Kinda sorta church window shopping


As the church service was breaking up today, I had a brief but warm conversation with a woman who had been sitting near me. She asked me if this was my first visit (it was), if I lived in the neighborhood (I didn't), and if I was church shopping. I paused at that question, and then answered, "Kinda sorta".

Perhaps church window shopping would have been a better term for it.

Actually, it was nice to go out on a positive, friendly note like that, so I didn't stick around for coffee hour. I had been feeling a little awkward and uncomfortable during the service, as I often do when I visit churches. Why add to all of that by feeling awkward and uncomfortable during coffee hour, standing around like a doofus, cup in hand, and waiting to see who would give me the time of day. So I slipped out the door, went downstairs, left the building, and found a place to have lunch on the main commercial drag a block or so away.

At most Christian services, even those at churches that consider themselves progressive, there is a lot more Jesus-y language (which is to say, expressions of outright Jesus worship) than I am comfortable with. This church was no exception, although it wasn't overdone by any means.

I was surprised, given that this was a Presbyterian church, that they used the UCC's New Century Hymnal. I actually like the New Century Hymnal, which includes hymns from a variety of Christian traditions, so to me that was a positive point. Instead of using pews, chairs were arranged in two facing semi-circles. Another small progressive church in town that I have attended also does that same thing, and I think that there is something to be said for that kind of arrangement, since it tends to break down hierarchical differences between the clergy and the congregants and gives a more participatory feel to the experience. Like some other churches of a comparable size that I have visited (I think there were maybe 25-30 adults and perhaps half a dozen children), there was a "kids time" in the service when someone (in this case, the pastor) brought the children forward and gave them a small lesson before they were sent off. This church actually had more small children than other equivalently small churches I have visited.

Much to my dismay, I happened to attend this church on a day when they were doing communion. I just have a mental block against communion, one that I am just not prepared to deal with. I don't mind watching people going up to the altar to partake of this rite--I actually can find it rather moving to watch, since it generally does have meaning for those who participate--but I just don't choose to do it myself. But it turned out that this was yet another one of those churches that enlists everyone into the process. Specifically, the bread is passed from person to person, after which time the participants go up to take the wine. This is more or less the reverse of what St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church does--at St. Gregory's, it is the wine that is passed from person to person, after the bread is handed to you by the priest. However, unlike St. Gregory's, which throws you to the wolves by not giving you a program and not telling you what the protocol is, at the church I visited today both the program and the pastor explained what you are supposed to do. At the church I visited two weeks ago, which also had everyone get into a circle for communion, the pastor additionally gave instructions on how to opt out of communion if you so chose to for any reason. Today, I got no such instruction today, but I found out that it was easy to opt out; as the person to my left started to hand me the bread, I just whispered "no thanks", and he then just gave the bread to the next person to my right.

After everyone stood in a circle for period of time, holding hands, the passing of the peace took place as we returned to our chairs. This made the passing of the peace a shorter affair than some I have experienced elsewhere; during that time I was given cursory acknowledgment as a visitor by those who shook my hand, but was only greeted by maybe four or five people before I made it back to my seats and it was all over.

There were things about the church that I did like. The sermon was nice, and I appreciated the expressions throughout the service of inclusiveness and the emphasis on God's love. But as with most Christian services, even at progressive churches, some of my inner discomfort at Christian orthodoxy inevitably introduces a little bit of uneasiness. It's just me, I know--I still have issues from my conservative Christian past. Combine that with the awkwardness of being a visitor in an unfamiliar environment, and I begin to ask myself why I even bother with the kinda sorta church shopping experience. Okay, I've crossed another one off my list--what's the point?

I think that sometimes I can tolerate things like Trinitarian formulations and references to a literal resurrection and other elements of orthodoxy that don't really fit me well, and other times I just am not in the mood to deal with it. Maybe lately I've felt less in the mood.

There is a fine line between being ignored at a church and having so much attention paid to you as a visitor that you feel uncomfortable. And, to be honest, I don't know what I am looking for. I actually found a church recently where I am in very much sync theologically with the pastor; and the people who attend there are nice. But the fact is that I am just not prepared to call any church "home". Some of that is due to the theological baggage I carry, and some of it is the Groucho Marx phenomenon--do I want to be a part of a church that would have me as a member? And sometimes I feel like being a church slut, someone who wants to try out different churches, to see what else is out there, who doesn't believe that any church is ever really going to be a true home for me anyway, so why not play the field a bit, even though the field frustrates me and sometimes leaves me cold. Occasionally I window shop, kinda sorta, giving myself a little taste of something different, always wondering what will really satisfy me.


Heather W. Reichgott said...

...And maybe it's *okay* to be travelling from church to church for a while.

It's lovely to be on your itinerary.
However often that may be.

Blessings from your Jesus-worshipping friend.

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

I appreciate your sense of "not belonging." The church faces that dilemma -- how do we reach out to those who feel on the margins and also be ourselves.

My sense is taht most Christian churches will place an emphasis on Jesus -- whether that involves Jesus worship or not. Most will be Trinitarian, and generally even for churches like the Presbyterians who don't practice weekly communion like we Disciples, will have it on the first Sunday of the month.

The Seeker Churches eliminated much of the symbolism -- and communion -- in the hope of connecting with those uncomfortable with traditional religion, but the emergence of the Emergent Church movement we're discovering that younger folk kind of miss the symbolism.

But your reports have proven interesting and enlightening -- even if I often say to myself -- that's about who we are!!

Mystical Seeker said...

Thanks, Heather. I should say that I did choose to attend this particular church on this particular date because I was interested in hearing the sermon.

Bob, I think that I try to express what is going through in my own mind as I visit churches because I think it might be of interest to know what impressions churches often give to visitors, although I realize that I am probably not a very typical case at all.

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

Whether typical or not, I expect there are many out there who are like you -- seeking to find a spot where they belong, perhaps like you believing that there isn't a place to belong.

I do have a question though. Knowing of your Quaker background, I'd be interested why you ultimately haven't found this a place to be on a regular basis.

Let me say, I do appreciate your thoughts, even if I'm not where you're at!

Mystical Seeker said...

Bob, when I moved to the Bay Area, I had a hard time finding a new home in a Quaker meeting, or at least a place where I felt that I could consider home. This has struck me as a common phenomenon at the various meetings I've attended across the country--Quakers just aren't that welcoming. They are just a little too insular, too self-absorbed, I guess, for my tastes. So I just stopped going to meetings. After several years of this, I was feeling spiritually starved and wanted to explore my spirituality again, and since I didn't feel much like a Quaker anymore anyway, I decided to explore other venues and see what was out there. I also think that Quakerism tends not to have a great deal of interest in theology; historically, George Fox (the founder of Quakerism) referred to religious intellectuals as "notionists". But I am very interested in things like theology and biblical scholarship.

It hasn't always been an easy transition. There is a part of me that still feels drawn to the improvisational, unplanned, and radically unhierarchical nature of a Quaker meeting (where everyone is free to contribute to the content). To me, you can't get any more participatory and democratic than that. And church hymns aren't really my bag either, for that matter. But despite all that, in general I guess I don't feel drawn to Quakerism anymore, for whatever reason. And going to churches has been for me an interesting adventure.

The funny thing is that I never really felt that my theological beliefs mattered much when I was a Quaker. At liberal Quaker meetings, no one cared what I thought about the Trinity or the resurrection, so in that sense, I guess I did have a sense of welcome at a certain level. But on a personal level, I just never felt at home anywhere but at the first meeting I joined. So I just drifted away.

One of the things I have looked for also in a church has been extracurricular theological study. That is one reason why I've been interested in churches that do things like sponsor the "Living the Questions" DVD, or that do book studies. Admittedly, I haven't done a lot of that, but it has been part of my agenda in seeking out churches.

Rowan The Dog said...

In the bay Area you should be able to find a decent Episcopal parish pretty easily.

I've been visiting some Lutheran churches here in Texas. Not sure why. I like church, for one thing and I have a knowledge gap on the reformation so... Anyway, they are very Jesus-centric too. They want everybody to be "saved."

Poor Jesus... He really takes the rap for a lot of silliness.


quakerboy said...

I can relate to your feeling of being uncomfortable during a communion which uses the outward elements. As you know, Quakers see the outward forms as only shadows of that which is real.

Visiting churches with friends, I have often been in a place where I would stand out if I did commune. However, because I AM a theologically conservative (as in Quaker "conservative")I refuse to participate. This leaves me somewhat embarassed at times.

Same thing with the use of titles. I have a hard time getting around it, but I don't use "Your Honor", "Mr.", "Dr.", etc.

Rambling now...but I understand the dilema.

Know you are always welcome back in the Quaker fold :-). Perhaps Southern Quakerism is different, but I see us as rather warm and inviting. We are also more "theological" than liberal Quakers. The "theology" we do have (, might just give you discomfort as well. I certainly understand that.

Have enjoyed reading about your faith journey. Your observations at the various churches you visit are really interesting. Thanks!

In Peace,

Mystical Seeker said...

Rowan, there are some good Episcopal churches in the area, but to be honest the BCP style of service is very Eucharist-focused and hasn't really worked for me when I've attended. But there is an Espiscopal church that offers a Taize service that I do like.

Quakerboy, I know what you mean about the honorific titles. Whenever I hear people referred to as "Most Reverend such and such", I cringe a little--where's the humility in that?

Heather W. Reichgott said...

You've got a point there.
Hmm, some proposed ministerial titles:

The Least Reverend...

The Right Risible Reverend...

The Usually Wrong Reverend...

The Most Humble Reverend...

The Five-Foot Worm Reverend...

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

Well, you can call me Dr. Bob or Rev. Dr. Bob or perhaps Pastor Bob -- though not Rev. Bob. Or as my friends call me -- Bob!

Titles are funny things. Some love them -- usually those who really don't deserve them. I find it interesting how guys without much of an education beyond HS or a Bible College love to be called Dr. -- after receiving a DD from the bible college they founded.

It's a funny thing -- the Disciples began as an anti-clerical group. Alexander Campbell was called Bro. Campbell. It wasn't until late into the 19th century that Disciple pastors took on the title of Rev. and that was too much for many. So the Quakers aren't alone in this!!

Signed off:

The Rev. Dr. Robert Cornwall -- or just call me Bob!

Paul said...

I appreciate your comments (both generically and in this post) and find them nourishing and challenging, so thank you for sharing and please keep doing so. As one of those eucharistic Episcopalians (and irreverent reverends to boot) who served several churchs in the Bay Area, I'm not even sure my comments should be trusted. But that never stopsme from commenting.

Perhaps it would be useful to give due weight to the issue of metaphor. If the Holy One transcends all categories of thought, as many of us believe, then nothing we say will be literally true. Everything is poetry, metaphor, approximation, hint, glimpse, fractured particle, etc. For those of us who believe that poetry and metaphorical language is often far truer than descriptive prose that emphasiezes the literal (good for science and technology but very bad for dealing with emotion or deeper meaning), acknowledging our religious language as ALL being metaphorical saves us from trying to pin it down and make it stick. God slips out of our definitions and our dogmas every time.

I came from a background that was conservative evangelical on its liberal end and full-out fundie on the other. Now I can hang loose with just about anything that doesn't strike me as outright evil. It has been a challenging journey, not without its confusion, pain, and anger. But I am now quite happy using lots of traditional language and finding deep meaning in it, but I am not asserting it as literal truth, only something that (usually) points me toward God.

I don't know if this will be helpful but it has helped me.

May you have joy in your journey and lots of love as you travel.