Bishop Thomas J. Bickerton and Rev. Emma Smith, Warren United Methodist Church at 2009 Annual Conference.(Courtesy WPAUMC image/Carrie Moore/File)

In recent years, the United Methodist Church has urged its congregations to “rethink church.”  On March 30, when he delivers the sermon at the 10:30 a.m. service of Swissvale’s Living Spirit Ministry, Rev. Dr. Thomas J. Bickerton, Bishop of the denomination’s Western Pennsylvania Conference, will be addressing a congregation that has rethought and reinvented church.

In 2009, the congregation sold its traditional church building and parsonage and relocated to a storefront once occupied by a state wine and spirits store at 7415 Irvine St.  Since then, the church has become increasingly involved in the community, operating the Swissvale-Rankin Food Pantry, providing a meeting place for community organizations and serving as a source of information on charitable and government services for residents in need.

Rev. Dai Morgan, pastor of the Swissvale church, said these and other changes have attracted the interest of the Bishop and other Conference leaders, who have provided encouragement and financial support for the local congregation.

“One of our most important changes,” Rev. Morgan said, “is that we have become a truly multicultural church.  We are no longer a white church, and we are not a black church.  By respecting and learning from the disparate traditions and experiences or our members, we have become a united community of Christians who care deeply about and support one another in our journey of faith.

“Our worshipers care also about our community,” he continued.  “Our storefront location reminds us daily that we are part of a community that is in need and is continually changing.  As a result, we resist becoming just another exclusive club.

“An important part of our mission is to serve the community in a beneficial way.  That’s why we provide a home for the Food Panty and Meals on Wheels, host community events and provide various services.  At the same time,” he concluded, “it very important to us to welcome newcomers to our church.  We want to make them comfortable and support them as they investigate the offer of grace and relationship with God.”

Bishop Bickerton has directed the Western Pennsylvania Conference of the United Methodist Church since 2004.  He earned a Doctor of Ministry degree from United Theological Seminary in Ohio.  As chairperson of the United Methodist Global Health Initiative, he has been a leader of the successful “Imagine NO Malaria” campaign, which has raised more than $53 million directed toward eliminating malaria-related deaths throughout the world.

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