The sanctuary was 50 years old, and even though she had been redone over the years and was decked out in her glorious red dress, the lady seemed to be feeling the wear of time. It was time for change, and change was not something people liked — especially in a traditional church.
Nevertheless, earlier this year at the First Christian Church, Disciples of Christ, McAllen, the congregation began seeing something happening to their chancel area (raised area in the front of the church which could contain the altar, lectern, pulpit, choir and pianist/organist).
Coming to church, first they noticed the brightness of the chancel. What a simple thing it had been to move aside the dark, heavy red velvet drapes covering the baptistry and let the light shine across the brighter curtains concealing the baptistry’s back wall. That alone made a major difference to the area.
In the weekly bulletins were mentions of a new ministry at church called the Tribe of Dan. “What kind of group was this?” was the question on many parishioners lips. Most of the people liked it; some did not. Yet, there was not a doubt — it seemed to be making a difference.
“I notice on the weeks we do chancel decor, people come up and look at it. That alone tells you something,” said Tonii Leadbetter, a Tribe of Dan member. “They never used to come up and look at the communion table. Now, they come up and take in all the details and the symbolism they read about in the bulletin. I feel like they are getting a lot out of it because of that. They wouldn’t be interested otherwise.”
Research on altar decor was done in workshops at various area and national church functions. One church explained how they had taken two- to three-foot-wide material and draped it from the ceiling’s edge of the chancel area down and across to the other side — yards and yards of material crisscrossing the space, creating a cascade of color.
Another church covered their communion table with over 25 various sized cream-colored candles with crisp, glistening beige material twisted around them. The effect was dazzling, warm, comforting, inviting and was the final motivating factor to kick off the new ministry.
After reading the book Awesome Altars, How to Transform Worship Space by Mary Dark and Judy Pace Christie, the first meeting time was held prior to Ash Wednesday, which the church was going to celebrate for the first time.
Deciding on the name “Tribe of Dan,” taken from Exodus 31, the committee jumped in with enthusiasm. Gathering each week, they asked God for His help, read the scripture, and worked with Pastor Max Grubb to decide what enhancements and changes could be made.
“God gives us nudges,” said Barbara Travis, Tribe member. “Someone will say something and before long we’ll all be on the same train of thought. He gives us this out of the goodness of His heart so we can show the people what we need to show them. I love it.”
That first Wednesday was simple — a low table draped in brown burlap with a basin, jug and towel as a symbol for servanthood, wheat stalks and grapes as a call to community and using wood communionware as a symbol of toning down our lives during the Lenten Season.
As the weeks progressed, the congregation began to see unusual items bedecking the chancel area. Nets for the fishermen were draped over the lectern and pulpit, rivers made from silken blue materials, floating crosses, dyed cheesecloth draped the main cross, Happy Birthday balloons for Pentecost — all were means of bringing the worship service to life and more vital.
“In the CD, which came with the Awesome Altars book, the lady mentioned how God had told Moses how important altars are,” said Tonii Leadbetter. “I had never really realized that. So, to me, we’re really doing important work. If it was important that Moses go do something about it, I guess it’s important for us to be doing it.”
“The scripture is so full of abstractions,” said Patti Barrett, member of the Tribe. “We read it, then we ask — What do we do with it? When you look at the symbolism in the scripture, all of a sudden it’s concrete. There’s something tangible. Everybody can see it or feel it. It makes the abstract concrete.”
Week after week, month after month, the Tribe of Dan meets with the pastor and asks God for their nudge and are continually surprised how their brainstorming turns out.
“I would rather see the satisfaction in the parishioners who come in and see this than the satisfaction of ourselves,” Jared Leadbetter, Tribe member, said. “We know what we did. We know we did the work. But they come in and go, ‘Man, they’ve really done some neat stuff here at our church.’ It makes me want to get up on Sunday.”
From an Easter tomb and a donkey, to Earth Day and a sheep kneeling before a painting of Jesus, a sea serpent named Seemore and ribbons twined through the brick backdrop, plants, flowers, fountains and crutches, canes and crosses — the Tribe brings the scripture or season to life.
“It means a lot to me because I’m able to use what little talent I have to do the paintings. I think it brings out everybody else’s talents also,” said Sandy Hendrick, Tribe member. “All of those talents grouped together make a beautiful chancel. I love doing it.”
“You can look at it and you can relate to it,” said Tonii. “It makes you feel — dare I say? — more at home.”
“What’s nice is when we do this and then we take it away,” Barbara said. “We actually enjoy the simplicity for a couple of weeks before we jump back in and do something else.”
But does it do what it was meant to do — enhance the congregation’s worship?
“It takes me back to the time of Jesus,” said Tribe member Irma Johnson. “When I concentrate during worship, I am wishing everybody in the congregation has the same feeling as me. It has given me tranquility and well-being in my body and espirit.”
“I’ve enjoyed watching how the Tribe brings the scriptures and their plans to life,” said Pastor Grubb. “Members of the congregation have shown a renewed interest in the meaning of the scriptures and the message in the sermon as they see it coming visually to life. It’s been a positive influence, creating much discussion.”
Members have had several side-effects from the Tribe’s work.
“Every time we meet we pray,” said Tonii, laughing. “I don’t usually pray every Tuesday night at 6 p.m.”
“Sometimes we pray that Jared doesn’t fall off the top of that ladder,” said Patti, bringing gales of laughter to the Tribe as they remembered Jared teetering dangerously atop the six-foot ladder during a Tribe set-up for the Lenten season.
Which brings to point another side effect.
“We’re a family within a family,” said Barbara. “The church itself is a big family. But our little Tribe of Dan is a little family in the big family and I like that.”
“I have the opportunity to be sociable with the other members of the Tribe,” Irma said, with a smile.
“With the Deacons, we do the same thing over and over and over again. That’s the worker bee committee,” Tonii said. “This is a creative worker bee committee. We’re the butterflies — we pollinate.”
Finding new ways to enrich worship service is always hard, but the Tribe of Dan know they’ve got a home run with this.
“We are an old church, but we’ve come up with a brand new way to worship,” said Tonii.
Eagerly the Tribe awaits those magic words the Pastor says on the Sundays when they have turned the chancel area upside down, “The Tribe has struck again!”