"Fizz bigger for Jesus!" This exhortation from Miss Margaret, the woman delivering the children's message, came without a specific Biblical reference, but I'm sure I could find something to back it up. She had already encouraged the children to recall what had happened in the previous weeks. Two weeks before had been Palm Sunday, and the children recalled waving the branches. The week before had been Easter, and for a lesson on new life, butterflies had been hatched and released. But what do you do the week after Easter? This Sunday for the children, antacid was dropped in water to show that there can be excitement post-Easter.
The week after Easter can be a challenge for churches. Easter week brings in big crowds of not only regular attenders but also first timers and the folks that check in for holidays only. For most churches, attendance is down the Sunday following Easter. Often, the senior pastor is gone and the choir breaks.
That wasn't the case the week we visited St. John's Methodist. Kathy Riebe, an old friend and the musical director of the church, explained, "At Easter we have a big blow-out of special music, so first time visitors might return expecting more of the same. That's why I practice an anthem with the choir in the months prior to Easter so it's ready the Sunday after." And the senior pastor, the Reverend Karen Radcliffe, wasn't taking the week off either.
As first time visitors (which Mindy and I usually are this year), what greatly impressed us was the friendliness of the congregation. Before the service began, a number of people introduced themselves. In churches, sadly, people are often afraid to say, "Have we met before?" It might be embarrassing if either party is a long time attender (or the two have met before), but it is worth the risk of embarrassment if the result is helping newcomers feel welcome instead of overlooked.
Among the people we met were James and Thelma, a couple who had celebrated their 67th wedding anniversary. James has attended St. John's for most of his 88 years. When I told him we were from California he said, "There haven't been so many Yankees here since Sherman invaded!"
I also met Russ and Elizabeth, a couple who have attended the church for the last dozen years -- since their days at the local college, Winthrop. I asked them what had brought them to St. John's. Elizabeth said that when they were looking for a church, she heard God call her to this place one day as she was driving by. When they attended, they appreciated the pastor for his simplicity in preaching. They're "country people" and related to his use of hunting and fishing for illustrations. They also appreciate traditional worship and like the use of hymns in the church.
Marilyn, a woman who has attended the church for decades, told me it was the kindness of people in the congregation that brought her to the place.
This was an exciting day in the life of the church. In the announcement time, we were told that a full time director of children's and youth ministry had just been hired. There seemed to be even more excitement about this than about the Tar Heels upcoming appearance at the NCAA Basketball Championship Game. (The person giving the announcements decided not to lead in the fight song; probably for the best, since one of the women in front of us was a Duke fan.)
I did have an opportunity talk to one church youth, Jacob. He told me about one on-going ministry of the church, what they refer to as "Salkehatchie." This weeklong service project for high school students, who sleep on the floor of a high school gym at night and work at the homes of needy families during the day, includes work on home improvement projects -- not doing cosmetic work, but projects that make homes "warmer, safer and dryer." Jacob fondly recalled one day where the weather reports predicted a 100% chance of rain when they were supposed to be working on a roof. But it remained dry until the last shingle was hammered in, and then the rain came down. Jacob said such things "let you see God."
I attended an adult Sunday School class where I was asked to share about our trip to a church and a bar in every state. I talked about our occasional discomfort in our visits to bars, and the class was encouraged by their leader to stretch outside of their comfort zones, to hear different perspectives ("for instance Charlie there only watches Fox News"), and to reach out to those who need Christ.
It was a pleasure to spend time with the people of St. John's and to see that though the place has been around since 1875, God is still creating some fizz.
Statistics (we attended both of their Sunday morning services)
Service Length: 1 hour 14 minutes /1 hour 19 minutes
Sermon Length: 7 minutes / 9 minutes
Visitor Treatment: Before Mindy entered the building, a man wearing an "usher" tag asked if she was new and said he'd see her inside soon. Both of us were greeted by various people as we entered; Mindy's new usher friend (and his wife, who was one of the people who greeted her as she walked to the sanctuary) made sure we had visitor materials and met the people seated around us. By the time in the first worship service where we were to greet those around us, we had been introduced to all ten of the people in the four pews closest to us. Throughout the morning, people went out of their way to be friendly to the newcomers (and there were two different visitor cards in addition to the attendance register at the end of each aisle).
Followup by Tuesday Morning: none
Our Rough Count: 70 / 85
Probable Ushers' Count: 75 / 100
Snacks: savory and sweet pastries, including pigs in a blanket and sausage in a biscuit, fresh fruit, yogurt, Girl Scout thin mints, coffee and decaf, hot water for tea or hot chocolate, juices
Musicians: organist/pianist (woman), flute (woman), choir (4 men, 5 women + 5 different women in the second worship service)
Songs: "Ere Yet the Dawn Hath Filled the Skies" (organ prelude)
"An Easter Song of Praise" (choir)
"Praise to the Lord, the Almighty"
"Partita No. 2" (flute solo, piano accompaniment)
"We Walk by Faith and Not by Sight" (choir)
"Breathe on me, Breath of God"
"Hymn of Promise"
"Choral Prelude" (organ postlude)
Miles to church: 12
Miles from start: 10,771
Total 2016 Miles: 10,616
Church website: http://www.stjohnsfm.org
(P.S. of a self-promotional nature -- during out stay with Kathie Riebe, she mentioned that something she'd read on our blog had led to a change in how something was done in her church. After reading the post on church websites, she insisted that St. John's put the church's address and service times at the top of their home page, rather than hiding these important pieces of information deep in the site. Of course, this tip wasn't anything I'd written, but rather from a guest article by our daughter, Paige. But still...good to hear.)