Seeking Community: United Methodist Churches

I’m catching up on our church-visit posts. Chad and I attended two United Methodist Churches in November (not two Sundays in a row, since we interrupted our church visits with a ten-day trip to Norway).

The first UMC we attended is in the neighboring town where we used to live. We used to pass this church every Sunday on the way to our beautiful satellite church plant before it closed. From the outside, it always seemed to me that this church did a great job of connecting with the community. They have a weekend of serving the community, where instead of Sunday worship services, they go out into the neighborhood and serve those around them. They always have banners and signs out, shouting their welcoming messages to the world. And they have a female pastor. So I was excited to see how this visit would go. And it was interesting.

It was smaller than I expected, since I knew they advertised three Sunday services. But as it turns out, they offer three services not because any one of them is full, not nearly so, but because they are trying to reach out to more audiences. So they have an early service that is lighter on worship for those who don’t connect to music. The second service, which we attended, was traditional with an organ and hymns. The third service is bilingual and more contemporary for those so inclined. In some ways I thought this was nice, to accommodate more people, to draw more people into their fold, to include Spanish-speaking families in our community. But it also gives me the same hesitations I feel about “church shopping,” that we’re all searching for something tailor-made for us instead of settling into the beautifully imperfect places in our communities.

The pastor was excited to have us visit. She was warm and welcoming and introduced us to just about every one of the other thirty or so congregants present for that service. There was coffee and desserts set up right outside the sanctuary after the service, which I loved because it was SO convenient, you almost couldn’t not stop to talk and enjoy the snacks and company.

The second UMC we visited was larger and actually in our town. It had just one service with probably 150 people present. The sanctuary was one of those most beautiful I’d ever seen, with gorgeous stained glass. I feel strongly that church is not actually about the building at all, but there is something nice about a beautiful sanctuary.

The Sunday we were visiting, the congregation was presented with the 2015 budget. Budgets and money can be controversial topics in church because it’s so important to spend the money and resources in a way that honors God. What they presented during this Sunday service was what they called a “narrative budget.” Rather than a line-item budget, they called out the various sectors of the budget and expounded on those to describe what comprises each sector. It was a great way to present the budget and say, this is where the money goes; this is how we serve God with our resources. Talking about the ministry budget, they described all the ways they serve the community and support their missionaries. Their spiritual growth sector was made up of the pastor’s and staff’s salaries, bible study curriculums, pastoral care and counseling, and special educational events. When it came to the buildings and maintenance, they talked about the AA groups and local women’s club and other community groups who use the buildings, in addition to the regular church ministries.

This church had a definite connection to the community and was serving so many people through all its ministries. Even the pastor’s sermon on the Sunday before Thanksgiving focused on the ways in which we can better care and include all members of the community, how God implores us to empathy and compassion for all people, and how even through our own thankfulness we should reflect on the ways we can better serve and love. It was a lovely message, not focusing on all the ways we are blessed this holiday season, but rather how we can bless others, and I loved that.

I liked this church so much more than I was expecting because I’ve convinced myself that I want a small church community that is intimate and connected, and this is one of the larger churches we’ve visited. And I do still want that intimate community. But there’s a real tension between having a small, tight-knit community within the congregation and having the resources to make a real impact on the community outside the congregation. It felt like this church was able to reach out so much more and make that their focus more than other churches, where the resources are probably just more limited because of their smaller size.

But then again, as long as the church is reaching out to the community to the best of their ability, does it matter if it’s a larger church reaching hundreds or thousands, or a smaller church reaching out to just a handful of people? I bet that handful would say that that small church makes a huge difference.


2 thoughts on “Seeking Community: United Methodist Churches

  1. “But it also gives me the same hesitations I feel about “church shopping,” that we’re all searching for something tailor-made for us instead of settling into the beautifully imperfect places in our communities.” This is a great fear of mine. Have we made church just another consumer product? Give people lots of options and everyone will get what they want. Part of me longs for the days where each community had one, maybe two, churches and everyone in the community attended the same service. There’s something so simple and beautiful about that. How do we capture that in our day?

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  2. Wherever two or more are gathered he is with us. As you know I’ve been reading Bonhoeffer. One of his letters stated that it is important to be with a body of believers. I don’t think the size of the church matters in God’s eyes in as much as it is a gathering of devoted followers seeking to serve Christ and the community. Though after reading Acts and seeing that God added throngs of people to the 70 apostles I wonder if he really does want large numbers of people seeking him. Is that better achieved through a small group or large I’m not sure. Would 70 have been considered a large number back in Jesus’ time or not?

    I’m also leery of multiple services. We are trying to make God conform to our comforts rather than deciding to find God wherever we are at. Perhaps that is why, so often, we feel empty in American churches. We’ve made church more about us and less about God. We aren’t thankful because we aren’t seeking God but the idol of self and what is there to be thankful for in selfishness?

    I like your assessment of different churches and how you are growing through each experience. I know this has been a difficult journey for you and it’s beautiful to see you keeping an open mind, knowing God wants you in church, and trusting that even though it hurts he’ll bring you where you need to be. Thanks so much for sharing.

    Oh and I don’t know if this is feasible for you guys this year but something that Frank and I did last year, that we both agreed was a lot of fun, was visiting different Christmas services at different churches. We then assessed what we liked and disliked, how we could see God at each service, and observed how the birth of a babe (Christ’s fragility rather than his power and judgment) seems to draw crowds. Sanctuaries at this time are seemingly less authentic than the daily pursuit of Christ but perhaps its the cracked heart this time of year that will bring this nation to its knees and humbly submit to Christ. We are talking about doing it this year and perhaps making it a tradition because Christmas is about Christ, community, and rendering hearts in worship of and to him.

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