Clara Jackson, center, sings with the rest of the Nazarene Baptist Choir at St. Lucas UCC during their "Rekindle the Fire" event. © Chris Doane / Evansille Courier & Press photo.
In the century-old sanctuary of St. Lucas United Church of Christ in Evansville, Ind., James Hamler was giving direction for the rest of the worship service to come.
"It's OK to talk back to me tonight," said Hamler in a voice filled with soul-stirring emotion. "It's OK to lift up your hands."
Moments before, the Nazarene Sanctuary Choir had lifted its voices in songs of praise and thanksgiving that set the tone for the evening. Hamler, the choir's director, warned the people in the pews of his compulsion to pray.
"I've got to praise him!" cried Hamler. "I remember when I was lost in the darkness, on my way to hell, and he saved me. I've just got to praise him."
A man with a heart on fire, Hamler was determined to start a spark and fan the flames of faith in a church seeking revival. It was the first night of "Rekindle the Fire," and the music and preaching delivered by the Baptist minister and his choir were intended to lift the hearts of a congregation in transition.
Return to roots
For many in the pews, the revival service, led by Nazarene's pastor, the Rev. Larry Rascoe, was a new experience, a departure from the traditional rituals of their Sunday morning worship. But it was also a return to the roots of the United Church of Christ, whose predecessor denominations were steeped in the revival tradition.
St. Lucas' evangelism committee, headed by Cheryl Schultz, organized the revival last summer. Schultz and members of the Praise Team had been invited earlier in the year to sing at a revival at a United Methodist church in Corydon, Ky., and they came back energized.
"We truly felt lifted up," said Schultz. "It was wonderful to be able to express our faith in such an emotional way."
The evangelism team embraced the idea, seeing it as a way to introduce contemporary praise music in the church and to encourage the congregation during what could be a perilous time: the interim period between pastors.
St. Lucas leaders organized their first revival last summer also as a means of transition to a new, contemporary form of worship each Sunday at 11:15 a.m. Members of the congregation also continue traditional worship at 9 a.m.
On the revival's first night, Rascoe exhorted St. Lucas members to keep the faith—faith in themselves, in their church and in God.
"God is not through with St. Lucas," said Rascoe, during his passion-filled sermon. Encouraging the congregation to "refuel the fire," he offered words of hope as well.
"Your roots go down deep, and when the storm comes, this church will still be standing."
Revival on ‘cutting edge'
Events such as the revival are on the cutting edge of 21st-century evangelism by the United Church of Christ, national church leaders say. "We love the word ‘revival,' said the Rev. David Schoen, head of evangelism efforts for the UCC's national office in Cleveland, which offers resources and guidance on how to conduct a revival.
"In the revivals going on in UCC churches across the country now, we are reclaiming our past."
On the UCC web site is the 54-page Spring 2000 issue of Growing Plans, a resource magazine for local UCC churches. The issue is devoted to revivals, with articles written by UCC ministers who have preached at revivals or had them in their churches.
In the Growing Plans issue, and in the extensive history of the origins of the United Church of Christ offered on the Web site www.ucc.org, is the story of revivalism in the predecessor denominations that now make up the UCC. Among them were Christian and Congregational churches of frontier America, which sprang up during the "Great Awakening" of the 19th century when itinerant preachers of various denominations swept across America preaching at revivals, winning converts and planting hundreds of new churches.
In the "camp meeting" tradition, they offered passionate preaching and lively praise music, followed by a hymn of invitation that beckoned both new and fallen believers to come forward to claim Jesus as their savior.
This revival style and the zeal for humanitarian reform also attracted African-Americans to the Christian Church movement.
Another root of the United Church of Christ grew from 17th-century Germany. Called the Pietist movement, it was a spirituality of the heart that emphasized a personal relationship with Jesus and a life of commitment to God and neighbor. It was a moral and spiritual reformation that rejected an unresponsive and sterile view of God.
Not the only way
But Schoen said the history shows that in reclaiming the tradition of revivalism, churches risk experiencing another piece of their past: disputes over intent and content of revivals that split their predecessor denominations.
"For many churches, revival services offer people a new way to worship that is joyous and spirit-filled, a proclamation and invitation to come know the transforming power of God made known in Jesus Christ and Christ's community," said Schoen.
But it is not the only way to know that transforming power. Congregations can also feel the drama of the Gospel in the rituals of the traditions they've come to know and love, he said.
"For some congregations, it will come in quieter ways," said Schoen.
Over the main doors of St. Lucas are the words "St. Lucas Kirche," etched in stone by the German immigrants who built the church, on what is now the northeast corner of Baker and Virginia streets. Church member Ken Kreke said current members see themselves as stewards, not just of the building but also of a community of Christians generations in the making.
To nurture that community, he and fellow church leaders invited a soul-stirring preacher to bring the word of God to hungry souls, in an undiluted and unashamedly emotional way. Their goal, said Kreke, remains the same as that of the people who built St. Lucas: to have a life-changing dependence on God.
During the revival service, the St. Lucas Praise Team sang an invigorating rendition of "Nobody Fills My Heart Like Jesus." Church member Lavonne Miller confessed in front of the congregation that before coming to St. Lucas, she was too embarrassed to pray in front of a group.
"I'm no longer embarrassed by the Lord," said Miller. "I'm no longer embarrassed to tell somebody that I'm a believer."
Kreke said the revival was an important way for the St. Lucas congregation to acknowledge they needed help. It brought praise from Rascoe.
"Don't ever be embarrassed to say that you need to be refueled," said Rascoe. "The only people who don't need fuel are the people who aren't going anywhere."
Evangelism Gathering set for April
Your church, too, can catch the spirit of evangelism. The Evangelical Ministry Team of Local Church Ministries invites you to the National Evangelism Gathering at the Galt House in Louisville, Ky., on April 9-11.
The UCC National Gathering is intent on inspiring and exciting the senses of the various participants in evangelism and church formation. Participants from Conferences, Associations, congregations, COREM (Council for Racial and Ethnic Ministries), Disabilities Ministries, the Fellowship of Architects, Youth & Young Adult Ministries, seminaries and the Coalition for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Concerns will share the bounty of worship and dialogue. The gathering will include hearty worship, insightful Bible study and many presentations on a variety of topics designed to augment ministry.
A discussion paper, entitled "Vison and Strategies for Evangelism in the United Church of Christ in the 21st Century," is being prepared to provide talking points. A variety of workshops are scheduled to empower the spirit to keep the spirit of evangelism alive.
The UCC Gathering will be followed on April 12 at the Galt House in Louisville by The Evangelism Connection Event 2002. Separate registration is required. Forms must be in by Feb. 15 to receive early registration discount. Conferences are encouraged to send a 3-5 member team; partner ministries are invited to send representatives. For hotel, airfare and information to register for both events, call the Evangelism Ministry Team at 216-736-3826.