Being Church in the City

This summer 14 Candler students are serving in ministry through Candler Advantage, a paid summer internship in conjunction with Candler’s Contextual Education Program.  Over the course of the summer many of these students will be sharing their experiences here on the blog.

I am incredibly grateful that Candler has provided the time and resources to allow me to delve much deeper into parish ministry this summer. So far, the summer has been challenging, inspiring, HOT, and yes, even fun.

I am serving at Birmingham First United Methodist Church in Alabama. First Church is a fairly large church situated at the heart of downtown Birmingham. Like all institutions in Birmingham it carries both a noble and broken history. Today, however, the church leads the city in many ways with its dynamic vision to create an engaging, authentic experience of worship, discipleship and service. It truly is an open place for all to worship, grow and serve.

My personal project this summer is, broadly, to explore what it means to be Church in an urban setting with a diverse, yet dominantly suburban membership. The congregation represents different income levels, locations, education systems, political views, theological views, races, and sexual orientations. The driving question for me has been, “How can this type of church build community both amongst its diverse congregation and with its particular context?”

My work on this has begun with building relationships with members so that we may, as a community, fruitfully explore how First Church responds/should respond to the realities of homelessness, working poverty, and transportation and food access in our immediate context. The church is currently testing a “Listen-Learn-Serve” model, which provides education, discussion, and chances to serve in each of these areas of need in our community. This model is going well, but there is a desire amongst some of the congregation to engage the whole congregation about these issues and to move to a more sustained relationship model. I am working this summer to envision what that might look like for First Church.

The strongest relationship that the church has with its surrounding communities has been initiated by the youth. The Community Church Without Walls is a United Methodist congregation in Birmingham’s West End, a neighborhood with the highest crime/violent crime rates in the state. The youth from the two churches for the past two years have done mission work together, gone on retreats together, and visit each other’s church and homes. I am working primarily with adult ministries this summer, and not directly with the youth. However, my husband is the pastor of Community Church Without Walls and our home is in West End. Thus, my personal life is intimately bound to this relationship between the youth of the two churches. I think the adults have a lot to learn from these amazing kids on what “Church” is.

Check out this clip to get a better idea of how the youth are leading both churches in answering the call to do and be church in Birmingham.

(Note: it is sad that the appeal of the story is its racial categorization, but perhaps this evidences some of the brokenness that still remains in Birmingham: http://www2.alabamas13.com/news/2011/jun/21/teens-help-recovery-effort-ar-2008012/)

- Mary Page Wilson-Lyons

Mary Page, a graduate of Birmingham-Southern College, is a rising 3rd year MDiv student at Candler and a member of the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church.


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