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.Welcome
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.Music
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.Recessional
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.]