Columbus, Ohio: General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). The opening session of this biennial gathering of my small, left-leaning denomination featured a stage full of musicians—a mass choir of singers from churches across the United States and Canada, keyboards galore, other music makers, vocal ensembles, and solo voices. The worship evening included dramatic readers, a full-voiced preacher, and a concluding celebration of Holy Communion at the Welcome Table. All was fast-paced, highly amplified, and bathed in a constantly changing light show.
In quiet time following the benediction, I remembered the first national gathering of my church that I attended. It was in 1953 when the event was called the International Convention of Disciples of Christ. Billie and I had been married for one year and earlier that summer had graduated from our church’s small college in Eugene, Oregon. Since Portland was our hometown, it was easy to attend the Convention.
The evening assemblies, as best I can remember, were held in the Civic Auditorium, which was a standard performance hall with stage in the front and rows of seats filling most of the space. Lighting and sound systems were designed for stage performances, lectures, music events, and high school graduations. Other convention activities were scattered around the central part of Portland, at First Christian Church, other churches nearby, and the Masonic Temple across the shaded arcade that is still a distinctive feature in this part of Portland.
Two experiences from that convention remain as vivid parts of my life’s store of significant memories.
The first was a brief conversation with Orman L. Shelton, dean of the Butler University School of Religion. I had been accepted as a student and later that summer Billie and I would drive to Indianapolis so that I could begin my studies for the standard degree that would lead to ordination. We knew only one person from that school, Ronald E. Osborn, who had taught at our college during our first year and then had moved to the seminary faculty.
I had chosen the School of Religion because of its reputation and because most of the Disciples’ general offices were also located in Indianapolis. Students also were assured that they would be able to secure employment as pastors of small churches through central Indiana.
Shelton was immaculately attired in a light brown, tropical suit, with white shirt and color-coordinated tie. The most memorable aspect of his personal presence, however, was the mesmerizing way that he looked at me. Never before nor in all of the years since have I been so affected by a person’s gaze.
Years later, one of the seminary’s long-time professors, Alfred Edyvean, told me that he too had been affected in that way when he first met Shelton. For him, however, the purpose of the conversation was for Edyvean to come to the faculty to teach public speaking, preaching, and drama.
My second remembrance is the exhibit hall. I had grown up in a small Independent Christian Church, to use the terminology of that period, on Portland’s southwest exurban border. The International Convention, however, was the showcase of the Cooperative Christian Churches. Although in much of the country these two factions had largely parted company, in Oregon they maintained an uneasy continuity of association.
Although I was well acquainted with the issues in this intra-church dispute and leaned slightly toward the Cooperative side, the Portland convention was my first exposure to the character and scope of mainstream Disciples. The exhibit hall was where I could see it clearly displayed. The various program agencies were well represented: the United Christian Missionary Society, the Pension Fund to which I was already subscribed, and the National Benevolent Society whose work at the Beaverton Christian Home was familiar to me. Church related academic institutions, such as Texas Christian University and the seminary where I would be studying, had their representatives on hand.
For the first time, I realized that my church was far more expansive than the family-based congregation in a sub-standard building on an obscure side street near an abandoned railroad track where my Christian life had been formed.
During the sixty-two years since that Portland convention, I have attended many of these national gatherings. My deepest involvement was the year that my colleague and mentor, Ronald E. Osborn, was president of the convention. He asked me to coordinate worship for the evening sessions. Everything was different then. In those days, music would be provided by organizations like the host city’s symphony orchestra, and the choir would sing anthems from the classical repertoire. Scripture readings, prayers, and sermons were the same kind of activity that would take place on Sundays in churches across the country, except elevated to the grander scale called for by the auditoriums where the conventions took place.
Times have changed, and so have the churches. Of course, the national gatherings have to change, too. But is this year’s General Assembly the way things should go? (To be continued; photo by Russ Smith)