Wednesday, September 29, 2004

An unusual church experience

So I was in Toledo for my great weekend with the sisters, and listening to WYSZ "YES Radio," the local "contemporary Christian" station, when an ad caught my ear. "A church for people who don't like to go to church," it said. It quoted Acts 10:35 (actually 10:34-35), and then described the church this way: "Ten-thirty-five - not just a time, but a church for the times."

Of course, I was driving in my car, and had nothing to write with, but I called the station's request line, and got the church name and number. Here's where the surprise came in - this new church plant, 10:35 (see their website) is a satellite ministry of St. Paul's Lutheran Church in Maumee, Ohio.

Yup. A traditional, tall-steeple, ELCA church.

The rest of the search was a bit frustrating - the church is doing a huge renovation on their sanctuary, so they were worshiping at a theatre in downtown Maumee - and no one was answering the phones at the temporarily-abandoned sanctuary. And their website was down - turnover in the volunteers who are managing the tech side of things at the church. And the radio ad didn't give the website, which would have answered my questions in a flash. But I did get enough info to find out that worship really WAS at 10:35, at Monclova Elementary School. So I left sister and brother in bed ("worshiping at St. Mattress") and went over to see what was going on.

Outside: a van pulling a Haulmark-type trailer with the 10:35 logo splashed across the side. Over the entrance to the school, a banner with "10:35 - A Different Worship Experience" (or something like that). Inside: people who were friendly, but not the hyper-enthusiastic greeting that I've gotten from so many places like this. A stage, video screen, band set-up, sound system...started to look like a number of Willow-Creek clones I've visited. And in fact, that's exactly what it was - St. Paul's is one of the growing network of mainline churches who are adapting the practices and outreach of "apostolic networks" like the Willow Creek Association.

There were about 100 people there - folks I talked to said there's about a 50-50 split between St.-Paul-transplants and newbies. As you came in, recorded contemporary Christian music was playing - Third Day's "We've Got to Come Together," Steven Curtis Chapman, and others. At 10:35, the band stepped onstage, and started an acoustic rock riff that ran for a couple minutes, and then was followed immediately by the pastor's brief welcome and introduction...then almost immediately into the "teaching series" on biblical ways to achieve financial freedom. No, no - it wasn't the old "trust Jesus and get rich" nonsense that we've heard so many times, but laying out a foundation for why money is important, how much the Bible is concerned with wealth, and how debt and consumerism can lead to bondage and idolatry.

Unlike a church here in the Chicago area, which used the same kind of format, the pastor's sermon was supported by Scripture (not just proof-texting) and was convicting, for me at least. The "teaching time" went on for about 40 minutes, followed by a couple of praise-band songs. Then there was a reflective time, which struck one of the few sour notes in the morning.

Two women, with beautiful voices, sang a quiet, reflective duet while a video presentation played on the screen behind them. The problem was, the song talked about being still, and and praying with "knees to the ground"...and the video was a kid, riding through a suburban neighborhood on his bike! If ever there was a case of cognitive dissonance, that was it! My first thought - one that recurred throughout the song - was, "What the hell does this have to do with the song?" (Probably not the spiritual reaction the worship planners were looking for...) Trying to figure out the answer to that question completely derailed whatever serenity I was supposed to get from either the song or the video of this carefree kid on a bike.

I had gone to the service intending to be a person without a church home (which, for all intents and purposes, I am, I guess). But it became obvious that the pastor and several greeters thought they had a real unchurched person on their hands (I really don't present that level of spiritual deadness, do I?), and so I blew my cover, and told 'em that I was a student at LSTC, who was just "looking to see what worship a little further from the pipe organ" looked like. (I just didn't want to distract them from talking to anyone who truly did need to be connected-with that morning.)

They have a lot of things going for them - they are starting the Alpha program, they have a significant small-group ministry starting, and a very casual, welcoming atmosphere - along with a heart to find people and bring 'em in, which counts for a lot in my book.

Questions I'm going to raise with their pastor - and with whatever seminarians bother to read this...
-Why do we feel that unchurched people will enjoy singing "We are salt, we are light" (or any other praise song) any more than they would love singing "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God," just because the tune is easier and the pattern is more repetitive? Do seekers find "churchy" language and images empty and unfulfilling, regardless of how easy they are to sing? I know that I find 'em off-putting, at times... and I'm a worship-n-praise junkie, as many of you know.

- I know that doing sermon-series is an act of blasphemy in our little community here at LSTC (after all, God handed us the Revised Common Lectionary on a tablet of stone for a reason, didn't He?) so this may be a moot point for many reading this. But regardless of that, in several "teaching series" I've heard (including this one) there was information, and there surely was conviction (for those who know me, fiscal responsibility is a very tender topic, these days). But there wasn't much in the way of "hope of transformation" laid out in this "teaching." The fact is, I knew I was a screw-up in my financial affairs long before I walked into church on Sunday. I guess I was looking for some more hope, perhaps a glimpse of light of redemptability (how's that for a made up word?) in this whole church-and-God thing. Of course, given the alternative (information and cheap grace, with no conviction), I'll take a double helping of the former.
All that to say that while I wish 'em all blessings, I'm not sure that's my idea of what I'd want to do with a church start. I guess I've been spoiled by some real experts at this blended Lutheran/WC thing (like the brothers Housholder, whose legacies are at Lutheran Church of Hope in Des Moines, Hosanna! in Lakeville, MN, and elsewhere) - so I'm probably being overly critical. It just didn't hit me right, I guess. I'll find the right mix someday soon, I guess. Just gotta keep praying, walking, asking, and kissing frogs until I find a prince, eh?

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