an opportunity to place the retreat in the context of ongoing spiritual formation where “aha!” happens again and again.

It’s All About Me.  I appreciated the blend of music styles Sunday.  Hymn choices included: Pass Me Not, Trading My Sorrows, He Touched Me.   I did not particularly like singing the contemporary praise song “I’m Trading My Sorrows” to canned accompaniment.  I suspect the church typically employs a praise band for such songs and we really needed it on this day, because this song has some bizarre phraseology.  We got bogged down and only recovered during the familiar chorus “Yes, Lord, yes, Lord, yes, yes, Lord.”  Something else bugged me about that song.  It twists Paul’s meaning in 2 Corinthians 4 from which part of the song is derived:

4 The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. 5 For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. 6 For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,”[a] made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.

7 But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. 8 We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; 9 persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.

Paul is making a point about the Christian community, not about individual suffering.  This praise song is individualistic.  I suppose there is a place for such songs in corporate worship.  But I noticed that all three hymns were similarly individualistic.  Pass ME not.  He touched ME.  I’M trading my sorrows.  I personally like a song by Kyle Matthews called “All of Us” which counteracts individualistic tendencies in churches.  Matthews tells the story of a young mother who visits the church garage sale.  The church slowly realizes they are called to work alongside of her.  It will take all of them to help her.  This would have been a welcome addition to the service Sunday.

INTERVIEW

I typically ask the person seated close to me a four questions:  What message did you hear today?  Why do you need Jesus?  Why do you need a religion?  Why do you need this particular church?  I didn’t get the chance to ask those exact questions.  Instead I had a conversation with a woman and her forties along with her boyfriend about what led them to FUMC Westborough.

I had trouble believing in Jesus when I was a child growing up catholic.  Nuns would slap my face because of answers I’d give them.  As an adult I tried other catholic churches but could never fit.  One day I was at the school and I met the pastor of this church who was there with his own kids.  It was so easy to talk to him about what I had been through.  He encouraged me to come to his church.  I went home and cried because I figured there was no way I would be able to convince my ten-year-old to give church another try, but he surprised me and attended FUMC with me.  My son loved it.  I loved it.  I kept coming mostly because of the pastor.  I love his direct style. 

The woman’s boyfriend entered the conversation by asking me if I was a pastor “by conviction” or for some other reason.  I had to get some clarification before finally realizing that what he really wanted to say was that some pastors are only in ministry for the money, in his experience.  This pastor of FUMC Westborough is not; that much is clear to this man.

Saint Matthews UMC

Saint Matthews United Methodist Church

435 Central Street
Acton, MA

I follow the blog of the poet-pastor Steve Garnaas-Holmes and recently read  “Annunciation” reflecting on Luke 1:26-35.

Beloved, you have found favor with God. Already.
You need not work for it, or reach impossibly.
God is delighted with you as you are,
and loves to be with you, always.

Now, then.
Live your life.
Let God think of your ordinary days as holy.
Raise your kids. Do your work. Blossom as you will.
Holy Spirit will come upon you;
therefore it will all be Holy.
The love you give your children will make them holy;
the love you bring into the world will redeem it.
Your labors and lovings, the secret work of angels
hidden in the flour you knead and the floor you scrub
and the foreheads you kiss will ring with glory.
Nothing will be changed, child, but your eyes will be opened.
Your hands will be the throne of the almighty,
whose eternal grace will reign forever.
This, not some shimmering dream,
is what will save the world.
For nothing will be impossible with God.

Copyright © Steve Garnaas-Holmes
Unfolding Light
www.unfoldinglight.net

I need to hear this guy preach during Advent!  He is the new pastor at Saint Matthews United Methodist Church in Acton, MA, though on the history page of the church website the current pastor is listed as “Bob Moore.”  On that website I read:

Our hope is to help you to become more mindful of God’s grace in your life, to discover how God is working through you, and to be the light of God in your daily life by sharing whatever gifts the Spirit gives you. We will affirm you and challenge you. We’ll pray for you. We’ll help you to live as authentically as Jesus did, in your own way, living out your faith in your daily life. Our calling is not to impose doctrine on you or to make you more like us, but to surround you with respect, faith, honesty, healing and wisdom so that you can be free with God.

What will it feel like to be surrounded by respect, faith, honesty, healing and wisdom at Saint Matthews?

Worship 10:30A.M.    December 18, 2011

WINDOWS

Dynamic Music.  Youth Choir.  Bell Choir.  Adult Choir.  Trumpet.  A Trio of Bass Clarinet, Clarinet and Recorder.  Organ and piano.  Worship was a stocking filled with surprising musical treats!  My 12-year-old son sat mesmerized by the bell choir, remarking afterward that “Everybody seems really talented and happy about what they are playing.”  I loved the dynamic range of the adult choir singing “Mary Had a Baby” (William Dawson) and felt particularly fortunate to hear such a  fine tenor (the Director, David Potts) in a free venue!  They don’t applaud here.  Tisk, tisk.   They do love their music, however.  As the service neared 10:30, the reverently chatty crowd hushed on three separate occasions anticipating the start of worship.  It was weird but cool, like a school of fish quickly drawing together into a ball at the hint of a shadow and then returning to individual darting and flitting.  At the end of worship we were free to exit, but all remained seated in order to hear the postlude.  It makes one wonder why music is given less reverence in places where church musicians are lounge pianists, lucky if gabby, restless guests discern the ending of a song long enough to applaud.

Angelic Preacher.  The pastor invited children to assemble for a children’s message by saying “Where are the people who like to sit on the floor?”  From that moment forward the children were “surrounded by respect, faith, honesty and wisdom.”  My  son told me he liked how it was not too serious and held everyone’s attention without using gags and objects.  I liked it when the pastor explained that we are all angels like Gabriel announcing that others are blessed, “But the only way they will believe it is if you show them you love them.”

The pastor shared the gospel passage Luke 1:26-38 from memory!  I was told by the  friend who encouraged us to attend that he often shares the story of Jesus from memory.  I have been in churches where a reader brought the Bible down into the midst of the congregation in order to read the gospel (All Saints Episcopal Church in Worcester comes to mind), but the words still feel far away when they are read to us as some kind of “Sheriff-of-Nottingham” type pronouncement.  The story came alive for me this Sunday not because a book was placed in the center but because the story became, again, an oral tradition.

In the sermon the pastor managed to indict ancient and modern patriarchy, mention the word “sex” and suggest a kind of class-leveling “Where there is only one cast: beloved,” all without a single “boo” or “hiss” from what looked to be a very upper-class congregation.   Perhaps his prophetic message slipped through because it was greased with a sincere belief that his hearers were, like Mary, loved by God.  That was the angelic message.  Wisdom I had never before considered was the speaker’s question “How many other people did Gabriel pronounce Blessed until one finally said Yes?”  It is difficult for people who have absorbed messages of scorn to truly feel loved.

Aesthetically Pleasing Sanctuary.  The orientation of the sanctuary, with its tall, clear windows and spare, white, walls is surprising.  From the street one would expect the congregation to be seated lengthwise with an altar area toward one end or the other.   However the worship space is oriented horizontally creating a greater sense of community among worshipers and equality between leaders and hearers.  I counted 110 seated in the congregation (with 20 or so more in a choir loft) with just about every movable, upholstered chair in use.   Because the walls are egg shell white, every introduced color popped, so the poinsettias of Christmas and the blue banners of Advent were welcome seasonal additions.  My son and I both loved the color of the single round stained glass window above the table, but my boy was a little freaked-out by the sight of a wounded bird dripping blood from its wings.  I explain that these were two signs of God’s Spirit, a dove descending and “tongues of fire” coming down from the sky.  “They probably should have picked one or the other, don’t you think?”  I look again and realize, yep, it’s kind of freaky.  Pretty, but freaky.

WALLS

No Member Said “Greetings, Favored One.”   We were delighted to find parking near a door.  It seemed to us that members had intentionally left space for others to park closer.  A “visitor” parking spot was also available.  Unfortunately that intentional hospitality seemed limited to the parking lot.  We entered through the rear of the building with no one to greet us.  We found our way up to the lobby, following good signs and the welcome sounds of people milling about, talking.  The room was filled with people of all ages, laughing and sharing together.  We walked slowly through the room but no-one seemed to notice.  When I reached the door to the sanctuary the woman handing-out programs was deeply engaged in a light-hearted conversation with someone else and merely extended the program to me, never making eye-contact or offering a greeting.   The only person to greet us on our way out of the church was a woman in a long red coat.  She caught us just as we were about to walk into the stair-well and said she had been seated behind us in worship.  We appreciated the effort, but it seemed a little late.  By that time all of the ginger-snap cookies and cups for tea had disappeared.  Why did it take so long for people to notice us?

One notable exception of hospitality was the pastor.  He greeted another family near us and then sat beside me to welcome the two of us.  Another exception was a friend of ours who recommended we attend the church.  Beyond these two, we were disappointed that adults didn’t practice saying “Greeting, favored one” to strangers in their midst.  No one sat with us.  We were greeted during the Passing of the Peace time, but then these same people wearing name tags never bothered to really learn where we were coming from.  Not until we were returning to that place with one foot out the door did one person stop us, and she happened to be headed to her car as well.

Annoying Photographer.  A woman with an SLR-type camera sat beside me during communion in order to get pictures of the celebrant in action.  “Jesus took bread and{SNAP} gave thanks to God…and then the took he bread and {SNAP} offered it to his disciples.”  I know it’s Christmas and this is a rare assembly of musicians and seasonal doo-dads, but it is still worship.  There are much less obtrusive ways to record the day.  I’ll bet the pastor would even be willing to pose after worship.

Odd Sound System.  The first words of the service were “Sisters and brothers, grace and peace to you!”  The words were spoken by the pastor standing at the center of the stage.  I saw his mouth move, but the actual words I heard came from somewhere to the left and right and not from the center.  I saw two white (is everything here white?) speakers on stands.  But then I looked-up and saw a fancy, dome speaker which was no doubt installed when this new addition was created.  So why isn’t that speaker being used?  Though my son objected to the odd look of the microphone projected toward the pastor’s mouth from his ear, we heard him fine.  The divided sound took some getting used-to, however.

INTERVIEW with middle-aged, White long-time member.

What kind of message came through to you today?

That we are all beloved.  That’s a message we hear a lot at this church.  You can see it in our Vision [she points it out in my program]:  “Each person is welcomed, [and is] fully accepted as a unique child of God…”

Why do you need Jesus?

He is the one who speaks the word “Blessed” to us and to me.

Why do you need the Church?

I think we do have trouble hearing that we are blessed by God and we need to hear it consistently from week-to-week.  The Church offers that consistency.

Why do you need this particular church?

I live in Acton and the first time I visited I was struck by the warmth of the people and the great music.  But what kept me coming back was the feeling that I was part of a church that was socially responsive to real human needs in our community and beyond.  We are involved in so many really great social programs.  [She goes on to say that a friend of hers chose not to worship at Saint Matthews because of the noise, mostly from children, but that hasn’t been an issue for her.  In fact it seems quieter these days than it once was, though of course there are still lots of children attending.]
Review coming soon.

East Longmeadow United Methodist Church

215 Somers Road, East Longmeadow, MA

November 20, 2011

The Roadfood Guide has been updated for 2011 adding 200 new diners, barbecue joints, lobster shacks…and donut shops.  A donut shop from East Longmeadow made the list this time:

Donut Dip–“One of New England’s premier donut shops.  The flagship donut is apple cider, which Roadfood.com reviewers described as ‘the finest we’ve ever eaten, their crunchy, cracked exteriors bursting with cinnamon-y apple flavor.”

I hear that there is a United Methodist Church in East Longmeadow that should be on my list, so I check-out the website.  I see a motto:  “For those who cry-out for love and justice.”  I see a logo with what appear to be four cardinal values: “justice, risk, welcome and hope.”  The home page is a cluttered hodgepodge of diverse fliers on a bulletin board. It’s so overwhelming that I completely miss the tiny menu options atop the picture of the really attractive church building.  I ignore the Montessori School flier, as well as the Statement of Inclusion printed near a rainbow symbol.  Instead, I click on a Sunday Worship Services link and get to see the program we will use this Sunday.  Cool.  I also click on the Safe Sanctuary link which reveals the church’s decades-long commitment to the safety of young people in their building.  Good to know because I will be attending with my child.  My son will be bringing a quilt which he made in second grade.  Why?  Because the website invited worship participants to adopt the “Piecing It Together” worship theme by bringing a quilt to drape over a pew.  I sarcastically ask my pre-teen if we should bring the quilt under which he and I are cuddling on this cold Saturday evening and he remarks “Hey, I could bring the quilt I made at Greenhouse School” (Salem, MA).

Are you intrigued by a school that encourages second-grade boys to hand-knit quilts?  Check it out: click the link.  Intrigued by a church of quilts tossed over pews?  Me too.  So we’ll grab a donut at the Donut Dip and visit East Longmeadow United Methodist Church…with quilt in hand.

WINDOWS

How to Make an American Quilt:  Every Story Matters.  Quilts and woven throws were indeed draped over pews. Intense shafts of light shining from long, clear slivers of windows transported my psyche to grandma’s house where afghans rest atop sofas and beds in naturally-lit rooms.   A magnificent quilt on the altar.  The pastor raises a knit quilt as part of her sermon message about how there are no “throw-away” threads within us–every “talent” is useful.  After worship my son is encouraged to share the story behind his quilt.  It was priceless to hear my pre-teen son celebrate a craft few boys admit they enjoy.  On our way home we were able to discuss why we work so hard at hiding certain aspects of who we are and what we have done.  Why shouldn’t a young boy feel free to admit he once enjoyed sewing?

My son shares his handmade quilt with interested members of East Longmeadow UMC.

My son was empowered after worship to share his story.  An elder member of church was given an similar opportunity in worship and at a planting of a Peace Pole after worship (see “Walls” below) where we learned of her long dedication to global missions.  I get the impression that East Longmeadow is a place to share one’s story.  It reminded me of the novel How to Make an American Quilt by Whitney Otto in which every chapter contains a woman’s story.  All of these women have come together to make a quilt for a young woman engaged to be married and the book pieces together their diverse narratives.  So this worship service felt like that gathering-up of the stories around one big quilt.  The theme was woven intentionally, masterfully, through everything that happened that Sunday:  We brought quilts from home; a quilt on the altar was our focal point; the bulletin cover featured a quilt print and words from “The Quiltmaker’s Journey” by Jeff Brumbeau; a confessional prayer from Greg Dell used the language “When we would succumb to thinking life is lived all by ourselves, that we are not each pieces of a larger, beautiful whole, deepen our experience of you, O God,” a sermon reference to quilting, a flier in the shape of a quilt on which we are invited to write our talents/gifts; an opportunity to bring pledges to a quilt-lined basket during the time of “Piecing It Together.”  When the bell choir gathered in the front, facing each other as they attempted “Etude in G-minor,” they looked to me as if they were eight folks gathered around a quilt.  The players were not experienced and the music was not always beautiful, rather like pricking one’s finger with a needle, and the minor key of the song left me feeling like I was hearing a long lament from one sad quilter in that circle, but then the tune resolved in a major key.  At that moment it was as though they held up the finished quilt…and the congregation quite naturally applauded.

Quirky Building.  I remarked to a member that I found the building beautiful, and she responded with confusion, “Really?”  Yes.  Inside and out I liked the architecture.  You can see, from the opening picture above, the painted-wood exterior quickly identifies the church’s brand. Have I ever seen a proportionally larger cross-and-flame on a building?  That barn-like building resting humbly on what looks to be a dozen or so acres was a true pastoral setting where I half expected to witness sheep rounding the corner and chickens come for seed.  Wasn’t Jesus born in a barn?  The inside, on the other hand, had a face that only a mother could love.  My son mentioned the chilling effect strong shadows had on everything that happened in the poorly-illuminated sanctuary and we both scratched our head observing a plain cross (especially compared to the vivid cross out front) located asymmetrically on a giant blue expanse of wall before us.   But these quirky aspects grew on me through the service.   There was a tiny alcove on our left in the rear of the sanctuary which looked like an area for private prayer.  I felt an impulse to spend time there kneeling before what I imagined could be a table of candles or waterfall or even some holy icon.  Great potential.  A member pointed out the lack of wood molding around doors and windows suggesting it demonstrated a definite 60’s aesthetic.  I hadn’t noticed the molding, but I did recognize that I was in a building maybe only fifty years old and it actually made me want to be part of what, in old New England, is a NEW church.   I had lots of ideas of what I would like to do in that space, and that is a feeling I seldom get from old neo-gothic and federal-style buildings which seem more meaningful for tourists than parishioners.

Inclusion.  From the church’s program:

“We embrace God’s good gift of diversity and believe all persons as of sacred worth.  Therefore we welcome people of every age, race, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, socio-economic condition, family structure, and physical or mental ability into full participation of this congregation.”

It is, of course, ironic that the denomination represented by the big cross and flame out front would not endorse this particular church statement (see Interview below).  Yet I consider how our national aspiration expressed in 1776 that “All Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” and somewhat reinforced in the Ninth Amendment of the Bill of Rights thirteen years later, never-the-less remains a matter of conjecture over two-hundred years later.  “Do we really mean ‘all Men’ have these rights?”  “Do we really mean that there can be ‘No Law’ which will ‘Disparage of deny the rights of these people’?”  These debates within courts and within churches will sputter-on across infinity.  In the meantime, I find it refreshing to be in a church that lands solidly on the broadest interpretation of “All People” and “No Law.”   It just seems more American…and, well, more Christian.

WALLS

Safe Sanctuary–Sometimes.   From the website I learn that the church is committed to providing a safe place for children.  At the time of this writing I am mindful that Penn State University is embroiled in great controversy for enabling predatory behavior against children.  Recently a childcare worker left a small child in a hot school van and that child died.   It is critical for churches to place the safety of its children above all else, so I applaud the church’s commitment and I believe other churches should post their policy online as East Longmeadow has.  SAFE SANCTUARY POLICY FOR EAST LONGMEADOW UMC.

The new nursery.

It troubles me that the church was not following the policy on the day I visited.  Before worship ended I visited the nursery which was brand new and sparkling clean. It had just been refurbished and the church would be blessing the nursery momentarily.  I asked to enter to take a picture of the room with two toddlers and one infant and was allowed to do so, no questions asked.  Granted, the policy does not really speak to the necessity of such boundaries, but common sense dictates that a worker should ask more questions and be aware that people are not generally allowed to photograph children (which I didn’t) without the permission of parents.  But what the policy does require is two adults for the safety of children.  I ask the one adult worker in the room if she has any help.  She tells me “Not today.”

Distracting Bible Lesson.  I am in favor of ordinary people reading Bible lessons and prayers in worship because the word for worship practice is “liturgy” which means “work of the people.”  But if the people are going to contribute to the work of worship, they must work at it.  The reading from Matthew 25:14-30 is already a theological challenge because it ends with the Master (God?) casting a man into “utter darkness” (Hell?) for being conservative with the master’s money.   My first challenge hearing today’s lesson, however, was simply in poor delivery.  The reader often seemed confused by the order of events and would backtrack to find a way to make sense of it.  It felt as if he was reading it for the first time.  My second challenge, the greater problem for me, was how often and forcefully the reader emphasized the word “Slave.”  “You lazy…SLAVE…you knew that I harvest where I did not sow…”  I see that the text was supposed to come from The Message.  Here is Matthew 25:26 from The Message:

“The Master was furious. ‘That’s a terrible way to live!  It’s criminal to live cautiously like that!  If you knew I was after the best, why did you do less than the least?”

The New Revised Standard Version records it this way:

“But his master answered and said to him, ‘You wicked, lazy slave, you knew that I reap where I did not sow and gather where I scattered no seed.”

It appears the worship plan called for a different version, maybe a friendlier version, so why wasn’t it used?   Because it wasn’t, I was left to interpret for my kid why God would so forcefully refer to a human being as a “SLAVE!” and cast him into utter darkness.

A Choir That Doesn’t Pray?   I have done my duty across the years, keeping my eyes closed during prayer.  I don’t need to close my eyes to experience God.  In fact one of my favorite ways to pray is to stare, wide-eyed, at a candle and seek to move my body as I see the flame moving.  So I don’t want to suggest that all pray-ers must humble themselves through closed-eyes and clasped hands.  However, those who sit in front of the assembly model behavior for all of us.  If you smile, we smile.  If you bow your head and close your eyes for prayer, we will do the same.  Except not this time.  I kept my eyes open as a child might.  One member of the choir kept looking at his watch, even twisting it a bit to see it better.  At the same time the man on the other side picked his head up from prayer, opened his eyes, and looked toward his right at the brick work or the ceiling, then down again, then up again.  They didn’t seem to be listening to God any more than one who is changing channels on the TV seems to be listening to a spouse who is talking about her day.  The woman in the front seemed to be scowling as she stared out over the congregation during prayer.  A baby cried and her steely focus shifted toward the annoyance interrupting our…prayer.

I was also surprised to watch a few members of the choir disrobe in order to join the ranks of un-robed bell choir members and then, after the song was complete, to re-robe there in front of us.  I kept wondering what the point of the robe really was.  Was all of that stripping necessary?  More importantly, might such informality short-circuit the very dignity or credibility the robes are meant to signify?  As with prayer, I have to admit I do not need to see robes on worship leaders, because they suggest a sort of separateness that mitigates the liturgy.  But if you are going to wear them, I need for you to wear them respectfully.

INTERVIEW

Long-time member, female, aged perhaps late fifties.

What kind of message came through worship for you today?

The stewardship focus.  The Peace Pole.  I am inspired by the woman who shared the story of her involvement with mission.  As a 95-year-old she is still engaged and that inspires me.

Why do you need Jesus?

[She initially skipped over this question to answer the question about “Why do you need the church.”  I returned to the question later and  could see from her response why she skipped it.]

I don’t really focus much on Jesus.  I focus on the bigger picture.  I just don’t believe a lot of that stuff the people say about him like, you know, the virgin birth.

Why do you need the Church?

[The answer to this question, a question about the larger Church that is bigger than denominations, was combined with the third question I always ask, “Why do you need this particular church?”]

Ever since I was young I have always needed the church.  Church helps me focus my faith. Now that I am alone, I find I especially need for it to be my family.  One of  the things I am most proud of in this church is our inclusiveness to gays and lesbians.  [I ask how that inclusiveness started.]  It really started years ago when Reverend Scott Campbell was pastor here.  He kind of started the movement.  A little over a year ago we started meeting in study groups to consider being a Reconciling Congregation, which is our name for a church that is open to gays and lesbians.  A year ago we voted to be Reconciling!  And I do not agree with the United Methodist Church’s stance on homosexuality.  [I ask what that stance is.]  They will not allow a person who is open about her sexuality to be a pastor.  We just recently had a charge brought against a lesbian clergy member for being gay.

[My interview partner also shares with me that the East Longmeadow Church is struggling a little bit right now with church attendance and finances, but she does not think it is related to that decision to be Reconciling, though she admits it might.  She tells me the Montessori school meeting at the church has seen a decline in tuition and the church relies heavily on their rent, so she is concerned about the future.  I counted 57 in worship this morning, and I read in the program that 60 attended the week prior, and I asked if that number has been the pattern for long.  She comments, “Oh, no, we used to be packed on Sundays.”  60 in worship is actually quite common among mainline churches I’ve visited these days.]

Aldersgate United Methodist Church

1048 Main Street, Worcester, MA

October 23, 2011

On Thursday I visited “Acoustic Java” near Worcester’s Clark University.  That same day I drive further south on Main Street.  I drive past a church named “WOO”.  Intriguing.  I visited “The Woo” in late summer.  A bit further down Main Street I pass a large Victorian house painted pink with purple accents.  The sign out front advertises “Bones and Flowers:  Occult.  Pagan.  New Age.”  A sign on the door warns “Beware of Cat.”  The cat would be the least of my fears here.  A few blocks further I find “Aldersgate United Methodist Church”.   Aldersgate is a small church obviously built in the late sixties and I am curious what it is like to worship there.

Church names are tricky.  Both “The Woo” and “Aldersgate” are equally obscure to me,  however I have a visceral reaction to both—positive toward “woo” and negative toward “aldersgate”.  Online I learn that this United Methodist Church has a curious history with names.  The church represents a merger of Park Avenue Methodist Church and Webster Square Methodist Episcopal Church.  No problem; these are place names I can remember.  But before the merger, the Webster Square church burned-down and was rebuilt using a great influx of cash from the Trowbridge family.  The family stipulated that the church would no longer be called “Webster Square” but rather “Trowbridge Memorial.”   After a later fire, the rebuilt church was renamed “Aldersgate”.  Perhaps the Aldersgate family came through with more money than the Trowbridge family?

Gordon MacDonald wrote a book entitled “Who Stole My Church:  What to Do When the Church You Love Tries to Enter the 21st Century” (2007) which allows us to eavesdrop on fictitious church committee meetings where the author hints at the average age of the group using a quote by John, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.  That’s what I always say.”  In chapter thirteen the group addresses a potential name change for the church.  Here’s the discussion:

 Names like Methodist, Baptist, Congregational, Presbyterian, and Episcopal are familiar to us all, and their significance was great in a time when there were marked differences in church structure and doctrine.  Most people knew the difference each name signified.  “Church names that include words like First or Second were very important in the 1800’s,” Rich said.  “They indicated those churches in a community that had been there the longest time and were, supposedly, the most stable and solid.  Then there were churches that chose geographical locations.”  Rich talked about church traditions that have used names of great Christian figures or place names as a way of memorializing people or events in history:  St. James, St. John, St. Paul, for example.  Or Aldersgate or Galilee or Knox Church.  Then he talked about the evolution of church identities in the twentieth century.  “There was a flurry of new names that used biblical words like Grace, Faith, Redeemer, or Trinity.  In the early years of the twenty-first century we are seeing a new batch of names I would never have imagined.  Poetic, metaphorical names like Liquid or River or DreamCenter are now being used”(145).

The church committee agrees to entertain the possibility of changing their name, but many of the oldest members are defiant.

 “I’m sick of talking about change,” John [remarks].  “Every place I turn someone wants to change something.  Nothing ever stays the same anymore, here at this church or in the city or any other place.  What’s wrong with keeping a few things the way they are?”(155)

So, whose voice is dominant at Aldersgate United Methodist Church, the forward-thinking Rich or the defiant John?

10:30 Worship

WINDOWS

DONUTS!  A man stood out on the sidewalk with a Sharpie-pen-lettered sign proclaiming “FREE COFFEE”.  This was an unexpected and welcome gift.  Every church I passed on my way to Aldersgate looked completely and utterly closed.  It wasn’t apparent there would be services this day or ever again in those places.  There were no people milling about outside.  Aldersgate was alive!  I hate to admit that the free donut had the texture of a day-old (or two or three) cake—pretty chalky—but it was the intention that really got me.

HELPFUL.  They were there to give me a doughnut.  They were there to meet me in the parking lot.  They were ready to give me a program for worship.  They helped me find the restroom, actually walking me there!  They helped me find the hymnbook and appropriate first hymn.  Helpful, helpful, helpful!   Yet they also seemed to know when to leave me alone.  They didn’t ask too many questions beyond “Do you live in the area?”  I found the sermon helpful as well.  I have been in four worship services since the “Occupy Wall Street” movement began, however this was the first time it was mentioned.  In an interview with a new church participant (see below) I get the impression that messages here are relevant to real life.  I also appreciated having a little note sheet to use for taking notes.  The sheet asked “As a result of this sermon what is the one thing you resolve to do?”  and I respond:  “I liked the pastor saying ‘My thoughts are still in process on this.’  I like that I do not have to have my mind made up on some of these pressing issues; it is okay to be in process.”

TEMPO.  I walked by a closet full of congo drums.  No doubt the drums [and rhythm] will remain in the closet because this is a more traditional service with traditional music like Lauda Anima (“Praise My Soul the King of Heaven”) , Meineke (“Glory Be to the Father”). But they also included more modern songs like “Lead Me, Guide Me” (from the 1950’s) and “Pass it On” from the 1970’s.    With only 22 people in worship the singing was anemic.  However the organist did his best to keep the tempo peppy on songs like “Lord I Want to Be a Christian” and “Pass It On”.  I’ve endured those two songs with slower tempos and wished for some divine intercession through power outage.

WALLS

DARK.  I appreciate the way little cone-shaped light fixtures warm poultry (both living and deep-fried) but for the life of me, I do not understand why they used them to light building interiors.  The wood paneling in this sanctuary made me feel sleepy and gloomy.   Clear windows on either side help somewhat, although the blinds on the right-hand-side were closed today, further contributing to the sense that I was stuck in the root system of some gigantic tree.  How could this be helped?  More intense light shining onto the chancel area?  Anything with color around the altar—flowers, visuals on the table, even some banner other than the dark, wonder-less green banner with a big “P” and “X” on it.  The side banners proclaiming “Hope” and “Goodness” are a step in the right direction, but the space needs life and light and awe.

HEAVENLY CHOIR.   My main issue with the choir isn’t that they should probably steer clear of three-part harmony until two-part harmony can be done well.  My main gripe is that the choir’s position fifteen feet above us in the rear loft there with the organ completely marginalized them.  Why couldn’t the choir sit in one of the eight vacant front pews, turning toward us to sing the “Old 100th” or even right behind us down in the cheap seats?   I am sure it is not good for older members to climb those steps and in fact probably prohibits more participation, but beyond that, this service needs some energy and an energetic choir (even with simple smiles and nods toward us!) could do wonders for morale.

HIDE-N-SEEK.   When I decided to visit Aldersgate on Sunday I Googled “Church Worcester”.  No listing for “Aldersgate”.  I typed “Aldersgate Methodist Worcester” and found no church website.   All I found was something called www.rchurch.com which listed general info about this and other churches—address and phone number, but no service times.  I am stunned to not find a, Aldersgate UMC website on Google, which is how most new people find their way to church these days.  It gets worse.  I find a phone number and call at 8AM to hear a voice message that tells me no-one is available to take my call.  It also tells me who to call for emergency.  It tells me to leave a message.  Eventually the pleasant voice tells me to press one to leave a message for the office (I don’t need the office), press two to leave a message for the pastor (I don’t need the pastor) and press three for more information and service times (Finally!).  I press three and I get the same menu again, only automated this time.  I press three.  I hear that worship is at 10a.m..  Great.  [I arrived at 9:45 in time to eat my doughnut, but a full 45 minutes early for 10:30 worship.]  But then there is no address or directions for parking.  Maybe I am too picky?  But I wanted to attend.  I suspect others would not be so persistent.

After the service I took a look at the church website which was listed in the program. http://mysite.verizon.net/aldersgate.umc/index.html  Little wonder the site didn’t appear on Google.  The website is a little antiquated compared to “The Woo” down the street and to “All Saints” which appears on rchurch.com immediately following “Aldersgate”.  The website is pretty hard to read and the rotating coffee-cup seems pretty dorky.  Sorry.  I would also like to see pictures of staff and of the congregation so that I could see what I am getting myself into.  You have a great preacher and it is not difficult making podcasts of his work available online.  I have a little $50 mp3 player by Sansa that will record an hour’s worth of sound that can easily be transferred to computer.

INTERVIEW:  Young adult, female. 

What kind of message came through for you today?

I usually want to keep religion and politics separate, but when the pastor mentioned the Occupy Wall Street movement it made me think that it isn’t necessarily “political” to care about people who are suffering.

Why do you need Jesus? 

I grew up in a church formed by two denominations, so I have always known about Jesus.  I sometimes feel like people judge me by unfair standards, but Jesus offers a completely different set of standards.

Why do you need the Church? 

It is like exercise.  I am more likely to keep up the exercise of faith if there are others holding me accountable.

Why do you need this particular church?

I have only been coming here for a few weeks.  I am a freshman at Clark University.  I have visited “The Woo” and also “Hope Chapel” but I don’t like all of the PowerPoint stuff.  This [Aldersgate] is more what I am used-to.  I also like hearing from the pastor because he does a good job of talking about big picture kinds of things but then also makes it applicable to my everyday life.  At Clark we are in this sort of “bubble” and it is good to have broader perspectives here.  After a woman comes over and greets “Grace” saying she missed her last week, the woman I’m talking to, not actually “Grace” but “Lily”, closes with this thought:  I really like the perspective of different generations here.

The Open Table of Christ   1520 Broad Street, Providence, Rhode Island

Herbert Asbury (1889-196

3) wrote a 1926 book attacking the denomination started in North America by his ancestor Francis Asbury.  In “Up From Methodism: A Memoir of a Man Gone to the Devil”, Herbert Asbury assesses the “terrific mental turmoil” of the man who founded in America what has ultimately become United Methodism:

At times he thought he had entered into what he called the full fruition of life with God: at other times he fancied himself given-up to Satan.  He had alternating periods of exaltation and depression; he was either soaring the heights of religious ecstasy or floundering in the depths of sin and despair.  He did not seem able to find any middle ground in which he could obtain a measure of peace and contentment.  He yearned for a constant religious thrill, and mourned because he could not satisfy his yearning.  (103)

As I visit this United Methodist church on Sunday, September 25, 2011, will I find exaltation or depression?  Or will I find peace and contentment somewhere in the middle?

10:30 Worship

WINDOWS

  • COMFORTABLE.  A yard sale down the street from Open Table offered rickety, wooden chairs, cheap.  I expected to find rickety, old, wooden pews inside the somewhat dilapidated 1950’s brick church building but instead find plush, blue, relatively new chairs.   No pews.  Very comfortable!  There were two navy-blue couches in the rear.  A man with a cast on one foot seemed grateful for that extra space.   It felt like a large living room, and that had as much to do with the intentional informality of worship leadership as it did with upholstery or cute little crayons in cups for the kids.  I really felt like I had come home and that sense of “family” never seemed contrived.  What else would I expect from a church calling itself  “Open Table”?
  • INTENTIONAL.   I listen carefully to how a leader introduces the time of offering.  Many church leaders either say very little and simply invite ushers to come to receive our “tithes and gifts” or “this morning’s offering” or they yammer-on in a sort of mini-sermon on “stewardship” (usually just long enough for the ushers to find the plates and take their positions).  This pastor said “It is time to gather our resources for the common good.”  Think about what that means!   Because of his invitation I reflected on “common good” in both a local and a larger sense.  Locally it seemed that my resources could help the diverse people-of-need right HERE in this sanctuary.  The guy in front of me wore a white, plastic, hospital bracelet which I sensed  he wore as a kind of reminder of his ordeal/fragility.  Each time the pastor admitted that many in the assembly were broken and suffering, the middle-aged man bobbed his headed knowingly.  From the website and from photo’s and fliers inside the building, this church seems dedicated to embracing and helping people like that guy in front of us as well as the immediate neighborhood.   A burned-out church just down the street has not returned.  It seems it would have been easy for this church to likewise leave this somewhat depressed area of town (the cemetery down the street was full of weeds and fallen branches and every local building seemed tagged with inartistic graffiti), yet it remains to promote the “common good”.  His words got me thinking about the current national debate around taxing the wealthy and corporate responsibility.  I determined to go home and re-read “The Good Society” by Robert Bellah and friends.  Everything that happened here today seemed to contribute toward “The Good Society” for the “common good”.  The opening and closing words reinforced the mission to “Do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God”. An opening prayer from the pastor asked not just that his hearer’s minds and hearts be opened but also his own might be open as well.  When teh sermon was over instead of concluding with the typical “amen” (as though a great truth had just been proclaimed), he shared “Thank you for your attention”.  And finally,the music effectively continued these egalitarian themes.  Here are some of the words of Shirley Erena Murray which we sang:


For everyone born, a place at the table,

for everyone born, clean water and bread,
a shelter, a space, a safe place for growing,
for everyone born, a star over head.

Refrain:
And God will delight when we are creators
of justice and joy, compassion and peace;
yes, God will delight when we are creators
of justice, justice, and joy.

For woman and man, a place at the table,
revising the roles, deciding to share,
with wisdom and grace, dividing the power,
for woman and man, a system that’s fair. Refrain

There is a fresh spring of equality and justice that bubbles-up in the very center of this church.  I’ve included a three-minute video I found which does a decent job of encapsulating the intentionality here:

  • GREGARIOUS.   We have grown so accustomed to isolation in the northern churches we have visited that we were not prepared to be greeted by five different people!   My eleven-year-old and I were not greeted, officially, when we entered.  A woman passed us exiting the church and shared “good morning” and two men moving from a classroom eye-balled the two of us but did not stop their conversation.  After we were seated a older gentleman rather stiffly handed us a program without uttering a word.  THAT was weird!  I feared we’d entered another cold New England church, except everyone  seemed to be socializing with each other.   But after the service we were approached first by a man with a legal pad interested in taking down my personal information.  He didn’t tell me why he wanted it and I hesitated to give it to him.  He was friendly enough, but after I told him we were visiting from Central Massachusetts he stopped writing and seemed to lose interest.  However another woman whom I remembered as the woman in the choir who did some vocal improvisation during one song walked over to introduce herself.  And then minutes later another.  This second woman introduced herself as the volunteer coordinator.  Very kind!  She seemed to know everyone and made a point to connect with each person in a meaningful way.   Still another young woman briefly introduced herself and told us she simply wanted to say “hi”.  My son told me a older gentleman made a point to get to know him, learning that the two of them are both “only-children”.   We both liked that the service ended with the congregation holding hands around a circle.  That ritual seemed to lead nicely to a time where these five individuals in the church made good on the promise of support offered by that closing ritual.  If we lived in Providence, we would return to Open Table of Christ.

WALLS

  • FROWNS.   I’ve already mentioned that a man managed to offer us a program without saying a word.  It felt like I was being handed a court summons.  The worship began with a “mindfulness bell”, which was nice, but the singing bell was processed-in by a frowning woman, which was not.  When the pastor began speaking [he never introduced himself] he was also frowning.  “Are they mad about something?” my kid asks.   Sometimes justice-oriented churches take themselves too seriously.  The great social justice activist William Sloan Coffin once ended a sermon at the Riverside Church in New York with this:  “May God have mercy on our thieving, murderous world.”   Yet  late in his life Bill claimed the world needs fewer joyless activists.
  • NOISE.  My son had motion sickness from trying to read all the way from Worcester to Providence, so we sat on the curb outside the sanctuary.  As we sat there before the service, twice we heard skull-piercing  feedback coming from the church.  I am so glad we were not in the sanctuary as we had planned to be.  A similar feedback returned when the pastor tried to use the lapel mic.  Actually the volume was too low most of the service, a reality exacerbated by frequent noise from screaming motorcycles or thumping car radios just outside the open windows.  But the worst experience, at least for my son, was when children were given clanging percussion to use during the first hymn, a hymn not really suited to cacophony.  Here is a sample:
  • WEBSITE.  The sanctuary is bright, architecturally interesting, and benefits from nice stained glass and pretty banners.  The website, on the other hand, is dark and depressing.  It features a black background with the words “Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with God”  clustered around a Caucasian, open hand.   Why no table?  Why no smiles?  Why such a dark background?  Even worse for me, I was looking for worship service times and found none!  I had to dig a bit to find “worship” cleverly listed under two different categories (as if to say “Look,our church is about more than worship…see all this other stuff?”), but then the worship page is under construction.  It is September!  Isn’t this the time of the year when people start new schools and settle on new churches?  No worship information!  And I could not find a church building address or even phone number.  I happened to really want to go to Open Table this Sunday so I snooped the official United Methodist Church website to learn times and address.

THE QUESTIONS (After each church worship service I try to ask a participant this same set of questions):

  • What kind of message came through to you today?

Jesus invites ALL of us to be disciples.  [The pastor had preached using the Bible text from Mark 1:14-18 where Jesus meets fishermen Simon and Andrew and says “follow me”.]

  • Why do you need Jesus?

I grew up in a fundamentalist household where I was taught that I could be saved if I believed in Jesus.  Now that I’ve grown up I understand salvation differently, more broadly.  It seems to me that Jesus isn’t just focused on healing individual people but instead the whole of creation.  He invites me to be part of that healing and that gives my life purpose.  [My conversation partner shared that she drives twenty miles to participate in this church and that she sees her volunteering here as a “full-time” ministry that extends from this relationship with Christ.]

  • Why do you need the Church?

We are the body of Christ.  [This was also part of the day’s sermon.]  It is not important to me to be part of the denomination “The United Methodist Church,” although I highly value some of the founding Methodist values  such as small group accountability and social holiness

  • Why do you need this particular church?

This church is involved in numerous caring ministries like “Mobile Loaves and Fishes” that make me feel like I am doing some good.  I also appreciate the openness of this church toward all people.  We are intentionally multicultural and multi-generational.  Unfortunately the merger of the two congregations to form this one came at a cost.  Some people from the suburban church did not want to attend church in the city.  We created this new name for the church “The Open Table of Christ” focusing on people who have implicitly or explicitly been denied access to communion in other Christian traditions (those who are divorced or are gay or lesbian, for example).  The decision to be open to the gay and lesbian community, a movement led not by the pastor nor by gay and lesbian people themselves but by a handful of straight participants, alienated some members of the church who left.   Many of these were from African and Haitian cultures which condemn homosexuality.  However some who were raised in these cultures nevertheless continue to participate.  That gives me hope for our future.

5 Responses “United Methodist” →
  1. Wonderful! I love the review. Thank you so much for writing it. Thank you, too, for visiting. I appreciate your feedback on the service, the people, the building, and even the website. While I don’t feel a need to defend some of the comments (like the website not being complete or it’s design choices, for example), I would love to bring up some of our reasonings for such things and since we’re always looking to learn from each other, any suggestions would be great!

    Thank you – and we hope you visit us again soon.

    Reply
    • Bob, I welcome any thoughts you have about the reasons behind the things that I’ve highlighted. You are part of a terrific community which made me glad to be present Sunday. Thank you.

      Reply
  2. Thank You so much for the review. I appreciate you taking the time to drive and worship with us. Not to defend anything – just don`t want to be seen as the “frowning church” pun intended. We had a major technical failure in our media- soundboard and TV- that was the screeching you heard. As for the frowning I believe the media concerns were making the Pastor frown, he had to ditch his sermon and wing it from notes. So it was a hectic morning, however I hope you could feel the aspect of what we are trying to build. Thank you for the insight as well from your son, as that is as important a view as yours.
    Peace and Blessings
    Ed Jones

    Reply

  3. Lady Astor

    October 25, 2011

    Aldersgate UMC was formed from a merger of Park Avenue Methodist and Trowbridge Memorial Methodist not from a fire at Trowbridge. Aldersgate was built on the Trowbridge church site. A choice of names was suggested for the new church and Aldersgate was chosen. As you should know Aldersgate Street in London was the site of John Wesley’s heart warming experience which was the beginnings of the Methodist church. As to the lights the church was built in the 60’s and that is what was used at that time. The lights around the altar area are burned out and will be replaced very soon. Blinds on the right side of the sanctuary are closed because it is very distracting when people walk the corridor. And I do agree that the phone system is bad especially if you have a rotary phone – you cannot find out when the service is or even if the church is in Worcester or Timbuktoo! Thank you for worshipping with us and I hope you come again.

    Reply
    • Thank you for reading the review of Aldersgate UMC in Worcester. I would love to know what names other than “Aldersgate” were proposed for the newly merged church. I wish you and the rest of the congregation a bright future!

      Reply

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