May 14, 2024 | John W. Coleman

Open hearts, open minds, open doors. United Methodists of Eastern PA have special ways of making guests of all ages feel special, to feel like they Belong. That’s our 2024 Annual Conference theme. We asked churches to share some of those ways with us, and we are grateful that several responded.

At Epworth UMC in Bethlehem, the 2023 Confirmation class welcomed a young man on the autistic spectrum who is nonverbal, reported the Rev. Nina Patton-Semerod, pastor. “A retired teacher from our congregation served as his mentor, making the lessons engaging for him, learning how best to communicate with him.  On Pentecost, he was confirmed with his twin brother by raising a “Yes/No” sign to answer the Confirmation questions.

“His family often shares how welcome their sons feel at Epworth because of the way we include their sons in worship and youth group,” wrote Patton-Semerod.

Thorndale UMC believes children belong visibly up-front during worship. A children’s table with coloring materials and chairs is located in the front of the sanctuary, just to the side of the chancel area. The Rev. Gary Knerr, pastor, says the young occupants usually stay quiet and busy with their creative activities. But he has been surprised to learn how much they also listen and hear what is said. Jesus would likely approve of their proximity, as evidenced by his instruction recorded in three of the Gospels: “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God.”

Wesley UMC, also in Bethlehem, offers a “warm and welcoming congregation to everyone who walks through our doors,” writes Rosemary Molinaro, Wesley’s lay member to Annual Conference. “In our atrium, greeters welcome people, thanking newcomers for coming and later, inviting them to come back. A friendly handshake, a smile and sometimes a great, big hug is shared!”

Wesley’s motto is “People blessing people,” and the first thing people see there is a banner telling them, “You are Loved!”

While the Rev. Candy LaBar, pastor, welcomes everyone in the sanctuary and online, “visitors are especially highlighted, along with our children,” writes Moinaro. “A colorful bag is available for the kiddos with lots of surprises inside to keep them busy. We bring our preschool children and their families into service each week, highlighting “Artists of the Week”  We see some of their creative drawings and hear about their favorite foods, colors and what they want to be when they grow up.  They are given a certificate and box of crayons to let their imaginations thrive.  Our congregation is very quick to let them know how proud we are of them by a loud round of applause.”

Children are invited to come up to the front of the sanctuary for some fun time with the Pastor.  “Anything from bubbles, to silly hats, even an Easter explosion of glitter lets the children know how wonderful it is to have them in church. And service is always followed by a delicious assortment of sweets and treats provided by our church bakers.”

And then there’s “Winston,” the church’s 3-foot, silver greyhound mascot. “He welcomes everyone while dressed in appropriate outfits for holidays and Sunday service,” writers Molinaro, “and helps our congregation with fundraising for church projects and animal shelters.” Winston even pretended to be dognapped once to raise “ransom” funds.

The United Methodist Church of West Chester began in February a relaxed, casual Worship Cafe service in their Fiesta Center fellowship hall. Worshipers sit at round tables, where they can enjoy morning beverages and snacks, chat and get to know one another before and during services.

“Our church members offer to serve new attendees at their table to welcome them to our church,” reports the Rev. Mercedes Case, associate pastor. Offering baskets are on the table, and music and liturgy are projected on screen during the livestreamed and recorded service. A praise team leads singing, and children can go to the “prayground” in the rear for a lesson but also join the congregation in praying The Lord’s Prayer. “It is delightful to hear the young ones learn and recite the Lord’s Prayer with the congregation,” writes Case.

A highlight of worship is the 4 minute “table talk” time after the sermon, when participants respond to and discuss a sermon-related question. “People are really engaged, and the discussions help folks grow their faith,” said Case. “This also encourages everyone to get to know each other. Stories and experiences are often shared.”

Attendance is slowly growing, including students from nearby West Chester University. Members hope to add a service project each quarter, where people can stay after worship to do some form of outreach ministry. Sort of like moving from worship to work-ship?

In what creative ways does your church help people feel they Belong? Share your examples—and any photos—with us by the end of May, and we’ll try to report on them in early June.