One of the neat things about my life is that I am relatively free to attend worship whenever and wherever I want. I am constantly curious about how other groups of people worship. I am always on the lookout for something new, different, deep, beautiful, exciting, liberating, inclusive, expansive, and transformative. Specifically, I want to know how Christianity lives in different places, so that I can bring those experiences back to my own worship home.
So, here’s the thing. In order to decide what church to attend, I do what many people do. I searched the internet for churches in my town. I scanned their sites for worship times and locations. I also looked at faith statements, staff configurations, activities and events in an effort to get a feel for their identities. This is what I learned:
There wasn’t anything new, different, deep, beautiful, exciting, liberating, expansive or transformative going on. Instead, I saw a rather universal and monolithic Christian presence expressed through many websites.
Though each church promised,“We are Different,” they didn’t express difference.* Each church wanted me to know I was welcome. They all wanted me to know I can wear whatever I want to church. They also wanted to make sure I knew what kind of music to expect-because God-forbid I enter a worship service expecting guitars and find myself surrounded by hymn-singers led by a belching organ at the front of the church.
Some churches had columns. Some churches had carpet. All of them were going to share something “relevant” from the Bible, and each church had a charter mission to love everyone and to have special consideration for the poor with an emphasis on service. In some ways, it is comforting to know that Christianity has a skeleton; that its bones are shared by all denominations: welcoming, loving, serving, Bible-educated, family-friendly and engaged in the material betterment of “the poor.” Let me say, however, that the United Way, minus the Bible-educating part, has a pretty similar skeleton.
After surfing those sites, I chose not to go anywhere else for worship that morning; not because of anything offensive, difficult, or challenging that they had shown me, but instead by a conviction that I wasn’t likely to experience anything different at all; by a conviction that my faith in Jesus Christ, my belief in the Gospel and my experience of the Holy would not be uniquely enriched by worshipping in any of these communities.
I don’t go to worship to predict the message. I tend to expect a challenge to my understanding. Honestly, I have worn shorts and jeans into very proper churches, and no one has ever given me the evil eye strong enough to make me decide to go home and change because of shame. I don’t care about those things. I want to know whether I am likely to experience a filling of my soul. I want to know whether God is likely to show up. I want to know whether this is a congregation of people so committed to Christ, they cannot hold themselves in. I want to know whether this is the kind of place where not everyone will feel comfortable or welcome.
Are you Dutch Protestants still worshipping in gender-segregated pews? Are you Quakers, sitting in silence, waiting for God to speak? Are you United Methodists, known for picketing outside the local casino in moral opposition to gambling?
And let me get to the point-if our Christian identities across the spectrum are so similar as to be indistinguishable, we are participating in the worst kind of segregation there is: the blind separation of human being from human being by cultural markers of race, social status, gender, education, age, material wealth, and location. If the message from our Lutheran pulpits, the worship from our Vineyard stages, the mission of our Ladies’ Aid Societies, and the prayers from the lips of our congregants are not central statements of our identity, our difference within the wider Christian community, we are only in different buildings, with different hymn books, divided along lines of personal preference and our level of tolerance for differences of opinion in doctrine, politics and lifestyle.
God is bigger than that. Religion is more important than that. Salvation is more evident than that.
*It would be dishonest not to mention Holy Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church, whose website expressed a Christian identity that is clearly different from the rest.