Sunday, July 19, 2009

Cut Loose for Mission

or, Doing Church in a New Key

You all know that I am long-winded. I blame it on my southern, story-telling roots. You can either sit back and listen to a long story, or just skip this blogpost.

You are forewarned.

Our rector is on vacation, and I knew that today was going to be Morning Prayer with no Eucharist. I’ve been planning for a long time not to be in my home parish today. Instead, I decided to go 35 miles north, where our diocese is planting a new congregation. I have been hearing good things, and I wanted to worship with them today and seeing how they are “doing church.”

Let me cut to the chase and say it was a delightful experience. They are worshipping in a strip-mall storefront that has been converted to worship space. Many of these people are new Christians. Many are coming from other traditions. Some of them (adults!) haven't been baptized, but are "seekers," drawn by what they find in this fledgling congregation. They are living out of the church, into the community, and there seems to be much energy there. As I worshipped with them this morning, a phrase came into my mind: "Cut Loose for Mission." God knows, I loves me my old venerable church with its old pews and old traditions. But I saw a vitality today which I seldom see in my own parish.

That’s the short version. Here comes the blow-by-blow.

Web Presence

Yesterday, when I decided to attend this new church, I went to their website. It is clean and easy to navigate. It was easy for me to find out what time they met and easy to get directions. That's not true of all our parishes.

The Facility

The church is meeting in the storefront of a strip mall. I thought it would feel sterile. Not so! The diocese and parish have done a fine job of converting a retail store into worship space.

Yes, it’s different than our fine old buildings. But it still feels like “church.” Because of the conversion, there’s no such thing as a “narthex.” As soon as I opened the door, I was “in the church.” The worship space was clearly delineated. But – this was delightful! – the spaces nearest the entrance were full of very comfy chairs, sofas, coffee tables … In short, these were places where conversation was expected and encouraged. Very different from most of the narthexes and parlors I have seen when I have entered our churches.


I went there kinda like a “secret shopper.” The people in the parish did not know me. But the priest recognized my face. She immediately connected me with somebody who wants to connect with my parish (because we use Godly Play and they want to adopt it). While I was talking with this parishioner, several others came to me, offering welcome. One member greeted me and brought me a name tag.

I’ve reflected today: Did I feel welcome just because I’m an Episcopalian? No, I think this is a congregation that practices intentional hospitality. As a start-up congregation, they expect to meet and welcome strangers. Their welcome wasn’t desperate or fake. It was warm and open. Let me underscore that: They expect to welcome strangers and newcomers every Sunday! Their welcome is warm, but not desperate. They are ready to engage in conversation. And the arrangement of their space makes the pre-worship time like a coffee hour. Everyone coming through the doors is greeted and welcomed. I can’t help contrasting that with the perfunctory “greeting” that people receive as they move through our narthex and are given a service leaflet.

Service Opening

I knew the service was about to begin, when the pianist began to play. People began moving into their folding chairs.

I found a seat. I had intentionally gone in without my own BCP/hymnal combo. In this space without kneelers, there were also no worship materials (like the BCP and hymnal). Suddenly I realized I didn’t have a service leaflet. I asked a woman nearby, and she directed me to the ushers at the main door. I went there, and they gave me a LEVAS hymnal and sheet. When I returned to my seat, I realized it was a leaflet of announcements, not a service leaflet.

Old fuddie-duddie that I am, I was vaguely uncomfortable.

To open the service, Heather+ came to the front of the assembled congregation and made the announcements from in front of altar. She called others to speak about particular projects. I liked that! In my parish, announcements are made just after the “exchange of the peace.” I am often struck that it seems out of place – seems to get in the way of the liturgical flow. I liked this approach: Make the announments, then get out of the way.

Then Heather+ announced opening the hymn, discretely moved to the back of the congregation, and a regular procession commenced.

Oh No! Not PowerPoint!!

I suppose that’s when I realized that I was in a totally different setting.

For that’s when I realized that – instead of service leaflets or BCPs – we had PowerPoint slides projecting on the walls behind the altar. There were two images projecting behind the altar (one at left, and one at right). Eventually, I realized there was also one projected on the rear wall, behind the congregation, for priest and others to read.

Old fuddy-duddy that I am, I have said that I would never and could never worship in a church that used PowerPoint projections. But they did it very well.

And I quickly realized that this is a great “leveler.” It makes it impossible to know who’s a “veteran” and who’s a newcomer, for we’re all facing forward. Nobody is reading from the BCP while others recite it all from memory. And there is no awkward juggling of books or flipping to pages that marks a “newbie.” The words are projected up front, and it is a great equalizer. I would not have realized that if I had not experienced it.

By the bye, every slide included the BCP page reference. Later in the service, I realized that some people had picked up a BCP on their way in. Some people want to learn to navigate the BCP. But the PowerPoint does them a service, I think.

So I bite another “given.” I now see how PowerPoint may be a tool for evangelism. I get that.

The Liturgy

I sense this is a very eclectic congregation.

But the liturgy was straight Rite II, right out of the BCP.

I was impressed that H+ preached the Word and without notes– connecting the readings to (a) need for time of rest/renewal and stressing there needs to be a spiritual dimension and (b) Israelites “on the move,” not yet having reached a permanent home (connecting this congregations to its future hope)

You know I am a Liturgy Nazi and that I will notice variances. I observed a couple of variances, but I appreciated both of them.

After the peace, Heather+ did a brief “teaching session” about the sacrament of baptism. It was brief – maybe 5 minutes. I think that’s because they have many new Christians and some who haven’t been baptized. I gather she’s doing these “teaching sessions” regularly. I saw several people go to communion with arms crossed, to receive a blessing; others remained in their seats. This is amazing to me. Heather+ is ministering in a congregation where she needs to do basic Christian education with the adults, not just with the children.

I don’t know how you all let the kids into “big church.” In my parish, they just drift in during the peace. But in this congregation, they make it a special moment. After the “exchange of the peace,” the whole congregation sings “Jesus Loves the Little Children.” And the kids come processing in, singing along with the rest of us. I like this welcoming of the children, after we have both have had our Liturgy of the Word. And I like the warm welcome it speaks to the children.

I am ambivalent about the music I experienced.
There was a marvelous Taize chant for the Gloria.
But, aside from that, the hymns were a bit too “Protestant” for my taste – What a Friend We Have in Jesus, Down by the Riverside, etc. There wasn’t a 1982 hymnal in sight. It was all LEVAS. Mind you, there are some wonderful hymns in there. But I missed the majesty of some of our great Anglican hymnody.

The closing hymn was “Gonna lay down my burdens …” with it’s refrain of “Ain’t gonna study war no more …” Nothing in this service made reverence to GC09. But it sure was on my mind. I took it as a release. Our church has suffered long and hard. GC09 for me was a blessed relief. I don't know that Heather chose this recessional for that reason, but I was grateful for it. We can move on now.

My Take-Away
I am impressed that this congregation seems to see its mission as beyond the church. Maybe that’s because they don’t have a lovely building to maintain? What might we learn from that?

Perhaps the church really is changing. And maybe some of us fuddy-duddies [like me!] have much to learn from these upstarts.

[Photos courtesy of the Diocese of Missouri, copied from the Diocese's Flickr site, taken at the "launch" of Columbia Hope in February 2009.]


Blogger Catherine said...

What a great descriptive of this "storefront" Episcopal church/mission. Episcopal emergent church...sounds great, Lisa.

Speaking of when to do the announcements. Rev. Anne at Trinity leaves the announcements until after the prayer for home communion, then we all set down and she comes up the aisle a bit and gives a big thanks for the day. Then she asks for those visiting to please stand as part of our welcoming tradition; each person introduces themselves and where they are from, and then launches into the announcements or asks those who are going to make announcements to stand and do so. Then we have blessings for birthdays, anniversaries, travel, et al. Once that is concluded she invites us to stand for the post communion prayer. This way the liturgy has a minimum of interruption, and well, she just likes it that way.

Great piece. We could all learn a thing or two from it.

7/20/2009 1:20 AM  
Blogger David said...

what a great post and an interesting experience- especially coming on the closure of GC09.

i'd suggest however that your name-calling just doesn't fit our experience of you in this space. As comfortable as 'fuddy-duddy' might feel at times, your articulate inteligence and love for the Church, makes me think 'fuddy-duddy''s just your personal old 'mental slippers'- worn, out of shape, they don't quite fit any more.

You drove the distance; you opened yourself to the experience; you shared worship, and had the generosity and articulate inteligence to share the experience with us- all qualities one would hope for in our Church as we all move forward.

So don't even try hiding behind 'fuddy-duddy' we don't believe it!

Thanks again Lisa for a wonderful post


7/20/2009 6:18 AM  
Blogger Kirkepiscatoid said...

Sounds like you had a great time! I am glad I did give you a heads up about the PowerPoint, though. I think once you knew it was there already, you could go, "ehhh...okay, this actually works in a way."

Although I have not been there myself, the overwhelming response from people I know who HAVE been there is "You know, it seems to work without being obtrusive, and I was okay with it."

I do need to get there sometime. I have heard good vibes.

We do our announcements, BTW, after the recessional. Another way not to interrupt the flow. Then we are dismissed with the closing blessing.

I would also echo David's comment about the "fuddy-duddy". I am betting we are not so much fuddy-duddies (I lump myself in there too) but I know in my own case, I am more into "built-in, quiet, contemplative spaces" in my worship. Not so much a function of my age, but a function of where I need to be in my spiritual formation at the moment.

7/20/2009 7:25 AM  
Blogger David said...

those quiet, contemplative spaces are very much where I'm at in my practice too these days.

calling Lisa on her 'fuddy-duddy' was more a very real appreciation for her voice in bearing witness to an inclusive Church; in unmasking the 'Bishops Committee' and her muscled love for our Church.

many things she might be, but 'fuddy-duddy' our Lisa ain't.
and besides it was a fun chance to tease her!


7/20/2009 9:22 AM  
Blogger Caminante said...

Musing... the power point enables a start-up congregation without the funds to buy 50 BCPs or do through service bulletins to move forward in liturgy. We've been trying to do powerpoint HE at Executive Council to save paper and now I am sure $$$.

7/20/2009 1:06 PM  
Blogger Grandmère Mimi said...

Maybe that’s because they don’t have a lovely building to maintain? What might we learn from that?

Since our church may face more hard times ahead, more of us may be doing church like these folks. I believe we'd best pay attention.

Our church was built in 1844, and it costs the earth to maintain. Plus we have the old cemetery to keep up, too. Maintenance for the church and cemetery, along with the rising cost of health insurance for our rector, put us in a real financial bind. Mind you, I'm not saying that we shouldn't do the maintenance or that the rector shouldn't have health insurance, but the costs blow a big hole in the budget.

7/20/2009 1:52 PM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

Thanks for the good discussion. As I’ve said before, I dare not get on the blog during the workday. So I’ll offer several responses here, now that I’m home.

Also, I’ve added a couple of photos to the post, which I found on our diocese’s Flickr site. Maybe they’ll give you a sense of the space.

7/20/2009 8:27 PM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

Catherine, I observe both you and KirkE have the announcements at the end. That sounds mostly good – a kind of segue between the worship time and “setting us loose” for ministry in the world.

But I must confess: The only thing that yields a more visceral reaction than PowerPoint in church is the notion of asking visitors to stand up and introduce themselves. {{SHUDDER!}} I would be mortified if I were asked to do so. I spend occasional weekends with friends at the Lake. I would like to go to church. But I do not, because the only nearby Episcopal church does that kind of thing and then they sing a “song of welcome” to the visitors. They obviously feel it’s welcoming; I would not receive it that way. … But – knowing you, and knowing what you think of your rector – I expect you do it in a rather better way.

Just my $.02.

7/20/2009 8:30 PM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

LOL, David, re: your gentle ribbing about my credentials as a “fuddy-duddy.” I knew you were just teasing; never doubted that.

Of course, I observe that nobody has challenged my credentials as a “Liturgy Nazi.” {grin}

Maybe you’re right. I’m a strict constructionist about what I perceive as the essentials, but am willing to have my head and heart opened about the non-essentials and new ways about expressing the essentials.

And I am humbled by your other kind remarks, David. I hope I can live up to them.

I love your comment about my “muscled love for our Church.” If I were going to have a tombstone, I think I’d want that worked into my epitaph.

7/20/2009 8:32 PM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

Yes, KirkE! Thank you for the heads-up about the PowerPoint. I expect that kept it from being too jarring for me. And at least there wasn’t a little red bouncing ball or any “relevant” guitar music. {grin} (Just you watch. With God’s sense of humor, I’ll probably encounter one or both of those any day now. ;-)

And I would encourage you to visit sometime when it’s convenient. Folks were so happy to know that someone from another church in the diocese had made the effort to visit. I would love to read your “secret shopper” review of the experience!

KirkE, you and David also put your finger on something that I didn’t write about and of which I wasn’t exactly conscious. It’s not just the lack of kneelers. It’s that I take my kneeling prayer time very seriously. Those are the times that give me what you called the “quiet, contemplative space” within my worship experience. At its best, Anglican worship for me has a good balance of common prayer where we are “being in community” and quiet times where we are intentionally and quietly open to what I’ll call “private communion” with the Spirit. The kind of service I experienced yesterday didn’t afford me much opportunity for the latter. Things move a little too quickly. … But that’s a tension that’s inherent in Anglicanism, isn’t it? The tension between being the Body of Christ in community and having our own personal connection to the divine. … Thanks for introducing this dimension into my reflections.

BTW, the “fuddy-duddy” comment was meant as a rather humorous acknowledgement that I do have a tendency to get set in my own ways about how to Do Church. I reckon I’m not really a bona fide “fuddy-duddy,” since I enjoyed having my assumptions and habits challenged.

7/20/2009 8:38 PM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

True dat, Caminante. I’m sure they saved a boatload of money by not having to purchase BCPs and hymnals. Also, this new congregation is very committed to social justice issues; from what I’ve seen on their website, I expect the decision not to print service leaflets relates also to environmental issues.

7/20/2009 8:39 PM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

I hear ya, Mimi! Our current church building was constructed in 1892, and you’re right about the maintenance costs. Oy vey!

This week’s discussions about the TEC budget and my reflections about yesterday’s visit have me thinking about our money. I love my venerable old church building! I love worshipping in a space that has been hallowed by generations of Episcopalians praying in these same pews, kneeling on these same kneelers. I can almost smell the holiness when I walk into the nave. It’s almost visceral.

But we Episcopalians are finally talking about money now … the sex issues having been essentially handled. {grin} And I think about the money that would be available for mission and ministry if we weren’t spending so very much money on maintenance.

I have no doubt these are good doubts and questions for me to wrestle. I would hate to give up our lovely, hallowed space. And yet I would love to see money freed up for what should be the “first things.” What to do? … Keep wrestling, I suppose.

7/20/2009 8:43 PM  
Blogger Grandmère Mimi said...

Lisa, I doubt that you could love your old building more than I love mine, but let's not have a contest. ;o)

7/20/2009 9:05 PM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

Agreed, Mimi!

BTW, in thinking about this issue, I intend to post some pix of my parish church. Would you do the same? Not for competition, but for gratitude.

7/20/2009 9:21 PM  
Blogger Grandmère Mimi said...

Lisa, I'd be happy to post pictures. I have photos of the exterior and interior, including our unusual pews, and also our old organ, which is not original to the building and has a story.

7/20/2009 9:28 PM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

Let's do it, Mimi. I'm running out of gas tonight, but I'll try to do it tomorrow evening.

7/20/2009 10:46 PM  
Blogger Grandmère Mimi said...

I'm going to bed in a few minutes, too. Good night.

Tomorrow for the pictures.

7/20/2009 10:58 PM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

I got a "second wind" and will post mine shortly. I can't wait to see yours!

7/20/2009 11:43 PM  

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