For those of you who have been following my journey of translation, you will note that I am now attending a radically different church than one in which I grew up in, and spent 30+ years in. This is a typology paper, rough draft, which was for my Church Administration class. I thought, since it is Saturday, and I am in Church Administration class at the moment, that I would share it with you.
Arguably, it would be best to identify a church based on its own merits and not in comparison with a smaller group generally removed from orthodox Christianity; however, human nature tends to argue against that which is right and goes for that which is natural. In attempting to compare my local congregation, Christ Church United Methodist Church, I have no real basis in identifying the typology except for my few months in attendance and my inclusion in several classes as well as the unique ability to get a bird’s eye view from helpful interviewees. That hasn’t stopped me from naturally comparing what is to what was, which admittedly distorts an unbiased attempt to answer the questions at hand. For example, having been taught to see only the pastor, or rather, to believe that the pastor is somehow the Vicar of Christ, gives me the learned response of seeing the pastor as the absolute center and all-controlling dictator of the congregation, answerable only to God, rather, I would say that my natural inclination is to see the pastor as center and everyone else as merely tools of the pastor with no real responsibility. With that acknowledge biased, I have tried to force objectivity and to arrive at a conclusion based on how I see other people respond to the congregation.
Currently, my family and I take several of the religious education classes at Christ Church, and I myself am involved further by participating in the Men’s Discussion Group as well as from time to time, enjoying the intercessory prayers offered mid-week. Our Sunday School class’s curriculum, I am told, was chosen by a vote of the class. This was done without influence of the pastor, as was the choosing of the Sunday School teacher. Said teacher later invited me to participate in the above mentioned discussion group which sees no signs of the pastor or any other paid staff person which represents the pastor. The leader of the group is a retired Bishop of the United Methodist Church, but if he is absent, someone else picks up the conversation and continues forward. The same is said of the Sunday School class in which when the teacher would be absent, he selected based on the recommendations of the class a substitute – without any clearance from the pastor. Further, the intercessory prayer group meets on their own and without professional leadership. Further, if memory serves, the church bulletin asks for dates and times of groups like these which meet, which encourages not only, in my opinion the formation of these cells but as well the participation in these cells.
Another hallmark of Christ Church is that when the pastor is absent alongside that of the associate pastor, the congregation doesn’t fall apart or seem somehow like they are treading water, waiting for the pastor to return. Our first visit was on a Sunday in which both the pastor and the associate pastor were at Annual Conference. While we were informed that the pastor wasn’t there, the attitudes – welcoming, friendly – didn’t change when the pastor did return. There was no gate-keeper to pass muster with, nor any off-putting cliques too easily seen. When the pastor did return, there was no visible change in the congregation. While the pastor serves as leader and visible figure head, leading the congregation through sermons and setting of programs, congregants aren’t dependent upon the pastor for day to day operations, feelings, or their own spirituality.
The goal of Christ Church seems to be two-fold. While they focus on outreach to the community they also focus on in-reach and congregant organizing. Their religious education opportunities are not neatly contained on Sunday morning but are offered throughout the week and in various forms and each are promoted by their own groups. Circles of fellowships are formed in these classes, but not cliques – and it wouldn’t serve those cliques well if they did as from my view, the circles often overlap one another via the classes and such groups as the UMW, the UMM, and even the men’s discussion group. It has been my personal experience that while these groups are often historic, by that I mean that the people have known each for a considerable amount of time, they are not exclusionary. With each group that either my wife or I have participated in, we have been welcomed as a full member of the group, our opinions sought, and generally edified. There is diversity in religious education and because of this, a natural diversity in fellowship.
Christ Church serves as a leader in the community as well, and not only because of political attachments of its members. As one of the historic downtown churches, Christ Church has weathered the storms of time, including burning, rebuilding, recession and the depletion of Charleston’s population. If memory serves, again, a good portion of the congregants drive more than thirty minutes for a service. There is a communal feel to Christ Church, which is not easily drawn to particular families. Further, there is the social justice aspect of the outreach, which includes help to the poor, exploration of social ills and concerns, and a focus on providing more services by partnering with other congregations, even across denominational lines, to reach more people without any demands on their own spirituality.
Not being familiar with all of the ins and outs of the lay leadership, I am still assured that committees play a vital role in the operation of Christ Church. From my past experiences, committees were not used and essentially preached against, as a means of giving more control to the singular pastor. Yet, at Christ Church, committees encourage participation in program direction and are often the means of success for individual programs. Further, it seems that lay leaders are grafted into the system by informal means and confirmed, sometimes, by votes. I don’t believe that this is based on family connections or connections to the pastor, but due to their longevity of membership and easily seen leadership qualifications.
The pastor at Christ Church doesn’t seem to be overbearing or one who pushes himself on new visitors, but takes the leadership role of influencing, guiding, and building bridges. In smaller congregations, new members often go through stages akin to new romances, where there is a rush to euphoria when the new member, or potential new members, steps through the door. They are greeted, welcomed, hands shook and tours are given, introductions made, and numerous follow-up phone calls are made to insure that the visitor becomes a member. There is no getting to know one another, but almost a need to elope into membership. At least at Christ Church, from my experience, there is a development phase, where things are introduced to the visitors based on their needs. They are warmly welcomed, but with no push to be a part of the congregation formally. The pastor doesn’t set the new visitor high and proclaim loud and glorious things, nor seek to see in the new visitor a sign of the pastor’s own place in God. Instead, the pastor at Christ Church makes himself available, as does his staff, for questions, help and introductions. There is no quick marriage of the new visitor to the congregation; instead, the relationship is given the time and space it needs to develop. The pastor is not distant by any means, but generally seems to respond to the visitors based on their needs.
The church provides three worship services, each unique, and to each is a loyalty among their attendees. There is one which is more contemporary followed by a traditional service, and for the final service on Sunday, a high church service. These services respond not only to the people’s individual time concerns, but so too their spiritual needs. There is no forced style or participation in the service. From my seat, I see different voices weekly added to the chorus of speakers for various parts of the service. Further, as odd as it seemed to me, the pastor regularly relinquishes his pulpit to his associate pastor or others, giving away as well the cherished radio sermon to others. Simply, pastor is chief servant, not only to the congregation but so too to his staff.
In determining the final typology for Christ Church United Methodist Church, Charleston, West Virginia, I can only point, with the evidences above, to it being typed as the Program Church; however, it does contain some elements of the typologies which surround it. Primarily, the pastor is more than a pastor at Christ Church but a community leader as well. Further, while he sets the direction, he has cast a vision for the church and is moving others in that direction. The congregation, however, still maintains some characteristics of informality associated with the Awkward Sized Church. Leadership still seems to be something easily done by unelected members who exhibit willingness to volunteer or who have some expertise. There is also a well established UMW group, but the UMM group is just getting started. While communication is generally done in print, there is lacking a centralized index of activities because some activities tend to be informal, such as the intercessory prayer group. While Christ Church is a program church, it has the foundation and the vision to become a corporate church rather than simply sinking into the full awkward typology.