Sunday, May 01, 2005

Outsider Perspectives

My friend who is a self-professed agnostic went to Mosaic a couple of times. He also visited another emergent church in LA called Tribe. He had an interesting perspective. He said that he didn't think either of the churches were for him (an "unbeliever") at all. They were, he said, for people who already were Christians but who wanted to do church in a way that made them feel creative, artistic, hip, and cool. From the outside, he nailed it - and the novelty didn't work on him because it was not for him.

I also must quote his best line of the night. When he asked how big Tribe was a few years ago, someone said 30 people, and when he asked out big now, someone said about 30 people. And he said: "Gee, it's not emerging very fast then, is it?"

Now I know, it's not about numbers - that's the last thing I care about when evaluating the church. But he wisely noted that if this were indeed something truly of God, wouldn't it be getting more popular? Wouldn't it be growing a little bit? Wouldn't it be emerging?

This morning I visited the most Spirit-filled little church. It is St. Barnabas in north Pasadena. It is a teeny weeny place with an older, mostly African-American congregation. You never know how these things may go. There was canned music playing when we arrived (almost first since we had the service time wrong), but it was very pretty. The first thing we noticed (and J cheered) was that the bulletin directed us to the hymnal and prayer book (instead of having everything laid out).

Just before we went to church, J was commenting to me that he likes using the prayer book most of all, more than a bulletin, more than projected liturgy, because in a book the liturgy is permanent. It has gravity, and it means something more to us because we have laid it down in this way. When liturgy flashes on a screen, it is gone in a moment, and (besides the computer program) there's no record of it having been there at all. A bulletin can be crumpled and thrown out. But a book - we respect books. We respect material enough to put it in books. We build libraries to hold books, and we pay money to purchase them, even though we could get them for free. Reading the liturgy out of a book means a lot. We should not neglect this, even in the face of our electronic culture.

But back to the service. A woman behind me touched my shoulder and greeted me, and I began to melt. Everyone seemed genuinely pleased to be there and so happy to see one another.

It began with the usual processional but something interesting happened--this tiny little place filled with organ and singing. Three choir members led us, but the congregation sang with gusto. They were older folks and several moved a bit slowly, but they were sincere and they were great singers. The rector is a warm, charismatic young man, who shares the heritage of the majority of those in his church. He led us into worship with a big smile and booming voice, and the congregation responded heartily. The readers helped illuminate the scripture. My eyes were wet when I heard the Gospel reading (fellow seminarians: when was the last time just hearing the words of Jesus made you cry?). The sermon was eloquent, given by one of my professors, and the rector referred to it repeatedly for the rest of the service, tying things together nicely.

We got to sing a lot in this service. The rector frequently led us in spontaneous worship: prayers of thanksgiving, adoration, and intercession. He gave many opportunities for "the body" (as he called us) to speak - prayer requests, announcements. It drew us together. I felt part of this body even though I knew no one. The passing of the peace was outstanding - it was small enough that everybody greeted everybody, and I got hugs and kisses...holy hugs and kisses.

Sharing the body and blood (they rang the bell for each!) was a family event. People were helped up to the altar, the priest called people by name when sharing the elements. We sang some more together. Rev. Anthony was as comfortable and meaningful when speaking the collect for purity as when talking about spiritual warfare. He simply lived and moved in God, in God's space. And the people there were God's family. They shared something intimate and deep with one another. It was a privilege.

Following the service we were invited to stay for sandwiches, which we did, and we spoke to the people. They were hospitable and loving. No matter what age, color, or gender, they served the stranger in their midst and they shared themselves sacrificially. We had to go too soon. They were starting to have a time of prayer through the Scriptures. It had been two hours and it had flown by.

I realized at the end that I'd had a smile on my face for this entire service. It was holy. It was full of God's spirit. It was so warm. It wasn't perfect, certainly, and there were probably things I could nitpick or have been distracted by. But God was there. God was communicating with me as I'd begged him to prior to the service starting. And it was all so real. People love to throw around this buzzword "authentic" - but this was the real deal. It was this church offering exactly what and who it was to God, with no apologies and the best it could do.

And God said that it was Good.


Anonymous said...

Nice to hear some positive perspectives.

LutheranChik said...

That sounds like a service I'd like to go to.

I always find it especially moving when people are called by name when they receive the Eucharist. It makes me, as a sometimes-server, want to spend more time learning people's names so I can do this for them, because I know it means a lot to me.