Sunday, November 2, 2008

Living in Two Christian Communities

We have two “church families” we dearly love, and for the foreseeable future we are likely to have a foot in each. They could hardly be more different. More than two years after my departure, First Congregational is filled with life and energy, with many good things happening. I could not be more delighted. We have been attending about every other week, and have been made to feel very welcome. There are so many people we cherish there, and the place is rich with memories for me. Which, of course, is a part of my struggle with returning there.

It is the same, yet different, which is how it should be. Churches evolve, and a new leader reshapes the church’s identity in significant ways. I could not ask for a better successor than Steve Savides, and I know that “my baby is in good hands.” But (and there is also a “but” or two)… When I attend I am reminded that I was probably about as “confessional” a senior pastor as a large Mainline congregation could handle, and that Steve has moved the church a few nudges back towards “mainline norms.” I have spent the last couple of years associating mostly with progressive Evangelical folk, which makes it a bit of a challenge to readjust to less Christocentric Mainline theology. It is hardly a huge, sweeping change – I suspect few members have even noticed – and it may say more about how my own journey has evolved than anything else. And then there is also the issue of how deeply I can participate in the life of First Congo while honoring ethical boundaries: Sunday worship is fine, as are occasional fellowship activities, but at least for another year or two that will be all that I permit myself. Certainly I can never offer comments or opinions about any dimension of congregational life, a limitation that makes me feel more like “visitor” than “member.”

Then there is San Damiano, the altogether peculiar little emergent church community we have been a part of for more than 18 months. It is an assemblage of quirky, interesting and diverse folks we have come to love dearly. The worship is sometimes rambly and formless, and some weeks the content is there and some weeks it is not. Its long-term survival is very much an open question as there seems to be no collective will to make “institutional viability” a focus. If emergent churches in general break all the rules about how a Christian church is organized and conducted, then San Damiano breaks all the rules about how an emergent churches are organized and conducted. Sometimes it makes he want to tear my hair out, but as the guy in Breakback Mountain said, “I wish I could quit you.” As long as there is a San Damiano, it will likely continue to claim a part of my heart and soul.

This was reinforced this morning when my friend Mike and I visited yet another new church in the valley, “The Mission Church.” Its story has amazing parallels with San Damiano’s: started by a youth pastor who served in a big-box Evangelical Church (Pathways, in this case) with an initial core of teens from that youth program and their parents, along with an odd smattering of folks with personal affection for the pastor. They meet in a dance studio, which has a different feel from meeting in a bar. They cover all the mirrors on the wall with black cloth so that folks at worship do not have to stare at their own reflections, like San Damiano has to cover the least-tasteful beer poster in the room used for “kids’ church.” Oh, and The Mission Church folks sit on folding chairs rather than barstools, which has some advantages for us older folks.

At least for now, they have appropriated far more norms from “big box worship,” including a full rock and roll praise band, which was bit jarring to me after the musical simplicity of San Damiano. The sermon also struck me as “big box,” blending scripture with pop psychology and funny stories. It was not a bad sermon by any means, but it could have passed for a corporate team-building pep talk…

Lots of teens there, many of the boys looking bored and sullen, as teen boys are supposed to do. It made me aware that we have almost no teens left at San Damiano – being more than two years older than The Mission Church, the teens who had been in Greg’s youth group at Christ the Rock have now grown up and graduated. In some ways I was experiencing what San Damiano was like at its beginning; as we were leaving Mike commented that he felt like he had just attended a youth group meeting…

Oh, I even had the lady behind me who seems to be sitting behind me whenever I visit a big-box Evangelical church; the lady who talks to Jesus through the entire service. I think it is mandatory to have at least one of those in every Evangelical worship service.

So, it was nice to visit, but it served as reminder there is likely no “perfect fit” church out there for me. The part of me that loves sound liturgy, thoughtful sermons, timeless music and a passion for social justice will be fed at First Congregational. And the part of me that loves simple devotion to Jesus, meeting people where they are and embracing spiritual chaos will be fed at San Damiano.

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