Palm Sunday I enjoyed the privilege of preaching to a full house at Shiloh UMC. It was a beautiful day, bright and sunny, and the warm receptivity and great singing deepened my anticipation of Holy Week and Easter.
Since I began serving as Bishop, our family has adopted the tradition of selecting a congregation or two somewhere in the conference and then driving to attend their Easter services. This year we shared Easter at The Gathering in St. Louis, one of our newest congregations.
The Gathering held their service at the Pageant, a concert/theater/dinner club facility. As we approached the address, we immediately noticed the parking signs, greeters, and other volunteers giving directions to visitors. Entering the Pageant, we were met by a number of people eager to help us find our seats or to answer our questions about restrooms or refreshments. Musicians provided excellent leadership as the congregation gathered, and soon we were caught up in the prayers, scriptures, singing, and sermon. Matt did an admirable job speaking over the cries and interruptions of countless babies and fidgeting kids. (The only thing more disturbing than the sounds of children in worship is the absence of the sounds of children in worship!) Nearly thirty people helped serve Communion and at least that many helped with ushering and offering. The entire offering supported Kingdom House, an excellent United Methodist ministry in the St. Louis area.
As the service ended, more volunteers stood in strategic places to answer questions, pass out notices about an upcoming sermon series, and give gift packages to visitors. The Schnase family slipped across the street to enjoy a pizza lunch. Esther and I smiled at each other as we overheard the people at the table next to us. Evidently a couple who belonged to The Gathering were eating with people for whom this was their first time to attend. We heard the newcomers’ surprise that the woman leading the prayers was a pastor (“I didn’t know that women could be pastors!”), and we listened as members described various ministries and invited the visitors to the next sermon series.
More than a thousand people worshipped with The Gathering on Easter Sunday, and I pray that this experience represents a vital first step toward exploration of the spiritual life and a deepening relationship with God for many of the newcomers.
As our family drove back to Columbia, we talked about the service, the sermon, and the music. More than that, we talked about the attitude and posture of the worship attenders and church members. More than a hundred people who belong to The Gathering (maybe closer to two hundred) had awakened on Easter morning with ministry in mind and work to do. Rather than merely thinking about what they were going to hear or receive, they arrived with a purpose—to serve the visitors, newcomers, guests, and other members by offering their time and work to lead music, greet visitors, offer hospitality, serve Communion, organize parking, prepare refreshments, set up, operate technical equipment, and provide dozens of other outward-focused ministries. That level of lay involvement, commitment, and leadership makes a congregation come alive. The spiritual journeys of those doing ministry become a catalyst for others to explore their own faith. When people see others giving their best and highest and when they notice how belonging to a faith community changes them, then life in Christ becomes provocative, challenging, and decidedly appealing.
I know Easter attendance is usually wonderfully high (even deceptively so!), but I always celebrate the stories of our congregations who experience growth in attendance from year to year. This has been a great year, and I give God thanks for all the pastors, musicians, lay leaders and volunteers, and staff members who offered the hospitality of Christ at our services. Bellflower’s 80 people (and six baptisms in the last two weeks) and New Hampton’s 71 move me as deeply as First Lee’s Summit’s 3,300, and Lewis Memorial Chapel’s 127 means as much as Manchester’s 3,500 and LaCroix’s 2,937. Morningstar welcomed 3,415, and Kearney, Aldersgate, Nixa, Campbell and Kingsway, Springfield, and Christ, Joplin, all topped a thousand! Wesley, Springfield, had 2,067; First, Joplin 553; St. Paul, Joplin 1,911. Wesley, St. Joseph had 402 and Wentzville 452 and Cameron 450. Extreme rural Oakton had 689!! 250 people attended services at Canton; 661 at Cornerstone. Missouri UMC enjoyed 1,515, Kirkwood had 1,431, and Jeff City, First, 915. Centralia had 219 people and Monroe City 159. Buell had 66; Troy St. Stephen’s more than 500. Lebanon topped 500 and Aldersgate, Springfield reached 900! Schweitzer had 1,906 and Kansas City, Central, raised more than $1.2 million for their capital funds project! West Plains and Brookfield, Trinity, and Kimberling City all had more than 700 people. Sedalia welcomed 2,079 and Resurrection downtown Kansas City had more than 450. Church of the Shepherd reached 2,262, Woods Chapel 2,751, and St. James, Kansas City, was full to overflowing!
I could go on and on with Easter blessings. Each attendance number is a person—a long-time follower of Christ, or a first-time visitor, or a relative of a member, or someone exploring the spiritual life anew. Each person is someone’s son or daughter, mother or father, sister or brother. Each is made in the image of the Creator, and God desires a relationship with each and every one of those persons who stepped into our worship services this year. I pray that God continues to use us to bind people to Christ.
May the blessings and joy of Easter sustain our spirits as we continue with the ministry given us in Christ.
Yours in Christ,