Reimagining Church

Thriving Congregations Initiative: New Models for the 21st Century

Weeping and Rejoicing

By Luke Melonakos-Harrison

Hamden Plains United Methodist Church is a church with roots. The church itself has been embedded in its surrounding community for over 200 years, and many of its members hold memories from decades ago. In our first meeting, several members of the Reimagining Church working group described themselves as “family.” Within its living memory, the community has seen the neighborhood change and has seen many pastors come and go. In 2022, impacted by the pandemic and the many other cultural traumas of the past few years, HPUMC is again taking time to recalibrate and get back to its roots as a community of people who love each other, are grounded in a shared faith, and are ready to care for their neighbors. 

I felt nervous and excited about our first meeting. I had connected with several group members individually over the phone, so I knew I would be working with some thoughtful and committed people, but I wasn’t sure exactly how I would communicate the vision of Reimagining Church. I’m not a typical intern, and this isn’t a typical committee—I knew we would need to attain clarity and build consensus about the purpose of our gatherings at the first meeting. 

To ground ourselves in scripture, we looked at a text from the book of Ezra. In Ezra 3, a group of former exiles have returned to Israel from Babylon. They are laying the foundation of the new temple, over the place where the original temple, the centerpoint of their whole communal life with God, had been violently destroyed 70 years before. The text states that the elders in the community, those who could still remember the former glory of the first temple, wept; and that the sound of their weeping was mixed in with the sounds of others rejoicing, such that no one could tell whether the sounds coming from the crowd were mournful or celebratory. At this moment in the biblical narrative, the community is reimagining what it means to worship, to practice their faith, to gather together in God’s name—and that reimagining process provokes both tears and laughter, grieving for past memories while anticipating new beginnings. For so many churches, the prospect of “reimagining church” in 2022 includes a parallel process of both grief and hope. This proved true in our first working group meeting, as the participants from HPUMC engaged with this text and allowed it to lead us into a vulnerable, insightful discussion about where the community is at in its story right now.

Coming out of that first meeting, I felt encouraged by the possibilities of this group and what we could do together. I was struck by the authenticity and relative unguardedness of everyone in the room, and I felt honored to be invited into their “family” so readily. 

Image | Kate Sakhno on Unsplash