We were cutting it close on time, which made me a bit nervous. I wanted to get there early enough for a back row seat, thus establishing my Baptist identity lest someone mistake my attendance there as a defection to Methodism. After being warmly greeted at the door, we found our seats and settled in. (Hmmm . . . either we weren’t the only Baptists there or Methodists are pretty fond of the back row too.) No sooner had we found our seats than we were greeted by a lady in front of us. And a few minutes later the pastor, making his way through the sanctuary greeting his flock, greeted us too. (I like it when pastors do that sort of thing.) Most of the folks in that early service were my age and older. There were a few younger families, a handful of children, and at least one disinterested teenager who sat near to us. (I’ve been that kid, and I kind of felt for him.)
As we were waiting for the service to commence, I took note of the room. It’s an old sanctuary, a large room with a lot of stone, a lot of stained-glass, and a lot of pipes for the organ. The pews go straight back with a slight elevation from front to back to make for better lines of sight. It’s a room that reminds the worshiper that God is large and transcendent, bigger than we are, above us, beyond us, and yet within our reach. I’ve always liked this room – maybe because it reminds me of my Presbyterian upbringing.
And if the room reminded me of that, so did the worship. We began with an organ duet prelude that filled the room with sound. That was followed by a song from a visiting choir, the Hendrix College Choir of 1974. They were having a reunion that weekend in Hot Springs and worship was one of their gigs. I thought they looked a little old until I realized that they were my age. And man, could they sing! They began with a spiritual, Ev’ry Time I Feel the Spirit, and I could certainly feel the Spirit when they sang it. After the song we sang a Christmas hymn. Never sang a Christmas hymn in August, but I liked it. Apparently, that was the way the visiting choir opened the annual Carols and Candles Service at Hendrix College when they were in school. Nice. There were more hymns and some readings and prayers – again, the kind of stuff we did in the Presbyterian church when I was growing up. It brought back memories for me. I could see my mother and grandmother in the choir, glaring at me with a look that said, “If you don’t straighten up and pay attention, you are gonna get it when we get home!” I could see some of the widows with blue hair, our preacher in his black robe, and I could see on the backs of my hands the imprint of the pew upholstery you could get if you sat on your hands for about 30 seconds. Anyway, this Methodist worship reminded me of the worship of my childhood and youth.
My stroll down memory lane was interrupted when the ushers distributed to each row a registration pad. You had to sign in. It struck me that Methodists must keep better track of their people than we Baptists do of ours. But even though we are Baptists, we signed in. The offering was next - pretty much the same place in their worship that we do it in ours.
Soon it was time for the preaching. I didn’t know what to expect. Will Willimon is one of my favorite preachers, and he’s a Methodist, but I just haven’t heard enough Methodist preaching to form many judgments about it. The pastor read his text from John 15 and launched into his sermon about staying alive. He was animated and dynamic in his delivery which was important because if you are going to preach about staying alive, you better do your best to look pretty much alive yourself. He looked and was alive. He framed the sermon around three images from the text: abide in Christ, bear fruit, and joy. He told some good stories to drive home his points and left me loving Christ a little more than when I came. I don't mean to insult Methodists here, but it was a sermon that could have found a home in any Baptist church I know. It was a good gospel sermon.
So we got to hear the gospel, and then we got to taste it. It was Communion Sunday. The Baptist church I serve practices open communion but many Baptist churches don’t. The Methodists practice open communion as a policy, I think. Anyway, they made a point to invite everyone who wanted communion to come get communion. So the pastor invited us, read the words of institution and some prayers from their worship book, gave directions for the newbies in the crowd, and then worshipers made their way to the nearest station to receive the bread and cup. A worship leader gave us a piece of bread with these words: “The body of Christ given for you.” We then dipped the bread into a cup of juice or wine (I’m not sure which) with these words in our ears: “The blood of Christ shed for you.” We consumed the soggy, half-purple bread on the way back to our seat. It tasted like grace. There was joy in it, and it was a pleasure to receive the elements from a brother pastor of a different stripe and with a number of folks I know in the community but never get to worship or commune with. (Note to that beer-drinking group of guys on the mountain in that old beer commercial: it does get better than that.) And I enjoyed the better.
The service closed with a benediction and the hymn, Blest Be the Tie That Binds. I usually sing that song with Baptists. It was nice to sing it with Methodists and be reminded that our Christian family is a lot larger than my own denomination. The Hendrix Choir of 1974 sang one more song and that was that.
As Dayna and I left the sanctuary, a couple of things were on my mind – two lines from the Psalms, actually. One, “I was glad when they said unto me, ‘Let us go into the house of the Lord.’” And two, “How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity.”
Denominations have their place; they are not all bad. We will all reach some that others won’t. We will all appeal to some that others won’t. That’s the good in them, I think. But denominations are a temporary thing: a thing for this world, not the next. So it’s a good idea for us to cross-pollinate in worship now and then on this side of heaven. Not only might it make our worship deeper, our fellowship wider, and our faith richer, I think it might even make God smile.