Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Not of Our Ilk

I enjoyed a great meal with my friend Verlon not long ago. We have a lot in common since we don’t “do church” like most of those in our ilk. On the other hand… the way we each “do church” is very different, sharing little in common (at least on the surface). Simply put… if there is a spectrum of formality among our ilk, Verlon and I are on the far-flung, opposite ends of the spectrum.

I lead a congregation that is relatively formal… not all that formal when considering the Church universal, but pretty formal for an Assemblies of God church. We have a choir that sings twice most Sundays, sometimes even more. Our congregation prays together, out loud, with prewritten prayers. We read the Scripture aloud every Sunday, and recite a creed together. We write it all down, each part of the order of service, and provide it to each one who enters Pleasant Bay Church on Sunday mornings. 

The congregation that Verlon leads is decidedly informal. It meets in various neighborhoods in Seattle, usually on weeknights. The whole meeting is centered on supper. There is no bulletin, no PowerPoint, no corporate singing or prayers… just supper and a short, simple “Jesus talk.” They don’t even name it church (although the regulars seem to think of it as church… their church); a few years ago they reorganized the oldest Assemblies of God Church in Seattle into Community Dinners.

Even though we are very different when it comes to formality, it seems to me that we share a lot in common, including: 
  • We looked to history to meet the demands of the future. When we set our course a dozen years ago at Pleasant Bay, we looked to church history to form our worship. In some cases that meant going back decades or hundreds of years as we include hymns in our blended worship; in other cases that meant going back thousands of years as we use ancient creeds in our worship. When Verlon’s church reorganized, they looked to history… all the way back to the early church; Verlon finds the theological underpinnings for Community Dinners in The Lord’s Supper and the way the early church worshiped in love feasts. 
  • We were misunderstood by our ilk. Reflecting on what Verlon is doing, I’ve heard many from our ilk determine that Community Dinners is more like a para-church ministry than a church (I came to that conclusion before I actually went; believe me, Community Dinners is not a soup kitchen). I know that our ilk misunderstands Pleasant Bay as well, thinking of it as a liturgical church (whatever then means) that is outside of the mainstream of our kind of churches. 
  • We highly value visible participation. It is easy to let our worship become more and more like entertainment. Volunteer choirs and orchestras give way to small, highly-polished worship bands; the proclamation of the Word resembles a Ted Talk with the real thing happening on the big screen (live, recorded, or piped in). At Community Dinners it seemed like as many as half of the people were actively involved in serving and leading and helping. At Pleasant Bay on a Sunday, everyone is involved in reading and praying and proclaiming aloud… and a lot of people are visibly involved on the platform, in the choir, reading Scripture and such. 
  • We are seeking the lost. Community Dinners identified and set out to serve and reach the people in Seattle’s walking villages; it didn’t appear that they were being reached and it was time for an innovative approach. At Pleasant Bay, we identify with people who are looking for a more formal, ritualistic, and even academic approach. It seemed that these folks were limited to choices that may not hold to Biblical truth or standards; in their search for something more formal, many might have settled for something theologically flimsy and ultimately unsatisfying… so we set out to reach them.
I’ll be back at Community Dinners again, not because I think their tactics suit our church, but because their approach challenges me, expands my thinking, and inspires me to be even more creative in our pursuit of God and His Work.