Photo Friday: The Brethren in Christ in the Pacific Northwest

The Redwood Country Church -- the first Brethren in Christ congregation established in the Pacific Northwest -- circa 1948. Courtesy of Mark Chamberlain.

The Redwood Country Church — the first Brethren in Christ congregation established in the Pacific Northwest — circa 1948. Courtesy of Mark Chamberlain.

Readers of The Search for Piety and Obedience know I took a bit of a vacation back at the end of July. My wife and I spent some time traveling in the Pacific Northwest, visiting Seattle, WA; Portland, OR; and some of the rural area just south of Portland near Mt. Hood. It was a great time of much-needed rest and relaxation.

But traveling in the Pacific Northwest got me thinking about the forthcoming August 2014 issue of Brethren in Christ History and Life, the journal of the Brethren in Christ Historical Society. (Regular readers know that I serve as Assistant Editor for this publication.) In that issue, we include a full-length biography of Benjamin and Priscilla Books, a mid-twentieth century pastoral couple in the Brethren in Christ Church. Their life story — lovingly written by their grandson, Mark Chamberlain — is important for a number of reasons, showcasing mid-century Brethren in Christ life, education, and ministry.

But the Books’ life and ministry is also important because they were pioneering church planters in the denomination, literally taking the Brethren in Christ message to place it had never been before: the Pacific Northwest. Today’s Photo Friday commemorates their ministry with an image of the church they established, the Redwood Country Church.

After the jump: More about the first Brethren in Christ congregation in the Pacific Northwest. Continue reading

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“Will There Ever Be Another Brethren in Christ Hymnal?”

In January 2014, over 100 people turned out for a Brethren in Christ hymn sing, led by Dr. Dwight Thomas. The hymn sing was organized as part of a course I was teaching at Messiah College.

In January 2014, over 100 people turned out for a Brethren in Christ hymn sing, led by Dr. Dwight Thomas. The hymn sing was organized as part of a course I was teaching at Messiah College.

Earlier this year, while teaching a course on Brethren in Christ history and theology at Messiah College, I worked with Dr. Dwight Thomas to organize a hymn sing on the College’s campus. My students were required to attend this event, but the opportunity to sing old Brethren in Christ hymns also drew upward of 100 others: college faculty, staff, and students; pastors and laypeople from local Brethren in Christ congregations; residents of Messiah Village; and others.

After a rousing hour of singing, Dr. Thomas agreed to take some questions from the audience. One intrepid participant raised his hand and asked, “Will there ever be another Brethren in Christ hymnal?”

Hymns for Praise and Worship (1984), the most recent hymnal produced by the Brethren in Christ Church

Hymns for Praise and Worship (1984), the most recent hymnal produced by the Brethren in Christ Church

Now, a bit of context for this question. Those “in the know” will recall that the Brethren in Christ have had five hymnals in their history, published in 1874, 1906, 1935, 1963, and 1984. Most are known by the color of their covers: the green hymnal (1906), the brown hymnal (1935), the red hymnal (1963), and the blue hymnal (1984).

The last Brethren in Christ hymnal is now 30 years old. And in those intervening 30 years, Brethren in Christ music has shifted significantly. Following the pattern of the larger American Evangelical movement, Brethren in Christ congregations have switched from singing primarily traditional hymns to singing contemporary worship songs, the kind produced by the Vineyard or Hillsong movements. They’ve moved from using choirs (which only became mainstream in the Brethren in Christ tradition in the 1950s and 1960s) to using specialized worship teams. And they’ve moved from singing from printed hymnals to singing “off the wall” — from slides projected onto screens positioned strategically throughout the sanctuary.

So the question, “Will there ever be another Brethren in Christ hymnal?” is a pretty loaded one — one that suggests the trajectory of Brethren in Christ (and American Evangelical) music over the course of the last twenty-five-or-so years has been bad, and that a new hymnal is needed to stem the tide.

Dr. Thomas answered “no” to the question when it was raised at the hymn sing. I tend to agree, although sorrowfully, since I prefer hymns to contemporary worship songs. Given my answer and my antipathy toward that conclusion, I was pleased to read “15 Reasons Why We Should Still Be Using Hymnals,” from the Ponder Anew blog. (As an aside, I love the tagline for this blog: “Discussions about worship for thinking people.” We need more thinking people doing the work of music ministry in the church!) In the post, the blogger divides his reasons for hymnal-use into three categories: Musical, Practical, and Symbolic/Theological.

Here’s a sample argument from each category:

MUSICAL: Hymnals actually teach music. We’re making less music than ever before. Oh, to be sure, there’s lots of music going on around us, but very few people are actually making it. We’re just consuming it, or at the very most, singing along with music someone else made first. But even an untrained musician can look at the words and music in the hymnal and learn to follow melodic direction and rhythmic value.

PRACTICAL: Hymnals are as helpful as the singer needs them to be. It’s hard to ignore a screen, no matter how well I know the song being sung. Its mere presence sends most people into a trance. There are times I must pay close attention to the hymnal. I recently sang the hymn “Ye watchers and ye holy ones” in a service. I know of the hymn, and I know LASST UNS ERFREUEN, but I didn’t grow up singing it. I had to follow the entire time. I needed the hymnal. Last Saturday, I sang in the choir for a funeral. It was a beautiful service; a reflection on a life well-lived in service of the kingdom. When it came time for the final hymn, “Blessed Assurance,” I rose, opened the hymnal, and held it out, but didn’t look at it once. I long ago internalized every note and word of this hymn. I was free to look out into the congregation, making eye contact, sharing the ethos of the experience with others.

SYMBOLIC/THEOLOGICAL: Hymnals give congregational singing back to the people. Congregations watching screens are at the mercy of whoever is sitting behind the computer. Holding hymnals symbolizes the fact that the voice of the congregation is the primary instrument in corporate worship.

You can read the full list here.

It was hard for me to pick just one “Symbolic/Theological” entry to share, since I think hymnals have such profound theological value, both in terms of the content (the songs themselves, which tend to communicate theology in greater complexity than their pop-influenced contemporaries) and the act of using a hymnal itself. Especially for a people like the Brethren in Christ, who value community, mutuality, and “brotherhood,” singing from a hymnal replicates our core values. We share a common page and are united by that page. We join our voices in four-part harmonies that are mapped out for us on the page (as opposed to the screen, which includes no musical notation). Hymnal usage, as the blogger notes in the passage referenced above, “symbolizes the fact that the voice of the congregation is the primary instrument in corporate worship.” We come together as a worship community in using a hymnal: we share the same page, we unite our voices, we can hear one another sing, and we lead one another in that singing.

By contrast, contemporary worship bands — in my opinion — tend to transform corporate worship into a performance, where the congregation is simply along for the ride, reading the words “off the wall” and, over the din of the band’s instrumentation, barely able to hear their brothers and sisters joining voices in song.

Of course, none of this answers the key question of this post: “Will there ever be another Brethren in Christ hymnal?”

Readers: What do you think?

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Photo Friday: Building Messiah Village

Two photos of Messiah Village under construction. At top, Messiah Home being built along Paxton Street in Harrisburg, Pa., in 1935; at bottom, Messiah Village being built in Mechanicsburg, Pa., in 1978. (Brethren in Christ Historical Library and Archives)

Two photos of Messiah Village under construction. At top, Messiah Home being built along Paxton Street in Harrisburg, Pa., in 1935; at bottom, Messiah Village being built in Mechanicsburg, Pa., in 1978. (Brethren in Christ Historical Library and Archives)

Here at The Search for Piety and Obedience, we’ve posted many times about Messiah Village — the Brethren in Christ-affiliated retirement community in Mechanicsburg, Pa. (It’s part of the larger Messiah Lifeways network of residential communities and support services for older adults. Readers will know that this nonprofit organization traces its roots to 1896 and the founding of Messiah Rescue and Benevolent Home in Harrisburg, Pa., by a group of Brethren in Christ concerned about caring for orphans and widows. By the 1930s, the institution had changed its name to “Messiah Home” and moved to the city limits along Paxton Street; by the late 1970s, it had moved once again to the suburbs of Mechanicsburg, Pa., where it continues to this day.

Today’s Photo Friday post showcases these moves. The first image, taken in 1935, shows the Messiah Home under construction along what today is Paxton Street in Harrisburg. I love this photo mostly because it depicts Paxton Street looking very different than it does today. The second photo shows the construction that preceded the home’s move to suburban Mechanicsburg a few decades later.

Readers: Feel free to share your stories about these two locations in the Comments below!

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Taking a Blogging Vacation

vacation-graphicIt’s time for The Search for Piety and Obedience to take a summer vacation — mostly so I can relax on my summer vacation!

We’ll be back on August 1 with our next Photo Friday installment. See you next month!

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2014 General Conference, Update #3


While I continue to pull together some personal reflections on the 2014 General Conference of the Brethren in Christ Church in the U.S. (as I promised here and here), I wanted to share some smart reflections from my friend, colleague, and fellow blogger Harriet Sider Bicksler.

At her blog Pieces of Peace, Harriet reflects on the recent General Conference gathering — and especially the trust (or lack thereof) displayed by both conference delegates and church leaders.

Here’s an excerpt from her excellent post, “What I’ve Been Thinking About This Summer“:

In denominational business meetings last weekend where I was a delegate from my congregation, as questions were raised about proposed changes in governance, the issue of trust took center stage. I firmly believe that our denominational leaders want what is best for the church; I also understand and sympathize with those who were questioning past actions and current proposals and displaying what appeared to be a lack of trust in their leaders.

I’ve been on both sides of this matter of organizational trust. I’ve been on boards (and chaired one of them) that made decisions that weren’t always appreciated or supported by the rank-and-file. I’ve been hurt by accusations both direct and indirect that the board didn’t know what it was doing, we had some kind of hidden agenda, we weren’t worthy of trust. The truth is that members of the boards I was on really had the best interests of the organization at heart, tried to be wise and careful in our decision-making, but among many good decisions also made some that in hindsight didn’t work out so well. Being considered untrustworthy feels like a low blow when we were doing our best to do the right thing.

On the other hand, I’ve also been the “victim” of decisions by organizations that didn’t make sense to me, seemed to head the organization in a direction that would result in a loss of things I believe(d) critical to the organization’s mission and identity, and could have unintended consequences (or perhaps intended, I would think, when I was in my most distrustful and cynical frame of mind). I’ve been frustrated by leaders, who when challenged say something like, “you chose us to be your leaders, so you need to trust us; you need to submit to our authority.” It doesn’t sit well with me when those who support organizational decisions and directions seem to want to shut down dissent and conversation and move on.

Harriet’s words reflect my own personal processing of the Conference proceedings. Read her whole blog post here.

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Born-Again Brethren in Christ: Week #2 & 3 — An Apology and a Methodological Reflection

Screen shot 2014-07-01 at 12.51.11 AMClick here for some background on this post.

Well, I’ve already failed (dare I use that word?) in my promise to write weekly updates in my attempt to turn my master’s thesis into a publication-worthy article. Some readers of The Search for Piety and Obedience may have noticed that I didn’t publish an update on my progress last week. That’s likely because — frankly — I haven’t done a single bit of work on “Born-Again Brethren in Christ” in the last ten days! Between the Brethren in Christ General Conference (which I blogged about here and here), some pre-vacation work wrap-up, and various personal/family projects, I have been preoccupied by other things. As a result, my project has suffered.

But the work has never been far from my mind. This was particularly true as I spent time with my denominational brothers and sisters in Lancaster, Pa., a week or so ago. On more than one occasion, the “problem” of Evangelicalism within the Brethren in Christ Church cropped up in our dialogue, both interpersonally and on the floor of Conference. In a moment of surprising honesty while addressing the General Conference body, one pastor (not mentioning names!) accused some within the denomination of being “Southern Baptists in drag” when it comes to their theology. The implication, of course, was that Evangelicalism had “infiltrated” (and was continuing to infiltrate) our denominational community and affected the way some pastors teach and preach our stated theology.

When I hear statements like these, I tend to react in two ways. First, I react confessionally — as someone committed to the Brethren in Christ community’s core values and involved in the life and ministry of the church. As I detailed in my last post in this series, my own personal spiritual sojourn has occurred at the intersection of Anabaptism and Evangelicalism, within the context of the Brethren in Christ community, and so I can’t escape the fact that I have confessional convictions that shape the way I respond to the issue at hand.

Second, I react as a scholar. I feel the need to take a step back from the fracas and put the issue into historical perspective. I want to contextualize my brothers’ and sisters’ concerns by appealing to what others said five, ten, twenty, or fifty years earlier about the exact same issue. I want to tell stories about people like C. N. Hostetter, Jr., a former Messiah College president and peace advocate; Arthur Climenhaga, a Brethren in Christ bishop who left his post to lead an Evangelical para-church agency; and Ruth Dourte, a pastor’s wife whose interactions with Evangelicals convinced her that she didn’t need to wear a head covering — but that she did need to stay committed to counter-cultural practices like peacemaking. I want to remind my brothers and sisters that there are multiple ways to read the same sets of evidence — and that the “infiltration” argument is only one of many arguments being made, historically and contemporarily, about the relationship between the Brethren in Christ community and Evangelicalism.

My role as a participant-observer naturally makes my research a bit more difficult: it raises questions about bias, perspective, and intent. It threatens to skew my conclusions if not held in proper check. It also makes me an unpopular voice in both pro- and anti-Evangelical camps within the church, since I’m unwilling to jump on one bandwagon or the other. But this dual role also enables me to meet a felt need with a community of meaning. In other words, it allows me to connect the somewhat abstract, indifferent work of historical research with the practical, concrete questions being asked by a specific group of people. Ultimately, it allows me to produce scholarship that matters.

And in the end, it’s that opportunity that keeps me working on “Born-Again Brethren in Christ” — a process I’ll continue sharing with you in the coming weeks.

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2014 General Conference, Update #2


Author’s Note: This post was scheduled to go “live” on Tuesday, July 15. Somehow, it stayed unpublished. Sorry for the delay!

The 2014 General Conference of the Brethren in Christ Church in the U.S. has wrapped up in Lancaster, Pa. It’s been a busy four days of fellowship, worship, business meetings, and other activities.

To hear more about what happened during Conference, check out the General Conference 2014 blog or follow the #BICconf14 hashtag on Twitter and Facebook. Video of the evening worship services and business sessions are also available online.

I’m hoping to post some thoughts on the Conference this week or next. In the meantime, check out the thoughts already being shared about General Conference by my sister and brothers from Circle of Hope (a Brethren in Christ network of cells and congregations in Philadelphia): Rachel Sensenig, Jonny Rashid, and Rod White.

As I said in my last post, I was so glad to attend General Conference this year, especially after missing it in 2012. I got to meet new folks doing important ministry across the U.S. Brethren in Christ Church. I was able to catch up with friends I haven’t seen in months or even years. And perhaps most importantly for my blog readers, I got to meet folks who regularly read The Search for Piety and Obedience!

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