Enjoying the freedom of vacation on Sundays, I’ve been dropping by churches of different “brands.” Now, I freely admit that a single visit can’t capture the fullness of any church community. But I also know that the experience of a single Sunday morning forms the strongest perceptions for any visitor – whether it’s someone doing serious church shopping or someone just curious about what those strange people down the street are up to. If I were in the visitor’s shoes, I’d be looking for authentic community – people truly connected with God and the people around them.
Three Sundays ago, I worshiped at Christ Community Church in the Crossroads. This campus of Christ Community (an Evangelical Free church) follows the same pattern of worship as the other two I’ve attended, but the venue and the neighborhood shape the specifics. In the Crossroads, the venue is The Gallery, an art space with folding chairs and rolling room dividers. Works by a local artist hang on the walls, and the church participates in the First Fridays art walks through the Crossroads, inviting Sunday-morning visitors to come back for music, food, and art. The worship feels intentionally simplified: a single musician singing and playing guitar, the pastor in jeans offering a (long) teaching sermon from a music stand, no altar or other liturgical furnishings other than the art that hangs there seven days a week. There are no worship handouts, just screens on the wall. In addition to music and preaching, the people share Communion – and it was made very clear the meal was available to those who had already made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ (nonbelievers were invited to use Communion time to ask Jesus to reveal himself). The pastor engaged me as I left, as did a couple of other people; and I came away feeling that I’d visited not a cool art space but a spiritual home. It felt real (and cool).
Two Sundays ago, I worshiped at Christ Episcopal Church in Springfield, Mo. – my home parish. It did, indeed, feel like home; I’d spent 22 years of my life worshiping there (sometimes more faithfully than others). But I tried to imagine what a visitor might notice. The building is historic, one of the first churches in Springfield; the original part of the worship space dates from 1870. So it evokes both the beauty and the baggage of “traditional church” – lovely stained glass, beautiful old wood, fixed pews, long distances between the worshiper and the body and blood of Jesus at the altar. The liturgy is traditional, too – no smells and bells, but plenty of vestments, candles, crosses, and processions. A visitor might or might not connect with that, but it’s exactly what the room was designed for. Interestingly, the sermon compensated for any distance that the liturgy or the room might have imposed between a visitor and God. It was an ironic shift from the week before: In the Crossroads, the young pastor in jeans and an untucked shirt stood near the worshipers and tried mightily to make 37 minutes of teaching about the day’s scripture seem cool and casual. At Christ Episcopal, the seasoned priest (well past retirement age) in vesture and a zucchetto shared his heart in the wake of Robin Williams’ suicide, speaking from his own experience of clinical depression. The Anglo-Catholic father absolutely made the experience authentic; and I imagine a visitor that morning would have known, deep down, that he or she could be welcomed in that community, warts and all. It felt very real.
Today, I worshiped at Jacob’sWell in Kansas City, one of the early success stories of the emerging-church movement in the U.S. Jacob’s Well has been written up many times, and for good reason: They’ve created a very vibrant community of mostly young adults in the Westport area. In fact, this fall Jacob’s Well will celebrate its 15th anniversary – making it basically an “emerged” church, I suppose. The worship experience strives for the ancient-future feel you often see in emerging churches – an old building, complete with pews and stained glass, playing host to a five-piece rock band and filled with young people in shorts and t-shirts, sipping lattes and singing words from huge projection screens. The pattern of worship was almost exactly the same as at Christ Community in the Crossroads – and not so different from what we offer in our “old fashioned” liturgical churches, too: Music, welcome and announcements, more music, a long sermon rooted in scripture (this week including Prayers of the People), quick Communion (whose two-minute prayer of consecration began with the Sursum corda – “The Lord be with you; and also with you; lift up your hearts…”), a benediction, and music to send you on your way. As intended, it felt old and new simultaneously, and I could imagine a visitor tapping into the “both/and” experience easily. I also could imagine the visitor delighting, as I did, in watching the people hugging each other before worship began and the parents tossing their babies in the air to the beat of the music, reveling in the joy of that community’s life. It felt very real – though I do wish someone would have welcomed me by engaging me in a conversation at some point.
This is no great insight, but it’s true: Authentic community comes in all shapes, sizes, and liturgical flavors. There is no recipe for creating it, other than taking people seriously – those making up the body of Christ in that place, those sidling up to it on a visit, and those living in the neighborhood the church is supposed to serve. Like other things less holy, you know authentic community when you see it. And when you do, you’re blessed to find the Body of Christ feeling that real.