MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — A wedding of sorts took place Sunday in downtown Memphis.
For 18 months, Bluff City Church and First United Methodist Church have been “courting,” said Bishop Bill McAlilly of the Nashville Episcopal Area of the United Methodist Church.
“Today we come to be married, thanks be to God,” McAlilly said.
Sunday’s service was the joining of two churches, one old and one new, one with aging and declining membership, and one with growth from young families.
The merger of the two churches was also a commitment by both congregations to remain United Methodist, a commitment coming at a time when some churches are leaving the denomination over differences regarding church practice and doctrine, often related to same-sex marriage and the ordination of LGBTQ clergy.
“In the overall perspective of the United Methodist World, this is a really important message, because it says that people can come together and honor our differences and distinctiveness but also be one in Christ together,” said the Rev. Tom Fuerst, who will pastor the combined church. “In a denomination that is splitting apart over differences, I think we are saying something different: That we belong together, that together is good and that we can do more together than we can do without each other.”
Fuerst founded Bluff City Church about five years ago at the direction of McAlilly, after Fuerst was fired from Christ Church Memphis. Christ Church has since voted to disaffiliate from the denomination.
For years, Bluff City Church didn’t have a permanent home, meeting in other churches and temporary spaces.
At the same time, First United Methodist Church was wondering what its future would look like. Founded in 1826, the church has, like many historical congregations, struggled to recruit newer membership as its members age.
First United Methodist Church had about 45-50 members on its rolls, while there were about 125 attendees at Bluff City.
Vicki Carayiannis, a member of First UMC who served on the team that worked to unite the two churches, said it was “truly a godsend” that as First UMC was considering its future, there was also a growing church looking for a physical home.
“When we found out that the basic values were the same… right at the beginning we saw it was a match made in Heaven, truly,” Carayiannis said. “For me it’s about hope, the hope that this church I’ve attended for 30-something years is going to be here for the next 200.”
The two churches have been meeting together since July when Fuerst formally became pastor of First United Methodist as well as Bluff City.
“We started doing an early service and a later service and our members immediately started co-mingling,” said Lucas Parris, who chaired the leadership team at Bluff City. “Even since then it never felt like a Bluff City service and a First Methodist service. … Now we’re just a happy family. It’s felt great.”
Sunday, the two churches formally became one, with McAlilly and Fuerst reading a “togetherness liturgy,” a modification of a liturgy done when a new church is launched.
In the liturgy, they announced the new name of the combined church: Memphis First United Methodist Church.
The service blended both church’s traditions with both a choir and a worship band and ended with a potluck.
“We have come together this morning to form a new congregation out of two existing congregations, and particularly I think it is rather fortuitous, and I might even use a personal word and say prophetic, that in this moment in the United Methodist Church’s history we are coming together to exhibit unity,” Fuerst told the new congregation.
McAlilly said that in the combined church, members of First United Methodist can continue to offer a “refuge” to people experiencing homelessness.
Not only has the new Memphis First United Methodist Church brought members of two churches together, but it has also drawn new members interested in the combined church.
“It’s a joy. A historic church and a new church have come together because of their unity in Christ and their willingness to lay aside whatever their particulars are so they can be in joyful worship and community in this space to serve this particular city for the sake of the Gospel,” McAlilly said. “There is a new life that is joining here because of this marriage.”