Worship at a Congregation Built on Diversity and Inclusion

By Kelsey Richardson

I was honored to closely study Beloved Community Church, located in the heart of the Avondale neighborhood of Birmingham, Alabama, during spring 2021. While Beloved has been meeting in Avondale since it opened in 1999, when I observed this congregation it was operating online under strict Covid-19 restrictions. Each time I “attended” Beloved it was via Zoom. Here, though congregants were not bodily present, they not only watched the service live, but interacted with the pastor and one another. This congregation of the United Church of Christ numbered about twenty-five to thirty people each time I attended.

While this is small, it was the perfect amount of congregants for Zoom. In light of Covid circumstances, it was unique to watch a church service in this way where people met and saw each other face to face. When other congregations’ services were live streamed, but did not allow for synchronous interaction, Beloved created a unique way in which members could still meet together and worship God.

From observing several services at Beloved this semester, I have learned so much about their history, beliefs, worship style, and community life. Beloved is an inclusive, open, and affirming community of believers. Congregants come from many different backgrounds, races, sexualities, and beliefs. The church beautifully includes numerous types of people and yet brings people together centered around one common thing: worshipping God. Even in the middle of global pandemic, this church has created a space for their believers to still meet together “face to face” and continue to worship and grow in their faith.

Figure 1: The stained-glass window Featured on Beloved Community Church’s Website cover page.

The Role of Music

While Beloved Community Church belongs to the United Church of Christ denomination, the style of worship and the music it used in each service was unique in itself. Shortly after Beloved was organized, they adopted the African American Heritage Hymnal (2001), instead of using the United Church of Christ’s own New Century Hymnal (1995). Music was one of the most important aspects of each of the services I watched and it occupied the majority of the service time. There were three distinct times of musical worship during the service. The music, while traditional, was distinctive. While the songs sung during the Zoom call service were all pre-recorded, they were all connected to the season of Lent and Palm Sunday.

The music began right when people were all joining the Zoom call and waiting for the service to begin. The music ministry team leader played live piano over Zoom. The music had a smooth jazz and light gospel sound, but used elements of traditional African American worship styles. It is important to note that Beloved frequently used the African American Heritage Hymnal. The hymns sung during the Palm Sunday service were “Down At The Cross” by E. A. Hoffman, “Rise Again” by Dallas Holm, and “There is Power in The Blood” by Lewis E. Jones.

In general, the songs performed from each service I attended were upbeat gospel hymns that produced a euphoric, rhythmic, and responsive feeling. The music created a space in which members could participate in the service and interact with one another. The music used in the service attempted to accomplish acts of praise, instructing people with God’s word, praying for each other, celebrating the mission and life of the church and its members, and experiencing God’s presence through music and the word of God. Music at Beloved definitely was an important aspect of how the church worships God together.

Ethos of Worship at Beloved

Ethos, as defined by Edward Phillips in The Purpose, Pattern, and Character of Worship, is “a ‘character’ or in some cases we might say ‘style’ that fits with its particular telos [goal]” (Phillips 2020, 10). When looking at the ethos, or style, of Beloved Community Church, the focus is all about interpersonal intimacy with fellow congregants and openness. Beloved had a huge emphasis on “coming as you are” and making sure each person felt welcomed and that they could share their deepest secrets and thoughts with the congregation if they needed to or wanted to. There was also an emphasis on praying for each other and lifting one another up during challenging or suffering times. The pastor and other leaders encouraged people to share aspects of their personal lives in this communal setting where they were affirmed as valuable persons who belonged,

Many attenders at Beloved made it seem that the church provided their primary sense of community and that the congregation was an extremely important part of their lives. The majority of the congregants shared stories about feeling like they did not belong anywhere before attending Beloved and that they had found a place that felt like family. Sharing personal information in a setting where other people encourage you is the main aspect of what Phillips identifies as the “Prayer Meeting” character type. The ethos of this character type emphasizes intimacy with others and openness. This ethos fits in with the telos, or goal, or worship at Beloved as well.

The Goal of Worship at Beloved

In terms of the telos, or goal, of a typical service at Beloved, there was an emphasis on sharing personal stories and testimonies, as well as a feeling of mutual support from the church. Beloved participates in what the community calls “prayers for the people” in every service in which the congregation lets anyone share prayer requests. Each request is then validated by the congregation which replies, “This is our prayer” to the individual’s “This is my prayer.” Testimonies shared at Beloved included personal stories of conviction, resisting sin, and personal accounts of God’s work in the lives of each person.

What stands out to me about the telos of worship at Beloved is that it is purely based on caring for one another. This congregation is small but close knit. They seemed to me like one big family which carries each other’s burdens. Individuals present their prayers and struggles before God among other people for accountability and support. I believe this to be the telos because it describes the overall goal of gathering for worship at Beloved. They are attempting to achieve community and making their congregants feel welcome, no matter where they are from, the color of their skin, their religious background, or beliefs. Beloved’s goal is to make every person who walks in their doors, or joins their Zoom call, feel that they belong and matter somewhere.

A Unique Space

Beloved Community Church has currently been operating solely on Zoom during Covid-19. The congregation decided to transition to meeting on Zoom back in late March or early April of 2020 and have found that this a unique way of meeting that works best for them as a church. Since the congregation has small numbers , this creates a space where members can hear God’s word, participate in worship, and pray together for one another and for their community. This unique and creative way that this congregation has chosen to meet has made a way for communal worship and the hearing of God’s word to happen in the height of a global pandemic. Members joined the Zoom call and chose to leave themselves on mute or not. Some of them sung out loud during worship and others just listened.

A typical zoom call at Beloved, getting creative with communion.

Conclusion

Beloved Community Church has always been a congregation built on diversity and inclusivity. In the past year, they have modified their services to continue operating in the middle of a global pandemic and have transitioned to fully virtual worship. Beloved has become creative in keeping up with the times, yet it is still focused on its mission. The music, ethos, telos, and unique space remain important factors of worship at Beloved. The homepage of Beloved’s website states “The shape of church life has changed for this COVID moment, but our commitment to live out our faith does not change. While nearly all of our activities are online, our work as a church remains a vital joy” (Beloved Community Church). As Beloved continues to do the work of the Lord amidst unforeseen circumstances, their goals remain constant.

Beloved Community Church
Services Observed: Sunday Evening Worship, March 14, 21, and 28, 2021
Website: belovedcommunitychurch.org
Video Archives: Beloved Community Church. YouTube.
https://youtube.com/channel/UCdwMXTm3-9DdEoz5qGV57cg
Beloved Community Church. Videos.

References

African American Heritage Hymnal. 2001. Chicago: GIA Publications, Inc., 2001.

Bains, David R. “Beloved Community Church” Birmingham Historical Society. February 27, 2020.      https://birminghamhistoricalsociety.com/tag/beloved-community-church/.

“Beloved Community Church.” Bhamwiki. Accessed April 21, 2021. https://www.bhamwiki.com/w/Beloved_Community_Church.

Beloved Community Church: a diverse, inclusive, grace-filled community of people following Jesus. Accessed April 21, 2021. http://www.belovedcommunitychurch.org/.

“A Comprehensive Index of Hymns and Hymnals.” 2021. Hymnary.org: A Comprehensive Index of Hymns and Hymnals | Hymnary.org. Accessed April 21. 2021. https://hymnary.org/.

The New Century Hymnal. 1995. Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim Press.

Phillips, L. Edward. 2020. The Purpose, Pattern, & Character of Worship. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press,.

Welch. Emma. 2020. “Beloved Community Church,” Magic City Religion, April 19, 2020. https://magiccityreligion.org/2019/10/31/beloved-community-church/

Kelsey Richardson ‘21 was a student in Christian Worship: History & Theology in Samford University’s Department of Biblical and Religious Studies in spring 2021.

Published April 29, 2021.

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