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From Pastor-centered to Participative Worship

Many churches are renewing their worship by changing some practices, yet remaining true to their worship principles. A feature story about a congregation exploring renewal through teaching and intergenerational involvement.

St. Luke African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church is the oldest African American congregation in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Visit for Sunday morning worship, and you can count on certain things being the same.

People will welcome you, for sure with a smile, maybe a hug. Someone will light candles as worship begins and extinguish them after the postlude. You’ll sing “Hear Our Prayer, O Lord” and the Gloria Patri and recite the Apostles’ Creed. People will be invited forward for an altar prayer.

You can also count on variety at St. Luke. You may see choir and acolyte robes one week, worshipers “dressed down” for a black history heritage Sunday or costumed for a biblical drama. The men’s choir, young adult choir, or Voices of Zion may sing. Different people will lead the call to worship, responsive reading, Old and New Testament readings, and altar prayer.

“At first, when I came here, everybody was like ‘You’re the pastor. You do it.’ Now we have people who want to participate. That’s exciting to me,” says the pastor, Eleazar Merriweather.

He was an electrical engineer before becoming a full-time pastor and has applied the same skills—patiently experimenting with a process, trusting in teamwork—to involving more people in worship. He also reinstituted weekly Methodist class meetings.

How worship renewal starts

St. Luke members say Merriweather earned their trust by preaching sermons that are biblically based and pastoral. “He really knows the Word. He takes you to another level,” Beverly Rodgers says.

“One Sunday I was so broken…till I heard the sermon. I thought, ‘How did Pastor know my needs?’ He has made a difference in my family life,” Lula Kilgore says.

Merriweather rooted worship renewal in what his congregation already valued—tradition, education, and good order. The African Methodist Episcopal Zion (AMEZ) denomination began in 1796 because of racial discrimination, not disagreement with Methodist theology. In common with other Methodists, the AMEZ follows The Book of Discipline and The Twenty-Five Articles of Religion.

More than a century ago, James Walker Hood, for whom the AMEZ seminary is named, described the denomination as quiet, not ostentatious, worshiping with “firmness of purpose” and “as little noise as possible.” He noted that AMEZ worship was sometimes said to lack “snap.”

As it entered the 21st century, St. Luke AMEZ was comfortable with how things had always been done—preachers doing most everything, same music, same liturgy. Merriweather invited them to join him in discerning “worship that the Father seeks.” They did this through congregational surveys, sermons, Saturday workshops, and retreats.

Visiting other churches, Church Music Summit, and Calvin Symposium on Worship helped members experience, as Ruth Lumpkins put it, “many ‘out of the box’ ways of…worship that pleases God.”

St. Luke members say that discussing worship principles and practices helped them talk through what’s negotiable or not in worship. This opened the door to trying new music and adding interactive elements to sermons, such as pop quizzes, PowerPoint, and drama.

Learn. See. Do.

Members were asked to sign up if they’d be willing to participate in worship. At first just 10 families were on the list. Soon more than 70 people of all ages had prayed, read Scripture, or led responsive readings during worship and 80 had participated in drama.

Merriweather says St. Luke introduced drama because studying worship that pleases God showed them that “the Bible is a drama played out in history.”

Adding new worship practices lets more people use their gifts. Middle schooler Teeja Garrett-Granderson leads praise dancers. High schooler Sauda Smith learned how to mime songs from friends at another church and introduced it at St. Luke. Patricia Bell and Emma Williams sew costumes for church dramas.

“I like the plays. Before Christmas, we practiced for weeks. Everybody was involved, from kids to Brother Austin, who’s about 70,” says Glenn Alexander, Jr., a high school sophomore. He says playing the Old Testament Joseph helped him understand what it was like to be betrayed by brothers.

“With all the drama, responsive reading, people praying and reading Old Testament and New Testament passages in worship, it brings us closer together. We’re not spectators,” says Patricia Bryant.

Feeling confident about worship principles promotes flexibility. “I’ve been in the AMEZ for 40 years. We feel freer to express ourselves than we used to. If I want to stand, shout, cry…I’m free to do that,” says Jonse Young.

Inez Smith adds, “We don’t mind opening our mouths now, giving Reverend an Amen!”

Russell Hamlett, a high school junior, is among a dozen St. Luke youth recently trained and consecrated as acolytes. “The congregation, my family, and the pastor all encourage us to take part. I was a junior steward at age 12 or 13. I remember my first time to take the offering and count the money. It made me feel mature,” he says.

Maintaining momentum

Though St. Luke AMEZ has been studying worship since 2003, Merriweather says the journey continues. “Before we weren’t aware of what we do in worship and why. We’ve sharpened our sensitivity to different ways of worship. Implementing is the challenge. The greatest mistake is to come home from an event and change everything overnight. That offends people who weren’t at the workshop.

“We’re just getting to the point where we can make real changes. We’d like to develop a worship committee and music committee and have them look at every song before we introduce it, to see whether it fits our theology. I’d like to work on every part of the service, starting with the processional.”

He looks to God to master the delicate balance between patience and urgency, especially given that only some youth who grow up in the AMEZ stay with the denomination. In St. Luke and throughout the AMEZ “young adults” are defined as post-high school to early 40s.

“The church is not going to be what it should be till youth and young adults have a voice in more issues,” Merriweather says.

Restoring Historic Methodist Class Meetings

John Wesley designed the class meeting system as a way for Christians to grow in mercy and piety. This orderly approach to discipleship led to the term Methodist.

Methodist scholars describe class meetings as the engine that drove Wesleyan revival. Serving as a class leader in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion (AMEZ) church helped abolitionist Frederick Douglass hone his speaking and organizing skills.

Reviving the class meeting system also deepens worship renewal, according to members of St. Luke AMEZ in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

“How is your soul prospering?”

Rev. Eleazar Merriweather brought class meetings back into practice at St. Luke in late 2004. He says all AMEZ congregations have a class meeting structure “on paper” but estimates that only 20% have monthly class meetings. Fewer yet meet weekly, as St. Luke members do.

All members, including Eleazar and Wanda Merriweather are assigned to classes. There are 13 classes of about a dozen each—children; teens; ages 19-42 (known as young adults); and assorted groups of men and women ages 43 and up. Not everyone attends. Some classes meet in homes, others at church.

Every Wednesday members go through specific questions together. They ask, “How is your prayer life? When and where have you met the needs of others?” Like cell groups or small groups in other churches, class meetings include prayer and Bible study. But there's a stronger emphasis on mutual accountability and helping each other develop discipline in church and devotional life, character, and stewardship.

“Moving to the class system is a major shift from what I remember as a youngster. It empowers all of us to relax and relate. Reverend wants us all to have the ability to fulfill our potential. He encourages us to step out, to visit the sick,” George Coffman says.

Vernita Perry recalls a meeting when someone who hadn’t yet become a believer was talking about how God was working. “I wanted to call in Reverend to do intercessory…but we know now that we can do that on our own,” she says.

Class members sometimes visit people who’ve been absent. The youth class has gone out into the community to do cleaning for people not in their church.

Accountability and bonds

Each Wednesday class members go around the circle to ask about each other’s prayer life, struggles, and victories. “It’s accountability. Am I studying so my soul is prospering in the Lord? People can ask me, ‘Now this is where you were a month ago. Why aren’t you doing better?’ ” says Ruby Alexander.

Jonse Young agrees. “I can’t come and say I didn’t pray or study or witness.”

Class members trust each other to maintain confidentiality. “We can be for real. We don’t have to pretend. We can talk and pray about our shortcomings,” Vernita Perry says.

They don’t just share prayer requests for private devotions later on. They pray for each other then and there. Homework and struggles at school are frequent topics among younger classes. “We learn how to pray each other through struggles and get victories. Oh, they get me in the heart when they pray for me, too,” says Inez Smith, who leads a youth class.

Class meetings start at 6:30 p.m., so interfere with sports practices for several St. Luke students. They come when they can.

“It’s helpful to have people ask, ‘How was your weekend?’ ” says Russell Hamlett, a high school junior. “I like how we can talk about what we’re going through,” says eighth grader Robert Cuba. Sixth grader Taylor Alexander adds, “When you’re in church, Reverend tries to relate to all ages. But in class, we’re all on the same level.”

Carryover in corporate worship

What starts in class meeting spills out into wide participation in worship. The way they encourage each other, welcome visitors, and connect with people outside St. Luke reveals how much they value relationships.

“Class meetings make us feel close as a family. Then, when I get to church, I don’t have to sit and think I’m the only one with a problem,” Evelyn Whitfield says.

Shana Granderson, a high school senior, adds, “We youth think of ourselves as brothers and sisters. When we do something in church, like praise dance or reading Scripture, the grownups are all proud of us.”

No one who goes up to the altar rail for prayer feels alone. “We’ll often take a member of our class up with us to the altar. Or we see someone go up and everyone else from the class goes up to support that person,” Thomas Bryant says.

Each Sunday the first altar prayers are led by young children. Praying together in Wednesday class meeting makes them confident to offer prayer during worship.

When Merriweather spends several sermon minutes reviewing Bible passages from previous weeks—“The Word is so rich, so deep…like chocolate. I can’t get enough of it!”—worshipers murmur mmmm-hmmm and say amen. Many take notes during sermons so they can think about them later in the week.

“I go to class meeting for the power of the Word. We need the Word so we can go to more depth of understanding in sermons,” Beverly Rodgers explains.

This culture of communal learning fits well with the AMEZ system for nurturing ministers. In the AMEZ tradition, someone becomes a local preacher by preaching a trial sermon and attending quarterly and district conferences. They progress through steps of studying at annual conferences, serving as traveling preachers, and becoming eligible for ordination. Ministers are encouraged to attend seminary.

Though St. Luke has less than 300 members, it has 10 local preachers and 3 traveling preachers who handle Sunday evening worship.

Learn More

Listen to or download a sermon by Eleazar Merriweather, “O for a Faith That Will Not Shrink,” based on Daniel 3. Eleazar Merriweather began pastoring in Tennessee while working as an electrical engineer.

St. Luke is next door to United Methodist Community House. St. Luke AMEZ worked with two other congregations to build a Habitat for Humanity house. Members have book clubs and sponsor trips with anAME church and a mainly white United Methodist church. They sometimes worship and share potlucks with a mainly white Christian Reformed Church to promote cross-cultural relationships.

Congregations in the AMEZ share a strong denominational structure and similar order of worship. According to the Connectional Lay Council of the AMEZ, no one is “too old, too young, too rich, too poor, too saved or even too lost” to grow in discipleship.

The AMEZ is part of a worldwide family of Methodist churches. Its closest relatives, all begun because of racial discrimination, are the African Methodist Episcopal denomination and the Christian Methodist Episcopal denomination. In the U.S., the pan Methodist movement is helping denominations work together.

Watch a 10-minute online video about worship renewal in African Methodist Episcopal churches in St. Paul, Minnesota. It explains worship as a multisensory dialogue between God and worshipers.

Find resources for starting class meetings or something similar in your church:

  • “The Class Meeting: A Model for Making Disciples” is a seminar by Darryl B. Starnes Sr., director of the AMEZ bureau of evangelism.
  • Read A Model for Making Disciples John Wesley’s Class Meeting by D. Michael Henderson.
  • Renovare Spiritual Formation Groups integrate many streams of Christian life—contemplative, holiness, charismatic, social justice, evangelical, and incarnational.
  • Read Restoring the Wesleyan Class-Meeting by Molly Davis Scott and James B. Scott.
  • Learn more about Frederick Douglass and class meetings (p.10).
  • Read The Soul of Methodism: The Class Meeting in Early New York City Methodism by Philip F. Hardt.
  • Use class leaders guides, youth curriculum, and sample covenants from Covenant Discipleship.

Browse related stories about African American preachingchurches sharing across cultures,intergenerational worship, and reciting creeds in worship.

Start a Discussion

Talk about worship renewal in your context:

  • What’s the difference between a worship practice and worship principle? Give an example of worship practices from today and in your church’s past that reflect the same principle.
  • Which aspects of the worship change process at St. Luke AMEZ are most similar to or different from how worship has changed in your congregation?
  • If your church is part of a denomination, in what ways does your denominational structure or practice help or hinder worship renewal in your congregation?
  • In restoring class meetings, St. Luke AMEZ is using something worth keeping from its theological and historic tradition. What church treasures would you like to restore and why?

Share Your Wisdom

What is the best way you’ve found to mine your tradition—congregational, theological, historic, however you define tradition—to help your congregation worship better?

  • Did you design a timeline, website, video, or other resource that helped worshipers understand traditions and heritage worth keeping? Did it include an element that explained how changes in your worship or mission build on (or write a new chapter) in your church’s story?
  • Which methods have worked best to move your congregation toward a greater sense of worship as something that the all the people do together? This could apply to your church worship, life, or relationship to culture or your local community.

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