One Big Christ-Led Family
By Will Clapp
On Sunday March 26, 2023, the Reverend Brian Blackwell brought the word to the St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal congregation. I joined about one hundred others in person for this service, others were watching online. I had never been to any Methodist church, let alone an AME church before, so this was a fresh experience. When I walked in, I noticed that they do truly embody their motto of being one big Christ-led family. I was not only greeted but also got to have conversations with the people who greeted me until the service started. Even though I walked in alone, I got to sit with a family. Though that is just a personal experience, I believe it shows the true embodiment of the AME denomination’s motto: “God Our Father, Christ Our Redeemer, the Holy Spirit Our Comforter, Humankind Our Family” and the congregation’s own motto “One Big Christ-led Family.”
Everyone was excited to be there and treated everyone like family. The worship also embodied this as everyone was moving and ecstatic. The service lasted about an hour and half of it was the sermon. It was also littered with scripture readings and music, mainly before the sermon. The hymns that were sung directly related to the message and all of this was in a very charismatic way, similar to Pentecostal worship. Yet, because of the use of the AME’s traditional liturgical structure, the service also resonated with the models of Christian worship that United Methodist worship scholar, L. Edward Phillips calls “traditional worship” or “word and table” (Phillips 2020). I discerned three parts to the service: musical worship, readings, then sermon, but some readings were also recited during the musical worship and after the sermon.
One Big Family
The main point of the service was God is still with you no matter the circumstances. This was shown not only through the scripture and sermon, but the music too. In this service they sang “Hold to God’s Unchanging Hand” (AMEC Bicentennial Hymnal 513). They sang others too, but this was the main one before the invocation. The scripture used was the story of the raising of Lazarus (John 11:1-45) and Romans 8:6-11. (These were the New Testament readings appointed in the Revised Common Lectionary for this day.) With the story of Lazarus pointing to the idea the God never leaves and Romans pointing to the idea that Jesus brings life, it really showcases the point of the message and the mission of the church. Their main mission in this church from what was observed and on their public website, is to be a family. I found this to be woven throughout all aspects of the service and the worship that took place.
Worship at St. Paul
The service was a very well-structured and followed the AME tradition. Everything transitioned smoothly. One thing that is worth noting is that the choir would sometimes make up their own worship verses in the middle of worship and that this was expected. It worked very well. They clearly accomplished their goal which is to keep some tradition while also being a very inviting space for all those who want to participate. And in doing so also accomplished their main points. When the choir did veer of script, the congregation shouted affirmations and really felt the music. Everything that was done also emphasized the main message of that Sunday. Even though it was my first time, and some things were unexpected, I was still able to follow the whole service, partly because of the bulletin and partly because of the cues given throughout to keep everything on track. Even though it was a Methodist church, the worship that took place embodied some of the improvisational character of Pentecostal worship. They seemed like they were veering off script, but then again everything would be on track. It was a unique tension that was welcomed. The mix of tradition and free worship was that of balance, as might be expected of the Methodist tradition since it is in the middle of the Protestant liturgical spectrum (White 2000, 38). It was great!
Evangelism, Family, Trust
There were three distinct missions shown throughout the whole worship service. One was evangelism. This mission from the AME tradition is critical to each service. It was shown in this service by an altar call. The warm welcome highlights this mission well too. In my eyes they did a great job presenting this as it was not forced. It was a part of the service, and I definitely did not feel any pressure to do anything. This to me is a good thing, responding to an altar call should be natural. The next mission was that of being a family. This was the most evident by far. Before the service even began the people of the church made me feel at home. As I have already stated, I did not sit alone even though I walked in alone. To me this was profound. Not only was the church saying they wanted to be a family, but the congregation also embodied it well. The last of the missions highlighted on this Sunday was that of trusting God. More specifically, trusting him that he has our back in times of need when it could seem like all hope is lost. This Sunday-specific mission was shown most prominently through both the music and the sermon. Having these corelate makes the service flow extremely well.
All in all, this church has a mission and went after it. Everything pointing to trusting God throughout the whole worship service is a great service to me. Both the family-oriented mindset and the growing in believers’ missions from the church are shown each week. This service was well planned and extremely thought out as it highlighted each mission seamlessly. The emphasis of being family oriented really shows and it made me feel at home. Even though this is not my main church, I cannot help but want to visit again and be a part of their big Christ-led family.
St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church Smithfield
Location: 300 4th Court North, Birmingham, AL 35204
Services Observed: Sunday, March 12, 19 (online), 26 (in person), 2023
Video Archives: Church’s websitehttps://www.saintpaulamesmithfield.org/sermons or Facebook https://www.facebook.com/watch/saintpaulamechurchsmithfield/
Affiliation: African Methodist Episcopal Church
Congregation established: 1911
AMEC Bicentennial Hymnal. 1984. Nashville, TN: African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Phillips, L. Edward. 2020. The Purpose, Pattern, and Character of Worship. Nashville: Abingdon Press.
White, James F. 2000. Introduction to Christian Worship. Third ed. Nashville: Abingdon.
Will Clapp ‘25 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