Progressive church goes gospel

Since its founding in 1878, First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) has been located at the corner of Park Avenue and Columbia Street in downtown Portland, Oregon. Once a community of prestigious homes, the immediate surroundings now are described by city-posted street signs as Portland’s “cultural neighborhood.” Portland State University, founded in the late 1940s by a member of the church, is a couple of blocks to the south. The Portland Art Museum and the Oregon Historical Society are across the street to the north and within easy walking distance are theatres for the performing arts, including the Oregon Symphony.

For at least sixty years, First Christian Church has followed the trajectory of many downtown Protestant churches: pastors whose message was shaped by liberal theology, active engagement in community service, music led by disciplined choirs and pipe organ, and worship in which all things were done “decently and in order,” to use the biblical admonition (1 Corinthians 14:40).

At the time when many mainline Protestant churches were developing what was called “a contemporary service,” First Christian in Portland developed its own version of what might now be called “a something other service.” A weekly planning session of laity and pastor, no organ, an informal choir called “The Joyful Noise,” child-friendly ceremonial, informal singing rather than the stolid hymns from the standard hymnal.

In these later years, the two services have continued, although the “something otherness” of the earlier service has gradually slipped away. While the 9:00 and 11:00 services still have clearly recognizable differences, the general tone is much the same and the two assemblies are more alike than different. As in many other mainline churches, “contemporary” and “traditional” no longer serve as useful ways of distinguishing between the two liturgical gatherings. One service represents how worship has been conducted for a very long time, and the other is worship the way it has been done for a good many years.

Despite the vibrancy of the church’s setting and its modest growth in recent years, many people in the congregation recognize that the time has come to renew its liturgical life. A recent forum on worship brought more than a hundred congregants together for a vigorous discussion of worship at First Christian Church. The pastoral staff, music team, and worship committee now have some of the data that can be used to develop ways of worship that are connected to the past and at the same time embrace the future.

But old habits are hard to change, which brings us to Sunday, October 31, 2010. Because it was the fifth Sunday of the month, this was one of those days when the two congregations worshiped in one service. In the past, both the Joyful Noise and the Sanctuary Choir participated, but the pattern of the 11:00 o’clock service was followed. People liked the energy of the larger assembly, but the questions concerning worship renewal were left unaddressed.

This first combined service since the worship forum was advertised as “Gospel Music Sunday.” All of the music in the service, beginning with the prelude (“Going Up Yonder”), continuing with the introit (“Glory, Glory, Hallelujah”), hymns (including “Just a Closer Walk with Thee”), anthem (“Hallelujah, Salvation and Glory”), communion music (“Calvary”), and concluding with the postlude (“What a Fellowship”), was chosen from contemporary Gospel music. Even traditional liturgical music such as the Doxology was performed with “soul.”

The director of the sanctuary choir, who is a member of the music faculty of Portland State University, directed the church’s combined choirs. He enlisted the instrumental combo (bass, keyboard, and drums) who played for the service and had invited musicians from an African American congregation to coach the choir and its director in performance style. Their goal was to help the First Christian musicians sing and play with “soul,” and on Sunday morning that coaching showed through in spirited performances. The congregants participated with a warmth and energy that seemed consistent with the energizing music led by choir and combo.

Next Sunday, however, the two services will revert to their default mode. Some may say that everything will stay the same despite the energy and interesting properties of the music used on this one Sunday. Then again, Gospel Music Sunday may be a day when this progressive congregation begins the conversation that leads to worship at 9:00 and 11:00 that is genuinely “something other,” something that breaks through conventional worship and conventional Christianity.

The conversation that can lead to transformation is one that congregants have with themselves as they compare what they ordinarily do in worship with what they experience on special occasions like “Gospel Music Sunday.” As someone who regularly participates in worship at First Christian Church in Portland, I have some ideas about how that conversation might go. As someone interested in developing alternative ways of worship in progressive churches everywhere. I hope that this conversation will stimulate similar discussion in many places.

More about that next time.

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