As we enter this new adventure of facilitating and supporting new, emerging communities, I am hoping over the next several months, to intentionally spend some time exploring, watching, and visiting diverse, traditional and non-traditional Christian communities both inside and outside the Episcopal tradition. My hope is that by standing on the outside of the walls of our tradition, I might gain a broader understanding of how the Spirit is moving in the Church. I hope to see first-hand the rich, and often innovative tapestry of liturgical expressions, musical variations, and theological explorations to be found out there. In addition, I hope to learn how other communities explore spiritual practices, create opportunities to grow in a deeper love and commitment to Jesus Christ, and how in their own unique way, bring the Good News into the broader communities, in which they are planted. It may be through this risky adventure, I find intersecting points between our rich, ancient, beautiful, and theological “middle way” of Anglicanism, and some of the many “fresh expressions” of Christian community emerging in our midst.
Early on, in my first week of facilitating this new ministry, my family and I decided we would try and visit local church plants in the urban and suburban areas of Southwest Florida. So, Saturday evening I visited a professional, yet unpretentious website of such a church, and I must say, I was intrigued. On this particular community’s website, I found out exactly where they were located, the times of worship, and the pastor’s bio. I learned about their core values, their connection group focus, and how they do ministry in the broader community. There was a plethora of media for download (worship, music, sermons, etc), and they did everything possible via the web, to overcome any stigma associated with visiting a new church. This group was only one year old, having launched over a year ago in a local middle school, with a congregation of 146 people. I was intrigued and so, I donned my best khaki pants and untucked button-down shirt, and did something I had not done in three years; go to another church but this time, as a visitor.
As my family and I pulled into the parking lot of the middle school, the first thing we saw was a screen-printed sign with the church’s name on it, and near the entrance to the auditorium, there were three smiling young women holding the door open. As my spouse, daughter, and I left our car I felt a twinge of anxiety swell up in my abdomen. You know that feeling I am talking about, the one when you are going to meet new people, in a new situation, with no idea what to expect (regardless of how the website touted “radical welcome”). As we entered, we were greeted with big smiles and hello’s and a well planned corridor, which boasted a check-in for kids who were going to Sunday School, a table for visitors, and a kiosk where we could find information on their weekly study groups and mission service opportunities.
As we entered the worship space, there were greeters at every corridor offering a warm, sincere smile, a friendly hello, and an providing an inquiring disposition. “Welcome, where are you from?” was the greeting offeredby a couple of these folks. “We are so glad you’re here, my name is (name),” was the next thing we heard. These folks knew how to greet a visitor and they truly, authentically, and warmly made us feel welcome and nurtured. As we left our new friends, we quickly noticed a huge table filled with pastries, healthy breakfast bars, coffee, and ice water. Near this natural gathering place, many people were standing, chatting, and laughing. Before the service began, I walked down the hall to the restroom, and I noticed something that caught my attention just as I walked in. As evidence of the detail and commitment of the ministry to welcome folks and make them feel important, they had placed a portable changing table right there in the men’s room. If that was not enough evidence of radical welcome, as I was leaving I noticed right near the sinks, there was a neatly arranged setting of mints, flowers, and apothecary soaps. These folks were serious about creating an intentional atmosphere of welcome, comfort, and warmth.
I left the shock of this encounter and then soon, met up with my family. Entering the worship space, we passed by a temporary wall that separated the worship area from the welcome area and there, we found an aesthetically appealing space. In front of several rows of neatly aligned chairs separated by an aisle down the center, there was a stage illuminated by wonderful stage lights, and a back drop of luminescent, horizontal, 6 inch wide strips. In front of the wall, the band stood and was playing. Inside, there were people milling about and some in groups chatting. In this space, there was life, energy, connectedness, excitement, and yes, strangely, holiness. On one of the two LED TV’s, which were used to project images and words during worship, there was a clock counting down to the time worship would begin. As we took our seats, the clock had reached the 30 second mark, and without delay, the band began to play an uplifting song.
As the familiar contemporary Christian music resonated, the keyboard player led the people in the opening song, all taking place as folks continued to take their seats. For the next 15 to 20 minutes, the music continued, the singing was vibrant, hands were raised, and yes, like all the others in attendance I clapped, swayed, and sensed a Holy Presence in that little school. As I looked around, the majority of folks in attendance were 30/40 somethings, but there in addition, there were a few teens and retirees present. Despite this intergenerational mix and the rich ethnic diversity, there was a holy oneness and communal presence that permeated the atmosphere among those in attendance.
After a prayer was offered by the keyboard player, two very outgoing, young women came forward and enthusiastically welcomed everyone. The two shared only a few announcements, and then without fanfare, they made us aware that the offering would be taken soon. Keeping true to their commitment to welcome the stranger, they insured us “first timers” that we were not expected to participate in the offering. After the buckets were passed and the gifts were collected, the band played yet another song which, in hindsight, complemented and supported the pastor’s sermon which he titled,, “Living a Life of Worship.”
I was impressed with the preaching offered by this young pastor. I have to guess that he was well trained, and well read because his sermon seemed theologically sound. His sermon was relevant to life today, through his communication style he seemed very approachable, and he was engaging.
As the sermon drew to a close, the band was invited back up on stage, to play a very slow, methodical, simple tune while the pastor encouraged everyone to consider their relationship with God. It was obvious that the pastor was providing space in the service, for what is sometimes referred to as an “altar call.” Although unique to the Anglican tradition, this moment in the service becomes a place where, those who do not yet know Jesus as personal savior, are invited to consider a commitment today. Prayer ministers whose ministry was to be available for prayer, were assigned in strategic spots in the worship space. The invitation was straightforward, it was not overly extended, and the service moved steadily from altar call, to a final prayer and a send off. As the service concluded, my family and I moved back to the welcome table where we were promptly greeted again, offered a free T-shirt as a gift, and invited to return the following Sunday.
There were many people involved in the planning and execution of this worship experience. They were dedicated, welcoming, warm, authentic, and committed. From the Sunday School teachers, to the welcome team folks, to the band members, to the coffee hosts of which, there had to be at least 15 to 20 people in all, managed the setup and takedown of this entire worship space, week after week.
This church exuded an ethos of “radical welcome” that went way beyond a mere, “friendly hello.” Everything they did conveyed this simple message, “you are special, we are glad you are here, and we want you to know it.” Aesthetics were so important, and with attention to detail, the small touches ranged from apothecary soaps and changing tables in the restrooms, to the ambiance made possible by asian paper lanterns located on the boarders of the worship space, to the mix of media-rich themes, laden with video, lighting, sound, and other accents.
The music was intentional, beautifully and authentically performed, and professional mixed and controlled. There was a commitment to quality in their tone, in their song selection, the musical execution, and the vocal accompaniment. The entire service was deeply layered with familiar songs of a genre and style, which nearly every person present could easily relate.
I imagine none of the church’s leaders would ever admit to it, but there was a liturgy that guided the service. There was a pattern, a flow, and an intentional movement that drew the visitor into a holy space, a community of faith, and yes, a visible presence of the Body of Christ, the Church. Some folks might participate in such a gathering and ask, “Was this really worship?” My response would emphatically be, “Absolutely!” Others might ask, “Was this anything like a traditional service one might find in an Episcopal Church on Sunday?” My answer would be, “yes, and no.” I think if you listened closely, if you watched with an open mind, if you accepted that God was present and active in this church, and if you watched for the parallels that existed in song, word, proclamation, and welcome, then you might see glimpses of liturgical actions found on any Sunday in an Episcopal Church.
There was a most obvious departure from, and distinct difference between worship found in this community, and that which one would experience in a traditional Episcopal parish; there was no celebration of the Eucharist. Nonetheless, we could learn a great deal from this gathering, this team, and the cultural focus they embraced. With Holy Communion added to this service, including song and language that is culturally authentic, one could easily weave throughout the service, elements of our Anglican tradition (Prayers of the People, the Peace, Psalms, etc). Nonetheless, these things alone, does not a “Fresh Expression” of Christian Community, make.
Taking this community gathered in a local middle school as an example, if we strip away the aesthetics, music, casual dress, and great T-shirts, what we most certainly will find, is community living authentically as followers of Christ. That authenticity is a core value and it becomes expressed through their welcome and invitation, their music, and in the awareness of the details. Honestly, I can’t explain it, but there was a holy presence in that place, and as my hands raised with each song, my voice sung the songs, I listened to the sermon, and I took it all in, I too left feeling the Spirit calling me to live a “life of worship.”
As I continue this journey, I hope to share with you my adventure and I welcome your feedback, ideas, suggestions, and prayers.