Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Salem Church: not just for Scandinavians

Salem EFC Staten Island New York
We had our own ideas about the church we would visit in New York. Before the trip began, we were wondering if we could just go to the Baseball Hall of Fame and say that we went to the “Church of Baseball.” Going to Cooperstown meant we would see more than just New York City; we went to Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan last year, so we wanted to see more of the state.

But we were urged by a good friend and New York native to go somewhere else. Steve Palm, my roommate in seminary, sent me this message, “(A) very notable church is the Brooklyn Tabernacle. Their pastor, Jim Cymbala, wrote a great book on prayer, Fresh Wind Fresh Fire. The prayer movement at the Tab is remarkable. They attract a larger crowd to their midweek prayer meeting than their worship services! The Tab is filled with testimonies of hookers and drug dealers who’ve found Christ through their evangelistic outreaches. If there is a book at the end of your 50 state journey, the Tab is a needed chapter!”

Well, Steve had me sold, but there still was the matter of where we would stay. If you’d like a trade secret of travelers to churches in states, a prime consideration for where we go is where we have a place to stay. And Steve had taken care of that as well -- he arranged for us to stay with his mother-in-law on Staten Island.

It seems God had other ideas about where we should go to church. We were approached by an Evangelical Free Church publication about the possibility of writing an article about our travels. In an aside, the editor asked if we had (after twenty three states so far this year) visited an Evangelical Free Church yet. And I had to admit that though I grew up in a Free Church, went to a Free Church seminary, served in a number of Free Churches and was ordained in the Evangelical Free Church of America, we haven’t gone to a Free Church this year. So we thought about that.

Then, in our visit to a New York bar last Wednesday night (for those of you who haven’t found our other blog, we are going to a bar in every state as well as a church in every state), the first person we talked to raved about the church he attends, Salem Evangelical Free Church in Staten Island. He told us there was a special worship service in the park on the upcoming Sunday, and we really must go.

The next morning, we asked our hostess (Steve’s mother-in-law, Joanne) where she attended church. She said that she attended Salem Evangelical Free Church. Those three things made us think that God was directing us to go somewhere other than Brooklyn Tab.  We believe God wanted us to go to Salem. Maybe you think it’s crazy to assume God involves Himself in such decisions; maybe you’re questioning the sanity of people who have decided to take a year to go to a bar and a church in every state… Well, you might have a point, but we went to Salem.

You might not have heard of the Evangelical Free Church of America, so you might not know that the denomination has Scandinavian roots. The “Free” part goes back to the day when people in Sweden and Norway had to choose between the State Church (which was Lutheran) or a “Free” Church. When Swedes and Norwegians immigrated to the United States, they kept the word “Free” and changed the meaning to congregations being free to make their own decisions without a denominational bureaucracy. And those first Evangelical Free Churches usually held services in Swedish and Norwegian. Salem Church on Staten Island began as a Norwegian congregation back in 1905.  For about the first three decades, services were conducted in Norwegian; by 1941, when all services began to be conducted in English, the Norwegian cultural influence was still strong.

But the congregation has evolved through the years. Eddie Cole, who pastored the church through great growth (during his service from 2003 to last year) said, “The methods have changed, the demographic has certainly changed, but the message is the same. There are very few Norwegians remaining, but in many ways we stand on the shoulders of these early Scandinavian men and women who followed Christ. Today we have about 25 - 30 cultures represented at Salem, and we are still reaching newer Americans.”

We met friends of Joanne’s, John and Henne, who have been attending Salem since 1958 when the Norwegian influence was still strong. That was an attractive part of the church for them, as they were of Norwegian heritage. They remember when the hymns of the Old Country provided the soundtrack of the church, but they’re fine with the transition to modern choruses, since it’s all part of attracting younger people to the church.

Usually there are two services inside Salem’s sanctuary on Sunday morning. The room seats a maximum of  520 people. But at this annual Father’s Day event, the church holds just one worship service, at 10:30 am, at the park next door to their property. The church itself is short on parking, but the Staten Island Zoo parking lot is available on Sunday mornings. We brought a beach towel to sit on for Church in the Park; many people brought their own lawn chairs, and folding chairs were provided as well. Small bottles of water were available at welcome tents, along with the morning bulletin. Church volunteers wore t-shirts reading “Love God Love People” (a variation on the church’s motto, “Passion for God, Compassion for People”).

Worship began shortly after the stated start time with the band and sound system doing their best to shake the park. But the sound system conked out during the third chorus. (“You know God is up to something good when Satan gets into the sound system,” the worship leader joked.) As tech people worked on the system, the crowd was invited to stand and greet each other. We met a woman named Karen, along with her husband and three kids. We asked how long she had been attending and she calculated (using the ages of her children, as parents do) that she had been there four years. I asked her what drew her to the church, and she said it reminded her of the church she grew up attending in Brooklyn. She said that the children’s programs were good, which was important for her family.

Eventually the sound system was repaired, singing resumed (the worship leader said, "We just turned off the sound system so we could hear you singing"), and then it was time for Pastor John Welborn to preach. He began the sermon making mention of the recents deaths of Syrian refugees, the shooting in Orlando, and the death of the toddler at Disney World as evidence of our need for hope. The theme of the sermon was that we need more than religion; we need a relationship with God through Jesus Christ. He concluded the sermon with an opportunity to pray to receive Christ (“with all heads bowed and all eyes closed”).

The service concluded with baptisms. Two portable pools on the platform allowed Pastor Welborn to switch back and forth, baptizing a couple of dozen men, women, and children. (“Upon your confession of faith, and because God has commanded us to baptize believers, I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Buried in the likeness of His death and raised into the newness of life”.) Each person was greeted with applause (and a dry towel) as he or she came out of the water.

I was able to chat with Pastor Welborn after the service, just prior to the Father’s Day barbecue and celebration. He’s only been at the church for a year, and he feels he’s benefited from entering a place where years of good work has already been done. He was introduced to the church back in 2008 when he was a part of a Southern Baptist missions trip. The church has annually hosted groups that have come up to Staten Island to be serve in evangelism and work projects. Coincidently, one of those groups (consisting of sixteen people) had been at the church the previous week and was worshiping in the park with Salem Church that morning.

In line for hamburgers, we met a woman named Emily who’s been part of the church for a year. She said that when she and her husband first visited the church, she knew it was the place she wanted to be. As the mother of an autistic child, she greatly appreciated a church support group for parents of children with special needs.

We certainly choose the day to come. Not only was lunch provided, there was a bacon bar just for dads with bacon pizza, scallops wrapped in bacon, bacon pancakes, and chocolate covered bacon. In the gym, a bounce house and jousting offered entertainment for kids; outside, a shaded tent, face painting, and bean bag toss games were available for everybody. An ice cream truck arrived playing its beckoning song, to provide an hour’s worth of all you can eat frozen goodies. The line formed as soon as the truck entered the parking lot.

We were glad to have an opportunity to worship with the not-just-Norwegians-anymore of Salem Evangelical Free Church. Brooklyn Tab and Cooperstown? We hope to be back to see you another time.

Service Length: 1 hour 27 minutes
Sermon Length: 25 minutes
Visitor Treatment: At the welcome tent, visitors were encouraged (strongly) to fill out visitor cards. We were asked if we knew someone who was being baptized. During the greeting time and in line for food afterward, we were asked, "How long have you been coming to Salem?" -- a great thing to ask when you're not sure if a person is new, avoiding the embarrassment of not recognizing someone who's attended a long time who you haven't happened to meet yet.
Followup by Tuesday Morning: none
Our Rough Count: 500
Probably Ushers' Count: 625
Snacks: Hamburgers, hot dogs, chips, bacon treats for dads, punch and lemonade, water, ice cream treats from the truck
Musicians: percussion (man), acoustic guitar (man), electric guitar (man), singers (woman and man), keyboard (woman), bass (man), slide guitar I think (man)
Songs: "Multiplied"
"O Praise the Name"
"This I Believe" (The Creed)
"Beneath the Waters" (I Will Rise)
"Death was Arrested"
"The Lord Will Make a Way"
Distance to Church: 3
Miles from Start: 15,483
Total 2016 Miles: 15,186