West Hartford United Methodist Church
West Hartford United Methodist Church
On the basketball court years ago, a Monday morning when local clergy met to beat up on one another, a colleague in the United Methodist ministry (with a superb outside shot) measured me as a preacher/pastor: "You seem to me, Bob, more like a Congregationalist." In that moment I laughed at the ridiculousness of the observation. After all, he seemed to me more like a Southern Baptist. But, after a visit to this local representation of my lifelong denomination, I have begun to wonder if the assessment of me on the hardwood court isn't accurate after all.
It once was the cliché in New England churches that the Episcopal and Congregational clergy, when visiting congregants in their homes, went in the front door while the Methodist clergy went in the back door. It was a socio-economic distinction, the wealthy homeowners belonging to the older established churches, their servants going to the upstart denominations... like Methodist. That pat description changed in the post World War II economy when residents of the Sun Belt and the Snow Belt, mobile corporate executives, exchanged places. People and money flowed into the previously lower middle class Methodist congregations in the Northeast. More than a little of the Bible Belt emphases flowed in too.
The church we visited this morning may have been influenced by this import of Southern Methodist evangelicalism. But it already had a head start in that direction. The church traces its beginnings to Swedish immigrants, and was once an appointment within the Swedish-American Conference of the Methodist Church. I have had more than a passing acquaintance with that style of Christianity during my years in Brooklyn. The prevailing theology was pietism and an unself-conscious fundamentalism. I suspect this church's fundamentalism is conscious; its piety is robust. I have no interest anymore in dealing with the issue of whether or not I was really "born again." I have no appetite for further discussion on the literal inerrancy of Scripture. Been there, wearied of that.
Of the seven churches visited in my new hometown, I come regretfully to the conclusion that the one I would least likely make my home church is the one in my own denomination.
Building: a modern structure of high wooden arches reminiscent of Viking Gothic, made like the hull of a ship, only upside down. The pews were on the oblique, focusing on the communion table in the center of the raised portion at the front of the church. No air-conditioning was needed; and, I suspect, there is none: a large fan facing the congregation stood near the lectern. A formidable wooden cross hangs behind the table/altar, in front of a bright white brick wall flanked by wooden panels. That wall was not only arresting, it was also very distracting. The brightness made the preacher appear like an an apparition whenever he moved (and he moved continuously!) between my eyes and that wall.
Children: a dozen children joined the pastor sitting on the steps to the dais. He engaged them with a report on his previous night's experience, a visit to Shea Stadium to see his favorite team. The subject was, of course, losing and losing often. The message? Winners or losers, Jesus loves us anyway. Church School classes followed. The pastor was at ease with the Young Christians and they were responsive to him... a very good indication of the important place this congregation makes for children in its worship.
Bible: NIV, New International Version. I searched through the pages of the Bible in the rack, to see if my assumption was correct, that the NIV, used in this conservative Methodist Church and in the local Missouri Synod Lutheran Church, is preferred for translations of certain key passages that would support a fundamentalist theology; but I couldn't locate Isaiah 7:14 quickly enough. My research on the Internet confirms my suspicion, that the NIV is, in conservative Christian eyes, the next best thing to the King James Version.
Sermon: the preacher is a "roamer." He eschews the pulpit and paces back and forth across the dais, gesturing continuously with his arms and hands, after the manner of the preachers to be seen on a Sunday afternoon and evening on television. Perhaps the theory is that a moving target is harder to go to sleep on. I found the movement extremely distracting, the more so because of the blinding light from the back wall. The sermon - how to deal with the bad things that happen to good people - was delivered in a colloquial style, employing many of the phrases of ordinary conversation. I could have wished that more time in sermon preparation was spent on content and less concern given to fluidity of expression. Like many evangelical sermons, this one spent far more time describing the lineaments of our sin and pain than it did on explaining in joyful detail the experience of a sanctified life. "Having Christ," we were told, "is to have everything." Amen, but what on earth (yes, on earth!) does it mean to have Christ?
Music: three hymns from the United Methodist hymnal, one of them unsingable due to the required range, almost as bad as "The Star Spangled Banner." But one of them sung was a favorite of mine, "Be Still, My Soul." Maybe it was the hymn selection, but this congregation could not be accused of being "Singing Methodists." The choir of twelve was a woman's chorus that sweetly rendered Carlton Young's "Awake to Love and Work."
Welcome: the congregants greeted us warmly and invited us to the Coffee Hour, but I was so unnerved by my own unhappy reaction to the worship that all I wanted to do was leave as quickly as possible. A pumpkin sale on the front lawn added a festive air to the morning, but I didn't even pause for the purchase of a jack-o-lantern.
One other facet of this Sunday morning's experience deserves mention: the attendance. We sat in a mostly empty room. It would have seated 300 worshipers. There were maybe 85 present. But I noted on the bulletin the attendance tally from the preceding week. 35 were present at 8:15 for "Early Praise"; 65 at 11 AM, for "Morning Joy"; and 78 at 9:30, for "Traditional." One two-thirds full house of 178 would be uplifting. I suspect this congregation is dividing its pool of available worshipers in three. To return to a single service is a task I wouldn't wish on St. Paul. Nor would he be any more successful in soothing the inevitable complaints that would come from changing the hour or the style for those who have grown accustomed to their pace. "Contemporary" versus "Traditional" worship is a false dichotomy. Worship should always be both contemporary and traditional, grounded in history but open to change. If you want to fill a church with people, then find a way to attract families with children. Powerpoint and Praise Songs may help, but making room in your sanctuary and your hearts for the little ones, with or without Powerpoint and Praise Songs, is the best strategy.
Rating: one and a half haloes, two and a half if you are a "born again" Christian.