Bethel AME is the oldest African Methodist Episcopal church in Muncie. Despite its longstanding status in the Muncie community, however, the congregation is relatively small. Most of the members are beyond childbearing age and, as a result, the congregation consists of only a few children and teenagers.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Bethel AME is the manner in which services differ drastically depending on who is delivering the message. On any given Sunday, members may be shouting loudly in response to the sermon or making very few or no displays of emotion.
While the manner in which the sermon is presented may differ, the order of the service remains the same each week. Although this order adheres mostly to that of the larger AME organization, one unique element is a “joy jar” in which congregants pay a dollar to express a joyful occurrence in the past week. While it seems that the idea behind the joy jar is to allow congregants a special time to express their own experiences to the rest of the congregation, many members will donate a dollar to simply say, “I had a good week, praise the Lord.”
Another unique aspect of Bethel AME is the breakfast that is served each week. This breakfast is viewed as a ministry opportunity and is open to the larger community. Although it may seem that only the congregation takes advantage of this service, it has been a valuable source of food for those in need. It is also interesting to note that attendance at the church service is not required to be able to eat at Bethel. It has been expressed that the goal of this service is not to require those in need to attend Bethel, but to give them comfort and food in hopes that they will become a Christian and join any congregation.
Perhaps because of its long-standing status in Muncie, Bethel AME membership is comprised on a surprisingly large number of PhDs when compared to the relatively small number of regularly attending members. What draws highly educated membership to this particular church will be an interesting field of inquiry for further research. Whatever the cause, this aspect of Bethel makes it a unique crossroads between Ball State University and the Muncie community.
Sense of Community
Many of our community contacts at Bethel AME expressed that the main reason they began and continue to attend Bethel AME is because of the sense of community they feel as members of the congregation.
Dr. M. discovered Bethel AME when she first came to Muncie more than 18 years ago. As a Ball State administrator gave her a tour of the Muncie area, Dr. M. asked “Where is the African American community?” The administrator replied, “Dr. M., Muncie is so well integrated that there really isn’t a community specific to African Americans.” Turning her head, Dr. M. happened to see Bethel AME and said, “We’re in the black community now. AME churches are always built near where the vast majority of their congregants live so that it they can get there.” A total stranger to the congregants at Bethel, Dr. M. was appointed Sunday school teacher on her very first Sunday and continues to teach Sunday school at Bethel more than 18 years later.
Dr. J told us that she initially started going to Bethel so that she could connect with other African-Americans, as her main affiliation with Muncie was through her position at the University. She told us that she continues to attend Bethel because she feels that the members of the church are a surrogate family from whom she garners an indescribable amount of support. Both Dr. J and her husband, Dr. C, have attended Bethel since they came to Muncie in the late 1970s, and have raised their family at Bethel.
In our experience at Bethel, the sense of community is really palpable. There is a high level of congregant involvement in the sermons that are presented each Sunday. Furthermore, the pastor takes time each Sunday to “force” congregants to greet one another, often with a hug or some other physical contact as well as a word of kindness. As part of their community outreach, Bethel also serves breakfast each Sunday to congregants and the larger community alike. Bethel also frequently hosts potluck meals for almost every major Christian holiday. Both of us were able to participate in at least one such gathering, and we were encouraged to eat well beyond our capacity!
“Also known as the A.M.E. Church for short, the denomination is Methodist in terms of its basic doctrine and order of worship. It was born, through adversity, of the Methodist church and to this day does not differ in any major way from what all Methodists believe. The split from the main branch of the Methodist Church was not a result of doctrinal differences but rather the result of a time period that was marked by man’s intolerance of his fellow man, based on the color of his skin.” — Bethel A.M.E. Website
While Bethel AME remains true to the Methodist order of worship in many ways, there are important differences that make Bethel unique.
On the second Sunday of each month, the children of the church are called upon to lead the worship service. The children, ranging from 4-15 years old and usually only about 7 or 8 in number, lead the congregants in the traditional “Call to Worship,” “Doxology,” “Scripture Reading,” “Decalogue,” and “Giving of Tithes and Offering.” Although members try their best to recruit as many children as possible to populate these services, Bethel is actually largely comprised of elderly people. The vast majority of membership is over 40 years old, and many are older than 70. On our first visit during youth service, Dr. P remarked, “You’ll notice there are very few children in the church. I always joke that the last one to die needs to turn the lights out.”
In addition to the traditional tithes and offerings that are commonly found in Methodist worship services, Bethel takes up an small offering called the “Joy Jar” into which members or visitors contribute $1 to offer praises for something good that has happened in their life in the past week. This offering is usually taken up by the same young man, and he seems to know exactly who will contribute every week. Nearly all of the congregants donate $1, even if they just wish to express how thankful they are to have made it to church. This offering, while raising money to maintain the church, reinforces the sense of community at Bethel, as congregants actively participate and communicate with one another during this time of sharing.
Sermons / Speakers
This semester, we attended seven services at Bethel AME. Each time we attended, we were surprised at how emotion was evoked from the congregants in very different ways, depending on who giving the sermon. We witnessed four different speakers, and each had a very unique style that evoked a different kind of emotion from the members at Bethel. Here we will discuss the two most drastically different, but equally powerful, speakers observed at Bethel.
On our first visit to Bethel, Jr., the pastor’s son, delivered an extremely charismatic and entertaining sermon that got the members interacting with one another as well as with him. Although we were quite shocked at first at the level of excitement and emotion being displayed, Jr.’s style was very entertaining and held our attention for more than an hour. When we asked some of the congregants about Jr.’s style we were surprised to hear that he is “rather reserved as far as what we might refer to as “Holy Rollers” go” and that his rhetorical strategy is actually very complex as he tries to the get the members of the church to build toward a charismatic display of emotion so that he can end his sermon on a “high note,” so the speak.
The second week we attended services at Bethel, we were prepared for another long, loud, and emotional service. Instead, Dr. M. delivered a very short, very quiet sermon that employed none of the same rhetorical conventions we had witnessed just the week before. As she finished her sermon, we were amazed at how different the emotion feel of a congregation can be just based on who is delivering the sermon. Instead of the shouting and excitement that we had encountered the previous week, Dr. M’s sermon ended quietly. However, the congregants still seemed move by the message she presented, but their emotional response did not involve any extended interaction with her at the pulpit. When we asked some members about the difference between Jr.’s style and Dr. M’s style, one person remarked that Dr. M’s sermons involve “a very quiet spirituality” that is equally as powerful as Jr.’s very charismatic style.