Independent (-10 years)

Christian Community Church  

108 Beacon, Worcester, MA

In Matthew, chapter 5, Jesus is very clear about the role of his followers in society.  We are to be salt to an unseasoned world and light in a sea of darkness.  Sometimes we have not taken that exhortation seriously, especially when it has meant living or working in neglected neighborhoods.

–John Perkins, Community Organizer/Pastor

A 20-year-old man was gunned down on Main Street, Worcester earlier this week.  I walked the same sidewalk only an hour before the violence took place, so “inner-city-violence” was less theoretical to me when it made front page news the following day.  I learned that the pastor of a local church visited the hospital where the victim was pronounced dead.  The pastor will soon become a city councilor and the violence took place in her district.  Which hat was she wearing when she visited?  Or did she wear both simultaneously?

Though I had heard about a history-setting Latina woman who defeated a seemingly beloved incumbent city councilor, I was not aware that this woman was a pastor.  What is her church like?  What would she preach on the Sunday after such an incident?  I looked for the church online and found only a Facebook listing which offered the following Mission Statement:

ICC is an Urban Ministry seeking the peace (Shalom) of our city; through Worship, Service, Fellowship, Evangelism, Stewardship, and Discipleship (Learning); committed to loving God and all people.

Yes, a church seeking peace in our city!  John Perkins called this peace, “salt for an unseasoned world, light in a sea of darkness.”  How fitting to find Christian Community Church on Beacon Street!  I decided it was time to visit Christian Community Church on a Sunday.

10:30 AM Worship

WINDOWS

Multicultural Membership.   The Facebook page for ICC reveals two flags: Puerto Rico and Myanmar.  So I suspected the spiky-haired young adults in front of me had some connection to Myanmar.  Perhaps the family in the front row had Puerto Rican roots?  In prayer time the pastor indicates that five children to my right are immigrants from Africa.  The mother of three small children in front of me has long, blond hair.  We are only a congregation of around 39 this Sunday, but the diversity in attendance is obvious.

This week in Kentucky, a church voted to officially exclude interracial couples from church participation.  No doubt church leadership there is convinced the Bible is unequivocal on this point—which it is not—and there is likely deep-rooted racism as well as rejection of modernism, yet the underlying ignorance and antagonism exist far beyond Kentucky.  I was glad to be in a place free of that discrimination and wish more churches were multicultural like Christian Community.

“God’s Gonna Teach Us Something This Morning!”  I am uncomfortable when church leaders drive-home a point by saying “Turn to your neighbor and tell them ______.”  Some are accustomed to this and gladly make eye-contact, telling me something I am quite certain they would never tell me outside of church:  “Listen carefully!”  “You don’t need to be afraid!”  Then I am supposed to say it back to them.  It feels contrived.  It seems like we are parroting what the pastor is saying, like we are his or her personal megaphone.  The Occupy Worcester/Boston/Wall Street movement participants call this “Mic Check.”   I am not a big fan.  However, I realized over the course of the preacher’s message that the “mic check” captured and held my attention, especially when we parroted to each other “God’s gonna teach us something today.”  Something about hearing it from my seatmate made that a distinct possibility.  Something about actually saying those words to someone else led me to actually believe what I was saying.

Presenting Our Offering.  Offering time followed communion.  We were reminded of Psalm 120 where the faithful, calling on the Lord, can expect an answer.  We each received offering envelopes with a printed exhortation from Malachi 3, “Bring the whole tithe into my storehouse that there may be food in my house.”  A PowerPoint slide illustrated money flowing into the church and then out to A)  insurance, rental, church equipment, B)  missions abroad, C) local urban missions.  Leaders shared how rice and oil were being gathered for the Dominican Republic and I heard about a partnership with a local school.  This was further confirmation that all three areas need funding;  we were sitting in an unfinished, cold, mostly fixture-free room.   The church needs the money!  After hearing what the offering supports, we were invited to hold the filled envelopes aloft while the pastor blessed our gifts.  Finally, we were asked to physically bring our gifts up to the basket there in front of the assembly.

All of this is fairly heavy-handed.  Those who have not brought gifts neither raise hands nor leave their seats, and that is a sure way to alienate folks.  Still, I liked raising my own offering in the air.  I liked it better than slipping it into some brass plate and having a guy in a suit deliver it to the front for me.  I liked the sense of responsibility and accountability I felt.  I was accountable to God, yes, but I also felt accountable to my brothers and sisters, sitting in what would be a much warmer room…if we would all do our part.

WALLS

The heating system?

Warehouse Club.   The photo at left shows the heating system, two propane-powered jet heaters which, I presume, are somehow fastened to duct work and blown out over the congregation.  Better than nothing, I suppose.  Seems like a fire hazard, however.  Thankfully the congregation could not see the apparatus.  What I could see was unfinished electrical cables (at teenager level), white-hot halogen lights (at toddler-level) and, in the entrance hall, a jig saw (at infant-level).  I am all for minimalist housing for worship.  Mars Hill, in Seattle, is basically one big warehouse.  But this place was not safe and should not be inhabited by children until it is finished.  I get the impression from

Notice the uneven floor and dangling cords.

the pastor that the church only recently transitioned to this leased space, but it just does not seem ready.

Why No Multicultural Music?  The church is called both Iglesia Christiana De La Comunidad as well as Christian Community Church, so I expected to be greeted with something other than English.  I was prepared for the possibility that the service might be in Spanish and I may need to sit near an interpreter. Not only was every word in English, every song was Contemporary Christian.  This raised some questions for me and I can’t say that I have the answers.  Is it better for a multicultural church to have worship which is a pot-luck where each person brings a cultural “dish” or gift to be shared, such as congos for the music, chanting, customary dress, or for a multicultural church to have monocultural worship so that there is one language, one foundation that anchors other ministries?  Are these contemporary Christian Vineyard-type songs already a part of Puerto Rican and Myanmarese culture so that they form a foundation on which this church can build?  Or are these songs a kind of cultural imperialism, an invasive weed that found its way overseas?  In that case shouldn’t worship offer space for the native plants to grow and thrive?

I left disappointed that worship was not the multicultural experience I hoped it would be.  Maybe it was exactly what the neighbors needed.  Maybe not.

No Mention of the Shooting.   When the pastor prayed for a homeless woman whose child was headed to the ER with a seizure, I assumed he would also mention the name of the young adult who died Wednesday.  He did not.  Then when he preached Psalm 34:11-14, “Do good, seek peace and pursue it,” I felt sure he would mention the gang violence that erupted that day, encouraging us to be peacemakers.  He never mentioned the shooting!  Why not?  His wife, the co-pastor, was in the hospital with the victim’s family.  The violence took place in her district and the spent cartridges clanged to the sidewalk only two miles from the church.  If the mission of the church is to “Seek the peace of our city,” what better opportunity will come along to shine some light on the darkness of gang machismo?  The silence was deeply troubling.  Today, December 6th, I read that an impromptu vigil was held last night at the very location where Javier Santiago died.  The gangs were all there.  The Plumley Village Gang, The Providence Street Posse, the Kilby Street Posse and the Worcester Police were all there.  The police arrested eight for “disturbing the peace.”  Was there anyone present from Christian Community Church (or any other downtown church) “seeking peace?”

The Journey Community Church
at Worcester Technical High School
1 Skyline Drive, Worcester, MA

I am visiting the Clark University, Worcester, campus, viewing a school announcement board when I come across a plastic packet holding numerous professionally-printed fliers that say “Autumn Series:  Crossroads.  Making Choices God’s Way”.  It is a half-sheet invitation to attend The Journey Community Church:  “A newer church in the Worcester Region, committed to loving God, loving each other and loving our neighbors.  Expect a warm welcome, joyful music, excellent teaching, great kids programs and more…stay for coffee & to connect with others.  Wherever you are on your journey, we want to help you take your next step.”

“Journey” was an awful name for a band (whose music never actually went anywhere new) but is a great name for a faith community.  The Bible book of Exodus (Ch. 25) describes a God who journeys with the Hebrew people.  In those days they simply carried a big, ornate box.  I suspect The Journey Community Church needs to import into that high school auditorium more than simply a box.  Maybe a few guitars?  A boat-load of signs?  A book display?  Coffee urns?  Did they bring the box marked “God”?

WINDOWS

The pastor was first-in-line at cafe (that's him on the right). This is a church with perks!

Journey Java Cafe:  Real Options.  I hate to admit that I was drawn to the church by an online picture of a glass case filled with pastries.  “Do they really offer ten different kinds of snacks instead of the cookie and pretzel plates I find at other hospitality centers?”  The food is for real!  I ate a really tasty, flaky, date-filled pastry and my son enjoyed a sticky-bun.  50 cents each.  We brought home a gigantic cinnamon pastry for $2.50.  The food is prepared by Worcester Tech Culinary School students and is usually served by them.  What a treat!  The coffee-offering was pretty basic, but that was fine by me.

Vital Message:  Find Your Place at the Table.  Before the service I was told by the pastor’s wife who greeted us that they had been in ministry for thirty-years.  Standing there in a battleship-gray suit over a smart, black, dress-shirt, the teacher looked a tad young to have been in ministry for 30 years, but he spoke with a kind of confidence  that proved his experience.  This was part three in a series on the Prodigal Son parable from Jesus in Luke 15:17-31.  We focused on the elder brother and the way we, like him, are dominated by an undercurrent of anger, a tendency to be duty-driven and a sense of class or religious superiority.  We emerge from that human predicament through humble service among the “broken”.

BUT…I was surprised when the teacher  used an illustration from the 1981 movie “Chariots of Fire”.   It didn’t really fit the young crowd the church seemed to be targeting.  When I got home I Googled “Elder Son Chariots of Fire” to see who else makes that connection.  I learned that Rev. Timothy Keller did in a 2008 sermon to his Presbyterian Church in New York.  Keller also made the connection in his book “The Prodigal God,” which is the book The Journey Community Church of Worcester LifeGroups are studying outside of Sunday worship.  The teacher used a great turn-of-phrase in the sermon that really made me pause–the condition of “duty without beauty”.  “Clever teacher,” I thought.  I learned from Google that this phrase was also lifted from a Keller sermon in 2008.  I can forgive a preacher using the work of another great preacher, especially if the whole church is studying the other pastor’s great book.  But I expect one pastor to credit the other.  Hey, we are in a school–show us the footnotes!

Hands-on Mission.  The teacher’s message encouraged us to be among the broken and then gave us the opportunity to make and distribute sandwiches to the homeless in Worcester who gather on South Main (near three Worcester churches—I wonder if they are reaching-out too?).

I like that this church delivers sandwiches to the down-and-out in Worcester.  The greeter told me that it seemed to her that lots of churches are leaving Worcester but this church is committed to the city.  Many new church starts follow a recipe that includes the basics of great worship music, eye-popping children’s activities and solid, Biblical teaching.  Some add a little spice through “small groups” or “mission”, but you can’t always taste those flavors on Sunday.  Maybe the church is simply positioning itself as a “connected” church or a “compassionate” church in order to build buy-in from visitors.  It didn’t feel that way here.  I liked the way the teacher connected the mission and I really like hearing that the church has committed to this Worcester hand-out every month in partnership with other churches.  That is important to me, because it doesn’t then seem that members will use that compassionate access to try to recruit members to a church.  They would simply allow their love to incarnate Jesus.

WALLS

Teens Seen but Not Heard.  My son attended Journey with me.  As we entered the very dark auditorium a well-dressed woman in her late forty’s or early fifty’s focuses completely on my son (which isn’t a bad thing, just awkward for the invisible dad) and says “Hi, Handsome!” (which is awkward for the 12-year-old boy).   The church already has a program or class in place for elementary-aged kids, but there is nothing for junior high or high school at this point, a year after their launch.  They claim during announcements that this is the next phase they are working-on.  I’m not sure why teens are the last “phase”.  More bothersome to me was the pastor’s invitation Sunday for all parents of teens to join him for a conversation about this next phase of ministry.  If I had wanted to attend, what would my teen-aged son do?  Are they not interested in a teenager’s perspective on what makes for good teen ministry?

My son grew bored during the sermon and I invited him to write a letter to the pastor.  This is what he wrote:

Dear Pastor,

I thought the movie at the beginning was sort of cool, but I didn’t really understand the point.  Were you trying to tell us to be like the guy who was talking?  Do you want us to be unlike him?  The story reminded me of the story of the forgiven son, except I didn’t remember there being an “elder brother”.  Maybe there was.  But the video made it seem like this is something Jesus said and that bothered me.  It just seemed like an opinion.

I liked the music.  It was fairly easy to sing and had great emotion.  Especially the guitar singer.  I went to him after worship to tell him how much I liked what he did.  He was talking to a friend and did not pay attention to me standing there.  Then when he was done he just looked at me and moved me to the side as he walked past me.  That was weird.

I don’t always agree with my son’s perspective of things, but I try to listen.  I hope Journey hears what he is saying about being pushed-aside by the guitarist.  I am sure it was unintentional, but that is exactly my point here:  Intentional conversations with teens will reveal such things as how awkward it feels for a boy to be told “Hi, Handsome” and how confusing it is to present a video as the source of divine wisdom, and how strange it seems to them that the pastor would jump in the front of the cafe line ahead of twelve people.

Low Energy.  The balance of instruments was nice.  I was particularly glad for the understated rhythm offered by congos and a djembe.  But the four band members did not seem connected to each other nor to the music they were offering.  I wanted the guitarist to say more than “One more time”.  I wanted to see the bassist or keyboard enjoy their music, but I didn’t see it and had trouble feeling much joy.  It didn’t feel like art.  And that is part of the challenge I am having in several unconventional worship sites (like LifeSong reviewed below).  These are dark, dry, colorless settings.  The videos help a little.  But at Journey, the video was colorless, the table graphic was dark, and the song slide backgrounds were generic.  I am reminded of the movie “Groundhog Day” where every day was the same for Bill Murray.  Sunday after Sunday in artless auditoriums could feel like an “iPod stuck on replay”.  For me, “Journey” suggests adventure, texture, wonder, beauty…and change.  If it is too much hassle bringing in beautiful things like tables, art pieces, fabrics, maybe the slides could show me something beautiful?  At the very least the music could flirt with forte?

Community Church?  Why Be Regional?  I was familiar with a new church start in Lynn, MA audaciously called “East Coast International Church“.  The name of the church suggested a pretty broad reach!  After ten years the church seems firmly rooted in Lynn, MA (good!) and not trying to surround the Boston Bay (or Gulf of Maine!) with holiness as though there are no other workers in that field.  The people of that urban center are being well served by that church and I trust God is at work in other places as well.

This Journey Community Church seems to have its eye on Worcester (Good!) but its heart is in the Metrowest region.  The program tells me the newcomer’s orientation meets in the North Grafton community, the young adults will meet in Milford and the men’s group will meet in Westborough.   I understand churches with small home-groups that meet in member’s homes in various communities.  But these are church-wide groups.  Are there no meeting spaces in Worcester?  I was told that churches were leaving Worcester (which has not been my experience).  If that were the case, I would expect the Journey to dig-in deeply to the City of Worcester  and not be simply a “Community” regional church which plays in the suburbs and delivers sandwiches to those poor people in Worcester.

INTERVIEW

Journey Church charter member.  White female in late forty’s.

What kind of message came through for you today?

I think that I tend to be both the younger son (with moral lapses) and the elder son (condescending).  I struggle with being judgmental.

Why do you need Jesus?

Jesus is my only access to the Father.  Through the blood of Jesus I have peace with God.  I accepted Jesus as my savior when I was 12.

Why do you need the Church?

We are not on this Journey alone.  Christianity requires  community.  This is why LifeGroups are so important here–mutual accountability.

Why do you need this particular church?

My husband and I were part of the Chapel of the Cross Church in Westborough and felt drawn to the leadership of their pastor.  When the pastor left, we partnered with him as we heard a calling to start a new church in this area.  We were at a different location in Shrwesbury, but that did not last, so we were considering places like warehouses and schools with little success.  Finally we settled on two possible locations–a building behind the Burger King just off of Highway 9 near and this newly built high school.  Both are near Worcester, because the pastor felt called to the city–the ratio of pews to people in Worcester is lower than anywhere else in this region.  We turned-in an application at the high school and they called us back.  Unlike our last location, the school wanted a church here because they see the building as a community center.  We felt like it was confirmation from God that this is where we should be.

LifeSong

Blackstone Valley Cinema deLux, Milbury, MA

“The Church can’t transform the desires of people it’s trying to titillate,” according to G. Jeffrey MacDonald, author of the 2010 book “Thieves in the Temple: The Christian Church and the Selling of the American Soul“.  I am writing this review from a Starbucks inside a Barnes and Noble Bookstore which is a three-minute walk from the Sunday worship service I have just experienced inside a movie theater.  There is a Gap store and Qdoba Eatery to my right and a Feng Sushi Bar and spray-on tan salon to the left.  The entire mall is packed with consumers.  Here in Barnes and Noble workers are removing the last vestiges of a CD and DVD sales area to make room for a Toy and Game area.  The CDs no longer sell.  It seems to me that LifeSong and other new Christian “communities” seek to do for the Christian franchise what Barnes and Noble is attempting for “the bookstore”, re-engineering.  The demise of Borders Bookstores this summer reminds me that this is a life-or-death decision by Barnes and Noble.

There is no doubt that LifeSong has re-engineered the Christian message.  We’re in a cinema.  The pastor is sitting at a bistro table to preach.  He’s reading scripture from a smartphone.  I have a cup-holder built into me seat and I’m using it!  Have these cultural concessions made it impossible for me to be transformed here?

Sunday, October 16, 2011

WINDOWS

TUNNEL OF LOVE.  Two smiling,young-adult women in matching blue T-shirts hold the door for me.  Another T-shirt-wearing volunteer greets me just beyond that door as I approach another set of doors, which are also opened for me by a man and woman who look to be about my age, maybe older.  They’re wearing the blue T-shirts too, each with a cute little circle on the shoulder that says “Tap Here.”   There is a 50-yard-long hall leading from the entrance toward the guest services kiosk where I see plenty more blue-shirt-workers milling around.  This basic courtesy is lost on so many churches, especially long-established ones, whom I doubt recognize the importance of first impressions.  My first impression of LifeSong was “They are happy to see me.”  My first impression at these other churches?  “Hey, you’re lucky we unlocked the door for you.  Don’t let it hit you on the way out either.”

OFFERING.   I understand G. Jeffrey MacDonald’s concern when he claims “The Church is thwarting its own mission by bowing to misguided consumer pressure…striving to please–rather than lead–their clientele” (106).  He specifically criticizes the way money is received.

“All seem to share a common motive:  to grow contributions while removing a collection experience that some find inconvenient or annoying.  Increasingly common ‘giving kiosks’, which look like ATMs, allow church-goers to donate as discreetly as if they were making a cash withdrawal”(41).

LifeSong relies on exactly this lamented collection process.  There are two boxes at the entrance/exit.  I had no idea what they were there for when I entered, and it was too dark to read instructions at first.  In that darkness, the pastor explained that the boxes where for both money and “connection cards.”   Eventually I read the instructions:

“We don’t pass a plate.  We believe God doesn’t desire guilt-giving or left-over tipping, but that He is interested in giving from the heart.  This is most clear when we give Him the first-fruits, or the first portion of all our increase.  We encourage a pre-determined commitment to give before coming to church as a tangible act of worship, and a sign that God is first in your finances.  You can place your envelope in one of the two stained-glass boxes on the tables along the corridor” .

We received a cute little self-addressed envelope  which includes options for check, cash or credit (with notes about how to give online).  We also received a “connection card” which includes personal information along with visit information (1st time, 2nd time, etc.) along with “How did you hear about LifeSong church?”  I didn’t turn-in the card, so here is my response:  I heard about the “very cool” MetroWest Church in Ashland and found out, on their website, that LifeSong emerged from MetroWest a few years ago.  When I learned that it meets in a Cinema, I HAD to attend.

So I was expected to enter worship with an offering in hand which I interpret not so much as “paying for the show” (as some might) but as bringing my gifts to the Temple.  The reverse of the connection card asked me to list my “next steps” from today’s message (each related to points in today’s message) and next steps in LEADTrak which includes LifeSong 101, Essentials.201, Awaken.301 and DreamTeam.401.  At the conclusion of the service I was expected to formalize my commitment by dropping the card in the box.  Or, if I was not quite “down” with all of this stuff, I could conclude the service by meeting one of seven “elders” in the front of the auditorium for prayer.  There was no freaky altar-call but rather a gentle nudge toward additional steps of faith.  I like that.  The last instruction was to take three minutes to talk to someone we did not know when we entered.  I had well over three-hundred choices.

I would readily trade the old ways of tossing $2 into $200 brass plates for  this new system of offering my gifts and life, thoughtfully, privately.

FRANCHISE.  I am starting to see patterns among the really good new church starts.  The website will be intriguing, easy to navigate and as unchurchy as possible.  Anything printed will be high-quality color, using text, not to print line-after-line of liturgy/poetry that we are all supposed to say together but instead answering questions we may have.  There will be good coffee.  There will be quality childcare.  Worship will be come-as-you-are, but the pastor will most certainly be wearing an un-tucked, button-down, earth-tone shirt and stylized jeans.  The pastor will be a dude (in my world WOMEN have just as much to say and I trust “the franchise” will one day recognize as much) and he’ll have a goatee and a sense of humor.  The pastor will be passionate.  The song leaders will be passionate and professional.  The songs’ style may seem redundant in instrumentation and musical dynamics, but they will be passionate, they’ll feature harmony and they will be accompanied by professional-sounding musicians and sung so well by lead singers that the congregation won’t even need to sing for beautiful sound to fill the auditorium.  We’ll just wave our hands.  The lyrics will be projected along with some well-edited video footage on topic.   There won’t be much beyond the music and the message.  Prayer of course–not scripted.  Passionate.  Relevant.  After the service ends there will be rapid, quality follow-up and an expectation that participants will be part of a training program:  101, 201, 301, maybe 401.   We can expect these few things to be done consistently.

I have seen an opposite pattern in established congregations.  Would I rather drink the coffee at a local coffee house where the baristas sometimes care and sometimes don’t; where the music sometimes sounds as angst-ridden as the barista; where the place looks like it is falling apart; where the coffee is only adequate?    Or would I like to go to Starbucks?

WALLS

SOFT SELL.  Do I want from Church what I want from Starbucks?   We’re back to Mr. MacDonald’s criticism that some contemporary churches soft-sell discipleship. There is no escaping the place where worship takes place.  We are in a theater.  The smell of popcorn fills the air.  Chairs are cushy and they rock.  I get to be anonymous here in the dark, just like I do when I watch blockbuster movies.  When worship ends, several families reunite in the hallway and walk immediately into the arcade to blow-up aliens or down a few stores to Red Robin Restaurant to eat $10 gourmet burgers.  Maybe I could get comfortable in this setting.  But I’m afraid I would get too comfortable with the blue T-shirts with  “Tap Me” logos whispering  “How can I serve you?”

PARKING CHILDREN.   Lots of families joined me in that “tunnel of love”, but the children did not join us for worship.  Instead, families stopped at a check-in station which offered a kind of inventory system surely meant to protect children.  It warehoused them too.  Maybe that is too rigid a way of looking at it.  It reminded me of a Valet station.  “We’ll carefully park this for you.  Here’s your ticket.”  The children did seem to be carefully tended.  The movie kiosk registered “Toddlers” just above theater #2.  Cute.  Inside the dark auditorium, partitioned by a crude, plastic baby-fence, I was told the workers might offer a story to the kids.  Maybe they would simply play with the six or seven plastic toys scattered about.  Sure, the place seemed secure and I was glad to hear the five workers were all CORI-approved.  But in the kid-barren worship when the pastor asked for donations remarking “Aren’t you glad you don’t have a little three-year-old tugging on your leg?” I felt sad for the whole, sanitized arrangement.

SELF-CONSCIOUS.  First we were asked to turn to our neighbors on the left and right and tell them “You look great today!” And then later we’re encouraged to look to our left and then to the right at the beautiful people beside us, “But don’t tell them which is better looking.”   Well, on my left was a tween-aged kid.  I’m forty-one.  I’m not comfortable commenting on the girl’s looks.  I’m not even happy being forced to think of her that way.  Awkward.  Why do we have to be made aware of how we look to each other?


INTERVIEW

Late thirty’s white man.

What message came through to you today?

I am a practical guy.  The practical message I heard was this:  I love to cycle and I could cycle all day today, but I know my wife will be returning home today after bringing our child back to college after fall break.  I was reminded today that I need to put her needs above mine.  I was thinking I should cook dinner for her.

Why do you need Jesus?

The more theological answer would be that this body is a container and something eternal within us is connected with Jesus.  I don’t know for sure about what happens when the container goes, but I know Jesus takes care of the rest.  The practical answer:  I’ve been through two bouts of unemployment and over time I’ve been able to look back to see how Jesus has been a guide and comfort to me during those times.  My wife has more of an immediate sense of God’s presence.  It is like she is taking to Jesus sometimes. 

Why do you need the Church?

Last weekend I visited Maine and went to a Vineyard Church.  We might have different stylistic interests, but we are united by something deeper.  I like having that connection.

Why do you need this particular church?

The music and message are consistently good.  I enjoy rock music.  The mainline church I had been part of started debating whether or not to start “contemporary worship”.  It got me thinking about what kind of worship I like.  I went to a Promise Keepers gathering and realized I need to find the right fit.  We may not always stay here because the music is too loud for my wife. 

The Woo

911 Main Street, Worcester, MA

The author of “Blue like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality”, Donald Miller, explained his inability to accept God’s grace:

If we hear, in our inner ear, a voice saying we are failures, we are losers, we will never amount to anything, this is the voice of Satan trying to convince the bride that the groom does not love her.  This is not the voice of God.  God woos us with kindness, He changes our character with the passion of His love (p.86).

“The Woo” name is a clever juxtaposition of the town name “woo-stuh” (this is how we pronounce “Worcester”) and a theological construct from the prophet Jeremiah who suggested God is wooing us into right relationship.  The church motto, like the name itself,  is a juxtaposition of three seemingly antithetical pursuits: Practical.  Spiritual.  Fun.

Did God’s message of grace come through the Woo?

Sunday, July 31, 2011    12pm Worship (seriously, noon!)

WINDOWS

Incarnational.   My 11-year-old and I drove directly into the heart of the city.  The Woo inhabits an inner-city church building, a mainline cathedral whose congregation, Pilgrim UCC, still meets for worship at 10:30 in a tiny downstairs chapel.  They share the pastor.  But Pastor Lucas looks nothing at all like the dozen or so pictured pastors on the fellowship wall.  Lucas has dread-lock hair and dresses not in suit but in casual clothes.   As we move through the entrance we see that Lucas fits right-in with the 12pm crowd.  This is an inner-city church without apology.  The same crowd that attends heavy metal concerts at the Paladium down the street might find an equally welcoming community here the next morning, and I love that inclusive feel.  When a church is incarnational, it loves those whom Jesus loves, walking with people each step as Jesus did.

Fun.  When have I experienced Reggae music, authentic-sounding Reggae, in a church building much less in worship?  In addition to superb bass playing we enjoyed ukulele as well!  About seventy people were gathered, standing, with around twenty raising their hands in praise and ten or so dancing in the aisles.  Unfortunately the music droned-on too long at the conclusion of the service, but at the beginning, it made me feel almost selfless enough to want to dance.  But, you know, my kid is there and I didn’t want to embarrass him.  yup, that’s the reason…  Are we having fun?  Yes.  Spiritual?  Yep, because I’m pretty sure dancing is holy.

Practical.   I once visited Quest Church (Q) in Seattle, WA because I heard it was a church that met in a coffee house.  I had pretty OK coffee there on Friday.  But when I returned for worship on Sunday the cafe was closed.  Ironic.  The Woo offers a nice variety of coffees after AND before worship, offering a nice chance to hang out and talk.  But the church also offered free homegrown–church grown–organic vegetables.   Basil, squash, green beans, green onions.  Nice.  The worship also offers communion each Sunday.  This symbolic meal, devoid of most of its liturgical underpinnings here at the Woo,  seems to be an extension of the tables where they offer veggies and coffee.  In fact the church invited us all to go to a Chinese Buffet after worship!   Though there was no table in the sanctuary (communion was offered in tiny stations barely a foot off of the floor) this service and church reminded me of Jesus’ parable where the invited guests–the elite–reject the king’s invitation to dinner, so the king extends it to the people in the street.  The Woo seems to be a living parable of God feeding the hungry. (By the way, the completely unrelated “Woo-Daddy-Waffle House” next door was AMAZING!  Why isn’t there a more explicit connection?)

WALLS

Vague Leadership.   The guy on the website named “Lucas” appears to be the lead pastor, but there is nothing there to explain that.  No staff is listed either on the website or in Sunday’s brief program.  I don’t know if this is an intentional sublimation of hierarchies or a sign that roles are not yet fixed.  I’m fine with either:  Churches should be led by a variety of people with no one gift outshining others; or, a new church start should take its time allowing good leaders to emerge.  On this particular Sunday we were told that Lucas was stuck in Jamaica.  My son asks, “Who’s Lucas?”  Good question.  And why should we care?  So with Lucas absent we got a guest teacher from a Vineyard church in Virginia.  The guy did a passable job talking about his call to ministry (though I doubted anyone could really relate) and more importantly about how we can experience God (not through family, books or teachers but directly) and he certainly looked the part of Postmodern Church Planter–young man with un-tucked shirt and highly stylized jeans.  But there was no pastoral presence that might have helped to weave a thematic or spiritual thread into what happened.  The church offers classes like “101: Church Vision”, “201: Following Jesus” and “301: How to Lead a Small Group” but I didn’t get the feeling Sunday that there was any 101, 201 or 301 to worship.  I felt like I arrived at the dorm for school, bags in hand, and there were no signs on the rooms.

Absence of Art.  Three things stood-out for me visually:  1.  The Pilgrim UCC sanctuary offers beautiful architecture and warm, auburn woodwork canvassing attractive curved, padded pews.   2.  The casually-dressed congregation, all on their feet, were interacting with the praise band in ways that felt more like a Jimmy Buffet concert than any worship service I’d been to.  3.   A gigantic cross created from railroad ties sat like a giant panda just to the left of an awkwardly raised, boxy (and quite ugly) stage.   I don’t recall any color but brown.  Dead wood all around.  I guess plants might help some, but what I would really expect to find is art pieces created by this creative class of folk present here.  Surely one is a sculptor?  A painter?  It looked and felt like borrowed space but I don’t think it had to.

Sloppy Childcare. Top-notch childcare is standard operating procedure for most new church starts.  This isn’t the place to debate why that should or should not be so, but it is a common theme among planter-sites and books.  The Woo offers childcare too.  It is located far removed from the sanctuary in a rather love-less 15′ by 20′ room.  A man was rolling on the floor near two toddlers and a woman greeted me at the door telling me they didn’t really have anything for kids my son’s age (11) but he was welcome to join them.  My son looks at me the same way he does when the doctor asks if we want the immunizations this visit or next.   I think this may be one of the casualties of vague leadership (see above).  No-one was looking-out for newcomers when we arrived and no-one took responsibility to let us know how to get to childcare or children’s church or whatever.  We simply left the sanctuary during closing songs to scout the building and we happened to find the room with the adults and kids.  It was kind of creepy, actually.  No way I would leave my kids there in spite of how friendly the woman was with me at the door.

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