You say blended, I say traditional: Churches share space in Wise, Va.

You say blended, I say traditional: Churches share space in Wise, Va.

If you set up camp at Trinity United Methodist Church shortly before 11 a.m. on a Sunday, the folks heading inside might look like they’re going to two different services.

Casually dressed churchgoers, many of them college-aged, make their way toward the fellowship hall in the back of the church, while others, looking like they’re headed to a traditional service in dressier duds, will head on up the stairs to the sanctuary.

They look like they’re going to two different services because they are.

Upstairs, Trinity United Methodist services are conducted in the sanctuary, as they have been since the church was built more than 80 years ago. Pastor Dave Henderson wears a traditional robe and leads a traditional service, in which members know when to stand and sit, when to recite the Lord’s Prayer and when to sing the Doxology.

Downstairs, Appalachia Prayer Fellowship Pastor Phillip Bates leads a “blended worship” service, which includes contemporary music and visual elements projected onto a screen. Those who attend sit in folding chairs behind a partition that creates a little worship nook in one end of the large fellowship hall.

The groups upstairs and downstairs formed at different times in different places. But over the summer, the two joined forces to become one church in Holston Conference's Big Stone Gap District.

Appalachia Prayer Fellowship

Bates, who is now considered both pastor of Appalachia Prayer Fellowship and associate pastor of Trinity UMC, explained in a recent interview that the prayer fellowship formed around 1998.

Four members of Norton UMC felt called to form a new group to reach out to people who felt uncomfortable in traditional, more formal Methodist church services. Over the years, the group met in offices and storefronts, eventually moving into a portion of the Tan Land building in Wise. Va.

Bates likens the group’s services to what you’d find in an old country church — informal, down-to-earth, intimate.

For its first several years in existence, the group relied on guest speakers, and wasn’t officially recognized as a stand-alone United Methodist church, although it was supported spiritually and financially by Holston Conference.

For a few years, the group was officially considered an outreach ministry of the Andover UMC, from which it received great support and had a close and loving relationship. But it was physically located 25 miles away from Andover, Bates noted. And as Appalachia Prayer Fellowship grew to an average attendance rate of 25 members per Sunday, they found they couldn’t grow any more without a new space to call home.

Just up the street, Trinity UMC had a relatively small congregation, with an average of about 50-60 attendees each Sunday, but a great big space, with lots of classrooms nearby for Sunday school.

It was a good fit.

An easy transition

Moving Appalachia Prayer Fellowship into Trinity was a bit of a scary prospect for both congregations, Bates acknowledged.

“We were two different churches coming in,” he explained. “Our people were a little worried it would change our services — that they would have to act different, or dress different.”

Henderson, who was just appointed to serve at Trinity this summer, agreed.

“Change is the most traumatic thing you can endure,” Henderson said. “But after we all sat down, had a few meetings and realized we were all working for the same thing, those fears went away. There was apprehension on both sides, but now we laugh about it.”

Bates and Henderson laugh a lot. The two work closely together to meet the needs of their members.

Henderson, who is an ordained elder and went to divinity school, is considered the senior pastor, while Bates, a retired schoolteacher and principal, is officially Trinity’s associate pastor.

When they’re in a room together, the two, who have only known each other a few months, tease each other and finish each other’s sentences like brothers.

“I told our district superintendent, if I had to draw up my ideal associate pastor, it would be Phillip,” Henderson said. “It wouldn’t look like him, though,” he teased, and both erupted in a shared belly laugh.

Working together

The new partnership has impressed leaders in the Holston Conference — it’s a unique arrangement. Usually the only churches with outreach ministries and multiple services with different formats are those with huge congregations of 600 or more, Henderson pointed out.

Now, members of both the prayer fellowship and the original church are bursting with pride over their partnership, and buddy up for a heap of church activities — everything from Bible study and Sunday school to pot luck dinners, choir events and cookouts with college kids at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise Wesley Foundation. Children from both organizations team up for youth group activities and plan trips together.

After all, it’s all about getting people to church to worship God together, no matter what they wear or how they worship, Henderson and Bates agree.

This story was published in the 11/4/08 edition of The Coalfield Progress in Norton, Va., and is reprinted here with the newspaper's permission.