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.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Better to have loved LOST than never to have had Lost at all.

My kids and I started watching Lost on DVD this past summer, catching up from the very beginning and getting totally hooked on the series. There have been great moments of connection and discovery, like when one of my 8th graders realized that John Locke was the name of a real person (18th c. English Religous Philosopher) and my 4th grader recognized that Daniel Faraday was a nod to Michael Faraday, the scientist. Soon, we really started looking for the links and connections beyond the 'plain sense' of the storyline and noticed other interesting names, etc: Jack Shephard - the shepherd and physician who leads; Sawyer - wild like Tom Sawyer; Charlotte Staples Lewis - a nod to Clive Staples Lewis (C.S. Lewis).

It's a great show and has given us hours of imaginative conversations about faith, science, religious philosophy: Christian hope, Eden, Messiah/Sacrifice, Healing Power, The Communion of Saints (e.g. Time/Space Continuums), etc.

Last week's episode climax occurred in a church and Benjamin Linus tells Jack Shephard the story of Thomas the Apostle, whose painting is hanging in the sanctuary. Ben recounts how Thomas was the one who said to Jesus when he learned he was going to Jerusalem to die, "Let us go with him and die also." But that is not how he is remembered, Ben continues. Instead, Thomas is remembered for being the one who didn't want to believe that Jesus had risen from the dead. He needed proof - had to see, wanted to touch the wounds for himself. At this point in the series, Locke is dead (we don't know exactly why or how) and Jack has a note from him, unread until a few scenes later, but which says simply, "Jack, I wish you had believed."

During tonight's episode I finally remembered to grab my copy of John Locke's "The Reasonableness of Christianity with a Discourse of Miracles" off my library shelf. Must admit, haven't looked at it since seminary days (thanks Dr. Edmondson!) but in turning a few pages quickly stumbled on these two points from Locke's main treatise:

"7. Adam being thus turned out of paradise, and all of his posterity born out of it, the consequence of it was, that all men should die, and remain under death for ever, and so be utterly lost."

"8. From this estate of death, Jesus Christ restores all mankind to life...whereby it appears, that the Life, which Jesus Christ restores to all men, is that life, which they receive again at the Resurrection. Then they recover from death, which otherwise all mankind should have continued under, lost forever..."

Now, I'm not confident that this is where the writers are going. According to the ABC Lost series website, (or was it another related website?) the writers did require the condition that the series have a supernatural underpinning to it, and clearly they have carefully chosen characters' names and made some strong allusions, if not outright references, to religion and science, miracles and the power of hope.

Regardless of exactly where this may be headed, it's more than just an occasional TV teaching moment - it's been season after season of great discussions, wondering, and just darned good writing, acting, and entertainment.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Edifice Complex

At what point does real estate and a building become more of a hindrance than a help to the life of the church?

Our buildings and their architecture say much about who we are and what we value in our worship life - where the people sit, where the pulpit and altar are located and how big they are, stained glass windows or clear, etc.

So, when we realize that our identity is shifting in some way - the times and culture have changed and call for a new response or a new modality; the neighborhood has changed and we need to reach out to a new deomographic; the liturgy doesn't carry enough meaning anymore because it has become rote so we need to make a change of emphasis - one of the best ways to accomplish that shift is by shifting the cues in our environment. This can be very hard to do, though, when those cues are locked in to the architecture of the building.

There is an old adage in the church liturgy circles which says that when you are trying to design liturgy and look for new forms, new expressions of worship you usually end up fighting against the architecture which was designed to reinforce a previous theology. And so the saying goes, "the building always wins."

I just wonder, though, how the church would be different if we took a more mobile/adaptable view of our buildings and architecture - much like families do when they decide, "This house just isn't working for us anymore" and so they either remodel or sell and move. Some churches do remodel - but not without great pain and grief usually. Rarely do churches actually move.

If we were more adaptable with our architecture, would we also be more adaptable in general? Or would the church still be as slow to change and to respond to the shifts in culture and in the lives of people who mostly today find the church to be irrelevant to their lives?

Sunday, February 15, 2009

What is God doing here?

This morning I ventured out to visit a little church I'd never been to on a Sunday before - just to check it out. They are currently without a rector (head pastor) but have an interim who has been with them since late summer while they are in the search process.

A visit to a church like this and you can quickly grasp the concept of 'churches in decline.' For all intents and purposes the place is pretty tired looking and seemingly not on a good trajectory:

  • The building's interior looks like it is straight out of the 1950's - cinderblock walls, linoleum tile floors, and windows that are opaque, cracked, and definitely not energy efficient.

  • 3 of us at the 8am service (why bother?) and about 26 at the 11am

  • Many of the folks are older and there are not many signs of children being present

  • There's a noticable lack of energy in the worship service, the liturgy was uneven and the sermon was a very 1970's psychobabble piece - ( don't think God was even mentioned)

  • Both services started late - as did the Bible study between service

But even with all the potential barriers and pitfalls this church had an amazing edge to it unlike any Episcopal church I've ever been in: It was diverse: Racially, educationally, economically, and age-wise. The later service reflected about 50% Anglo; 45% African American; and 5% Asian. Almost every age demographic was represented - minus teens and 20's. There were a couple of Harvard grads and a couple of folks who had barely finished high school.

And beyond that: The people were genuinely friendly, warm and welcoming but not pushy or needy. The music surprisingly in a place this size was very good - a wonderful young woman who played piano, organ and led the choir. And they are located in a prime area for growth: densely populated area of Northern Virginia in the DC suburbs.

This is the kind of place that can really capture my imagination and stir my soul in a way that few churches do. When that happens I am forced to ask not "What do they think they're doing?" but "Do they wonder and have they noticed what God is doing here?"

Saturday, February 14, 2009

So When is the Church NOT SUPPOSED to be SAFE?

Based on the posting below, one fb friend commented that the concept of the church being safe is a two-edged sword. Because when it is a truly safe place, you open the doors for every unhealthy, off-balance, manipulative, bully who couldn't find another place of acceptance in this world to walk in and be greeted warmly - at least at first.

This begs the question, "Is the church even always supposed to be 'safe' for clergy - or for anyone for that matter?

Well, let's follow a natural path of logic here: The church is the Body of Christ - the incarnation of Jesus in the world today. If that is so (and scripture and tradition say it is) then would Jesus always be a 'safe' person to approach and to spend time with?

Well, let's see....hmmmm...y-No.

Jesus did things like welcome tax collectors, prostitutes, and other notorious sinners to dine at the table with him. Not safe.

Jesus crossed over to the 'other side' and walked among the tombs and the swine, touched a mentruating woman and a dead body, breaking down all sorts walls and smashing purity codes. Not safe.

Jesus ended up literally crucified for taking the stances and making the proclamations he did - and guess what? So did some of his followers. Others died in jail, were fed to wild beasts, or mocked, scourged, executed, and/or tortured in some other fashion. Not safe.

Therefore, neither should the church always strive to be a 'safe' place.

Annie Dillard said it so well:

Why do people in church seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute? … Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us to where we can never return.”

—Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters (New York: Harper & Row, 1982), pp. 40-41.

So it seems to boil down to this: The church should be a safe place in terms of providing an environment that is free from abuse from the institution itself - whether to employees clerical or lay or to parishioners or to anyone - and should absolutely be about preventing and curtailing abuse wherever it is encountered. That has everything to do with God's mission in the world of being a force for life and love.

But, the church should not be a place that keeps us safe from facing the hard realities of our own shortcomings and need for transformation and ongoing conversion of life. Or, in the words of the General Confession, the church should actually help us to "acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness which we from time to time most grievously have committed, by thought, word, and deed..." [Book of Common Prayer, Holy Eucharist I, pg. 331] so that we can let go of the past hurts and disappointments and begin to move forward with expectation and wonder and the new life that God is working in us through Jesus in his Body, the church.

Can I get an Amen?

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Safe Church For Clergy

So, I've been my particular faith tradition we put a lot of effort a few years back into making the church a safe place for children - and adults - in terms of sexual abuse/misconduct prevention. So much effort that we have mandatory training, awareness, procedures and the like that are highly effective. Consciousness and levels of care have been raised to appropriate levels. I'm so very glad we've done that work. It has paid off.

So, here's my question: Could we do something similar for our clergy and lay employees? Could we make the church a safe place to work? Could we initiate standard accepted procedures and practices for hiring and firing, and outline processes for what to do when things don't seem to be working out? Could we mandate HR training?

It seems to me that this is one of the biggest ongoing problems for us. And the degree of power imbalance and lack of accountability and transparency that goes along with these situations sets us up for creating undue hurt, trauma, and long-term scarring of clergy's and layworkers' vocations (not to mention that of their families), as well as confusing parishioners and damaging their faith in the institutional church.

Anyone disagree?

Monday, February 9, 2009

The Great Physician

Last week's Sunday Bible reading from Mark's Gospel (Mark 1:29-39) is a compelling take on the early stages of Jesus' ministry. He heals Simon's mother-in-law, and then 'they' bring to him all who were sick or possessed with demons - and Jesus heals the sick and casts out the demons and those who are touched by his healing are restored. To see this miraculous work, we are told, the whole city crowded around the door. Is it any wonder?

When was the last time you had to find a good doctor? Have you ever moved to a new town and had to go through the torment of trying to find a physician you can trust? Or maybe, you've received an unexpected diagnosis that has forced you to seek out a specialist - someone whom you knew was specially trained and practiced at delivering the kind of care you needed. You want to know what their credentials are and you want good referrals.

If this is a familiar situation for you, then you night be able to relate to the people in that city who crowded around the door - trying to see just how powerful Jesus' healing could be - just how trustworthy he was. Because, in fact, there is not a single one of us who is not in need of some kind of restoration. There is not one of us who is already perfectly whole, perfectly healthy in mind, body, and spirit.

"Everyone is searching for you," his companions say to Jesus. And where they find him - more specifically what they find him at - is the signal to us all of the power that Jesus can bring into our lives. "And while it was still dark, he went out to a deserted place to pray." Jesus' complete union with God, and his ongoing communion with the Father, is the sign to us of the power that Jesus offered the people gathered around that door, and those who were in the neighboring towns and villages.

And that communion with God is the path that Jesus offers all of us today who still are seeking for restoration and for wholeness.