Worshippers dance in the aisles as spirit fills Bangor seminary’s Convocation

Posted Jan. 12, 2012, at 3:31 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — As the service ended and the postlude was played on Wednesday, worshippers rose from their seats and danced in the aisles, filled with the spirit.

That would not be unusual if it had happened on a Sunday morning in any of the many evangelical churches that dot the Maine landscape. But the ministers and future pastors who thrust their arms in the air and boogied to the jazz classic “Sister Sadie” were participants in Bangor Theological Seminary’s annual Convocation in Gracie Theatre at Husson University.

Congregationalists, Methodists, Lutherans and other mainline denominations are not known for expressing their spirituality with such vigor — at least not in northern New England.

The presence of the Holy Spirit, the third member of the Trinity with the Father and the Son, was an integral part of this year’s convocation, titled “Evolving World, Emerging Church.”

There is a spiritual revival and renewal afoot but it is not religious, the Rev. Steven Lewis, academic dean of Bangor Theological Seminary, said Monday in the opening session of Convocation. He called it “humanitarian spirituality.”

Lewis is a field researcher who studies and writes about trends and movements in American Christianity.

“Salvation in the 21st century is being a good human being,” he said.

He pointed to rock star Bono, former President Jimmy Carter and celebrities such as Angelina Jolie and her partner Brad Pitt as people who exemplify that trend.

The skill set ministers in mainline denominations have needed were preacher, teacher, organizer and caregiver, according to Lewis.

“The 21st century requires an entirely different set of skills,” he said. “Pastor must be cultural [interpreters], imaginative thinkers, entrepreneurs, translators of the culture and conceptualizers of the Gospel.

Lewis, who came to the seminary in June from Portland, Ore., urged the 150 convocation attendees to be supportive of creativity in ministry and worship.

“There’s no reason to stop traditional ministry,” he said. “But know that it doesn’t reach everybody. Not a this-or-that decision. It’s this and that. Let the spirit of God lead people where it leads them.”

Evangelical churches have been using many of the techniques the Rev. Eric Elnes, senior minister at Countryside Community Church in Omaha, Neb., described for two decades. Mainline denominations, particularly those in the Northeast, recently have begun using similar techniques to attract younger members.

Elnes echoed much of what Lewis said and showed participants how his church has put techniques into practice. At 6 p.m. every Sunday, the church’s fellowship hall becomes a coffee shop.

The multisensory, experimental services he leads are called Darkwood Brew and are available as webcasts. People are able to chat live with each other about their own spirituality and how they are experiencing and living it. Elnes, ordained by the United Church of Christ denomination, helped a coffee house service Monday night on the Husson campus.

“The idea was to reach out to people who were alone in rural areas, who were sensing something was happening to them spiritually but weren’t sure and their friends all thought they were crazy,” he said Wednesday in the closing session of convocation. “By creating this online community, we gave them a place to talk about their experiences with people who might be experiencing something similar.”

The name Darkwood Brew came from the mystical tradition of Christianity, he said, and the idea that a person’s soul is similar to dark wood.

Elnes said after the session that churches need to engage “the total person” in ways that are similar to how the church used stained glass, incense, music and words to engage the senses of worshippers before most churchgoers could read the Bible.

The closing worship service Wednesday appeared to accomplish that by combining the spoken word with visual arts and music. The sermon was not the traditional talk by a minister on the Bible passages of the day. Paintings by Bucksport resident Nancy Earle were shown on a large screen on the stage in the Gracie Theatre. A group of jazz musicians, led by the Rev. Bill Friederich of Castine, who is percussionist, improvised as they and worshippers meditated on the artwork.

Jennifer Curran, a student who expects to graduate with a Master of Divinity degree in 2013, will become pastor of the Waldoboro United Methodist Church next week. Curran said that what she would take from convocation to her first pulpit was the willingness to be open to the spirit.

“God works through us,” she said. “We should not be limited by what we think we should be doing as ministers.”

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