Sunday, June 13, 2010

"And Now for Something Completely Different"

Yesterday on Facebook I solicited suggestions on where I might go to church today. The responses were great: everything from Russian and Greek Orthodox, to a Quaker Friends Meeting, Alfred Street Baptist and local Methodist and Roman Catholic Churches. However, my hope was to avoid anything too close to the Mainline and/or Liturgical expressions that I'm accustomed to in the Episcopal Church and also to go to a "big" or "growing" church, expecting to glean something from how they do church.

Once the votes were in, McLean Bible Church was the clear leader - interestingly, all the votes for that one were from female Episcopal clergy. Admitedly, I've wanted to visit there for quite a while. For one thing, the pastor has weekday spots on a local radio station ("Not a sermon, Just a thought") and early on Sunday mornings you can hear his sermon broadcast. It's a megachurch, so it would be easy to slip in and be anonymous for just one visit. And, the pastor and I live in the same neighborhood so that added to my level of interest. Good contender.

Keeping my options open, I had looked up various service times of a few places and it seemed that if I could head out around 9:30 or 9:45, I could be anywhere I chose to go on time. So, still undecided, I got up, dressed, ate breakfast and got in the car. I sat at the end of my driveway and had finally decided to head for McLean Bible Church. BUT, as I located their webpage on my iphone and searched for service times, everytime I clicked on the link for "services" I got bumped to a google map and never could find what time the services were. The home page said they were "open on Sundays 8am - 5pm" - or something like that, which was no help at all. So I gave up on going there.

As I sat there mulling it over I remembered another, possibly similar church: National Community Church ( This church advertises as "One Church. Multiple Locations." They meet in movie theaters around the area. I found their webpage, easily found their service times, and with a little time to spare, went to their Ballston Commons Mall service at 10:30 am. Here's a quick run-down of my experience:

Hey, this is smart...
Low Barrier for Visitors: We've all been in parking garages at malls with movie theaters. This is a no-brainer for a newcomer. You follow the mall signs to the theater, there's a lobby area with greeters handing out bulletins who point you in the right direction through the refreshment area, past the book table and table with leaflets about various ministries. You walk into the theater, noticing a Spanish language service in an adjacent theater, and a prayer space in another. You go find a seat anywhere you like. Done.

Tons of Young Adults: They have definitely figured out how to reach the 25-40 age group. While there were people of most ages - babies up to about 70, I'd guess the predominant demographic (85%) were capitol hill staffer types.

Casual Dress and Starbucks in hand: This is the weekend after all. No suits, no ties, no over-coiffed do's. Very leisure and casual - BYOS(tarbucks).

Excellent branding - professionally prepared handouts: Clearly, they take themselves, their identity, and their message seriously. No xeroxed copies using bad clip art here. An opener ad for locations and service times was run on the screen just prior to the start of the worship service. And - this is really clever and cool - the offering was taken up in...(wait for it)...popcorn tubs.

Decent live music, relatively easy to sing: The band was decent, not spectacular. The text of the songs (and one traditional hymn) were, of course, projected on the screen so it was easy to follow along. No notation, just lyrics. Repetition of the text so, after three times through, we got it.

Uh-huh. Just as I expected...

Fanny fatigue: We sat on our butts as spectators, not participants most of the time. There was a time at the beginning and at the end of the service where we were invited to stand: to sing and to say the Apostles (gasp) Creed. Otherwise, we sat...and sat...and sat....(yawn).

Hey preacher, it's past lunch time!! The sermon was mostly good but it was lllooonnngggg. His message was based on a snippet of a passage from 2 Corinthians 13 and he expounded on it well, offering great examples to connect the theology to practice in ways that we could relate it to everyday life. Really good stuff. But it probably could have been broken down into three sermons. Within the first couple of minutes he had me. After 15-20, I started looking at my watch. ("...I'm probably not going to make it back to drive the guys to their soccer tournament final game...") By the 45-minute mark, I was trying to figure out how to get the hell out of there and to send a text without offending my neighbors. ("...I have got to call and make sure Jesse's parents can take them!!!!")

Hey preacher, did you film that in front of a live audience? The sermon was a video presentation. The preacher of the day makes live appearances at a couple of their venues - Sat PM and Sun AM, and at the other locations the sermon is downloaded and projected on the screen while the service is led by a local 'campus pastor'. Today the preacher was the head pastor and they were in the midst of a sermon series called "Sabotage." Good theme, but only briefly alluded to. I kept thinking he was going to start boogeying down because of the way he looked when he shifted his weight; the boy could not stand still! I know movement is better than standing stock still but it was more than a little distracting. However, even though there was a sterility to it because it was videoed, he knew timing well enough to leave pauses for reactions, which were, frankly and sadlly, pretty sparse. Lost much of the interactive nature of live preaching.

Chicklets and Welches Grape Juice: As we entered the theater, we were each handed a little muslin ditty bag. I thought it was some kind of welcome gift or object lesson item tied to the sermon (a mini stick of dynamite?) Once I had a chance to settle in, I peeked. Hmm, some kind of little tin and vial with purple stuff in it. I figured they'd tell me what it was when I needed to know - and they did. This, it turns out, was our 'communion kit.' Huh??? What the what? Yeppers - a miniature film tin with the Body of Christ and vial of Jesus' blood - sort of. Remember, in the Evangelical tradition it is a memorial not a sacrifice - an individual tasting, not a communal meal. So..... after a brief struggle to open the tin, I had my chicklet-sized 'bread' and perfume sampler vial of 'wine' after the local campus pastor said the words of institution: "On the night before he died, Jesus took bread...OK, now y'all take your bread and eat it." (clink, clink, crunch, crunch) "After supper he took the cup of wine...OK, now you take the cup and drink" - Hey, wait a minute - this is not wine - and, what cup? OK folks, do you truly not see the disconnect in what you're saying and doing??

Unscripted prayer means only the pastor can pray out loud. No such thing as corporate (as in "The Body of Christ") prayer here. More spectators; fewer participants.

Whoa, I wasn't expecting that...

Only marginally friendly folks: maybe I looked like I knew what I was doing; maybe I looked too old to talk to (I'm 47), but aside from a smile from greeters as they were handing out bulletins and communion kits, not a single person said "boo" to me with the exception of the part of the service where we are to turn and greet people around us. And then, it was perfunctory. A few people seemed to recognize others, but there was this eerie feeling of lack of familiarity among the folks in attendance. For all I know, we could have all been first-timers there. Now, I do hear that they have a vibrant small group ministry, but there was no evidence of it by the way folks interacted.

A missionary partner from Ethiopia: They do seem to have it going on with world mission. I've seen some stuff on their web about it; heard about it personally from an aquaintance; and they certainly heralded the visit from this Ethiopian pastor and he gave a greeting from his church in Addis-Ababa to the congregation that indicated a standing relationship between his church and theirs. Cool. Very cool.

"Come thou fount of every blessing...": They sang a traditional hymn and it was a hit. (!) They got more vibrant participation on this one than on the previous two which were more contemporary language/music and highly repetitive. Thankfully, not really any "Jesus my boyfriend" music made manifest in the service.

Their view on Tradition: Notice that's with a capital "T." The campus pastor said that communion was a central piece of their weekly worship. Really? In an Evangelical low-church? ...well OK then. The practice of it was a little bit "iffy" for me but somehow, they say, it has become a central focus for them. On the other hand, the head pastor's preaching included a bit about the importance of Creeds but I think he was misguided in his understanding of them. He referred to the Nicene Creed and it's importance (check). He taught about the earliest Creed, "Jesus is Lord." (check) And then he told us we would be saying a short creed at the end of the service. It was the Apostles' Creed. Not surprising I guess - but it's an "I believe" individual commitment/baptismal creed. So he said that if we really believed it we could say it, but if not we should remain silent. Well, sure. BUT - why not use the Nicene Creed which is a communal creed. Everyone says it so that we can all be formed by it and believe into it. The Nicene is the church's creed so there was a prime opportunity for real teaching on community that was totally missed. So, here's the dilemma - if "communion" is so important then why is worship so individualized? And why did we say an individualized creed as a body of believers instead of the communal Traditional Nicene creed?

And what was that about the primacy of scripture? Even in his sermon, the pastor said that the best spiritual practice for self-examination (the overarching theme of the sermon - avoiding self-sabotage) was to read scripture daily. Agreed. Now, what I don't understand is why we didn't hear readings from...Scripture! We did have a brief blurb from Psalm 119 at the beginning of the service - a call to worship - but other than the preacher's reference to a scripture passage as the basis for his sermon...NO SCRIPTURE. I don't get it. I just don't get it.

What it all boils down to is this:
  • Lots of good take-away stuff to learn from and work on (low-barrier for newbies; professionally produced materials; well-branded from web to site; message that connects to real life; targeted demographic with broad-based appeal; etc.)

  • Some of what we think of as church 'stuff'' is just human nature: you gotta train people and remind them how to reach out to newcomers; you can't expect folks to love 45-minute long sermons; don't expect people to sit in the front rows until all the other seats are taken; not everyone likes to sing so lots of guys especially will stand there with their hands in their pockets and their mouths clamped shut whether it's an organ or a rock band playing tunes.

  • It's never a good idea to dis' other traditions or come across as judgmental in your worship...the preacher said he was once in a church where they said the creed on a weekly basis and he "knew" most of the people there didn't believe what they were saying. Poor form.

  • I was impressed on some levels but not as much or thoroughly as I had expected I would be. I probably wouldn't go back - not because of the location or music but because it felt like I was really there alone in a crowd of people - and that sermon length...oy! It felt more like a Bible study than a sermon - a darn good Bible study...

Above all, I plan to do something like this on a more regular basis - once a quarter or every six months, take a Sunday and go somewhere very different. I think it's a good practice for clergy especially to experience worship in another tradition and to reflect on the experience. The fact that NCC regularly share in the Lord's Supper and worked in the creed leads me to believe that their pastor has done this, too.