Denton Mystery Worship Three: The “Frozen Chosen” and the AME Church

When We Were All BroncosTrinity Presbyterian Church, 2200 N. Bell Ave, Denton, shuttered its doors on Sunday, September 21, 2014.  Anyone seeking to worship there would have found an empty parking lot, no greeters, no worship about to begin.

Instead, the members and choir of this Anglo “frozen chosen” Presbyterian Church headed over to the Saint James African Methodist Episcopal Church, 107 East Oak Street. The previous Friday, the members of the two churches had gathered for a potluck dinner and a viewing “When We Were All Broncos,” Director David Barrow’s powerful film about the desegregation movement in Denton.  This is a film everyone living in Denton needs to see.

When my friend and I arrived at 10:30, the combined choirs were rehearsing the blending of two different sounds and styles. After they finished, several members of St. James AME came to the front to lead us in informal singing and preparation for worship. They were soon joined by an adorable little girl who brought her tambourine and added perfect rhythm to the team.

At precisely 11:00 am, the back doors to the sanctuary opened and the combined choirs processed in, singing, “We Are Marching In the Light of God.” The rest of us stood up to honor the beginning of worship.

Rev. Mason Rice, Jr, Pastor of St. James, led forth in a consecration prayer, asking the Spirit of God to fill this place and rest upon us all. The congregation responded with a rousing Doxology, offering sung praise to God.

A mixture of responsive reading of Scripture, prayer, and music for the next twenty-five minutes then led to the first of two offerings for the morning. Before any funds are gathered for the church needs, the congregation sets money aside for benevolence. These funds help those who are in need. It was made clear that these gifts are NOT part of the usual giving commitments, but above and beyond.

For this offering, the stewards and ushers passed the offering plates down the pews. Not the case for the second offering, which took place after the Trinity Presbyterian Choir blessed us with their musical talents.

At 11:45, the Anglos discovered a whole new way to present their normal offering. My companion turned to me, startled, and said, “We go forward to give our money?”

Yes, oh yes, we confused Anglos finally figured out that we were to come forward, pew by pew, and place our funds in the offering plates. It is a spectacular way to show that our giving is an act of worship and needs to be acknowledged publicly. Electronic giving is most common today, but we lose much by such convenience.

Pastor Rice announced the altar call, a time when any may come forward to kneel and offer their prayers for themselves, for others, for anything. These quiet moments of interceding for the needs of the world remind us that worship is a communal act, not just a group of professionals showing off their talents from the front. It’s a time when all come together in vulnerability before the Holy God, aware of our smallness and our insignificance, yet finding ourselves welcome at the Throne of Grace.

These holy moments were followed by the combined choirs taking us to the threshold of heaven by their musical gifts. They sang of the hope of unity, “Behold how good and how pleasant it is for kindred to dwell together in unity.”

At 12 noon, the Rev. Craig Hunter, Pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church, came to the pulpit. This is the normal time for Anglo church services to come to an end. With a great sense of humor, this “Yankee White Preacher” announced that he had learned that he had a full hour to preach and was going to launch into a lecture on Calvin’s Doctrine of Predestination.

At that point, he skillfully led the congregation into the wilderness, the place where Moses saw the burning bush, where Jesus met with and turned away the Tempter, and where mystery and danger surround us in these unfamiliar landscapes. Hunter reminded us that we never emerge the same as we went in. The wilderness, outside our comfort zones, is the place where intimacy with God begins.

We are called to wilderness living, not complacency. In this wilderness, we may address the continuing racism that pervades our society, moving from the current unjust construction of power to a more just and holy society.

At about 12:30, Rev. Hunter handed the pulpit back to Pastor Rice, who exquisitely summarized the message as he invited those who sensed a call to unite with this church to come forward. Unfortunately, it was necessary for me to slip out, as I had a quickly approaching appointment, so I was unable to stay for what I sense would have been a lovely ending to a unique morning of worship.

Yes, it is often at the margins where we are most able to see God. What a grace to have been in attendance that day.

By the way, Trinity Presbyterian Church will have open doors again this coming Sunday!

[Note: this article ran in the September 28, 2014 print version of the Denton Record Chronicle.]

Additional Notes

The contrast between this week’s planned but hardly perfectly choreographed service and last week’s slick production-type service at Denton Bible Church was profound. Now, as many from Denton Bible have hastened to assure me, just because they have such spectacular facilities and such professional worship services does not mean they are not doing much good in the world. In fact, several readers very seriously questioned my salvation for not being able to appreciate the DBC service and have strongly suggested I am running from God.

But about the contrast: For some time now, I’ve been wondering if there are not strong parallels between the factory farm/megachurch and the organic garden/small, local non-glamorous, church.  Both factory farms AND the organic gardens are necessary. One provides massive amounts of food and can feed large number with standardized production methods and heavy use of chemical fertilizers and weed killers. The other takes better care of the environment and nurtures the ecosystem, but is far more labor intensive for the amount of food produced and tends to be more local in its approach.

There is no question that the big church can do things the small church can’t. They can provide fabulous theater-type worship services, tons of activities for kids and youth, and often help fund and staff multiple social service agencies.  But they also foster a consumer mentality for religious experiences. If one mega-church doesn’t please, why not head to another?  We do the same with our groceries, after all.

I think the consumer church is slowly strangling anything approaching true Christianity. How can we speak of going the way of the cross when our religion teaches us the way of all pleasure and pleasing ourselves?

But . . . very few will now attend a place like St. James AME with its tiny building and barely existent Sunday school and no video projection in worship and an expectation that everyone present contribute to what happens in the worship experience as active participants, not passive consumers.

It is just not popular. It can’t compete. It insists that we work with people we know too well, and who may irritate the life out of us.  We can’t pick and choose among small groups where we seek commonality and like-mindedness. The entire church is a small group–and they all know each other too well to like each other all that much, and certainly not all the time.

Non-consumer based Christianity that teaches the way of the cross will not disappear–but it may end up going back underground again, a tiny sect of the underprivileged and poor. Maybe it is time.

2 thoughts on “Denton Mystery Worship Three: The “Frozen Chosen” and the AME Church

  1. Rev. Thomas, I came across you postings this evening and have spent several hours engrossed in reading both your writings and the reader comments. I grew up in the Texas Conference and went to Southwestern University in Georgetown. Now I live in rural Oregon, one of the most un-churched states in the nation. I do attend church, still UM by membership but UCC by attendance most weeks. It was interesting to be reminded of the mega-churches and what they offer. There is little of that kind of worship out here. Our churches wrestle with how to renew as those in the pews are increasingly sporting white hair when the growing churches are the evangelical, let-us-do-your-thinking-for-you, passive listener sort of congregations. I find it much more interesting to ask the hard questions, wrestle with the Big Questions and decide based on the Wesleyan standards of reason, faith, tradition and Scripture. Best is when I am in a faith based discussion group to share ideas. I am grateful for the variety of church homes so that many can find a place to grow their faith and live it out in daily life. I look forward to reading postings in the near future.

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