Last Sunday I visited First United Methodist Church in Shinnston, West Virginia. This was the latest stop on my Summer Itinerancy 2015, which you can read about here.
At First UMC Shinnston I found a congregation and a pastor who greeted one another by name, shared their praises and concerns and listened to one another in love.
I found a congregation where a first-time visitor was greeted warmly and included right from the start.
I found a community of believers who obviously were connected with each other and with God, but who did not turn that connection into any sort of cliquish closed group.
Worshiping with them made me appreciate their love for one another and also understand that I was invited to be part of that love.
For me the strongest image of the day was this:
As we all gathered and found our seats, an older gentleman with a walker made his way slowly up the aisle to sit near the front of the sanctuary. As he passed my pew he noticed me, a newcomer, and made a point to stop, shake my hand and make me feel welcome.
Later in the worship service, during our time of prayer, the pastor invited everyone to come and stand around this same gentleman where he was sitting. We laid hands on him as she anointed him and we all prayed for his health.
That was the essence of the day – and the mark of this congregation.
This gentleman was secure in the knowledge that he belonged and was loved. He was surrounded by people who knew him, cared about him and prayed for him. And out of this strength, security and love, he had reached out to a new person and welcomed her into the congregation and church family.
The closeness of the congregation allowed these Christians to experience God’s love in a way that made them want to share it with others and equipped them to do so.
They shared it with me, a newcomer.
And, from hearing about their outreach to their community, I sense they are very active in sharing God’s love beyond the walls of their sanctuary.
I’ve heard a lot of debate about whether the church exists for those who are already there or for those who aren’t there yet.
Does the church exist for the known or for the new?
This past Sunday I experienced what I believe is the answer: it exists for both. And when both the new and the known find belonging, welcome and purpose in the nurturing embrace of a healthy congregation, God’s kingdom shines brighter.
Whether new or known, God’s church is for all.