Sometimes you can tell a little about a congregation just by the name. For example, the one I visited today as the third stop on my Congregational Journey, Wesleyan Evangelical Church. That name alone gave me some idea of where they stood:
Wesleyan = Theologically in the Methodist tradition
Evangelical = But not like THOSE Methodists!
You see, after I gave my life to Christ, the first congregation I attended regularly was United Methodist, where the pastors’ beliefs were more akin to Baha’i or Buddhism than anything John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, would recognize as Christian. I actually ended up questioning one of them after he denied the virgin birth of Jesus and the inerrancy of Scripture — in a public sermon, no less. I’d been a Christian for less than a year, and yet I managed to shoot down all his well-reasoned “arguments” in about two minutes. Eventually I found someplace better to attend (which frankly wasn’t hard to manage). So I instinctively understood why a congregation would want to throw in the word “evangelical” to differentiate itself, to essentially say, “you know those beliefs that are at the core of traditional Christian faith? WE still believe in them! It’s safe here!”
But I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was more than just safe at Wesleyan Evangelical Church.
The congregation meets at a building on East Poplar Street in Stockton, a mostly working-class neighborhood (though some new development is occurring nearby). They’ve been around since the late 1950s, originally as Evangelical Methodist Church in a different building not far from the current one, but left there after some turbulent times (I didn’t get the details on what they’ve been through, only that it was kind of rough). They met on the campus of the University of the Pacific for a decade before moving into their current location. Their new building also looks to date from the Fifties, with the exposed wooden beams, padded pews and abstract stained glass windows that are familiar accoutrements to someone who grew up low-church Episcopalian like I did. It could probably use a coat of paint, but then so could almost every other building in the neighborhood. There are worse things.
I entered at 10:30, just as adult Sunday school was letting out (darn — wish I’d known about that) and was a little surprised that most of the people coming out walked by without even a greeting. An usher inside did greet me — “How ya doing, boss?” — and gave me a bulletin, then immediately turned to a conversation with the next person who came in, without even asking who I was. After looking over a bulletin board showing what home and foreign missionaries they support, I found a seat in the fourth pew on the right without anyone making further attempts at contact. A little disconcerting, to put it mildly — I hoped that it wasn’t going to be a repeat of my experience two weeks before at Living Word Christian Center (click here for the gory details).
I needn’t have worried. Before the service, a few people came up to me, introduced themselves, asked if I’d been there before, and generally let me know it was okay to be visiting. One of them remarked that some of the folks there were “a bit shy, bashful” (heck, I’m like that myself around new people), which helped. Among the others were the pastor’s mother and the pastor’s son (who doubles as the youth minister).
At 10:45, someone started playing hymns at a electric piano on the stage and the people began settling in. The building looked like it could seat 150-160; about 75 were in attendance, including some kids and teenagers. The congregation was mostly Caucasian with a handful of black and Asian attendees (a little odd, given their neighborhood’s large Hispanic population), and the median age was probably about 50, even with the children included.
Once everyone was in the pews, the pastor, Dennis Barrett, called things to order, updating everyone on the latest congregational news. This included talking about his uncle, who had passed away that morning — he was clearly trying his best not to cry, but you could hear the emotion in his voice. That tone carried through to relating the aftermath of his own recent foot surgery. Apparently the doctor had been able to remove the stitches in one week instead of the expected three, and that all evidence of a previous diagnosis of a dropped foot has disappeared. Pastor Barrett used the word “miracle” to describe this, which I think is wholly appropriate considering that according to him amputation was at least a possibility a few weeks before. I was impressed by his vulnerability as he talked about all of this — many pastors are afraid to be “real” in front of their congregations (sometimes with reason). Clearly not a problem here.
There was then a time for silent prayer and thanksgiving, followed by an opening prayer by an assistant pastor and announcements by the youth pastor. There wasn’t much in the way of announcements — just the coming Sunday night and Wednesday night services and that the congregation’s monthly newsletter was available in the foyer. No other events were listed in the bulletin — quite a change for me from last week at God’s Throne Baptist, where the calendar was stacked. They then asked for prayers for the missionaries they support and noted the other prayer requests listed in the bulletin. (Of which there were a lot — this congregation clearly believes in praying for needs. And in being available, as evidenced by the pastors’ phone numbers and e-mail addresses listed on the back of the bulletin — something I’ve never seen before, but which I decidedly admire.)
A worship leader led us through a couple of short choruses (sung from hymnals), accompanied by the electric piano. The music volume was at a moderate level, and was thus the first time in a long time that I’ve been to join in corporate worship without having to put in earplugs. (I’ve sustained hearing damage from nearly 20 years of services where the music ministers got a little crazy with the sound level, alas.) Afterward was a “fellowship” time, which I expected to be thirty seconds of people shaking hands and saying hi. Wrong again — there were three or four minutes of honest-to-goodness fellowshipping, and I got to meet several more very friendly people. So friendly, in fact, that Pastor Barrett had trouble getting everyone’s attention for the next part of the service. We sang a couple of hymns — this time with the words projected on a screen at the front of the sanctuary — interspersed with the offering, the departure of some of the youths to their own meeting, and an unscheduled but clearly welcomed poetry reading by a young African-American woman.
Pastor Barrett’s sermon was from Philippians 2:12-18 — it turns out he has been doing an expository series on Philippians — and was entitled “Taking Your Salvation Seriously.” He spoke in a very forceful style that with the wrong attitude could sound angry and hectoring. Instead, he came across as earnest and concerned, like he wanted to be absolutely sure that we got the point for the sake of our spiritual health. He talked about how we can play games with God, disregarding His will and coddling sin, and how while we could not earn our salvation, we certainly needed to nurture it. His theology was clearly in the Wesleyan (Arminian) tradition of God giving free will to man, and he urged us to make the right choices in how we lived before God.
At the core of his teaching was the importance of each person’s relationship with God and the condition of our souls. He stated his disinterest in church attendance numbers and competing with other congregations. He preached out of the New International Version of the Bible, which made the Scripture passage much easier to understand than it might have been had he used the King James Version. I found him to be an honest, humble preacher with a real passion for pastoring, for shepherding the sheep God gave him to care for. The meeting ended with an altar call specifically for people who wanted to surrender to God things in their lives that were hidering their relationship with Him.
My visit was on many levels a deeply satisfying one. This seems to be a congregation that has a lot going for it — friendly people (even if they take a while to come out of their shells … said the turtle), a balanced presentation of worship, a strong belief in the power and practice of prayer, a caring pastor who wants to see people grow in the faith, an order of service that is treated as a framework for what can happen rather than a fortress keeping out what can’t. Things may have gotten off to a slow start, but by the end I knew that I was going to be visiting again.
And yet … (let’s face it, if you’ve been reading my stuff, you knew there was going to be a caveat, didn’t you?) … and yet there was obviously something missing. This was clearly a good congregation to be part of, but there was a sense of isolation, maybe of self-isolation. No outreaches on the schedule. No anything on the schedule, save for the Sunday and Wednesday congregational meetings and — in the bulletin, but not announced — an every-Saturday-morning prayer breakfast. (Apparently there used to be a Monday night women’s Bible study, but that’s no longer being held.) No public program for discipleship, outside of the (really good) sermons, and no program — or, I sensed, expectation — of evangelism. I wonder if the initial reception I’d gotten wasn’t because they were “bashful”, but because they weren’t used to new people coming in.
I know that Wesleyan Evangelical Church has gone through some things, though I don’t know the specifics, so they could still be recovering from whatever it was and don’t quite have their wheels under them yet, so to speak. The feel is almost that of a great restaurant that never advertises, but has enough loyal clientele, and close enough relationships between them and the proprietor, that it can stay in business without having to attract new customers. The upside is that everyone involved is happy; the downside is that everyone outside of that circle (aside from someone whose car breaks down in front of the place or something) may never find out just how good their pasta primavera really is. Someone should get the word out. Who knows, maybe this blog entry can be a start.
I am, after all, looking for ways I can be of service to the congregations I’m visiting. By my own admission, I’m hideous at personal evangelism, but perhaps I could be a support for those who have the social skills to pull it off. Or developing discipleship plans or Bible study materials — I can write, after all. Or other possibilities that aren’t coming to mind because I’m writing this at 11 p.m. and I’m starting to fade. But this is a congregation that definitely has possibilities. We’ll just have to see how the Spirit leads.
Is God’s Word preached? Grade: A – healthy portions of Scripture, taught with balance and specific application.
Is God’s Spirit working? Grade: A-; while I think tongue-talking might alarm them, they certainly aren’t afraid of God working in their lives, even in ways they don’t expect.
Do God’s people act like it? Grade: B+, at least once they have a chance to warm up to the idea.