The United Methodist Church : A Foray into my Family's Past

The United Methodist tradition is the tradition in which my mother and grandparents were raised, and I thought it would be an interesting foray into the family's past. I did not know much about the United Methodist Church (UMC), and the most interesting aspect of the tradition that I learned is the role of symbolism in the order of worship. In the Bible Chapel that I attend on a regular basis, there really isn't an emphasis on symbolism in the worship service. I suppose the most interesting aspect of my visit to the local UMC church was just noticing the differences from my home church. First, I will introduce the worship service and the elements therein. Secondly, I will show how the pastor of the church I interviewed views the UMC and how he views his church in the world. Lastly I will show how this experience has benefited not only myself, but my family.

The worship in the UMC community is largely one of symbolism, and there is an honest feeling of friendship within the church. As I entered the church I was greeted by a woman who gave me a card with a cross pendant attached, and welcomed me to worship with them again. I should have felt like an oddball but I didn't. It was as if I was a member of the church already. Considering most of the people knew me there anyway (I live right up the street from the church), I guess that may have lightened the experience (although I knew none of them closely). The first ‘order of business' was a music prelude, which it says in the worship guide “to prepare our hearts for worship,” (Trust in the Lord). This was just a quick medley on the piano in order to gather our attention and help us prepare our hearts before the Lord.

Next was the ministry of the Acolyte, which was a young woman who led a candle into the sanctuary and lit two candles on the altar. The explanation for the lighting of the candles is because, "Jesus said: ‘I am the light of the world' (John 8:12 ). The light is carried into the worship service as a symbol of Jesus' coming into the presence of the worshiping community. Many congregations use two candles on the altar to point out that Jesus was both a human being and God.” This church did, in fact, have two candles on the altar. This simple candle lighting brings the abstract verse, “I am the light of the world,” into symbolic expression, to make it something that everyone knows the meaning to.

The next step in the worship was the welcoming to the church and the announcements for the coming week. During this time, the pastor introduced himself, and welcomed us all to the church. The church I decided to worship with is called the Summerhill Evangelical United Methodist Church . The church pastor has four churches throughout the Summerhill area. I can imagine that it would be difficult to keep track of what is going on in all four churches, but he told the congregation of all the upcoming events. The church had a vacation bible school coming up, as well as a bread sale to raise funds for the church.

Next, there was an opening hymn. When I asked Pastor Spertzel about the purpose of hymns in the service and he said, “Hymns are important in our service because it helps its members to realize the presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church, and it helps in another way of worshipping the Lord, other than just speaking the Word” The hymn was called “Let's Just Praise the Lord,” which was connected with the message in the service about our faith in Christ and how that may change us in the world.

Then, there was the call to worship. Pastor Spertzel told me that the call to worship was “a way to focus the church and to focus on truly worshipping Jesus on this day.” Following the call to worship was the opening prayer, which was said in unison. The opening prayer is said in unison because, again, it opens the heart to begin to truly worship the Lord. Following the prayer was another hymn called, “At the Cross,” which was an uplifting hymn reminding the congregation of how we are saved because of the sacrifice of Jesus at the cross.

The next step was the Passing of the Peace of Christ. Interpreter magazine explains the ritual as such, “In Matthew 5:23-24, Jesus teaches that before we approach the altar during worship, we should first make peace with our brothers and sisters.” This is the time in the service where members turn around and say hello to other members of the church, and introduce themselves to visitors. During this time the member can make themselves right, so to speak, with another member if there was a conflict or bad feelings. During this time period, I got up from the pew and said hello to everyone that I could, and was approached by almost every member in the congregation. It was unbelievable to see the welcoming nature of people considering that I was a first time visitor.

Next in the worship service was the Youth Message, which was spoken right in front of the church near the altar, in front of the entire congregation. Pastor Spertzel said that the youth were ministered first because he wants to show the youth the message of the day in an easier to understand format. The message to the youth as well as the adults was the Light of Christ and how we as the church should show that Light in the world. Following some candy given to the youth, there was another hymn called the “Wonderful Grace of Jesus,” just a genuine praise song, giving thanksgiving for grace.

Following the Hymn there was a reading from the Word (Acts 2:36 -47), which was read in unison. The sermon was next, the central message was; Does Faith Change You? He worked through the Scriptural passage to talk to us about some of the things that we do in regards to faith, and how we sometimes ignore God because of our own pursuits and forget about showing the Light of Christ in the World. The purpose of the message is to, “Preach the Bible in an easier to understand format.”

The Bible in the UMC is considered to be of great importance. The Bible is, “Based on 2 Timothy 3:16 , many Christians (including many United Methodists) believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God.” Everything within the UMC has a Bible basis. Communion is done because Jesus commanded it. Baptism is done because Jesus commanded it. The website Ask Julian describes Scriptural reading in this way, “Persons who believe that the Bible is inspired in this sense read the scriptures with the belief that God reveals God-self in new ways over time, open to God's continuing revelation through the reading of the scriptures.” This basically means that it is up to the person reading it to decide what they believe and don't believe. Ultimate questions about the faith, however, such as abortion, birth control and same sex marriage, come before the council of Bishops. Pastor Spertzel says, “There is no real biblical basis for the structure of our church, I believe that we just noticed that there was a need for structure over time and that is how Bishops came about.”

The council of Bishops meets twice a year to discuss matters of faith. According to the UMC website, “ In the United Methodist tradition, bishops are not “ordained” as bishops, but are clergy elected and consecrated to the office of Bishop. Bishops give general oversight to the worldly and spiritual interests of the Church.” The Bishops convene to talk about matters that are concerning what is to be believed within the church, and also to help the local churches in deciding how to handle matters. The Council of Bishops has a President, “The President of the Council of Bishops presides over its meetings, but has no additional authority over the other members of the Council.” Any questions or concerns regarding the faith are decided here. Pastor Spertzel told me that, “We may disagree with what the Bishop has to say and, in fact, some churches may not follow what they say, it is merely an opportunity to take the concern to a higher authority.”

Next, there is the Ministry of Commitment, which starts with the giving of Tithes and Offerings. The UMC practices stewardship because the Bible tells us to, “The Bible emphasizes (Malachi 3: 8-10) that this is our minimum responsibility to the God who gives us everything.” The tithe is a way of giving back to God what he has entrusted us with. The standard tithe that is mentioned in the Scriptural passage is ten percent of your income. As the website later states, it may not always be the case that the worshipper will give the full ten percent or possibly more, it all depends on the individual and what they can give.

Doxology was next, which is basically giving praise to God, to glorify Him. In the service that I attended, the Doxology was the Lord's Prayer. After the prayer, there was the prayer of dedication, which Pastor Spertzel told me was, “preparing our hearts for leaving the church and showing that Light of Christ out into the world.”

The part of the service that seemed honestly the most odd to me was the part where we shared our Joys and Concerns. This was a time for the church members could share something that was good in their lives, and something that was bad in their lives. This was a time to talk about the good things that God was doing in their lives, and also what they needed prayers for. This time really opened up the church and it seemed like a family to me. They spread out their arms and welcomed those that needed help, and offered what prayers that they could.

Then the pastor said a prayer. His prayer was beautiful. We prayed that we could show the gifts that God had bestowed upon us, to the world. We prayed that we would not be a contradiction to the Christian faith, that we would be able to show the truth of our lives to those around us. Finally, we prayed that the Light of Christ would be around us always. After his prayer, we sang another hymn called “Standing on the Promises,” which basically reiterated our prayer. Following the hymn there was the Benediction which is the dismissal with a blessing for the week and beyond.

Then, there was the Ministry of the Acolyte again where the candles were doused, and the candlelighter was lit. The new candle was carried to the back of the Church followed by the pastor opening the doors. The dousing of the candles represents the Light of Christ being carried out into the world. The United Methodist website offers this explanation, “ The acolyte leaves the worship service at the pastor's direction, carrying out the lighted candlelighter. This symbolizes the light of Jesus Christ going out into the world where believers are to serve.”

Pastor Spertzel told me some interesting things about the UMC that I didn't have the slightest clue about. He told me that one of the main purposes of the Church was to “make disciples of the church.” This goes along completely with the message that he preached to the congregation earlier, inviting us to show the Light of Christ in the World. He told me that throughout the service there was a lot of symbolism. The first that he informed me of was the lighting and dousing of the candles. He told me, as I have mentioned before, that the purpose of that was to “show the presence of Christ entering the Church, and to show Him leaving the church with us, so others can feel His presence in the world.”

Spertzel also told me that since he has four churches, communion is only available about every other month. He says that communion in the UMC has symbolism. He says that, “The bread represents the body and the juice represents the blood of Christ. A blessing is said before communion because of the sacred nature of the ritual. The body and the blood of Christ are not literal interpretations, but merely a spiritual presence.” Communion is an important part of every Christian's life, he says that this may be because, “The symbolic nature of the Lord's Supper, helps to make the abstract concrete.” Meaning that we as Christians may know what the Lord's Supper is from the Gospels, but to actually do it, helps to make it realistic and hopefully have more meaning than just bread and juice.

Pastor Spertzel told me that the reason for Baptism. He told me, “Baptism is a command of Jesus in the New Testament and is important because of that command.” Baptism is celebrated within his churches when anyone shows interest. There can be two or three people, and he said he would work with even one person, to begin them on their journey to know Christ.

Within some churches, there is a great focus on architectural design, and how things are placed within the church itself. Within the UMC, the altar was placed in the center, which Pastor Spertzel told me was, “because in the Old Testament, that is where the altar was placed.” The Bible is placed on a pulpit, on the left side of the church, “the Bible is of utmost importance, it is the center of our worship, and the most important.”

Pastor Spertzel thinks that believers should not be hypocrites; they should show the Light of Christ in their everyday life. “By bringing all of the elements of worship together (the candle lighting, the Bible, Passing the Peace, and all the symbolism therein) helps the UMC to know what it is to be a Christian in the world.” Meaning that not one single thing that is done in the UMC makes up the church, it is a combination of many things. The methods of practice help to draw us into a good communion with God. One practice that I really enjoyed was seeing the lighting and dousing of candles. That would be great if it were present in every church, because it actually makes you think about the Light of Christ, and reflect on Christ being with you during the worship service.

Throughout my research into the UMC, there has been a lot of knowledge that I have gained. As I told my family about my church visit, they recounted memories from their childhood. They remembered going to church every Sunday morning, listening to the sermon, with their ears and eyes wide open. They remembered the lighting of candles, and surprisingly every single part of the service. They told me that they stopped going, because the focus of the church was more based on what you wore, than that you came to worship God. The Summerhill United Methodist church (pastored by Luther Spertzel) is a more evolved example than what they explained to me. This church, people came in sweat pants and t-shirts, it was more about God than money and status. Visiting this church has helped me to understand their foundational beliefs, and how important God is to them.

- Brandy Woodruff