Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Living Hope Wesleyan Church, Waterbury Center, Vermont

There are certain facts and figures we include every week in our church posts: songs sung, sermon length, estimated attendance, etc. Another statistic is whether we have heard from the church by the time we post the post. We usually try to post Tuesday morning, so it’s perfectly understandable that usually they haven’t. But we knew this week we probably would, and we were right.

The pastor of the church, Jeff Fuller, mentioned Sunday morning that he e-mails everyone in the church on Sunday afternoon. He sends an e-mail to people who were there to thank them. He e-mails people who weren’t there to let them know they were missed. So, yeah, we heard from Pastor Jeff long before you saw this post.

What makes this a little more impressive is that Pastor Jeff works part-time at Living Hope Wesleyan Church in Waterbury Center, Vermont. He works full time with Journey Mentoring, a community based Christian organization that works with school systems in Vermont schools. They provide caring relationships between adults and students in 5th grade through seniors in high school. The organization works closely with Washington County Mental Health and the Vermont Department of Children and Families.

People in the church certainly appreciate Jeff. A dear (okay, it can be said here, pretty awesome) woman named Laurie started coming to the church because of the teaching, but also because she felt her teenage son could relate to Jeff’s energy and engagement. Her friend, Dennis, began coming to the church because of Laurie. He, as a former Catholic, was pleased that he could bring a cup of coffee into the worship service. But he soon appreciated that, frankly, Jeff’s sermons weren’t boring.

Jeff occasionally brings some drama to the sermons. One Easter he dressed as a thief on the cross; after Muhammad Ali, died Jeff dressed as a boxer. On the Sunday we were there, he brought his son on stage and gave him some phoney slaps to the face as an example of what we shouldn’t do. (His son was not harmed, as one could tell by his genuine grinning.) Cindy, another regular attender who’s had some challenging church experiences, appreciated Jeff’s positivity and cheerfulness.

But working part-time at the church means that other people need to step up. We arrived in Waterbury on Wednesday and attended the Wednesday night prayer meeting. Sharon Fuller was in charge (Yes, that is Jeff’s mom. More on that in a bit.) Since we were attending the prayer meeting (it’s not particularly common to have visitors for prayer meetings), people asked us about ourselves. They asked where we were staying. We had a lean to at a local campground for the evening, but the campground was booked for the rest of the week. So we said that. And we were offered a place to stay from three different people. We found that hospitality pretty impressive.

The prayer meeting was followed by what the congregation called Life Group. It was a Bible study reviewing and discussing the Scripture used in the sermon on the previous Sunday. Over twenty people were there for the discussion, led by Jeff. Twenty might not sound like many people at some churches, even on a Wednesday night. But not many years ago, twenty people would be a hoped-for number on Sunday morning.

I talked to Melanie, who grew up in the church. She went off to school, and during that time, the church was struggling. Family conflicts were hurting the church. At that point, Melanie came back to the church. She hoped that with so many people leaving, someone returning would be an encouragement. And she came back to pray for the church.

About this time, a new pastor (Jeff’s immediate predecessor) came to the church. He did what they tell you not to do in seminary: he made a number of fairly major changes in his first year, because the changes needed to be made. He didn’t care if he ruffled some feathers, and his tenure was short. But after he left, Jeff was able to come into a much more healthy situation.

There still are a number of related people in the church (Jeff’s mother, Sharon, is on the Council). But this inter-relatedness is acknowledged in a healthy way. In fact, on the website it reads, “When we say that when you’re here, you’re family, we really mean it. Really. That’s due in a large part to the fact that so many of our members are related. But it’s due even more to the way that Jesus has made us a part of HIs family.”

The church is looking to provide opportunities for people to spend time together, outside of worship. Mindy attended a Saturday morning craft event for women, young and old. There were announcements for a golf event on Tuesdays, $9 for nine holes (which is a pretty sweet deal).

visitors receive maple syrup at Living Hope Wesleyan Church, Waterbury Center, Vermont
And I have to say we were made to feel quite welcome by a number of people in the church. The church is working on creative ways to reach out to the community. They recently celebrated Christmas in July (creeping into August). The congregation had been generous in their giving, so the council decided they should give back to the community. They gave people in the congregation $40 to give to someone who they thought would be encouraged by the gift. In a time when some have the impression that churches are always asking for money, they wanted to be giving back.

I was impressed by Pastor Jeff’s concern for the community. Since he grew up in the area, he has a number of friends from his days of playing and coaching sports. He has a number of friends that don’t go to church. So he posed some Facebook questions about spiritually and church. He’s been challenging the congregation to consider how they can reach out to those without Christ.

And the church has been growing. A few years ago, twenty to thirty people might attend Sunday worship, and now the numbers range from fifty to eighty. (That does include children. Kids stay in for the hour service, though they are given “Kid Packs,” with coloring pages centered on the lesson to keep them involved.)

This growth will be a challenge in the days to come. The church seating has just about reached capacity, and there is only one restroom. There is discussion of another service or renting another facility. Though some might worry such changes will interfere with “the family feeling,” Jeff sees the importance of reaching friends in the community who are lost and hurting.

Jeff mentioned a Christian friend of his was pretty upset about the Ten Commandments being removed from the local public schools. Jeff tried to encourage his friend with the fact that those same schools had reached out for mentors, so Christians were being invited into the schools. Living the out the Word of God would have more of an impact than any plaque. It was encouraging for us to see the people of Living Hope living out God’s Word.

Service Length: 59 minutes
Sermon Length: 14 minutes
Visitor Treatment: We were made to feel very welcome, first at prayer meeting, then at Life Group, at the home where we were guests, and on Sunday morning. Visitors are given a brochure about the congregation, a pen, and a small maple-leaf shaped bottle of maple syrup.
Followup by Tuesday Morning: text message from Jeff early on Monday morning
Our Rough Count: 51
Probable Ushers' Count: 70
Snacks: coffee, water, muffins during half-hour fellowship time before worship service
Musicians: vocals (2 women, 1 man)
Mandolin (man)
Electric guitar (man)
Keyboard (woman)
Percussion box (man)
Songs: “Here I am to Worship”
“Your Grace Finds me”
“How Deep the Father’s Love for us”
“We Fall Down”
Miles to church: 15
Miles from start: 34,673
Total 2016 Miles: 34,969
Church website: http://www.hopeforvermont.org/

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