As a pastor on sabbatical, one of my practices has been to visit churches and other spiritual communities. This week I decided to look and see what were the closest churches to my home in Santa Rosa. One of them is a non-denominational Evangelical church and I rode my bike there for the 10:00 a.m. service.
I was greeted at the door by someone wearing their nametag who said to me, “You could bring your bike in here if you want.” I had just locked it up to a metal fence post at the front of the church property. I took the offer to bring my bike into the church building as a genuine act of hospitality. The greeter and I chatted for a couple of minutes. I explained that I was a pastor on sabbatical and that I was visiting churches – I like to be up front about who I am and why I’m there, in part because I dont’ want to end up on an email list of prospective members. “You can enter on either side for worship,” the greeter told me, so I walked in on the left side of the Worship Center.
For those who don’t know, the Christian tradition is rather diverse. There are many different styles of worship, forms of leadership, types of music, interpretive approaches to the Bible, and ideological commitments when it comes to theology. For example, what my congregation calls a sanctuary, this church calls a “Worship Center.” Whereas my church has a pianist and and a chancel choir and a handbell ensemble, this congregation has a praise band with drums, keyboards, bass, electric guitar, acoustic guitar and vocalists. Whereas the community I serve uses a paper worship bulletin, this community has screens and QR codes. Whereas my church has fixed pews, this church has comfy rearrangeable padded chairs.
My point is that the look and feel of this congregation is quite different from the way my congregation looks and feels. And yet, I’ve reached a point in my life, and in the development of my faith, that while I notice the differences and similarities, what I really want to do is appreciate the good or interesting or beautiful things that are happening within a particular community. The church I visited today was significantly different from the one I serve, but I want to lift up and appreciate the grace-filled things I experienced this morning.
- The greeter greeted me naturally, offered to secure my bike, and engaged me in conversation.
- I was the only person wearing a face covering, but no one said anything or looked at me in a judgmental way.
- The worship band had a good, even sound and seemed to genuinely enjoy what they were doing.
- The production team which ran the lights and sound and video and livestream was almost entirely made up of teenagers and they did an amazing and professional job.
- The church is led by a couple who are co-lead pastors.
- There was a good number of children at the beginning of the service who sang along with the band and seemed well-loved by the adults around them.
- The sermon had some good intellectual meat, like the meaning of Bethesda – “House of Mercy” – and the historical detail that at the end of the Festival of Booths, celebrants would dance for hours without eating or drinking and then would drink from a collective fountain. It was at this moment, “on the last day of the festival,” that Jesus announces, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me.”
I talked with one of the pastors after the service. He was very generous with his time. He asked me what kind of church I served.
“United Church of Christ,” I said. “And how would you describe this church?,” I asked him, “Evangelical?”
“Well, yeah, Evangelical,” he said, “but not in the way that CNN describes Evangelical.”
“Cuts both ways,” I said, “because I’m a liberal Christian, but not in the way Fox News describes liberals.”
He and I agreed that there is a problem when our spiritual commitments are equated with, or subordinated to, our ideological commitments. The Church is called to be a place where we can have political differences but still regard each other as one body, capable of compassion and love despite our differences and disagreements. Of course, he and I did not talk about our essential theological differences – is God about the business of saving all humanity and all creation, or only those who profess Jesus as Lord? And we didn’t venture into “pelvic issues” such as whether women should have the freedom to make decisions about their own reprodoctive health without governmental or religious coercion. Those conversations will have to wait until there is more relationship and greater trust.
In them meantime, I am convinced that there is much to learn from the people who are in close proximity. What if each of us were to spend a year exploring the one-mile radius around where we live? Think of the backgrounds and cultures and stories and struggles you would encounter. Think of the surprises. Think of the ways your mind would be changed about the neighborhood you live in. All within walking, or biking, distance.
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