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What a vital church really looks like

By Emily Cooper

The United Methodist episcopacy and other hierarchy are touting the latest UM catchphrase, “vital congregations.”

Already, S.C. pastors are bemoaning the weekly stats they have to turn in as a result of the program and wondering why numbers prove “vitality.”

A small, unimpressive, converted house and garage present a real-life definition of a vital congregation in a middleclass, center-city neighborhood.

Edgehill United Methodist Church, Nashville, Tenn., is “a reconciling congregation that welcomes into its membership and ministries men, women, and children of every age and stage of development, every race, class, ethnic heritage and sexual orientation, every combination of abilities and limitations; for we are all one in Christ,” its bulletin proclaims up front.

Its congregation bears witness to that: Euro- and African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians, male couples, female couples (including one who drives an hour each way with their four children because they are welcomed there), heterosexual couples and children.

There are members who work for the UMC’s General Board and The Upper Room, and a professor who now is gathering information about “vital congregations” across the Southeast and wants to find some in South Carolina.

A paraplegic member was having a conversation through the miracles of technology before the service. There were some of the 20 retired pastors associated with Edgehill, neighbors reached through the church’s Neighborhood Ministries and those from its addiction programs. Some were from Nashville’s music industry.

Visitors from five or six states were there with their families. A young man who uttered undistinguishable sounds enhanced the day’s joy. Children crowded next to the co-pastors at the communion table and felt free to ask questions. You get the picture. Orderly, calming, joyous, but sort of like Jesus feeding the multitude.

Or if you’re into stats (or “metrics” as they’re calling the weekly reports), there were 300 or so there, and about 100 at the early service.

Everyone wore nametags. Members didn’t look through you or just nod at you. They took your hand or put their arms around you. They shared something of themselves and wanted to know about you.

Two dozen members rose from the congregation to spread across the chancel when the brass and piano began the opening Alleluia. No robes, no director in front, no pretentions. A man celebrating his 87th year that day joined them, sitting on a stool provided for him.

During “words of welcome,” birthdays, praises and prayer requests were shared. Will Campbell was on the bulletin’s prayer list, and if you don’t know who he is, he is an author, the inspiration for “Will B. Dunn,” and the Baptist pastor who in the civil rights era would throw a bottle of bourbon in his truck and go to stay the night in prayer and support with a man bound for jail the next morning, be he an African-American protestor or a member of the KKK. His notoriety rose when he stormed into the Southern Baptist headquarters to denounce its newly locked doors and security system as unChrist-like. Ah-hem.

Hymns from “The United Methodist Hymnal” flashed on the screen; others, such as the combination of Iona’s words and shaped-note melody in “Christ Has Risen,” came from the printed hymnal, “The Faith We Sing.”

The Confession, Pardon, Assurance and prayer accomplished, co-pastor Judi Hoffman read from Mark 16:1-8, the Easter story that was missing a good ending until later writers added their own.

She told of three pre-Easter-week conversations:

• A young woman in tears because Mormons had visited her roommate and, learning that she was lesbian, told her she was going to hell.

• A mother distressed that her 5-yearold had been told that Jesus’ dying was “part of God's plan." No, God sent Jesus to "show us how to live," Hoffman said.

• And the nun who left a woman damaged (and addicted) for decades by telling her young class that everyone had a little piece of Jesus in them, except those who weren’t Roman Catholic; the others were going to hell.

“We make horror stories worse by trying to fix the ending. Our job is to share the good news.” Jesus’ death on the cross was not some “weird hostage exchange, … but his suffering at the hand of human fear and cruelty. It is a story about us.” Wham!

The offertory? Oh, that was an appropriate jazz piano solo, “Joy to the World.”

Communicants squeezed into a tight circle, sang and held hands as the elements were passed. The children and the pastor opened a wooden box full of words of alleluia put away for Lent; the congregation sang a Caribbean hymn, “Halle, Halle, Halleluja;” the benediction was given; arms were opened to one another.

Edgehill UMC was not just “friendly;” it was “intimate.” It was not just “church;” it felt as if you were part of the Upper Room. There, you knew Jesus is alive. And isn’t that what a vital congregation should be?

Cooper is former editor of the
Advocate and a member of Washington Street UMC, Columbia.

Publication: South Carolina United Methodist Advocate; Date: May 2012; Page: 4