By Sarah Varnell
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (Nov. 7, 2016) -- There is truly no "mold," no special formula, or rulebook that guides a church and pastor toward new growth and making disciples in this day and age. As it turns out, good old-fashioned "trial and error" is the best method for locating where the Holy Spirit is leading.
So, dear friends and colleagues whom I deeply respect in Holston Conference, I want to share a bit of what we are doing at St. Paul United Methodist Church, as inspiration and hope to open up possibilities and ideas in your unique ministry context.
On Jan. 31, 2016, we decided to try something new at St. Paul UMC, Fountain City in North Knoxville. We offered our first ever "5th Sunday Celebration of Music and the Arts," featuring local celebrity and methodist music-man Michael Rodgers in worship.
If you've ever heard Michael sing, you know the Holy Spirit showed up through his music in a powerful way. After worship that day, we continued our celebration in the fellowship hall with a meal and quilt display. Some of the quilts were made in recent years, and some were intricate family heirlooms that had barely seen the light of day. Each quilt had a story attached, and the fellowship in the room was full with conversation and memory-making. For the most part, our congregation was in attendance with a small handful of visitors, but everyone agreed we would do it again and looked forward to the next opportunity.
Since then we have enjoyed 5th Sunday Celebrations in May, July, and October. We have displayed art from woodworkers, painters, and artists who sketch, as well as crafters who shared knitting, jewelry, calligraphy, and re-purposed wooden children's chairs. On 5th Sundays we can expect attendance well over 100 in worship at a church accustomed to 80-90 on most every other Sunday morning.
What's the big draw? It's simple, really. People are proud of their talents, and they bring friends and family to support them. Once they are in the doors of our church, we offer the love of Jesus Christ.
One of our members reluctantly shared several pencil drawings she had made of her Malamute dogs over the years. As she meticulously set out her display, she nervously confessed that this was the first time she had ever shared her work in public. Everyone except her husband were surprised to learn of her talent and admired her artwork. And she's not the only one! Many of our members have known one another for years, and there are always a few surprises.
The week when we displayed woodworkers, we had two entire displays set up by surviving women of now deceased fathers and husbands. They lovingly shared the work of men in their lives who have gone to be with Jesus. They enjoyed the opportunity for the congregation to tell their stories and remember their loved ones with fondness.
The relationship-building through mutual interest and admiration is moving, and it has also allowed us to the opportunity to reach out and make new connections.
While most of the artwork has come from within, most of our musicians have come from outside our congregation. Our most recent musical guests, two quartets of singers from Powell High School, brought an entourage that included parents, siblings, and classmates. We raised the roof as we lifted our voices singing, "Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee" with 129 in worship.
Fountain City is full of people with artistic and musical abilities, and we are gaining a reputation for celebrating and appreciating that kind of work. This is one way God is calling us to be the Body of Christ in our neighborhood. We are doing it with a spirit of hospitality through heartwarming worship and stomach-warming food.
The Rev. Sarah Varnell is pastor at St. Paul United Methodist Church in Knoxville, Tenn.