By Sarah Ferguson*
The following may be alarming to some congregations. Reader discretion is advised. Not for explicit words, sexual innuendoes or violence, but for the modern congregation worshiping God in a very different way.
Project 614, a new service with roots in Church Hill United Methodist Church (Mahoning Valley District) of Youngstown, is sprouting forth in the dead of winter. Led by pastor Jared Woodward, Project 614 held its first Sunday of baptisms on January 26.
Amidst the frigid Northeast Ohio snow, a portable pool was set up and filled indoors. Andy Denen, co-leader of Project 614 and leader of Refuge ministries, introduced the baptismal pool at the beginning of the service. He enthusiastically helped the congregation practice the rejoicing response it would use when fellow worshipers would rise from the water.
What was scheduled to be eight baptisms quickly became 12! Black t-shirts and shorts and fresh white towels were provided for those who spontaneously decided to be baptized.
Project 614 offers worshipers a laid-back atmosphere in which to hear lessons from the Bible delivered in a contemporary style. A coffee bar – complete with two Keurig coffee brewers, fruit, and donut holes – sits amongst congregants, on a large, elevated seating area with tables, during the service. A full band with drum set, guitars, and a lead voice engage the congregants in singing the latest worship songs.
At the baptismal service, Woodward finished a sermon series titled “TKO” – or “Total Knock Out” – a phrase made popular recently by pop singer Justin Timberlake’s song of the same title. The contemporary wording proves effective in drawing and keeping young adults engaged.
But it’s not just the wording or the music. The spirit of familial love and care are attracting people to Project 614. Dale Ochwat and Alyssa Sansone share not only a loving relationship, but also their baptisms. Their four-year relationship led them to the moment they both stepped into the pool and baptized each other with Woodard’s help.
Sansone, 22, said she had been baptized as an infant in her childhood Catholic church but wanted to make a ceremonious decision of her own will to be baptized as an adult. Ochwat, 26, said that baptism was the only way to express this decision of faith, showing their church community, “out with the old, and in with the new.”
The couple was introduced to Project 614 when it started as a Bible study. They met Woodward there and came to love how he relates the Word. They’ve had the pleasure of watching the group grow. “Try 614,” Sansone said. “It could change your life, because it changed ours.”
Sansone’s mother had never been baptized. She says she lost any religion, but decided that now was the time to dedicate her life to Christ. While things are good right now, she knows that she will need God in the bad times, too. With the help of her daughter and Woodward, she too was baptized.
Many who spoke to the congregation pre-baptism said they were now dying to the old self. Some were happy to be baptized in what they consider their home church even though Project 614 has only been in existence for a year.
The youngest baptized was a six-year old. She was the first into the water but started crying and asked out. She was drawn quickly from the pool, but she tried a second time at the end. She endured the icy waters, braved the dip, and with that, closed the inaugural Project 614 baptismal service.
It began with youth. It ended with youth.
*Sarah Ferguson is communications coordinator for the Mahoning Valley District.