At a watch-night worship service, December 31, 2020, First Congregational UCC, Elyria, celebrates 10 years of living Into God’s Future. After much music and celebration, the pastor steps into the chancel to share the night’s message.
It goes something like this:
Ten years ago, this congregation set out on a journey Into God’s Future — a process of discerning together where God was calling us in life and ministry. One look at our “wall” over this past year gives you a sense of how that vision shaped who we are today. You remember that 2010 film The Social Network? Think of this as “A Faith Network.”
Today, First Congregational UCC, Elyria, is a congregation of people called to intentionally grow holy relationships across multiple generations. Here at First Church, we open ourselves to holy relationship with God, with others, and with our city. “Holy” means “set apart for Godly purposes.” Ten years ago, we felt a pull to connect with people outside of who we would normally encounter — not because we thought this would beef up our membership rolls, but because we sensed God was calling us to these relationships as a way to embody resurrection life right here in Elyria. Here at First Church, we regularly worship next to, enjoy coffee with, and stack food boxes with people who might never otherwise be our friends, whether because of their different age, class, or orientation. We might not choose each other, but God called us together. And we are discovering God-with-us in these holy relationships.
We are called to holy relationship with God. Ten years ago, after praying and sharing together, we felt God call us to deepen our relationship with God. People from different generations and different walks of life experience God differently. It became clear that God was pulling us toward more diverse ways of worshipping and praying. Some ways no longer worked for everybody. That pull led us to experiment with another worship service marked by lots of participatory music and singing and the engagement of multiple senses, as well as high involvement from lay people in planning and leading worship. God also re-awakened us to the power of praying with others. We now use prayer triplets during key seasons in the life of the church, as well as during the first year of membership. We anticipate and nurture the diverse spiritual gifts each person brings to our fellowship, and we empower one another to be ministers through small groups created for learning and serving.
We are called to holy relationship with others. The one word we heard loud and clear a decade ago was “Welcome!” God inspired us with a vision of extravagant welcome here in Elyria. That welcome means respecting each person who comes our way — teacher, lawyer, food pantry customer, preschool dad, teen, or centenarian — as a child of God who comes with their own needs as well as their own gifts to share. In such a fast-paced and rapidly changing world, we have learned to be intentional and flexible about finding ways to connect across the generations. We follow up with first-time-worshippers using the best of current technology and a personal touch. For the first year of membership, new worshippers are invited into a prayer triplet where they may grow both faith and fellowship connections. We host creative cross-generational worship, service, and fellowship events. It is no piece of cake trying to welcome the gifts and needs of five generations in one place! But through our pancake breakfasts, Advent Gathering, and other multi-generational connections, we are beginning to get the hang of it.
We are called to holy relationship with our city. We have taken to heart Jeremiah’s call: “Seek the welfare of the city into which I have sent you” (Jer. 29:4-7). We agreed to stop merely pining for the Elyria that was and instead commit to making an even bigger claim for life in the Elyria that is. So we look for mutually beneficial connections with our neighborhood and the groups in it. We joined forces with the other UCC churches in town for mutual ministry. And we sought a partnership with a non-profit community foundation to use some of our neglected space for needed community education classes. We are not just looking for renters; We see each group as a partner in making space for life in our city. All of these groups, from the Preschool, to the Arts Academy, to the recovery groups, bless us and help us become more like Christ.? We came to see these buildings — which were better suited for the Protestant heydays of the 1950s and 1960s — not just as an albatross in a culture that has little use for church anymore, but as an asset for the resurrection ministry to which Christ calls us.
Ten years ago, we saw God inviting us to create a place where we open ourselves to holy relationship with God, others, and our city. Look around at the faith network God has grown through us, and give thanks with me. First Church “it’s been even better than Facebook!”