More Than a Building: Using History to Focus on the Future
By Andrea Cournoyer
Walking by the corner of Sixth Avenue North and Nineteenth Street in downtown Birmingham provides a person the opportunity to step back in time. One can just imagine the wonder the construction of First United Methodist Church’s sanctuary caused when it was being completed back in 1891. At the time, it was the largest church in the city seating a total of 2,400 people within its auditorium-style sanctuary. Today it still serves as the church’s main building, and it continues to awe with its magnificent stained-glass windows and brownstone walls. However, First Church (as it likes to be called) sees itself as more than a building. It aims to play a central role in Birmingham’s religious and spiritual life. Although the church is rich in history and tradition, the congregation strives to carry on its legacy by looking to the future through crucial themes of love and inclusivity.
Rich in History
First Church started in 1872 and just last year celebrated 150 years of worship. The original name of the church was First Methodist Episcopal Church, South, and the first church meeting was held in a storehouse on First Avenue North known as the Bryant House (Bhamwiki 2022).The quick growth of the church led to its current sanctuary building being built less than twenty years after the congregation was initially started, and in the fall of 1891, Bishop John C. Kreener dedicated the church (Green 1896, 4). Because of the building’s architectural significance it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1982. Throughout all of these phases, the church has proved its place in the heart of downtown. Both tourists and church goers will tell you of its stunning architecture and beautiful detail. Its most recent restoration in 2014 brought its original interior color scheme and details back to life. All of this is to say that First Church prides itself on having a beautiful building to worship in. Today, the church holds both a contemporary and traditional worship service each Sunday. The traditional one is in the sanctuary and follows a typical United Methodist order of worship and the Revised Common Lectionary.
What Worship Looks Like Today
One clear difference that marks the outside of the church today that was not present a hundred years ago are the signs listing off all those who are welcome to worship. One of the church’s main mottos, if not the main one, is being “an open place for all” (First Church Birmingham, n.d.). The church shows this through its themes of love and inclusivity within worship as well as what it tries to accomplish within the community. The church aspires to be an open and engaging community that welcomes all people no matter their background. Their six church priorities include: practicing hospitality, embodying diversity, doing justice, encouraging authenticity, creating an inclusive community, and embracing tough questions. These show up in the ways the congregation serves the community as well as how it embraces those who are new or different in any given service. Because of the push for inclusiveness and diversity, every one who speaks within the service begins by mentioning the pronouns they prefer; this is yet another way to show that all are welcome without judgment. When attending worship, attendees can expect there to be a great amount of music and a homily. Both of these aspects look to push people closer to knowing and understanding God’s love. The singing of hymns and playing of the organ, however, take up a majority of the time in every service. One central and consistent theme in the music and worship is Christ’s love for believers being shown through his life and death. Almost every song, call to worship, or spoken word provides a different avenue through which this love can be seen and embraced. There is also a time the church calls the passing of the peace within the service that derives its name from early church practices; this time is a call to embrace others and encounter God through other people’s qualities and personalities. All of these aspects of worship highlight the sophisticated artistry and spirituality the church strives for in every single service.
Another unique aspect of First Church’s worship is the use of expansive language when referring to God. Instead of using the typical masculine form of he and him, the church often uses she or her. One can see this within the call to worship and the words of assurance. Also when the Lord’s Prayer is recited, it begins “Our Father/Mother who art in Heaven,” instead of what is traditional. (First Church’s senior pastor discussed this practice in a recent video.) This is a congregational decision that tries to keep from limiting God and putting restraints on who people understand God to be. It also serves as another way to be welcoming and inclusive. This church is convinced it cannot put enough emphasis on loving and including others, so if this serves as a way to invite people in, then it cannot be wrong.
Where the Church is Headed
As the church looks to the future, it embraces tough questions for its current congregation and for future members as well. There is an emphasis placed on determining who God is calling the church to be, and they feel led to follow where he takes the church. They wish to continue keeping the six priorities in the forefront while staying authentic and genuine. Searching for justice will continue to be an aspect important to this church, and they wish to stay involved in the community. Currently, the church also has an Executive Council team aimed at hearing God’s call and determining a recommendation in terms of the church’s denominational affiliation before the United Methodist Church’s next General Conference in 2024. This initiative named “Exploring Our Way Forward” seeks to provide clarity for the congregation as they continue trying to do Kingdom work.
Although this church and congregation have a past that has allowed them to flourish and grow, they are currently looking to determine their calling according to where God is leading them. They try to use all the tools necessary while delivering the message of God’s love to those who have not yet heard it. Inclusivity and diversity are key attributes, and there is a desire to see all being welcomed and adored. Thanks in part to its splendid building, the church strives to keep tradition alive while also incorporating aspects of the present and future that will allow them to continue to grow.
First United Methodist Church of Birmingham
Location: 518 19th St North, Birmingham, Alabama 35203
Services Observed: Sanctuary March 19, April 2 and 16, 2023
Affiliation: United Methodist Church
BhamWiki. 2022. “First United Methodist Church.” Accessed March 20, 2023. https://www. bhamwiki.com/w/First_United_Methodist_Church.
The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church. Nashville: The United Methodist Publishing House, 2016.
First Church Birmingham. n. d. “First Church Birmingham: An Open Place for All.” Accessed March 18, 2023. https://www.firstchurchbhm.com/.
Green, Fred W. 1896. Birmingham Church Directory of Birmingham, Alabama. Birmingham: Dispatch Stationary, Co.
Andrea Cournoyer ‘23 was a student in Christian Worship: History & Theology in Samford University’s Department of Biblical and Religious Studies in spring 2023
Published April 29, 2023.