All are Welcome as God Has Welcomed Us
By Kate G. Dyleski
Sunday morning worship at Birmingham’s First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) emphasizes teaching and character formation. This is a telos, or goal, that worship scholar L. Edward Phillips associates with the tradition of worship that emerged form the Sunday school assembly in the nineteenth century (Phillips 2020). Founded in downtown Birmingham, Alabama, First Christian is now located about eleven miles southeast in North Shelby County on Valleydale Road. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, my observations were made in spring of 2021.
History of the Congregation
First Christian Church was founded in Birmingham by Colonel J.J. Jolly in 1874. At the time, they were meeting in homes of members such as Leven Goodrich. After Jolly and Goodrich left town in 1878, the congregation withered away. It was revived in 1885 and met in multiple locations, including the YMCA and Jefferson County Courthouse, before building its first of three different buildings downtown. In 1981, it opened its first unit on the current location, compiling a new sanctuary there in 1989. They are still found here in the North Jefferson County suburbs (“First Christian” 2020).
The Church’s Mission
As emphasized on their website, First Christian Church focuses on what God wants for its members, “Some churches want something from you; we are more concerned with what God wants for you: a worshiping community, holy friendships, dynamic spirituality, a sacred purpose, joyful generosity, and a faith worth sharing.” In regard to the beliefs and motives of the church and its liturgical polity, this congregation is more connectional. They follow their denomination’s guidelines for worship and mission. The identity statement found on the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) website states: “We are Disciples of Christ, a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world. As part of the one body of Christ we welcome all to the Lord’s Table as God has welcomed us.”
Disciples of Christ place much emphasis on their two most prominent sacramental practices: eucharist and baptism. They believe that all followers of Jesus are welcome to the Lord’s Table, as he has accepted and welcomed us. In addition, the denomination practices the baptism of believers, and believes that by baptism Christians are called to use their gifts in love and service. The church explains that they are encouraged to thoughtfully study scripture because they are called to study and read it for themselves, while taking into account the history and context in which it was written. Lastly, the Disciples of Christ believe that they have a special calling to reveal the unity of all Christians because everyone belongs together in our diversity simply because we belong to Christ.
The Service Itself: “Sunday Morning Worship”
Because I watched the service online, it was difficult to observe the congregation itself. The church was allowing members to register to attend a service in person; however, they only allowed seventy-five people to be in attendance at a time. They required masks and had everyone sit socially distanced from one another. The church provided pre-packaged communion and did not pass offering plates around to prevent the spread of germs. As far as attire went, the ministers and music director wore more traditional vestments such as albs or robes with stoles. Other members and leaders were dressed nice, but more casual.
The service began with a fifteen-minute piano musical prelude as the congregation gathered in person and online. Excluding this time, the service itself was about forty minutes, with five minutes towards the middle for the children’s portion of the service. A couple of minutes were spent welcoming the congregation into worship. The associate minister took five minutes to share about the special Easter offering benefitting their Disciples Missions Fund and included video testimonies from those working for this organization, before giving the congregation time to give their offerings. The live-stream service then transitions into a five-minute portion dedicated to teaching the children who were watching online. Next, two-and-a-half minutes were spent on confession, in both silent and corporate prayer. Six minutes were then spent on celebrating the Lord’s Supper. Immediately following, a church member read a two-minute-long scripture reading for the day. The final thirteen minutes was spent on the sermon presented by the senior pastor. The service closed with a final hymn sang by the music director, and a benediction given by the senior pastor.
In regard to the sacramental dimensions of worship, participation in the eucharist was the most emphasized. In Lester Ruth’s taxonomy, a sacramental principle is defined as, “the normal means by which a congregation assesses God’s presence in worship or believes that God is made present through worship” (Ruth 2002, 48). God is incorporated into worship here at First Christian Church through the symbolic message of the Lord being present in the blessing and breaking of bread during the eucharist. They emphasized that all may be included because everyone is a child of God, regardless of worldly status.
In a typical worship service at First Christian Church, I believe the telos, or goal, of the service is Christian character and citizenship. Within the sermons, there was a strong emphasis and focus on character traits and behaviors of Christians. For example, one sermon discussed a lot about control, and releasing the control we would like to have over our lives to God. In this sense, the minister was discouraging having controlling personalities, because as Christians, we are called to rely on God to control the aspects of our lives instead of relying on ourselves. During the offering portion of the service, the associate pastor placed a strong emphasis on giving so that in turn, they would enable others within their denomination to serve though the Disciples Mission fund. Video testimonies from members of the congregation were then shared to encourage other both to give and to serve. This focus on a denominational mission fund and the focus on Christian character are both hallmarks of what Phillips identifies as character type of worship rooted in the Sunday school assembly (Phillips 2020).
The ethos of a typical Sunday worship service at First Christian Church also fits with the Sunday school character type. It is didactic, in that it places an emphasis on teaching. The leaders incorporated teaching not only into the sermon and scripture readings, but also as they celebrated the Lord’s Supper. Here, the elders gave a brief thought or lesson before the breaking of the bread. One of the elders spoke against the worldly desire to be consumed with oneself by stating that “the word ‘normal’ has become like the word ‘I’ in that it is selfish, and we use it too often.”. In addition, about halfway through the live-streamed service, there was a portion dedicated to teaching the children who were watching online. Here, the nursery coordinator continued through a six-week lesson leading up to Easter using pictures and a felt objects to illustrate to the children what they were learning. This act alone is an outstanding representation of the importance the congregation places on teaching.
First Christian Church
Address: 4954 Valleydale Road, Birmingham, AL 35242
Services Observed: February 21, March 14, and 28
Congregation’s Website: http://fcc-bhm.org/
Denomination’s Website: https://disciples.org/
Video Archives: First Christian Church of Birmingham. Videos. Facebook https://www.facebook.com/FCCBHM/videos/
“First Christian Church.” 2020. Bhamwiki. Last updated November 22, 2020. https://www.bhamwiki.com/w/First_Christian_Church
Phillips, L. Edward. 2020. The Purpose, Pattern, & Character of Worship. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press.
Ruth, Lester. 2002. “A Rose by Any Other Name: Attempts at Classifying North American Protestant Worship.” In The Conviction of Things Not Seen: Worship and Ministry in the Twenty-First Century, edited by Todd E. Johnson, 33-51. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press.
Kate Gorman Deleski ‘22 was a student in Christian Worship: History & Theology in Samford University’s Department of Biblical and Religious Studies in spring 2021.
Published May 20, 2021.