By Jenny Neyman
Bringing interdenominational congregations together, fostering ties among followers of the Christian faith and promoting unity throughout the community is a lofty goal. On the central Kenai Peninsula, it’s a goal that’s being approached following an old saying — many hands make light work. In this case, it’s many hands lifted in worship, swaying in time to many voices raised in song.
Memorial Day weekend brought a four-times-a-year occurrence of having a fifth Sunday in a month. Since March 2009, that calendar occasion has been marked with an interdenominational community worship service conducted entirely through music.
There are no sermons. No readings. No testimonials. No financial offerings. No pastors at the pulpit. No religious “service” at all, as it is usually taken to mean. But there could be no doubt of the shared spiritual purpose that brought everyone together at the Soldotna Church of God on Sunday evening, and had them singing, swaying and sharing their faith together through music.
“I think sometimes that music speaks for itself,” said Vickie Tinker, Fifth Sunday worship service organizer and a local musician. She said she wanted the Fifth Sunday events to appeal to a broad range of Christian denominations and not be pigeonholed as being from one church or faith perspective, which might alienate others from participating. The way to do that, she thought, would be through a universal — music.
“It’s not about getting information across like you would in a sermon, it’s about celebration and saying, ‘We live in difficult times and people are struggling and hurting all around us.’ We reach out to so many wounded people and hurt for them and hurt with them, but we have this hope that we can rise above it, that we can lift our eyes above it. And so we come together to celebrate that,” Tinker said.
She advanced the idea for a communitywide, music-based worship service while attending a women’s conference in Soldotna two years ago. It’s an idea she’s been mulling for a while, but one for which she hadn’t found an outlet.
“I had been talking about doing this for several years but most of the feedback I was getting was, ‘Oh, the churches don’t really want to get together. Oh, we tried that once and it didn’t work,’ and it was sort of like it became a competition of worship teams or something. It was sort of negative feedback. I’d been hearing that for a few years but I just felt like it was time,” she said.
A brainstorming session had conference attendants thinking about ways to promote community unity. Tinker raised her hand and suggested community worship.
“So then they had a little bit more brainstorming — ‘How can that happen, who would do it?’ And somehow my hand went back in the air and I said, ‘I will do it.’ Several people came up and said, ‘I am behind you, I will help you with that.’ So there was a lot of support for it,” she said.
Tinker attended a monthly local ministers’ association lunch and proposed the idea. But while she was looking for support, ideas and feedback from the ministers, she didn’t want them taking this particular ball and running off with it.
“I wanted it to be congregations-driven or lay-people driven,” Tinker said. “I have a lot of support of the pastors and I have great respect for them, and I talked to them about how I wanted this to be a grassroots movement not produced by church leadership.”
Worship leaders from several area churches have joined with Tinker to form a band providing live music for the events, which draw hundreds of people from multiple congregations. Many of the rotating roster of band members are from Tinker’s own circle of mausician friends, but she knows she could draw in more. Her standards are that they be quality musicians, live a lifestyle that does not conflict with being in leadership in a church, have a heart for worship and the humility that goes with it, and that they could step in and take over if the need arose, she said.
“They’re all actually leaders that could carry it if everybody else got sick at the last moment. So that’s a pretty high caliber of worship leader. It’s a pretty gifted group of people,” Tinker said. “It’s cool that I’m tapping into a tiny little section of what’s available out there. There are tons of worship leaders all over the place that I don’t even know of that I hope will be involved.”
On Sunday, the band consisted of Tinker, Jason Manalli, Jeni Davis, Erika Smith, Amanda Powell, Alecia Smith, Sydney Smith, Shelby Smith, Adam Nath and Katie Evans.
The smaller-than-usual congregation had a little more elbow room than the crowds previous Fifth Sunday events have drawn, but a sunny Memorial Day weekend and a snafu in reminding people of the event may have taken a toll on attendance. Still, the people who did attend filled the space around them with music bright enough to match the sunshine glowing through the windows.
Lyrics were projected on a screen above the musicians and printed on song sheets perched on music stands, though they were largely ignored by worship leaders who swayed and tapped their feet to the uptempo songs with eyes closed and hearts open, singing by memory, ear and spirit.
“Thank you Jesus,” called a member of the congregation at the end of one song. “There’s nothing like acknowledging it.”
Tinker said she’s been pleased with the crowd size the events have drawn from the beginning.
“We didn’t know who would come but we thought, ‘Gosh, maybe we’ll get lucky and 75 people will come. Well, about 250 people showed up and it was really, really packed in there. But it was so exciting that people were open to this — tearing down denomination walls and all coming together to worship,” she said.
Fifth Sunday events are usually held at Peninsula Grace Brethren Church on Kalifornsky Beach Road, but a sound system upgrade had Soldotna Church of God acting as host this month. Tinker said she’d like to see the events continue to grow and draw in even more denominations. Currently the events are mostly attended by members of Protestant churches, but it’s open to everyone and Tinker said organizers are responsive to any and all feedback.
“I try and pay attention to who’s out there, what pastors are in the congregation, who’s showing up and stuff like that. Not like I’m keeping attendance, but I want to be sensitive to making it welcoming to all,” Tinker said. “… It’s this balance of being sensitive to what this very mixed group of people want and where the spirit is leading us. To try to be aware and sensitive to both things, because we’re about creating unity.
“The bigger goal is not so much about unity four times a year at 6 p.m. on a Sunday. It’s about this whole community coming together, that the churches would unite on a long-term basis and kind of operate as one. This is just a vehicle for that. This is a tiny part of the bigger picture,” she said.
The next Fifth Sunday worship service will be Aug. 29. As with every event, Tinker hopes to see — and hear — even more people there.
“If we’re truly going to be spending eternity singing together, we might as well start now,” she said.