Church-in-a-box appeals to unchurched


By Grace Phelps

 The historic court square in Covington, TN is pretty quiet early on Sunday mornings. The courthouse, antique shops and boutiques, law offices and banks are closed. So when the MorningSong Worship set-up team arrives, there are plenty of parking spaces available.
But by 8:30 a.m., the sounds of praise music can be heard coming from the one of the buildings and the square is lined with cars.
It all began with the desire of the congregation of Covington First United Methodist Church to add an early morning worship service which would reach into the community to draw in un-churched or de-churched persons.
A recently renovated meeting space owned by the Covington-Tipton County Chamber of Commerce on the court square just minutes away from Covington First Church seemed like the perfect venue. So in February 2008, MorningSong Worship on the Square was begun.
Volunteers and staff begin arriving at 7:30 a.m. to set up tables, chairs, sound and visual equipment and to start the coffee. At 7:45 a.m., the praise band arrives for their last run-through of the worship music for the service.
By 8:20 a.m., the coffee bar is crowded with folks greeting one another and sampling an assortment of breakfast finger foods.
At 8:27 a.m. sharp, the praise band cranks up gathering music, which signals the beginning of worship.
The building once housed a clothing store whose owner retired after many years in business. The local Chamber of Commerce purchased it to be used for meetings, wedding receptions and other large gatherings. The storefront windows, which once displayed the latest fashions, now house a huge sign inviting passersby to MorningSong Worship.
Bright worship banners bookend the length of one wall in front of which the praise band is set up and a music stand holds pastor Tim Carpenter’s sermon notes.
A large video screen displays announcements, photos from recent church events, music lyrics, key points and visuals for the pastor’s sermon.
Music is an important part of the service and is an eclectic mix of contemporary praise music, traditional hymns with an updated feel, and the occasional gospel or bluegrass twist provided by a praise choir and a talented bluegrass musician in the congregation. The praise band is composed of musicians and singers from within the Covington First congregation.
Children sing along with the opening praise music and then climb the stairs to a large open room on the upper level to participate in children’s church. After the worship service, a small group Bible study meets in that same space.
The atmosphere is casual and warm and the service has attracted a wide variety of people of all ages and backgrounds.
Clay and Brittany Crockett, young professionals in their 20’s, drive from nearby Brighton, TN to attend the service. Brittany says, “We really like the early time of the service and the fact that people sit at tables with one another – it really builds community rather than sitting in rows looking at the back of someone’s head. The service is casual and contemporary, but has just enough traditional elements of worship that it still feels like church to us.”
Octogenarian Mae Belle Wright, who has been attending for over six months, says, “There’s such a feeling of closeness in the group. The worship just gives me a warm feeling and the preacher’s sermons are great. Hardly a Sunday goes by that I don’t have a tear come to my eye!”
Baby boomers Mike and Margaret Fleming began attending regularly in December. They like the casual atmosphere, the early time of day, and were invited by friends. “I like the fact that there’s both praise music and traditional hymns,” Margaret commented, “and my husband feels comfortable there.”
David and Missy Owen, both “thirty-something” professionals who have been coming for almost a year with their two young children, have also become involved in many other church activities at Covington First.
“The relaxed atmosphere and more contemporary worship music blended with some traditional music is an environment that allows us to experience God more closely and attentively than we have been able to in a completely traditional setting,” Missy says. “We feel as if we are worshiping in a warm, big family setting rather than in a strict, formal environment.”
Pastor Tim Carpenter says, “One of the central points we stress is that MorningSong is a ministry of First United Methodist Church. We did not start another church. We simply opened the doors to another opportunity to worship and people from the community have responded. It is meeting the needs of people, just as our traditional service continues to meet the needs of people. We hope to provide another opportunity for worship in yet another location in the future.”
The success of this off-campus, “church-in-a-box” service bodes well for the Covington First congregation, which has been charged by the Memphis Conference to nurture and support a new faith community in south Tipton county in the fast-growing Brighton area. Groundwork is being laid now to begin a small group ministry in the area and a satellite worship service there which is likely to have much in common with MorningSong on the Square.