Those intangibles of church shopping


I visited a new church today. It was a small congregation, with maybe 20 adults and four or five small children in attendance. I like a few things about the service. I liked some of the music; I got a good feeling about the minister, and I liked her sermon; I liked that there was no creedal affirmation as part of the service; and I liked that they used a gender-neutral version of the Lord's Prayer, substituting "Mother and Father" for "Father" and "dominion" for "kingdom". I also liked that they offered open communion to all, although I personally did not partake.

And yet, I don't think I will go back. So what did I object to? Two things, one of which turned out to be minor. The minor issue was my annoyance that the person handing out the program said "Good morning" to the people entering the church ahead of me, but said not a word to me, an obvious visitor. It's a small detail, but it festered in my mind a bit as the service progressed; instead of paying fully attention to the service, over time I began to ponder how friendly this congregation really was. Only later on during the passing of the peace I was warmly greeted by everyone did I realize that I had perhaps made an unfair prejudgment based on a sole encounter.

In any case, that lingering doubt prior to the passing of the peace may have colored my reaction to something else that took place in the service. The small children came to the front and were given a short bible lesson, in this case, regarding a story in Luke about Jesus raising someone from the dead. One of the children, a girl of maybe four or five, seemed dubious, and asked if Jesus was a magician. Silently, in my own mind, I was praising this girl for her apparent skepticism. The man giving the lesson, who I might add seemed to be very good with the children, attempted to answer that by saying that Jesus was more than a magician, and then went on to tell the children that without Jesus they no chance of going to heaven. The whole bit concerning miracles was bothering me to begin with, but this single statement about Jesus and heaven pretty much ruined the whole church experience for me. Suddenly, all the progressivism that I was sensing from the church seemed to have vanished.

Now I realize that there is some wiggle room for interpretation of those comments. Some Christians believe in a sort of mild form of religious pluralism, which says that many (or most or even all) non-Christians are essentially "anonymous Christians", Christians without knowing it, that they their way to heaven through Jesus even though they don't know it or believe in it. Although that isn't my take on it, it is a perspective that I can live with. So I suppose it is possible that the man who told those children that without Jesus they weren't going to heaven really meant something along those lines. But if so, the subtlety seemed lost, especially when saying something like that to very small children. I actually can appreciate that the things adults tell small children aren't necessarily things that adults believe (Santa Claus, for example). But what concerns me is that it sure sounded to me like he was telling these children that they wouldn't go to heaven unless they had the right beliefs, i.e., if they weren't Christians. Maybe that isn't what he meant, but that was what I took away from it. And this really stands opposed to what I believe at the most fundamental level; in fact, I think that this kind of theology can be damaging.

Maybe I was jumping to conclusions unfairly. The minister seemed to be an advocate of religious pluralism, and in her sermon at one point she made respectful reference to other religions. But still. When I am trying to explore progressive Christianity at the same time that I am trying to overcome the scars of my fundamentalist upbringing, I become sensitive to certain things. The vibe just wasn't there for me by the end of the service. I didn't even stay for coffee hour. I just walked straight out to my car.


Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

You have caught a problem we all have -- the sending of mixed signals. It sounds like you have a pastor who is progressive, and a church member who probably is, but too easily falls back on old traditions.

This is why it's always good to not let first impressions be the determiner -- in fact, I think the pastor would love to hear your concerns. She probably was fixated on other things at the time and didn't even realize this was said.

Heather said...

My problem with the having the right beliefs option is that salvation becomes dependent on man's actions -- we 'earn' salvation through holding the right beliefs, and then heaven becomes a reward. This is something that Marcus Borg mentions quite a bit, and I'm grateful for it, because he showed me what always bothered me about this concept of salvation.

Bobby said...

The right belief equaling the golden ticket to heaven thing is always unpalatable, but when told to children like you saw it is too much to stomach. Of course, it is possible you rolled out your conclusions mat and jumped to the wrong conclusion, at least in terms of their intentions. Pastor Bob has a good point regarding that, but all in all I still don't blame you for making a hasty exit.