A nontraditional church calling

Pathway: A recently founded United Methodist congregation seeks the spirit of the earliest Christians.

May 05, 2000|By Diane Reynolds | Diane Reynolds,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

At a United Methodist church called Pathway, film snippets of "It's a Wonderful Life," multimedia presentations and a video projector are all part of the plan to bring the church back to its Christian roots of 2,000 years ago.

Pathway, a new church founded by the Rev. Cliff Webner and a core group of lay ministers, held its first service April 2 at the Baltimore-Washington Conference Center in Columbia. It challenges church traditions that Webner and his followers believe block individuals in their search for God.

To counter traditions and re-create the spirit of the earliest Christian church, Pathway emphasizes modern technology, lay ministry and giving freely to those in need.

"Jesus related to people with everyday implements. He used images familiar to an agrarian culture, such as sheep and seeds. People today are accustomed to computers, cars and modern technology," explained Webner, when asked how modern technology brings the church back to its roots. "So we figure we'll use these everyday tools to try to reach people.

"It's not about style -- it's about spirit," added Webner, describing a church in which dress is casual and music contemporary. "We're trying to go back to the basics of loving God and caring for each other and reaching out to other people to care for them."

To do this, the church has not been organized around committees, as is traditional, but around "care groups." These groups of eight to 12 people, led by "lay pastors," meet throughout the week in one another's homes to share spiritual education, friendship and support. The lay pastors train "apprentices" who share in ministering to their care groups.

"There is so much joy in worship at Pathway. I think you can feel that," said parishioner Joyce Felton.

For Webner, the goal is to share his ministry. "I think there are bad signals sent out that clergy are more important than laity -- we are more of a partnership," he said. "If you look in the Book of Acts, in the early church, the ministry was shared.

"We want to share ministry, to do what works -- sometimes I think people trip over their heritage. Sometimes people worship their buildings and not God."

Pathway puts a focus on "disciple-making," he said. "A lot of churches get tangled up in business and don't get around to disciple-making. We've got to change from a focus on business meetings to a focus on Bible studies."

To further move the attention away from self and toward God and Jesus Christ, Pathway tithes -- gives away -- 10 percent of whatever it collects in monetary donations. "Here we are, a brand-new church, and we sent $1,000 to Turkey to help after an earthquake," the pastor said.

Rebecca Copeland, a lay pastor at Pathway, said: "With tithing, we very deliberately felt we needed to model as a church what an individual should do. Look at Malachi 3: 10: `Bring the whole tithe ... says the Lord, and see if I will not throw open the floodgates and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it.' "

In addition to the donation to earthquake victims, Pathway has supported a church in Costa Rica; sent gifts to Operation Christmas Child, which delivers presents to youths overseas; and aided relief efforts to victims of Hurricane Floyd.

"We connected giving to everyday life by showing the clip from `It's a Wonderful Life' where the townspeople come out to support George Bailey financially in his crisis," Webner said. "It's just like in Acts 4: 32: `Those who believed were of one heart and soul and no one said any of the things he possessed was his own, but they had everything in common.' "

Despite his innovations, Webner is not opposed to all tradition. "I had to figure out how to do Communion -- and what it meant. I typed up the liturgy out of the United Methodist hymnal and put it up on the wall. It was fairly traditional. We prayed the Lord's Prayer.

"You need to take the best of tradition and go with it. We use the best things we can find to bring people to God and Jesus Christ," he added. "People need to understand that God takes ordinary things and people and can make them extraordinary."


Pathway worships at 10 a.m. Sundays in the Baltimore-Washington Conference Center, 9720 Patuxent Woods Drive in the Patuxent Woods office park. Information: 301-725-0009, or visit its Web site at www.pathway-church.org.

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