You know how when you meet that special someone they can do nothing wrong? Everything they do is cute. Their habits are endearing. When you get that newest gadget you marvel at all the great new features. You wonder how you could have lived without it. But, inevitably, the honeymoon ends, the scales fall from your eyes and you start seeing things more "clearly". The habits that used to be endearing are annoying. There are features missing from the gadget and you wonder how they possibly could have left that out? Well, that time has come with my great new church, Nexus. The honeymoon being over doesn't mean the relationship is over. It's just a critical time in the relationship when you have to re-evaluate and maybe recommit.
This is one of those posts I've wrestled with writing. I keep saying "no". But, it keeps percolating in my head and I've got to get it out. In my Buddhist practice lately I've been studying "right speech". Not that it's a particularly Buddhist concept (no Buddhist teachings are particularly Buddhist for that matter). The idea is to before saying something it has to pass several tests.
- Examine your motivations for saying a thing. What are you trying to accomplish?
- Only say things that are true
- Only say thing that are helpful
- Say things in the right time
I was given similar guidelines as a child in Sunday School "Before you speak, ask yourself 'Is is true? Is it helpful? Is it kind?'" Some people think this means Christians and Buddhists should be syrupy sweet and never say anything that could possibly offend. That's not necessarily the case. I've been mulling this post over and I've decided that even though it might offend, it is necessary. My pastor and some of the people from the church read my blog. So, I have to be conscious of that when I write. However, I owe it to myself and to my larger readership to be candid. I've told you how great Nexus is and I've cajoled many of you into getting back into the game and attending church. So, I have to be transparent about my experience.
I've been going to Nexus for about a year now. If you're a regular reader of my blog, you know the story. In case you're not, here's a quick synopsis. I was attending a mega-church, the Vineyard, for about 10 years. I was growing increasingly dissatisfied because my theology and theirs were quickly parting ways. I was thrilled to find a progressive United Church of Christ start-up called Nexus that was meeting in a dance studio. It's run by a fresh young pastor and while it's not openly Universal, it is decidedly and boldly "open and affirming".
OK, enough of the preamble. If you've made it this far, here's where the meat of the post begins. I'm struggling with church attendance again. I think it a great concept. Gathering with like-minded people to encourage each other, learn from each other and leverage our resources to help the community is an idea I can fully embrace. The devil, as they say is in the details. I want to be in a church, I want to be in physical community. But, finding one that "fits" is difficult. None is going to be perfect, the question is "What is good enough?".
Having been at Nexus for almost a year now, the new has worn off. While the things that attracted me to Nexus are still there, there are issues I'm dealing with. The primary issue being the relevance of the Sunday morning gathering. A long time ago I committed I would not roll out of bed on a Sunday morning and go off to play church just to appease the idea that G-d wants me to check off a box or needs me to go somewhere to "worship" Her. And, I'm firmly committed to that. It would be a waste of my time and makes a mockery of G-d, turning G-d into some narcissistic, needy being. It's kind of ironic... when I began attending the Vineyard over 10 years ago now, I assumed because the worship was contemporary and people wore jeans, the theology would also be open and progressive. Wrong! When I began attending Nexus, I thought that because the pastor was young, the church was "open and affirming" and self-declared as "progressive" that meant the Sunday morning services would follow suit. What I have found is that is also not a valid assumption. People can have very liberal theology and still be attached to more traditional forms of worship. For a long time, the benefits of the theology outweighed the form of the Sunday morning service. But, I keep finding myself asking "Why am I going on Sunday morning?" The forms at Nexus are actually more traditional than any church (including the Pentecostal ones) I've ever been a regular attender of. That is not meant as a criticism at all. It's just not my cup of tea. Maybe I'm not cut out for Sunday mornings. I enjoy the small groups at Nexus. I enjoy the get togethers for lunch after the service (which seem to have stopped).
More important than my own personal satisfaction, I wonder is how much our Sunday morning service will appeal to the "progressive" seeker that Nexus needs to attract and retain to remain viable as a church community. If people are seeking something new and different in their theology (my personal opinion as to why someone would seek out a church like Nexus) are they going to be content with the same old forms on Sunday morning? When I mention my dissatisfaction to Ty, she kind of bristles at it. Ironically, she was upset when I wanted to leave the Vineyard. But, one of the things about Nexus that she takes comfort in is the tradition of the worship service. She doesn't understand why anyone would want to throw out all tradition. A valid point of view to be sure. But, OTOH, she would probably never have chosen Nexus in the first place. I wonder what type of people Nexus will attract with the current mix of theology and form of worship.
For better or worse, Sunday morning is kind of the pivotal point of church life. It's difficult to be a part of the community and not be there to connect at that regular meeting time. I keep trying to tell myself that the Sunday morning thing is not that big a deal because of the other really great things about Nexus. And, for me, a big part of church attendance is service. Service to the others there and (if necessary) service to my family. Ty thinks it's very important to attend church as a family. That's the only reason I went back when we first got married. But, will others who think Sunday morning are irrelevant make that kind of sacrifice?
Our Sunday morning service is pretty typical. A few songs, announcements, prayer time, a sermon. Then, the thing that makes Nexus different, a short time for talk back. The set up is the traditional teacher (pastor) standing in front of us all lined up in our rows. After years and years of having people download to me (in both the corporate world and in church), I find this method of "learning" particularly unappealing. I guess that's my biggest beef with Sunday morning. I'm much more inclined to the small group thing where it's participatory. I don't mind prepared remarks or a led discussion concerning some contemporary topic. But, Old Testament Bible stories without some real freshening up mean almost nothing to me. For example, a few weeks ago we talked about Noah's Ark. IMO, a story that just about beyond redemption (if not totally beyond redemption). For me choosing between topics like "Noah's Ark" and "Right Speech" is a no brainer. Last night I was watching ER and the chaplain on the show performed a couple of ceremonies (non-religious as she described them) that I found quite moving. It was kind of funny, as one was interrupted (by the story line in the show)- Ty said "I was just getting into that." Actually, so was I.
After attending Nexus for almost a year, I have a few observations that concern me. I don't know that the number of people attending has really grown. We wear name tags that are prepared for the regular attenders. We put those out on a table to be picked up on Sunday morning. Every Sunday I take a look at them and reflect back to when I started coming. The stack doesn't seem to be growing. I look and I see several tags for people who are no longer attending. Yes, we've picked up a few along the way. And I don't know the exact count. But, I don't think our numbers are growing. I did hear last Sunday that we are going to start a publicity campaign after the first of the year. We are going to make an official effort to get the word out. That is encouraging. But, if a church is not growing in its first year what is the likelihood it's going to grow in the future? Personally, I couldn't care less about church growth or about having big numbers. One of the things I love about Nexus is the intimacy afforded us by our small numbers. Everyone knows everyone. We can have talk-back after the sermons because our numbers are so small. But, practically speaking, you need a certain number of people to make a church viable. You need enough giving to pay rent and salaries. You need enough people to volunteer to put on the service. Someone to set up, someone to tear things down, people to make coffee, people to take care of the children Sunday School (Early Explorers). If you don't have enough people to share the burden or to allow people to serve where they have a calling, people burn out and go elsewhere. Right now just to put on a Sunday morning service requires just about all hands on deck.
I think the next year in the life of Nexus will be critical, not only for myself, but for the church in general as it really gets established. A few months ago I was wildly enthusiastic. Now, I'm cautiously optimistic. The honeymoon is over, now the real work begins.