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Punky worship leader stirs music scene at Methodist church

By Jennifer Lee Preyss
April 13, 2012 at midnight
Updated April 12, 2012 at 11:13 p.m.


TEN LARGEST CHRISTIAN CHURCHES (2010-11)

  1. Catholic Church: 68.5 million, up .57 percent.

  2. Southern Baptist Convention: 16.1 million, down .42 percent.

  3. United Methodist Church: 7.8 million, down 1 percent.

  4. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: 6 million, up 1.42 percent.

  5. Church of God in Christ: 5.5 million, no membership updates reported.

  6. National Baptist Convention, USA: 5 million, no membership updates reported.

  7. Evangelical Lutheran Church in America: 4.5 million, down 1.96 percent.

  8. National Baptist Convention of America, 3.5 million, no membership updates reported.

  9. Assemblies of God: 2.9 million, up .52 percent.

  10. Presbyterian Church (USA): 2.7 million, down 2.61 percent.

Source: National Council of Churches 2011 Yearbook

Sean Folk's office in the First United Methodist Church is lacking in new technology. An out-of-date PC computer sits unused in the corner, and Internet has yet to be wired through the space.

No laptops, or Macbooks, or sleek office decor. Just open space and two work tables covered in ministry and music books.

But the church's new Ignite worship leader isn't without his proper ministry tools. He has an iPad with apps for writing and performing worship songs; a collection of guitars, both electric and acoustic; an electric drum set, mixing board and access to the Attic's youth ministry room - complete with a room full of rock 'n' roll, punk and blues-making instruments.

In many ways, Folk's own image resembles the iPad in his outmoded office.

His neon green, glow-in-the-dark earring and casual, untucked red dress shirt, blue jeans and black skater shoes, bucks the tradition of what is often associated with Methodist high church. He's edgy, youthful and willing to step outside the box if it means people get excited about the Lord.

But that's the point, he said. He's new-fashioned.

"Everyone smiles when they see me. I think they're happy I'm here. They don't look at me like I'm an outsider," Folk, 23 said. "For me, personally, I'm turned off by people who are cliquey, or who might turn their nose up because I'm wrinkled and not tucked in, and have an earring."

Folk, a lifelong Methodist and December graduate of Berklee College of Music in Boston, was recently hired by First United's senior pastor, the Rev. Jarrell Sharp, to counter the traditional at his Victoria-based church and breathe new life into the church.

"Our church family likes him very much. Everyone who has come to Ignite enjoys him very much and appreciates his music abilities, and appreciates his warmth and engaging personality," Sharp said. "Sean is a very gifted young man, I've known him a long time. I'm very glad he was able to come in and give some leadership to this, and bring a fresh breath" to our church.

And with a national decline in Methodist membership, experimenting with contemporary worship styles might help local churches stave off any additional membership losses.

According to the National Council of Churches, Methodism is the third-largest Christian body in the United States, behind Catholicism and Southern Baptists, yet has one of the highest overall membership declines, dropping one percent in 2011.

Folk helped kick off the 11 a.m. Ignite service last month, and has already seen an influx of people coming to church, he said.

"Ignite is theologically Methodist, but it's an alternative to traditional worship that's open to anyone and everyone," Folk said. "We hope to be more open to people like myself that have more body jewelry and ink. That aren't in a suit and tie on Sunday."

And Sharp agrees; he hopes Ignite becomes a place in the community where people feel welcome and accepted, while benefiting from a theologically sound worship service.

"Fundamentally, the purpose of Ignite, it's to help people fall in love with God, just like in the traditional service. This is just in a different style," Sharp added. "It's designed to reach out to those without a church family, or those who haven't found a church family."

And with Folk's punky and versatile approach to Methodism, he said his contemporary attitude is already catching positive reviews from members and newcomers.

"The first week we had 60 people, then the next week we had 90 people. A lot of them are mixed, and first time visitors," Folk said of the new Ignite worship services.

Folk, a McAllen native, said he has no plans to become a minister, and believes any work he can do for the Lord can be done through music.

"I personally believe music has the ability to change lives. It's changed mine ... It has the ability to make you feel things. God made frequencies. Everything vibrates," he said.

Folk hopes Ignite will continue to grow, and spark an enthusiasm in the community to explore Church and God and First United Church. And he hopes to blend tradition and contemporary in way that grows him as a person, musician and follower of Christ.

"I like to think of this as a revolution, where we can have the old and new in the same place at the same time," he said.

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