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Vermont Church Increases Membership as It Reaches Out to Young Worshippers


According to several national surveys, most Americans profess a belief in God, yet only a minority attends a weekly worship service. In response, many mainstream Christian congregations are trying to make their services more contemporary, more inclusive and more relevant, especially to young people.

At 9:00 on a Sunday morning at Grace United Methodist Church, a massive stone edifice just off Main Street in downtown Saint Johnsbury, Vermont, a traditional, mostly gray-haired, choir is rehearsing for the 10:00 am. service. Joan Beatty has been singing in this choir for 60 of her 69 years.

"And I love it," she says. "The Lord gave me this voice and I'm giving it back as long as He lets me. Some of the songs we have are just so awesome!"

Today, there are almost 200 regular members of Grace Church, a 25 percent increase from a mere decade ago. As in many parts of the country, attendance at Grace United Methodist Church was declining.

Many reasons were given for the trend, including an apparent lack of interest by many young people with their parents' style of worship. It was more tradition-bound than many felt comfortable with. So now, in addition to the traditional choir, a young people's "Praise Band" rehearses prior to the service, and has a key part in the morning's worship.

"People hear the organ and they also hear the electric guitar and drums," says Pastor John Marshall, Jr., the youngest leader in Grace Church's 150-year history. He says he initiated the so-called "blended service because "It keeps everyone together. Whether they are two years old or 102." He says it is the church's mission "to have all people experience, embrace and extend God's grace through Christ and that's what we try to do in an enjoyable way, in a pretty informal way."

Jamie, 18, who sings and plays guitar in the Praise Band, says he likes the way that teen culture and his spiritual life can meet each other halfway. "If you look at biblical times and you look at now, people praise the Lord with whatever they have available."

He acknowledges that there are temptations to avoid in today's secular climate. "Absolutely! There are the classic drugs, sex and alcohol. That is not the path I'd like to go down. I find much more joy in living my life for Him than I do in any of those other things. There is also more lay involvement at Grace United Methodist Church than in the past. Congregants frequently lead prayers and offer scriptural readings. Parishioners today even play an active role in designing the service.

Pearly Wright, who has been a member of the church for 40 years, especially likes the portion of the Sunday service when congregants offer their blessings and thanksgiving out loud.

"It may be a beautiful vegetable garden or it may be the wonderful weather we're having or the colored leaves and things like that," he says. "The pastor also gives us an opportunity to name people by the first name that need God's help."

Whether or not these accommodations with mainstream culture will result in more spiritually committed lives, or merely serve to secularize Christian worship is the subject of debate here at Grace United Methodist, and at churches around the country. Pastor John Marshall says the answer is in "God's hands."