Over a cup of coffee the last time I was in Ohio, I asked my daughter how things were going at her church. She said, “Okay. We’re still trying to get over that 800 active mark.”
Hmm, I thought. At my church, if we get 20 souls into the seats it’s an occasion for mention during joys and concerns … of which it is really both.
As I’ve been pondering the brief conversation, I thought I would offer a tale of two churches — not to say either is better or worse but to sort of make a generalized point.
First, her church. Mainstreet Church in Walbridge, OH.
Technically, it is part of the United Brethren denomination. It has seen tremendous growth from its humble beginnings as community worship gathering spot in 1893. And it has evolved into a contemporary community still grounded in Biblical truth, still dedicated to serving the community and stronger than ever in providing youth opportunities, according to its website. It has had just three senior pastors since 1960, with currently Pastor Marty Pennington. Although I’ve met him, I don’t know Pastor Marty. The church’s mission is to make God’s message as relative to daily life as possible through small groups, music, children’s programs, drama, special programs, video, weekly messages and more. It’s about meeting God’s love right where you are today.
And worship is certainly upbeat with lots and lots of smiles and lots and lots of handshakes for visitors. There are separate, age-appropriate rooms for children where they run around, play and get a primer in Christian values. This, of course, frees parents to attend any of the three worship services unencumbered. They can listen to and focus on the message without interruption, knowing their children are in good care.
A typical worship service includes a music ministry team, warming up the crowd with one, two or more uplifting contemporary Christian worship songs to set up the presiding pastor and his message. Typically, he sits while seated on stage, not standing behind a pulpit. And audio visual aids punctuate the points of his message, tied to Scripture but leaning on application in today’s world more than interpretation from 2,000 years ago. It’s not unusual to have a multi-week presentation on an event — during Lent, for example, the “theme” is EPIC, stories from the Bible. Leading up to the Resurrection story on Easter messages will look at some of the epic stories of the Bible that challenge and stretch our faith. The point of the series is not to “prove” the validity of these stories, but rather to see what we can learn from them to bolster our faith in God.
Prior to and after worship is plenty of fellowship time in the great entrance area enveloping the auditorium, full of people greeting each other, sharing the week’s trials and triumphs, swapping kid stories and making plans for get togethers, all with free flowing coffee, tea and juice.
It’s informal worship with a purpose.
Now, my church. West Fayette Presbyterian Church in Fayette, NY.
West Fayette Presbyterian also has a long, proud tradition of service in the community. It has been around since 1825. It has a part time pastor, Steven Beals, who goes above and beyond the call of duty. We like to say we are the small church with the big heart. We are a community of seekers. We don’t pretend to have all the answers, but we do feel God is an important factor in our lives – there for us in our joys and in our sorrows.
Where worship changes, however, is style. Instead of contemporary Christian, our hymns come from the traditional hymnal with many of the melodies and lyrics dating back centuries. There’s an order to service, steeped in the Presbyterian tradition. While we are constantly doing small outreaches — to people in immediate need — our major community outreaches are barbecues and dinners, strawberry festivals and bazaars. We like to eat and we’re good at it, generally bringing in folks from the community for good food and good fellowship. Although we have a children’s sermon listed in the bulletin, the reality is we haven’t had any in recent memory. If, occasionally, a child comes to our service, we’ll excuse them with an elder for children education. During the winter months we meet in our Fellowship Hall rather than trying to heat the sanctuary.
Our typical worship is scripted and includes music from a digital hymnal with some guitar accompaniment by the pastor. Homilies are generally geared to the Scripture readers found in the Presbyterian lectionary. Pastor Steven also tries to show relevance of Scripture to every day contemporary Christian life.
Of course, having such a small congregation, everyone knows everyone and everyone is involved in church life. Prior to and following service — and during sharing the “peace of Christ” — our congregation catches up, plans and enjoys fellowship. It’s just not a throng of people. There are lots of churches that are bigger than ours, but we don’t think there are any more friendly and more spirit-filled churches around.
It’s formal worship with a purpose.
The point was not to say one style is better than the other, but rather we worship differently. I, personally, am distracted by the orchestration at large evangelical churches. When I go to a worship service, I want meat and potatoes, not a concert. That’s not to say I don’t prefer uplifting contemporary music to obscure hymns from not only generations but centuries back. While I applaud series, I feel they tend to be more bible studies than homilies.
Of course, worship isn’t brick and mortar, nor is it the pastor. It’s our relationship to God through His Son and the Holy Spirit. Sometimes, worship is more meaningful on a beach or at a campsite in the mountains.
Relationship. That’s the key … be it alone, in a small congregation or in a large setting.
THOUGHT TO REMEMBER: Life is like an onion. You peel it off layer by layer, and sometimes you weep.