Church shopping on the internet - examples


I think the following sample of some church web sites for some mainline congregations in the San Francisco Bay Area illustrates both the usefulness and the limitations of using the web as a church-shopping tool. These web sites interested me because they came from churches that seem to represent pockets of progressivism--whatever that means. One of the questions that continues to arise for me is that when a church calls itself progressive, is that because of its theology or because of its politics, or both? Many evangelicals, for example, are committed to social justice, but they are theologically conservative. (For the record, I want a church that is committed to both social justice and that accepts open, inquiring minds about theological matters.) And this is one question that is not always resolved to my satisfaction when I look at a church web site.

The other obvious limitation, which I pointed out in my previous posting, was that there are intangibles that clearly cannot be discerned from a web site--the chemistry that you feel when you interact with the members, how you relate to the pastor, how you like the services, and so forth.

Among the churches in the sample below, many of them seem attractive to me (in theory) because they seem to be progressive in a way that I define it; some don't interest me so much; and some are just a little too far away from me to visit on a regular basis with my 18 year old car that has over 200,000 miles on it. I do not wish to disparage those churches that do not interest me; to say that a church is not a good fit for me is not to say that there is anything wrong with that church, and presumably it is a good fit for those who are involved in the life of that church. I also realize that churches don't always have the resources to put a lot of effort into their web sites, and in many cases they are simply doing the best they can in trying to create a web presence.

In any case, here is a sampling of church web sites that I have taken a look at, for better or worse. Note that I have not actually visited any of the Sunday services at the churches that I describe below. All the information I glean is strictly from the web sites. Here they are, in no particular order:

College Heights UCC, San Mateo, CA. The main web page for this site says, "At College Heights Church, there are no right angles, no right answers, and no righteous dogma." Wow. When I read that, I was immediately intrigued.

The Who We Are page on this site includes a wonderful quote from Jim Burklo, a former pastor of the church and a member of the Executive Council of the Center for Progressive Christianity. The quote includes this statement about a progressive church: "Let it open to all who seek the kind of relationship with God that Jesus had, no matter how they sort out the myths from the facts of Jesus' life story." I note that they talk about the relationship with God that Jesus had, rather than about a relationship with an allegedly divine Christ. I like that wording. The page also says that the church is, "small caring community of independent thinkers that support each other on his or her own spiritual journey with a zest for life and a quest for knowledge." Phrases like "independent thinkers" and "spiritual journey" all ring true for me. The How We Worship page suggests that there are some creative practices in their Sunday worship. Of course, it is possible that what all of this means in practice would not actually appeal to me. The bad news--this church is some 20 miles away from where I live.

Congregational Church of San Mateo (UCC), San Mateo, CA. This church is larger than the College Heights church. It also seems to be similarly progressive. Some of the wonderful things that they proclaim under the heading of Guiding Principles are:

"Christian" means we perceive in Jesus the divine qualities of love, peace, joy, and justice. It does not mean we think Jesus is the only path to God.

"Christian" means we eagerly explore the Bible for its spiritual wisdom contained in symbol, metaphor, and history. It does not mean a literal or heavy-handed approach that uses the Bible to prove we are right or righteous.

"Christian" means we have a specific tradition and history to which we are drawn. It does not mean we are constrained from exploring other traditions and creating new ideas that will themselves become history for later generations.

All I can say is--Wow.

Unfortunately, like the College Heights church, it is situated a little bit too far away from me.

Sausalito Presbyterian Church, Sausalito, CA. This church is pastored by the same Jim Burklo who was quoted above. He appears to have switched denominations, from UCC to Presbyterian. The web site has an Our Beliefs page that emphasizes its affiliation with the Center for Progressive Christianity. It says that the church:
  • Measures itself more by its deeds than its creeds.
  • Welcomes people of all kinds and backgrounds as partners in the spiritual journey.
  • Takes the Bible seriously because it doesn't have to take it literally.
  • Keeps the faith but drops any dogma that gets in the way of the love that is God.
Not only am I impressed by this, by I am also impressed by the pluralistic and non-dogmatic philosophy expressed in the statement of faith:
  • Jesus Christ is the foundation to our path to God, but we recognize that He represents one of the many ways to know God.
  • We recognize the faiths of other people who have other names for the pathway to the Divine. We welcome and love people of all races, cultures, classes and abilities. We don't believe in converting anyone from one set of beliefs to another.
  • We invite everyone to join in our worship, our communion, and our extended SPC family. Everyone includes believers and agnostics, conventional Christians and questioning skeptics, homosexuals and heterosexuals, females and males, the despairing and the hopeful and any other descriptor that may fit you.
  • We believe that the way we treat one another and other people is more important than the way we express our beliefs.
  • We are a spiritual community. We strive for justice and peace among all people, and bring support and hope to those that Jesus called the least of his sisters and brothers.
  • We find more grace in the search for meaning than in absolute certainty, more in the questions than in the answers.
  • The web site also includes many sermons by the pastor, which are helpful in evaluating the church.
The church is on the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge from where I live, though, and so it lies essentially out of range for me.

First Congregational Church of Berkeley (UCC), Berkeley, CA. This church, which is affiliated with the Center for Progressive Christianity, describes itself on its web page as a "progressive Christian church". It appears to be remarkably vibrant and active, with a large congregation. It has listed as an upcoming event a "town meeting" on the subject of "What does it mean to be a 'progressive' Christian church?". The church has regularly scheduled speakers, it has a Wednesday thrift shop, and lots of activity groups. However, the question of what they mean by a progressive church is an interesting one. The web site didn't necessarily emphasize the specifics of its outlook towards theological questions. I was able to get a better answer to this by perusing some of the sermons that the include online. Some examples of a few statements taken from a sermon reassured me:
I said last week, that for me, the Bible contains words of truth for my life, but is not the literal word of God. Marcus Borg speaks about the Bible as "a sacrament of the sacred, a mediator of the sacred, a vehicle by which God becomes present, a means through which the Spirit is experienced." That describes how I understand its authority in my own life.
As the Bible has become more of a means through which the Spirit of God is revealed, I have discovered that it has become less and less of the infallible Word of God and more of a lens through which the Spirit is revealed. Years ago I learned a Haiku about seeing that has always stayed with me. "Since my house burned down, I know can see the rising moon." For me it means that once things, even beloved things are out of the way, we might be able to see more clearly, more deeply the way of wisdom in our own lives.
Those statements speak volumes, and overall, I get a very positive impression. Unfortunately, for me, the church is across the Bay Bridge from where I live, and thus a little too far away for regular attendance. I also don't know in practice whether I would feel at home in such a large congregation. I would not know about that unless I became a regular attender, which does not seem likely, because of its distance from where I live.

Noe Valley Ministry (Presbyterian), San Francisco, CA. This church describes itself on its web page as a "progressive Presbyterian church", and it is affiliated with the Center for Progressive Christianity. The church does seem committed to social justice issues. However, it is difficult to for me to determine where the church really stands on matters of theology. I turned to some of the sermons that are online, and found the sermon from Easter of this year. The pastor said, "Now, I am not a teacher or a pastor who demands that any of you believe in the literal resurrection of Jesus Christ." I appreciated this commitment to openness and free inquiry, although the pastor also made it clear that "I believe in the literal Resurrection of Jesus Christ." It is difficult for me to really determine from the web site how theologically open the church really is; if the church really is not committed to rigid orthodoxy, that doesn't seem to be emphasized on the web site, although that doesn't necessarily mean anything.

Saint Gregory's Episcopal, San Francisco, CA. This church, which is affiliated with the Center for Progressive Christianity, may just have the most unusual Episcopalian worship services you will ever find. Its Sunday morning services include elements borrowed from many traditions, full of bright costumes, umbrellas, and dancing by the congregation. That's right--if you attend, you are going to dance (they teach you the steps before that part of the service.) The web site has some photo slide shows that show pictorially and describe in detail each phase of 8 AM and 10:30 AM morning service. Communion is shared, with the cup passed from person to person, and it is open to all. Audio recordings of the sermons are available online. I have to admit that, while traditional Episcopalian services are too creedal and too filled with orthodoxy to suit me, this particular church definitely interests me.

Seventh Avenue Presbyterian, San Francisco, CA. The church is affiliated with the Center for Progressive Christianity, but the web site doesn't give many clues to the church's views on the Bible or theology. Neither sermons nor newsletters are available online. The church does clearly have a social justice mission. The church also emphasizes a certain kind of inclusiveness: "We feel strongly that all people of God are welcome regardless of gender, race, age, physical ability, sexual orientation, political party, educational achievements or financial resources." While that is certainly a positive statement, it doesn't say much about how welcome theological seeking would be within the life of the congregation. So when the church defines itself as progressive, are they primarily referring to its social justice mission? Or do they also mean theologically progressive?

This same ambiguity shows up in its statement on membership: "Many people who have said YES to our community have come from non-Christian backgrounds or no faith-tradition at all. Recently, we have welcomed persons who have been raised as atheist, Buddhist, Hindu, Mormon, and Muslim as well as those whose faith was formed within one of the many Christian traditions (i.e.: Roman Catholic, Assembly of God, Episcopal, MCC, Lutheran, Methodist, etc.)." To say that people in the community have in the past been involved in diverse traditions doesn't necessarily say anything about how diverse their views are in the present. The only real suggestion of openness outside of orthodoxy that I could find on the web site is an adult education class next February on the noncanonical Gospel of Mary Magdalene.

Overall, then, it is unclear from this site how much the church welcomes a questioning, nondogmatic view of the Bible. Perhaps they do, but I can't tell from the web site alone. The only way to really know would probably be to attend. I do note that the church does conduct Taize services every other Wednesday night, which I think is a point in this church's favor.

St. Peters Episcopal, San Francisco, CA. The web site proudly proclaims on its main page that the church is an affiliate of the Center for Progressive Christianity. The nature of the services is not indicated, so without any further information my guess is that they are conducted in a typically traditional Episcopalian manner, presumably based on one of the rites from the book of common prayer. The one sample sermon that they have on the web site includes a reference to something that the Gospel of John reports Jesus as having said, and then begins a comment on it with the phrase "if he said that"--that is to say, if Jesus said what the Gospel of John claimed he said. Thus the sermon conceded that John's gospel might not have been historically accurate in reporting something Jesus said. This scores points with me, and it is a good sign in my view that the theology is indeed progressive and doesn't take a literalistic view of the Bible. There is a "links" page that includes links to the Gospel of Thomas, and some contemporary writers as diverse as Deepak Chopra and Karen Armstrong. I'm actually not sure what to make of the Deepak Chopra link, which perhaps suggests a little New Age-iness, but perhaps I am reading too much into that. Without knowing more about the nature of the services, though, I can only assume at this point that they would, like most Episcopalian services, involve some orthodox creedal affirmations that I would not be comfortable with, but theologically they give something of an impression from the web site of being open and progressive. Again, probably the only way to know for sure would be to attend services or to talk with the priest or members of the congregation.

Saint Mary's Episcopal, San Francisco, CA. This church is not affiliated with the Center for Progressive Christianity and probably would not have caught my attention, but I noticed that they have a Sunday evening service that they called "Saint Mary's unplugged". This service does not conform to the usual Episcopal rites, and is thus an alternative form of worship: "Readings are taken from the Old Testament, the appointed gospel and related works. Spiritual texts from other traditions and contemporary writers are desirable. During Communion, the community gathers in a circle around the altar. Alternative or original Eucharistic prayers are used. New music is welcome in addition to well-known hymns and/or folk songs." The web site also says, "We value ecumenical and interfaith worship, a good sense of humor, ease with spontaneity, intellectual challenges, and fluidity with children in the service. We gladly welcome visitors!" I am intrigued.

(I note also that Saint Mark's Episcopal in Berkeley, CA has a Sunday night service where "throughout the year we use alternative liturgies at the 7:30pm service, drawing upon the rich resources of the worldwide Anglican Communion as well as ecumenical sources." So it appears that it is not unheard of for Episcopal churches to offer alternative forms of worship during service times other than Sunday morning.)


John Shuck said...

This is very helpful to folks in the Bay Area and as for guidelines to other church shoppers.

This post reminds me of a restaurant critic. You never know when Mystical Seeker may be in your sanctuary!

I think some progressive churches have a challenge in both being socially progressive and theologically progressive.

I wonder if for the future of Christianity that theological progressiveism needs to come first?

Thanks again!