Individual Relationships in Community

By Avery C. Kennedy

Canterbury United Methodist Church, was formed by the union of two congregation’s Union Hill and Mountain Brook Methodist churches in 1948 when they moved to to Canterbury’s current location. I observed three of Canterbury’s services in the spring 2023. Canterbury is a primarily White congregation that has between 500 and 750 worshipers each week, though on Easter that number swelled to 2,400 (North Alabama 2023). Canterbury’s senior pastor is Keith Thompson. He is assisted by a number of other pastors, including Tori Hastings and Sheryl Thornton who led the church’s Contemporary Service. Like many United Methodist churches, Canterbury has been discerning whether to stay in the United Methodist Church or disaffiliate because of issues related to human sexuality. As of March 23, the congregation was continuing its discernment process (Canterbury Discernment Team 2023). Canterbury lives to uphold its motto of “real grace, real love, and real life” this can be observed through its services and music.

Photos from Canterbury United Methodist Church‘s website, April 2023

Three Different Services

Each Sunday, Canterbury offers three distinct worship services. Canterbury has three very distinct services, these include an 8:15 – New Traditions Service, a 10:30 – Traditional Worship Service, and a 10:30 – Contemporary Worship Service. Not only are these services at different times but they also take place in different buildings. This gives each service a different  atmosphere and ambiance. The church does not say much on its website about these varying services and worship experiences, but they do say that they offer, “a variety of worship, learning, and service opportunities designed to accommodate the busy lives we all live.” This commitment to accommodate congregation’s lives is reflected by the fact that they offer such varied services. I think this is one of the beauties of Canterbury’s worship.

In their contemporary service, this theme of variety was evident both in worship, through a variety of songs, and in leadership with multiple pastors and other individuals leading the service. Along with variety in styles and times of service, Canterbury still anchors their goal of variety and convenience in what I am going to call the “We statements.” In each of the weekly contemporary service bulletins, Canterbury has their service outlined with five statements.

  • We Gather in God’s Presence
  • We Prepare Our Hearts with Song
  • We Respond to God
  • We Listen for God’s Voice
  • We Go to Live Like Jesus

These statements, while never verbally expressed, speak through the actions each service takes and keeps the services in routine. Through these statements, Canterbury outlines how not only in each service but how week to week “we” will come together and follow how God commanded us to worship. In turn, this is how “we” as a contemporary congregation will follow his commandments and worship in them. With its three-service model, Canterbury decreases their sense of unity from congregation to congregation but highlights their goals of variety and convenience.

Canterbury Center, where the contemporary service takes place at 10:30. The center opened in 2008. Photo: KPS Group.


Music plays a central role in Canterbury’s contemporary service. One way the congregation’s reverence for music was shown was through the inclusion of a children’s choir in one Sunday’s service. This seemed to be a very important part of worship to observe because it is a lot easier to understand what a church holds tightly to when it is been simplified for their kids. It also shows what they are choosing to feed their youth in terms of doctrine. The way that the church acted as they were singing was unique compared to the rest of contemporary service. During the other musical elements, the whole congregation would stand and participate in singing. While the kids were singing everyone was seated and silent. This seemed foreign to the spirit of the contemporary service. It seemed to me like for the children, music was more performative and maybe as they grow up they will gradually join the congregation for personal/ congregational worship.

Contemporary service, March 19, 2023, screenshot.

Typically, the first forty minutes of the service were filled with music whether it was background music or active singing, and each week the songs they sang were almost directly related to the sermon theme. For example, during a service in Lent services on the theme “Reclaiming Holy: Belief,” the worship team led songs based on God’s love for us and how we can trust him.

But within this topical focus, one aspect I found noteworthy was the use of songs with first-person singular pronouns. This was to promote the personal relationship each person has with God. Canterbury demonstrates this belief in the use of words such as “I” “My” and “Me”. These songs include but are not limited to “My Jesus” by Anne Wilson, “Glorious Day” by Passion, “He Is” by David Crowder, “So Will I (100 Billion X)” by Hillsong UNITED, and “Trust it All” by North Point Worship. While these ideas of a personal relationship and what God has done for the individual are not inherently bad, I think that this emphasis can lead to ideas of only what an individual can get out of worship, ideas of what we can bring to worship, God’s worthiness of our praise, or even what it means to be in worship with fellow believers. This is not to bash Canterbury and its talented worship team. This is simply to foster conversations and ask questions and understand how what we do can tell us what we believe and where we place value.


Worship scholar and United Methodist pastor, L. Edward Phillips, has identified six models of worship common among North American Protestants. Each has a distinct goal, or telos. In terms of the goals Phillips identifies, I think the goal of Canterbury United Methodist Church’s contemporary service is a beautiful blend of forming Christian citizenship and equality before God. We can see Christian citizenship in the way the church emphasizes Bible teachings and talks about practical applications to their body of believers. Thus, in terms of their motto, they offer God’s word for “real life.” They also teach their congregation about equality before God in the songs they have their members sing including what they have their children sing. This shows their emphasis on  “real grace” and “real love” for everyone.

Canterbury United Methodist Church
350 Overbrook Rd, Mountain Brook, AL 35213
Services Observed: Contemporary Worship, March 5, 19, and 26, 2023
Video archives:
Affiliation: United Methodist Church
Congregation first organized: 1867
Current location established: 1948


Canterbury UMC Discernment Team. 2023. Letter to Canterbury members, March 23, 2023.

“Canterbury United Methodist Church.” Bhamwiki. Accessed April 21, 2023.

North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church. 2023. Weekly Benchmark Report for Canterbury United Methodist Church, January 1, 2023 to April 23, 2023. Accessed April 24, 2023.

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

Avery Kennedy ‘26 was a student in Christian Worship: History & Theology in Samford University’s Department of Biblical and Religious Studies in Spring 2023.

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