By William Moyer
May 8, 2012
Times are changing when the faithful gather to worship. Across the Southern Tier and northeast Pennsylvania, worship opportunities have morphed from traditional Saturday nights or Sunday mornings for Christians and sundown Friday for those of the Jewish faith.
Now, jazz musicians connect secular with sacred once a month in a downtown Binghamton church.
At the end of the weekend, Catholics who miss weekend masses can partake of communion on Sunday night in an Endicott church.
The faithful from different denominations pray and meditate together as one congregation once a month at a historic church in Montrose.
At sundown Friday when Jews traditionally gather at a synagogue, hundreds observe the Sabbath with a Shabbat meal that feeds both body and spirit.
"This is definitely different for the average person because they think about Jews worshiping in synagogues," said Rabbi Levi Slonim about the Chabad Center at Binghamton University's weekly Friday night meal. "We serve a meal with a purpose."
Benjamin Friedlander, of suburban Pittsburgh, agreed the meal attended by as many as 400 students is non-traditional in the sense Jews typically go to synagogues on Friday.
"When I'm home, we go to services; I come home for dinner with my family," said Friedlander, a sophomore accounting major. "It's very familiar from a spiritual perspective; from a social perspective, it's different than normal."
These modest local revisions to long-time traditions follow a national trend in recent years to widen worship opportunities to reach newcomers, particularly young people, and feed the faithful at different times than the good old days.
The harvest is potentially plentiful, especially in New York where the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life recently found 32 percent of the population reported attending worship once a week compared to a national average of 39 percent. That ranks New York as 36th among the 50 states. Mississippians were the most devout with 60 percent going to worship at least once a week. Pennsylvania ranked at the national average.
Meeting a need for Mass One non-traditional worship time has opened the doors for many Catholics in western Broome County to attend Mass.
For almost seven years, roughly 200 people have gathered on Sunday nights at St. Ambrose on Washington Avenue, according to Barbara Kane, parish life coordinator.
Catholics have long offered numerous Saturday, Sunday and weekday Masses, but the Sunday night service fills a void for those who work, travel or have other commitments that keep them from attending at traditional times.
After several priests, including Charles Currie of St. Ambrose and Thomas Hobbs of the former Christ the King, embraced the idea of a Sunday night Mass -- and then-Bishop James Moynihan of Syracuse diocese gave his blessing -- the church opened its doors on Sept. 11, 2005, and the service immediately drew local Catholics.
"It allows families to go to church consistently," said Kane about the Mass whose leadership is rotated among five priests and laity from parishes in western Broome. "Weekends are very busy; it's a nice way to conclude a weekend."
Without the Sunday night option, Rod Gallagher would likely not get to Mass.
Every weekend from Friday night through Sunday afternoon, Gallagher cares for his 27-year old handicapped daughter at his home in the Town of Maine. Leaving the house for Saturday night or Sunday morning Mass is not an option.
"Going to Mass and receiving the Eucharist are very important, but so is my daughter," said Gallagher, a retired electrician.
St. Mary of the Assumption on Fayette Street in downtown Binghamton offers a 5 p.m. Mass on Sundays.
Tattoos are national oddity In other locales, churches are wandering through the worship wilderness in seemingly extreme ways, by any religious standard.
In what pastor Steve Bentley describes as "a different way to do church," The Bridge in Flint, Mich., recently opened the Serenity Tattoo parlor at its shopping center site, which opened in September 2008.
"We want to be relevant to people's lives," said Bentley, whose back is embossed with a tattoo of an open armed, welcoming Jesus, extended over a bridge. "We break with tradition, but we don't break with Scripture. It's all about presenting the information in a different way."
Lest he be tattooed a Pharisee, Bentley claims 1,000 people are members of his unconventional flock and 500 attend worship each weekend.
Where else but Texas is worship set in cowboy heaven? At the Cowboy Church of Orange County, the Cowboy Cross Band plays a mix of old and western country music at worship.
By its own confession, the Cowboy Church offers non-traditional "come as you are" worship. Roughly 200 churches, mostly in Texas, are affiliated with the American Association of Cowboy Churches.
Vespers open to all For a dozen years, jazz has been the medium for meditation at once-a-month vespers at First Congregational United Church of Christ at Front and Main streets in Binghamton.
On the second Sunday of the month, about 100 people meditate to jazz classics in a setting designed to allow each attendee to embrace their spiritually -- regardless of individual faith.
Protestants, Jews, Catholics and Muslims are all welcome at the nondenominational service led by a rotating jazz band with vocalist, trombone, trumpet, clarinet, saxophone, bass and drums -- often putting new arrangements on classic songs like Moon River from Breakfast at Tiffany's.
"It's people from many different churches," said the Rev. Arthur Suggs, pastor of First Congregational. "They're coming for the jazz, mostly, but they also like the way it's in a spiritual context with an emphasis on jazz and meditation."
Duke Ellington played a role in popularizing jazz vespers when he arranged Psalm 150 for orchestra. Others, including John Coltrane and Billy Stray horn, were foundational in the origins of modern jazz vespers which Lutheran pastor John Garcia Gensel started in the mid-1960s at St. Peter's Lutheran in Manhattan.
Vespers are also popular in Montrose, Pa., where people come together for a monthly worship that embraces the historicity of the service itself.
Vespers originated centuries ago -- the exact origin varies from source to source -- as a liturgy for evening worship, mostly centered upon scripture, especially Psalms, prayer and music.
About four years ago, several Montrose area churches used this simple concept to create a monthly service on Sunday night.
"This has filled the need for people who rub shoulders during the week to come together in a single worship service," said Mary Lee Fitzgerald, an organizer and former state education commissioner for New Jersey. "Music, scripture and prayer cross all denominational boundaries. We can see the commonality of our faith."
Since the second Sunday in September 2008, about 50 people gather monthly at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, said Fitzgerald, a Presbyterian and former trustee at Princeton Theological Seminary.
Mary Ann DeWitt, a long-time former organist at St. Paul's, has attended vespers since its outset.
"Being involved with church music all my adult life, the vesper service offers scripture, prayers and music," said DeWitt. "The 35-minute service is followed by a simple meal, free, and it is an act of service and place of fellowship."
Same service, different venue Sunday worship might seem like double talk at New Life Ministries in Endicott and Owego. Actually, the two services in the different settings are designed to be almost identical in song, scripture and sermon.
Rob Campbell, who leads worship at the Owego Tread way, gets together with Sebastian Prospero, New Life's lead pastor, and compare notes for Sunday worship. Both pastors make the same points in their sermons each Sunday in the two different locales.
"We tend to think of the church has a building," said Campbell about New Life West in Owego. "In this case, our focus is just the people."
New Life has rented a ballroom for worship since October 2010 and has grown from an initial core of 65 people to as many as 150 attendees each Sunday, said Campbell.
One church playing a role in establishing an outpost is as old as evangelism itself. Many churches in the Southern Tier can trace their roots to another older church, but the missionary movement eventually breaks free into its own building and ministry.
Not so with New Life West, said Campbell, which makes the non-building cantered church in a hotel ballroom somewhat non-traditional in its long-term outlook.
"We don't want to own property,” added Campbell. "We go in early Sunday, unpack our equipment, pack it back up and go home. There's no need to maintain a property."
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