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Churches discern creative approaches and start new traditions


A ‘rummage sale’ has begun

March 21, 2021

First Presbyterian Church of Hightstown, N.J., took its breathtaking indoor displays outdoors. Here, Pentecost “flames” pouring out of the building become a powerful symbol for the church today. Courtesy of First Presbyterian Church

Phyllis Tickle, the late author and founding editor of the religion department at Publishers Weekly, once wrote that every 500 years the church experiences a “massive upheaval,” where old ideas are rejected and new ones emerge. Tickle used the analogy of a “500-year rummage sale” to illustrate how the church enters into a period of cleaning house, deciding what to keep and what to toss in order to make way for the new thing God is doing.

And, a great rummage sale has begun as Presbyterian congregations grapple to make sense of the changes the pandemic has brought not only to Sunday morning worship, but to what it means to be a Christian in this new world.

While it’s too early to tell what the long-term effects of the pandemic will be on churches, congregations are discerning what traditions to keep and what to toss, and what innovations are here to stay. For congregations who are dipping their toes back into the waters of in-person worship, there are noticeable changes. At Putnam United Presbyterian Church in Putnam, New York, the risk of spreading the coronavirus through congregational singing has led to a new worship experience that session plans to continue even when communal singing returns. That is incorporating an extended period of silence after the preacher’s sermon. Traditionally, after the preaching of the Word, the congregation would sing a hymn. But in the time of COVID-19, a holy space for stillness was presented to — and welcomed by — the congregation.

Churches are also finding creative ways to take the message out to the community that while the building might be closed, the church is still alive and well. One way to do that is to literally use its outdoor space as its billboard.

Since 2011, First Presbyterian Church of Hightstown, New Jersey, has been wowing worshipers with its art installations that have taken the traditional sanctuary from beautiful to breathtaking. The six-member Art Ministry team creates decorative displays that enhance the worship experience. In the past, yards of orange, red and yellow fabric were draped around the sanctuary, with the remaining yardage pooled at the front of the pulpit, representing a burst of Pentecost flames.

It was a sight to behold in past years, but one that would not be seen by anyone in 2020. That’s when the art team decided to create a Pentecost display outdoors.

A wooden cross wrapped in chicken wire, allowing for prayers to be written on paper and attached to it, would have Pentecost “flames” draped around it. Wanting to achieve the feeling of movement, it was decided that the fabric should be draped from the very top of the church building and have it cascade out and down to the ground.

When the team was done, they were in awe as to what had just been created. Before their eyes was the most perfect symbolism of Pentecost — God’s mighty and fiery Spirit pouring out of a building and onto the streets below.

“It was like the very first Pentecost with the Spirit descending upon those gathered and leading them out to share the good news,” said Anne Willis, a member of the art team. And share the good news First Presbyterian of Hightstown has done, with the “feedback from the community being overwhelming.”

In July, when the Pentecost installation was disassembled — as the “fabric was fading,” Willis said — a person was found kneeling in prayer at the cross.

Willis is excited with this opportunity to create eye-catching art displays outdoors. The team has talked “for years” about doing more installations beyond the sanctuary.

“It’s something we never got around to. The pandemic has made it all happen,” said Willis.

 Donna Frischknecht Jackson, Editor, Presbyterians Today

Revised Common Lectionary Readings for Sunday, March 21, 2021, the Fifth Sunday in Lent (Year B)

First Reading Jeremiah 31:31-34
Psalm 51:1-12
Or alternate Psalm Psalm 119:9-16
Second Reading Hebrews 5:5-10
Gospel John 12:20-33

Today’s Focus:  Rummage Sale

Let us join in prayer for: 

PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
David Gambrell, Presbyterian Mission Agency
Jeremy and Luta Garbat-Welch, Presbyterian Mission Agency

Let us pray:

O God, who transforms seeds of faith into a great garden of blessings, we thank you for the witness of congregations that see beyond their limits to the unlimited resources you provide. Though Christ our Lord we pray. Amen.

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