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Home > Interpreter Magazine > Archives > 2007 Archives > May-June 2007 > Authentic Worship?

Photo by Michael Henninger
Authentic Worship?

Spirit, not style,
makes the difference

By Kelly C. Martini

On the South Side of Pittsburgh, nightclubs, bars and tattoo shops come alive at night, filled with people searching for an identity in a young adult's playground.

On Sunday mornings, in the Goodwill building's cafeteria, the Rev. Jim Walker calls 500 of these people together at the Hot Metal Bridge Faith Community, a United Methodist Church. The congregation is diverse - straight-laced, blue-haired, tattooed, pierced, homeless, wealthy, young, old, families and individuals. Many there are not familiar with the "traditional" church service, have been ostracized in other congregations or would feel uncomfortable in a well-dressed, "high church" service.

Sitting theatre-style "in the round," they look at each other and at the communion elements in the center - both representative of the Body of Christ.

"There's serious Holy Spirit power in facing one another," Walker says. "In this world, we're so caught up in fast-time, we're not very patient. We're trying to go against the flow of that, so we take a lot of time with God and each other."

Worship begins with up to 30 minutes of talking and milling around. The weekly service often extends to two hours, followed by lunch.

Walker draws the analogy that people would never rent a movie, watch it with friends, and then leave without saying a word to them.

"So why do it with church?" he asks. "It takes time to be authentic with one another and God."

For Walker, authenticity depends on community. At Hot Metal Bridge, many of the people feel broken, he says. The church enables them to connect with each other and God.

"For those of us in the Anglican and Catholic tradition, which we are, worship is something we do, but not something we try to define," says the Rev. Taylor Burton-Edwards, director of worship resources at the General Board of Discipleship in Nashville, Tenn.

Defining worship could limit efforts to provide diverse but authentic worship experiences.

For United Methodists, The Book of Worship provides a minimal outline for worship, identifying movements of the community - like the entrance, proclamation and response.

Hot Metal Bridge makes communion central. Photo by Michael Henninger.
Traditional liturgies bring a sense of the familiar to visitors to Hot Metal Bridge. As many as 40 people are often leading worship. A different band - with different congregational members - leads the music each Sunday. It could be rap, punk, classical or something else.

Readers and actors often present the scripture from their seats in the congregation. The pastor is a minor figure among the leaders - just one of the people.

Communion is the center of every service, opening worshippers to the complexities, mystery and paradoxes of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ.

"If we present clear-cut answers to our faith questions, it comes off as phony. I do believe there's absolute truth, but there's also journeying through life to figure out what it means," Walker says.

Worship at Hot Metal carries over to relationships and Bible study throughout the week in tattoo shops, coffee shops and other venues. The goal: "being real" with God and each other.

To assure worship remains authentic, Hot Metal is "trying to ‘sneeze out' other communities," Walker says. The church wants to enable members from outside the South Side to recreate authentic relationships and worship in their own communities and towns.

Children join the Rev. Dan Damon (right) in leading worship in Point Richmond, Calif. Photo courtesy of Point Richmond First Church.
Authentic Worship Depends on Community

Six rural Appalachian congregations gather each Sunday morning in the mountains of Western Pennsylvania. They comprise the six-point Hyndman Larger Parish, where the Rev. Julie Applegate is senior pastor.

Parishioners here often refer to the "hollers" in the mountains. Coal mining and farming are family traditions.

Accordion and piano music, family choirs, congregants' testimonies and "old time" worship make the experience authentic for worshippers here.

"It's authentic, because their hearts are in it," says Applegate. The time for praise and thanksgiving exemplifies this.

"This community has an extraordinary amount of cancer patients, who range in age from young to old. Yet they sit in church and praise God for the life God's giving them and the treatments they get. It's really inspiring," she says.

Betty Jordan, a member of Bethel United Methodist Church in Gravel Pit, says the members feel like family. They know each other's stories, care for each other in times of need and feed each other - as well as others in the community - if they are hungry.

A lack of material resources doesn't stop authentic worship.

Visitors who usually attend large churches "say you can feel the love that we have for each other," Jordan says. "If someone new comes to church, we talk to them, invite them back. We're one family for God."

Mark Miller, faculty member at Drew Theological School and the Institute of Sacred Music at Yale University, is one of the music directors for General Conference 2008. Worship needs to meet people where they are, he says, but it cannot always stay at that place.

"In the past, in the contemporary worship phenomenon, people thought that to make worship more lively or accessible, they needed to buy a screen, have a praise band, follow a cut-and-mold model. It's been my experience that it doesn't necessarily work," he says. "The community needs to decide what is authentic for them."

At Shady Grove United Methodist Church, seven miles from Blairsville, Ga., the pianist, violinist and guitarist bring familiarity to the mountain farming community, where many retirees have moved. The congregation - doubling to 50 in the past year - sings hymns from an "old Cokesbury hymnal," says the Rev. Robert Bone.

Grandchildren play their instruments. Members sing solos and share praises and concerns. Retired pastors participate in worship.

This familiarity empowers and challenges. It gives members some comfort as they learn new hymns and grow together.

"Other churches may have a more intellectual approach to worship and that is right for them," Bone says. "But these mountain people, and the people that are drawn to these mountains, want to feel the Spirit moving in worship; to feel a simple closeness to each other. I try to keep the pulpit and pew as close to each other as possible."

The Rev. Kevass Harding preaches. Photo courtesy of Dellrose Church.
Hip-hop and an Epiphany

"My epiphany came when I was walking out of worship one day. What I heard coming from the cars on the street was R&B, gospel, hip-hop and rap. But not in one car did I hear organ music," says the Rev. Kevass J. Harding, senior pastor of Dellrose United Methodist Church in Wichita, Kan., and author of Can These Bones Live? [Cokesbury, (800) 672-1789,].

The church was Harding's first appointment in 1998 as a senior pastor. Membership had reached an all-time low. The predominantly white congregation of 25 came from outside the community to attend church in what had become a predominantly African-American neighborhood.

On Harding's first Sunday, more than 400 friends and family from the Wichita area came to hear him preach.

Harding hadn't changed the worship format, wanting to make it comfortable for existing members. However, "when I preached, people coming out of the African-American tradition started clapping, saying ‘Amen!' People who weren't used to it thought it was chaotic," he says. The next Sunday, the visitors returned to their own churches - and most of the Caucasian members at Dellrose began transferring their church memberships.

But God opened a window, Harding believes. He began knocking on doors in the community. He replaced the pipe organ with a band. A childcare director was hired to serve single mothers and young families.

"I had to make the worship inviting for that neighborhood. My target was predominantly African-American young adults."

The sanctuary began filling every Sunday.

"I stayed on my knees and prayed a lot," Harding says about this time. He used humor, joked about himself and, like Walker in Pittsburgh, was "real" with the congregation.

Dellrose now averages more than 350 people each Sunday, with most attendees in their 30s.

Morning worship begins with hugs, laughter, greetings, holding each other's babies and visiting.

"Authentic worship, regardless of what it looks like, should be when you walk into the church, that place is where everyone will see the love of God, feel the joy of Christ and experience the power of the Holy Spirit," Harding says.

Harding tells of one woman who was contemplating suicide as she drove by the church one Sunday. Something pulled her into the service.

"She'd tell you that when women and men were hugging her and asking, ‘What's your name?' and ‘We're glad you're here,' she felt the joy of God." The woman is now an involved member.

Authentic worship is about relationships and the commandments to love God and one's neighbor, Harding says.

"Authentic worship is giving the highest honor to God and each other."

Authentic Worship: an act of hospitality

Even the idea of "traditional" worship raises questions. Whose tradition is it? What is traditional or comfortable for one, may not be for another.

"You have to push the edges," Miller says. "We should reflect on how we've made ourselves very comfortable, and we need to remember those who have been excluded and don't feel welcome or comfortable in our worship service. Then, we should push the boundaries so we can be more hospitable and welcoming."

--Kelly Martini is a freelance writer from Glen Mills, Pa.

To Learn More...

Hot Metal Bridge Faith Community United Methodist/50 Fourteenth St./Pittsburgh, PA 15205/(412) 481-4010/

Bethel United Methodist Church (Hyndman Larger Parish–Gravel Pit)/Road 1, Box 422/
Hyndman, PA 15545/(814) 842-3310

Shady Grove United Methodist Church/P.O. Box 384/Young Harris, GA 30582/(706) 379-2174

Dellrose United Methodist Church/1502 N Dellrose St./ Wichita, KS 67208/(316) 684-5182/

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