DENOMINATION United Methodist
SENIOR MINISTER The Reverend Mark Craig
ADDRESS 3300 Mockingbird Ln
PHONE 214-521-3111
SANCTUARY SERVICES Sundays at 8:30, 9:30, and 11 A.M.

SINCE THE EARLY SEVENTIES, the demographics of American religion have undergone a significant shift. Immigration has enlarged the population of Roman Catholics, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists. Revival has swollen the ranks of fundamentalists, evangelicals, charismatics, and Pentecostals, with much of the growth occurring in nondenominational megachurches. The losses have struck the so-called mainline denominations, with Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and Methodists experiencing steep declines. As with nearly all sociological generalizations, however, exceptions exist. Some traditional churches continue to flourish, even attracting members from other mainline congregations. One of the most notable is the venerable Highland Park United Methodist Church of Dallas, led by senior minister Mark Craig.

When looking for a spiritual home, increasing numbers of seekers are less concerned about denominational affiliation than whether they like the minister, feel comfortable with the style of worship, can associate with people of similar social status and outlook, and find the range of benefits and opportunities appealing. In the spirit of the Apostle Paul’s claim that he had become “all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22), Highland Park Methodist has thrived in this market- and service-oriented climate.

Each Sunday, worshippers have a choice of three markedly different modes of worship. The service I attended, in the Gothic-style main sanctuary, exemplifies its designation as “traditional,” with an excellent robed choir, familiar hymns sung from a book and accompanied by an organ, and a large crowd of middle- and upper-middle-class families dressed mainly in church clothes. Those who prefer a more informal service, with guitars, contemporary praise music, and casual dress, can attend one of two “Cornerstone” services, led by the Reverend Paul Rasmussen in an amphitheater setting next door. At the other end of the spectrum, those who long for more formality meet in the Cox Chapel with the Reverend Jeff Hall to worship according to Anglican-style liturgy, observing Communion every Sunday and placing less emphasis on the sermon.

Predictably, the largest of these subcongregations still prefers the sanctuary service, not only because of tradition but also because that is where Craig preaches. I visited on a Communion Sunday, so his presentation was listed as a meditation rather than a sermon. Craig speaks rapidly in a conversational manner and without obvious artifice, with appealing touches of self-deprecating humor. He framed his remarks around the words of the late psychologist Abraham Maslow—“If you set out to be less than you are capable of, you will be deeply unhappy for the rest of your life”—and a newspaper story about a seventeen-year-old pitcher named Kyle Hancock who signed a lucrative contract with the Colorado Rockies, then went home a short time later announcing that he didn’t want to be a baseball player after all. His mother, grandfather, and coach had expressed great disappointment in his decision, which Craig found astounding, since the young man had refused the Rockies’ money, enrolled in college, and was involved in community service projects.

Just as I was wondering what this had to do with Communion, Craig said, “This has everything to do with Communion.” He explained that the boy was honest. His life wasn’t going in the right direction, and he resolved to change his course, even though the people closest to him disagreed. He was positive, thinking he could find and shape the future that suited his aspirations better than sitting in the bull pen of life. Finally, the story encouraged us to open ourselves to the grace of God, who has already given us far more than we deserve, and to be confident that God will help us to be what we need to be. “In Communion,” Craig said, “we can be honest and positive and say, ‘God, help me be what I need to be.’” His comments centered more on psychology than Scripture, and when he emphasized the great gifts his audience had received, explicitly contrasted with the wretched conditions of destitute people in Dallas, it was not clear just how the message would apply to the latter, but I suspect it was appropriate for the congregation at hand.

For those seeking to be all they need to be, Highland Park Methodist provides its members with a range of programs and, just as important to many, opportunities to serve others. Not surprisingly, since it traces its roots to the first religious services held at Southern Methodist University and sits just off the edge of the campus, the church’s Academy of Christian and Life Enrichment Studies was offering classes on the Koran, the Gnostic Gospels, and the lost Gospel of Judas, as well as a bound-to-be- popular course, “The Da Vinci Code: The Book, the Movie, and the Truth.” For those seeking less-intellectual fare, the academy also offered two cooking classes (“Grilling for Guys” and “Seafood Sense”) and COMMIT, a program for engaged couples. Academy courses are complemented by an impressive speaker series, which has recently included such notables as John Grisham, Karen Hughes, and Andrea Mitchell.

To meet more-pressing needs, the church sponsors a Career Jump Start program for job seekers and provides a number of support groups on topics ranging from cancer and domestic violence to alcoholism and obesity. It also helps support the Austin Street Centre, providing the homeless with food, medicine, and short-term shelter and operating a longer-term residence facility and job-training program for people trying to move back into society while coping with psychological disorders or undergoing substance-abuse rehabilitation. In addition, church volunteers operate a summer camp that serves hundreds of inner-city kids and have built 43 of a projected 100 houses for poor people through its Carpenters for Christ program, the latest paid for by a member of the church and erected in only seven days. International efforts include an eye-care clinic in Haiti and mission programs in Mexico and Russia, with a major initiative in Africa that has, in addition to its evangelistic efforts, distributed $500,000 worth of medicine and provided free medical treatment to more than 400,000 people.

Impressive as these options and accomplishments are, a check of the bulletins and Web sites of other large churches—and synagogues, mosques, and temples as well—of almost any persuasion impressively underscores what a significant contribution religious organizations can and do make to their own community and, often, to communities far removed.