Wednesday, February 8, 2023

An Appreciation of My Congregation

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Mission Theologian at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

In my last post, I wrote that in order for our congregations to continue to reach new people, we need to be able to talk about what goes right in them, not just what goes wrong. As a practice of that, I want to share an appreciation of some of the many things that go right at my congregation, Decorah First United Methodist Church, even amidst a decline in members and worship attendance.

My wife once described a church she served as “the type of Methodists who like to drink coffee and do good.” I think Decorah FUMC has a lot of that type of United Methodist, though I would add sing and learn to the list of things that the congregation likes to do. So, I will talk about singing, drinking coffee, learning, and doing good, or if you prefer church words, worship, fellowship, discipleship, and mission, as I have experienced them at Decorah FUMC and as I have come to know them as Methodist practices.

One of my distinct impressions of Decorah FUMC growing up was the singing. Not only was there a good choir, but the congregation would sing in four-part harmony during the hymns, singing “lustily and with good courage,” as John Wesley instructed. Even now, a much smaller choir continues to offer anthems as an important part of the service, and you can hear the voices of those around you during the hymns.

As I have come to learn more about Methodism and other Christian traditions, I have learned that Decorah FUMC’s emphasis on singing is perhaps to some extent an influence from our Lutheran neighbors, with their strong choral traditions, but also something intrinsic to Methodism. For a tradition co-founded by Charles Wesley and claiming some of the other top hymn writers of all time (Fannie Crosby, Charles Tindley, etc.), singing comes naturally.

But it wasn’t just that we sang, it was the joy expressed in the singing that stuck with me. The church I grew up in was generally a joyful church. They made plausible Psalm 122:1, “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the LORD!’” There is less joy and more weariness in the church these days, but the old joy still pops up every now and then.

This joyfulness taught me something important about Methodism and about faith. It taught me that church should be a blessing and not just an obligation. And it taught me the importance of emotion in experiencing one’s faith. Methodism has always been a tradition that combines head and heart, and growing up around joyful Christians helped me internalize that.

Drinking Coffee
After the singing (and the rest of worship) is over, most folks at Decorah FUMC head downstairs. The church is part of that large group of US Protestant churches that believe that coffee time is the third sacrament. Of course, despite what my children might tell you, the real point of coffee time is not the treats or the coffee (organic and fair trade though it may be), but the opportunity to sit around a table and talk with other congregants.

Every church has its cliques and its social customs that feel foreign to outsiders, and I expect Decorah FUMC is no different than others in that regard. But I have experienced their fellowship to be open, warm, and meaningful.

I remember as a kid watching my parents interact with their friends at coffee time and learning from those models of Christian adulthood. Then as a teenager, I remember the thrill of sitting at a table without my parents and talking to other adults who treated me seriously and with respect and affection. It was an important step in forming my own identity. Now, I appreciate the chance to talk with people I wouldn’t otherwise during the week – people with different ages, abilities, and life histories than me. Each of these experiences of fellowship fits with the larger Methodist emphasis that religion must be a communal experience. One cannot be a solitary Christian.

Decorah FUMC has always scheduled Sunday school for after coffee time. Those faith formation options for children and adults have ebbed and flowed over the years, and they are not always confined to Sunday mornings. Church members have formed a long-running book club, and there are a variety of occasional presentations on a wide range of topics related to the practice of faith in the world. This is perhaps not surprising for a congregation with an overrepresentation of teachers.

As I’ve come to know more about Methodism throughout the world, this also strikes me as representative of Methodism as a tradition broadly: the emphasis on learning and education. This expresses itself in various ways, from starting Sunday schools to starting universities, but Methodists care about education.

I’m currently in the middle of teaching a short Sunday school session on mission at my church, and it’s reminded me of another thing I appreciate about Decorah FUMC. It’s a church that’s interested in learning and, as part of that, willing to talk about faith and how to live out one’s faith in the world. Most of the people at Decorah FUMC do not subscribe to a privatized faith that is only something internal. They are interested in talking with other church members about how to better understand and live out their faith.

While the church has not had (to my knowledge) a formal “discipleship system” or “Wesleyan accountability groups,” but this is the work of discipleship, overflowing into in the lives of the congregants. This, too, is very Wesleyan: an emphasis on discipleship that impacts people’s everyday practice of their faiths.

Doing Good
It is this fourth category, doing good, where Decorah FUMC perhaps shines the brightest. The congregation has always been and remains civic-minded, willing to volunteer, generous, and serious about mission.

Decorah FUMC did not and does not have the town’s wealthiest or the most prominent college professors on its rolls. Instead, it has had a lot of teachers, small business owners, nurses, and a smattering of other professionals. In other words, the congregation has had a lot of the civically oriented middle class among its members.

These are the sorts of people who volunteer for things and serve on committees and generally help keep the gears of the local community turning. They helped launch the local Habitat for Humanity organization, serve on the library board, help keep the food pantry running, and the like. Not all of this happens through the church, but it is still a form of local mission.

As I have learned more about Methodism, this strikes me as quite frequently Methodism’s place in the religious ecology of communities. It may begin among the “upwardly mobile poor,” but in many places, Methodism comes to be characterized by people who care about the common good, the health of the community, and who have enough to contribute to that common good without necessarily having a lot left over. Sometimes those contributions to the community are organized through the church; sometimes church members make them on their own.

As part of caring about its community, Decorah FUMC has long been a generous congregation. My first experience of church committee work was serving on the mission committee in high school and being impressed by the number of organizations in the community that the church helped support. Now, I am the treasurer of the local food pantry, and I know that the tradition of generosity continues in the church.

Nor is it just money that the congregation gives. It is generous about the use of its space, too, hosting everything from AA meetings to preparations for the community Thanksgiving meal to holiday celebrations for students from the local college to concerts to community forums on various topics.

Yet Decorah FUMC has never believed that mission is just about giving money or letting others use their space. Instead, over the past several decades, the church has subscribed to a notion of mission that has emphasized personal relationships. I know that this practice of personal relationships in mission has impacted how I understand mission and how I have taught others about mission.

I remember the United Methodist Congolese student at the local college that the congregation helped support during and beyond her studies. I think of the church’s commitment to the Ulster Project, which sought to foster reconciliation between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland by forming relationships among youth from the two groups. I remember how the church showed up for families impacted by the immigration raid in nearby Postville, IA, the largest such raid in the nation’s history. First and foremost, I think of the congregation’s now 25-year-long commitment to a sister congregation relationship with a congregation in Central America.

It is this commitment to mission, this dedication to putting faith into action for the sake of others, that strikes me as most characteristic of Methodism. Methodism is a missional movement, as its proponents have repeatedly emphasized throughout the years. I am grateful to have been molded into that tradition of Methodism by Decorah FUMC and further grateful that I am now able to share that understanding back with them and with others throughout the world.

No comments:

Post a Comment