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Getting to Know Each Other: Pastors from two denominations share stories

Christians sometimes think they must water down their identities to find common ground with people from different Christian traditions. Eleazar Merriweather and John Witvliet offer a refreshing alternative. A feature story exploring relationships between denominations.

John Witvliet and Eleazar Merriweather met in 2003, when Merriweather's church, St. Luke African Methodist Episcopal Zion, applied for a worship renewal grant from the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship.

They saw they were kindred spirits, and, since both work in Grand Rapids, Michigan, they made time for many conversations about their Christian Reformed Church (CRC) and African Methodist Episcopal Zion (AMEZ) denominations.

"Eleazar Merriweather is an enthusiast for the living wisdom of history. I've heard him use a communion prayer by Thomas Cranmer (who wrote The Book of Common Prayer), yet he spoke the words with such passion you'd never know every word was written out," says Witvliet, whose books include topics such as ancient Christmas sermons and classic worship elements.

"We are both from strong traditions-theologically, culturally, ethnically," Witvliet adds.

"Very strong," Merriweather agrees.

As born teachers, they realized their conversations could be a model for Christians who long to communicate cross culturally, whether within their denominations or across traditions.

United by confession, not worship method

Cross-denominational talks often begin with a goal of merging institutions. Merriweather and Witvliet suggest focusing instead on what unites you in Christ and what you can learn from each other's differences.

They shared and compared as many denominational resources as possible, from historical documents and lists of theological themes to hymnals, magazines, and websites. The AMEZ began about 35 years before Dutch Americans founded the CRC. It has three times as many U.S. congregations and members as the CRC has in the U.S. and Canada.

One thing was immediately obvious: the AMEZ and CRC are both confessional denominations. "What unites each denomination is not a prayer book, as in the Episcopal Church, but certain documents. I notice in the AMEZ a similar enthusiasm for doctrine and creed. We found lots of familiar ideas in each other's church order," Witvliet says.

Merriweather explains that African Americans formed the AMEZ because of racial discrimination, not disagreement with Methodist theology.

"Order of worship doesn't define Methodism. It's our core beliefs about salvation and holiness-sanctification and discipleship-and our class meeting system that are critical to the heart and essence of Methodism. Being Methodist means observing order and decorum at all times," Merriweather says.

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.

Merriweather says all AMEZ congregations have a class meeting system "on paper," but St. Luke AMEZ is relatively rare in re-activating John Wesley's idea. "If we want to be effective in evangelism, then we have to be disciplined people," he says.

Witvliet describes being Reformed as living out key understandings of doctrine, piety, and transformation.

What many CRC members call a world and life view plays out in strong institutions, such as a magazine that goes to every CRC household, parent-run Christian schools, denominational agencies dealing with everything from missions to disability concerns, and organizations started by CRC members, such as hospitals, labor associations and housing ministries.

Because being CRC or AMEZ is defined by confession, actual worship can vary from congregation to congregation.

In either denomination, some churches include dancing or electronic instruments in services, some follow the liturgical season, some do neither or both. The songs you'd sing at St. Luke AMEZ are very similar to what you'd sing in many traditional CRCs: "Hear Our Prayer, O Lord," "We Have Heard the Joyful Sound," "Gloria Patri," "Amazing Grace."

But whereas many a well-ordered CRC makes sure morning worship lasts exactly one hour, the AMEZ is more accepting of worship that continues for two hours. Eleazar Merriweather is a master at combining reverence with interactivity.  

Probing differences

"When Christians from different traditions talk, they sometimes look for the least common denominator. It's like 'Let me squelch and minimize my own cultural and ethnic identity.' But Eleazar and I discovered that as we talk about our own identity, we learn more from each other.

"It's the same in talking with Christians from Singapore or Hong Kong. We share what gifts God has given us and learn how to mutually appreciate distinctiveness," Witvliet says.

Merriweather explains Christ's body includes every Christian. "Within us God has placed all the gifts we need. So can work together and learn from each other."

This perspective helped them probe theological differences between the AMEZ and CRC, such as the doctrine of salvation.

"Every time I brought up salvation, Eleazar said, 'Of course it's grace that helps you make this choice,' and I'd say, 'And of course you have to accept with joy.' In Reformed tradition, the answer to Arminian theology is to always stress God's electing love and work in our life, so even in faith, the accent is on divine activity," Witvliet says.

Merriweather replies, "The AMEZ accent is more on human choice, but we still talk about God's prevenient grace that goes before us. Apart from that grace, we cannot respond favorably."

While the CRC speaks more about grace, Witvliet notes that Methodists stress the language of perfection. The AMEZ is structured around sanctification, the central theme of the Book of Discipline.

"You are a probationary member until you can answer yes to 'Are you growing on to perfection? Are you moving closer and closer to where God wants you to be?' It's about being delivered from the power of sin. Class members themselves hold each other accountable. Without this system, the church won't function and grow as it should," Merriweather says.

Different routes to the pastorate

Both denominations view the pastor as an elder and say the pastor has authority to preach and administer the sacraments of infant baptism and the Lord's Supper. But they have different routes to the pastorate.

"You have Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary. We have Livingstone College and Hood Theological Seminary. But in our churches, a person can never get to be ordained without a local congregation's stamp of approval to move on to seminary," Merriweather says.

AMEZ men or women who feel called to preach meet with the pastor, who questions them to make sure they're called and checks up on their family and relationships.

"To preach the word of God and manage the house of God, you have to be able to manage your own house," Merriweather explains. He was an electrical engineer for the U.S. Department of Energy when he heard God's call.

Next the candidate preaches a trial sermon, so the congregation can discern his or her general knowledge of Scripture. Some candidates have to preach more than one trial sermon. The person who passes this step gets ordained as a deacon and studies under a local church elder. The next ordination takes place at the annual AMEZ conference for people who have completed seminary.

CRC members who want to become pastors generally start by going to seminary. Though there are exceptions, CRC pastors must usually graduate from the master of divinity program at Calvin Theological Seminary. The annual CRC synod approves their candidacy, and they are ordained in the churches that call them to become pastors. Both men and women may earn the M.Div, but not all CRCs will call women as pastors.

Changing practice, not principle

"Always be alert to light bulb moments, those points of energy and discovery that show you're both on the same path. Eleazar and I share a common enthusiasm for how to hone historic wisdom to image relevant ministry today," Witvliet says.

"Absolutely," Merriweather agrees. "Church fathers and mothers went through great pain, prayer, and discussion to hammer out doctrines. We don't need to reinvent the wheel. But sometimes we need to change practices in ways that don't compromise principles-especially so we don't lose young people."

Both AMEZ and CRC congregations are involving more lay people in leading and planning worship, though this movement is a decade or so more established in the CRC.

"Principles include approaching, listening, and responding to God in worship. Practices are things like style and tempo of songs and sermons.

"Usually in our congregations, pastors pretty much do everything. But that's a practice, not a principle. It's a principle to convey the word of God, but it's a practice for the preacher to stand up and hammer away. Jesus in the Bible speaks to us in so many ways. We do Scripture a disservice when we try to convey the Word in only one way. The Spirit is calling me to try new things," Merriweather says.

That's why he has encouraged church members to lead prayer and read Scripture. So far more than 70 have helped lead morning worship. When he started using PowerPoint for main sermon points, he was surprised that all ages took to it so quickly.

Learning from each other

Merriweather and Witvliet are quick to point out riches in the other's tradition. Their conversations reminded Witvliet that African Americans are not homogenous in worship. In Grand Rapids, Michigan, for example, there are African American Baptist, Catholic, Church of God in Christ, Episcopal, and Pentecostal congregations-plus African Americans who attend multiracial churches.

Merriweather says, "I admire what the CRC is doing with youth ministry. At St. Luke we're just starting to involve youth in music, reading, and drama during worship services and still talking about hiring a youth pastor. I dream of an AMEZ worship symposium, so our young people can participate in worship renewal." He also compliments the CRC for reaching out to other cultures.

Witvliet appreciates how the AMEZ nurtures budding pastors. He also recalls attending a training session led by a Hood Theological Seminary professor at St. Luke AMEZ. "The majority of the congregation's members were spending most of a Saturday studying the Apostles' Creed. Would that the CRC would do that.

"And I love that class meeting question, 'How is your soul prospering?' The question invites a conversation about spiritual things."

Merriweather answers with one more plug for the class meeting system: "That's so people are ready, willing, and able to go out and bring people to Christ."

And isn't that the purpose of any congregation, no matter what its traditions are?

Participatory Reverence

Reverence is a priority in many African Methodist Episcopal Zion (AMEZ) congregations, as it is in many Christian Reformed Church (CRC) congregations.

Traditionally-designed sanctuaries, wooden pews, pipe organs, classic hymns, and formally-dressed people often characterize sanctuaries where members strive to “worship the Lord in the beauty of his holiness.” People in the pews are often as quiet as church mice, except during congregational songs.

But St. Luke AMEZ Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, is an excellent example of how to increase lay interactivity without compromising principles of order and decorum.

Choir members and worship leaders wear robes to help worshipers focus on God. “AMEZ churches are very big on robes. By being uniform we show spiritually that it's not the person—it's someone greater than us. Robes also symbolically cover our frailties,” says Eleazar Merriweather, pastor.

He'd like to add acolytes, to give young people the experience of leading others into holy worship.

Yet despite these formal worship elements, St. Luke members worship God with their whole bodies. Ushers stand in front holding collection plates, while white-gloved women in matching electric blue suits motion people row by row to bring forward their offerings.

Merriweather invites people to come up during the prayer before the sermon, called the altar prayer. About half come forward and half stay in their seats. A pre-designated member gives the prayer, but standing close reminds people that the prayer is offered on everyone's behalf. Sometimes the pastor invites people to join hands.

About 99 percent of the time, morning worship at St. Luke ends with an altar call. “There's a general belief we should do it, but no one will be upset if we choose not to sometimes,” Merriweather says.

People come to the altar rail to ask for prayer, rededicate themselves, commit themselves to Christ, ask to join the church, or support others who come forward. Merriweather asks each their reason for coming forward and speaks to each so the whole congregation can hear.

To those who commit their lives, he pledges to never do or say anything as a pastor that would detract from their ability to see Christ in him. He asks members to hold him to this promise and asks church members to commit to the same spirit of sanctity and discipline.

“The altar prayer and altar call help us remember that God said, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,' ” Merriweather says.

During the sermon, people are free to—and in fact invited—to voice encouragement: “Amen…That's right…Preach it, brother…Tell us, sister.” Merriweather often invites people to finish a Bible verse aloud together: “The Lord is my…SHEPHERD. I shall…NOT WANT.”

“You're more likely to remember something, if you say it out loud. I encourage people to say amen during the service. It's my biblical belief that you say amen when you know it is true, that God is speaking. When we confirm a truth, we help others know and believe,” he explains.

Recently Merriweather asked worshipers to do more than offer encouragement during the sermon. He asked them to share their opinions about the roles of godly men and women. “I didn't know what to expect, but they really responded. In fact, I eventually had to cut it off so I could finish the sermon,” he says.

Learn More

John Witvliet and Eleazar Merriweather did a session together during Symposium in 2005 on how to dialogue. Study the PowerPoint they presented. Use bonus handout for ideas on how to start your own cross-denominational conversation.

Compare prized historical documents of the Christian Reformed Church (Heidelberg Catechism) and the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (The Twenty-Five Articles of Religion).

Learn more about how Methodists today follow John Wesley's practice of mutual accountability through class meetings. Read why a Methodist pastor from Ghana believes North Americans need class meetings.

Trace streams of political activism in African American churches and in the CRC Office of Social Justice and Hunger. St. Luke AMEZ worked with two other congregations to build a Habitat for Humanity house.

The CRC has grown more ethnically diverse and is part of a worldwide family of Reformed Churches. The AMEZ is part of a worldwide family of Methodist churches. Its closest relatives, all begun because of discrimination by white Methodists, are the African Methodist Episcopal denomination and the Christian Methodist Episcopal denomination.

A recent Barna survey of 614 U.S. pastors shows how race, denomination, age, and geographic location affect a minister's priorities. According to High Impact African-American Churches, African Americans are more likely than other groups to view their lives as a gift from God and to see God as their sustainer in all circumstances.

Memoirs with insights into segments of CRC or black Methodist culture include

Start a Discussion

  • What are the most distinctive things about your denomination or theological tradition? Discuss ethnic, cultural, geographic, liturgical, or theological themes that set you apart. What are your feelings, positive or negative, about these distinctives?
  • Who would you most like to dialogue with about differences and similarities, whether in your denomination, your cultural group, or beyond?
  • What would be the best first steps towards starting a series of conversations? What benefits might you hope for?
  • Share a memory of learning about or experiencing a Christian idea or practice quite different than your own. Have you in any way incorporated this into your own understanding of faith?

Share Your Wisdom

What is the best way you've found to start a dialogue with Christians from other traditions?

  • Did you find an effective way to involve your clergy or council (i.e. board, session) in conversations with Christians from different backgrounds? Which best practices can you recommend to other churches?
  • What simple application of the "change practices without compromising principles" helped your congregation accept and benefit from a new idea?
  • In explaining your tradition's distinctive elements to someone else, how did your appreciation for your heritage change or deepen? In what way did you share this insight throughout your denomination?
  • Did you find a good way to involve your young people in this exploration of what makes your tradition unique?