In one word – or three, depending on how you look at it – the Rev. Geneva Butz captured the essence of the celebratory Sunday service April 3 at St. John's UCC in Kutztown, Pa.
"Improvise. Improvise. Improvise," said Butz, president of the Pennsylvania Southeast Conference and St. John's guest for the service featuring jazz music. "For me, that was the special message of the day. That is how we need to live as Christians today, always ready to respond to the new and changing situations in which the church finds itself."
Introducing the Rev. Felix Carrion, coordinator of the UCC's Stillspeaking Ministry, Butz said she couldn't keep her feet from tapping during the jazz service celebrating St. John's winning effort in last fall's Stillspeaking Friend-Raising weekend. The church welcomed 52 visitors on Nov. 7 – the most of any UCC church participating in the campaign.
"There was a spirit of joy, gladness and participation, from church members ages 13-86," said Butz, marveling at the manner in which jazz sounds complemented words of scripture and liturgy for the 200-plus in attendance. "The young people from the middle school jazz band, who gave a mini-concert at the conclusion of the service, were riveted by the music. They were so attentive."
The Rev. Karl Jones – in the final weeks of his three-year interim ministry at St. John's – said the service also brought together many of the strands of the vibrant life of the church. "It was one of our signature events – every spring we provide this Jazz Worship, which is part of the Berks Jazz Festival. It was the first major worship service marking our 275 years of ministry."
On May 16, the Rev. Sue Marie Baskette will succeed Jones, becoming the church's first female pastor.
Reflecting on one of the final services he'll lead at St. John's, Jones said he was "thrilled" to work with Frank Siekmann, the church's 85 year-old director of instrumental music. Siekmann coordinated the event, arranged much of the music, and conducted the musicians. "He and I collaborated on a new hymn, which was written for the church's anniversary," said Jones.
Jones also paid tribute to church members Charlie Schaffer (jazz saxophone), Richard Huyett (former area high-school bandleader), Rick Kelchner (drums), guest soloist Carl Zeplin (middle- school band director) and the Mohler family. The festival has also received support from the high-school and middle-school jazz bands.
"Friend-Raising Sunday wonderfully confirms that there is a power in combining the wizardry of today's technology with the tried-and-tested word-of-mouth invitation," Carrion said of the campaign. "Some of our churches recorded historic tallies of visitors because these churches were energized to participate in and make Friend-Raising Sunday a reality."
Carrion is already anticipating the 2011 Friend-Raising Sunday, to be held Nov. 6.
"This time around, we will surpass the 6 percent increase in attendance that was experienced by the more than 315 churches that participated in last year's Friend-Raising Sunday," said Carrion. "Perhaps we'll surpass the more than 4,600 guests we netted in 2010.
"The Stillspeaking Ministry encourages such participation and partnership because we believe in the extravagant welcome of Jesus for the world," he said.
A new Stillspeaking internet video will be produced this year to help UCC members extend the invitation to the 2011 Friend-Raising Sunday event, said Carrion, adding that winning churches will once again receive Stillspeaking pins, magazines, welcoming mats and banners.