A couple of months ago I wrote an article called "Should I Stay or Should I Go?". It was about my growing dissatisfaction with my current megachurch (The Vineyard in Cincinnati, OH). Oh, the people there are very nice and the church does some wonderful things. But, my personal theology seems to diverge with the teachings of the Vineyard more and more and I have felt less at ease there over the past several months. For various reasons, I haven't attended there much over the past couple of months. Today, I decided to visit a church start-up that a friend of mine is helping with. I had a very unusual experience while I was there.
The church is meeting in a dance studio. I'm guessing there were about 25-40 people in attendance. The service was interesting. My friend plays the keyboards and I enjoyed the music. We sang a couple of Christmas carols- but not just your standard arrangements. We did "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" with a reggae flair and a Cajun version of another Christmas carol. We even sang part of "Celebrate Me Home" (my all time favorite Kenny Loggins song). There was a dance routine done to an acapella African American gospel song (We Are by Sweet Honey In the Rock). The minister gave a "children's sermon" where the kids in the church came up with pillows and sat on the floor with him and had an interactive mini-sermon. I thought that was particularly cool. I love the fact that the children were included in the service.
The sermon was about an eXtreme Welcome. The gist of it was that all are welcome in the Kingdom and all are welcome at the church. The church I visited is part of the United Church of Christ, which, as I understand it, is a very inclusive church. The minister made the point (very clearly) that not only do they not exclude people (for attendance or for leadership) based on gender, sexual orientation, race, etc. etc. they seem to actively seek to be a diverse community. I was the only African-American there. But, in fairness, it's hard to be racially diverse in the area the church is meeting in. Now, I've been to many churches who say "Come one, come all...". But, once you get further into their message, you realize what they really mean is "Come and be like us. If you aren't at first, that's OK, we'll assimilate you later." I was sitting there thinking. "They seem to be welcoming. But, are they really?"
The one thing I would have loved to see them do differently though, was to have made the service more interactive. One of the major problems I have with the traditional church service is the main part of the sermon (from my perspective anyway) is a download of data from the guy in charge to the listeners- a one way pipe. It reminds me too much of all the training by firehose I had during my years in corporate America. One advantage of having such a small group, I would like to have an opportunity for feedback or interaction during the sermon. I saw this at the Quaker church I visited and I hear it in the Buddhist PodCasts I listen to. I think it could be a major advantage to a small church.
After the service is where things really got interesting. I talked for quite a while to a couple who both had a very similar experience to me. She was raised Pentecostal. He's studied other religions (more than I have). They both attended the Vineyard for years. It was weird to talk about things like The Gospel of Thomas, Buddhism, Carlton Pearson, etc. and actually have people know what I was talking about. We talked about how we had considered dropping out of Christianity/church because we didn't seem to be able to find a place to fit. I get the feeling there are many people at this church who feel the same way. And, when I told them I was a Universalist (with still a little trepidation), they didn't bat an eyelash. It felt good to be able to actually be myself in church.
The timing on this visit is a little weird. As I've said earlier, I really don't think I can completely drop out of church life completely, if for no other reason, because of my wife and children. But, I have been thinking about getting Martin Zender's "How to Quit Church Without Quitting God" for quite a while now and was just about to pick up a copy. It's pretty much next in my queue. But, I'm not going to give up on church entirely just yet.
For those of you who are in the same position I am (on the fence). If you're still attracted to Christianity and want to be part of a larger community but can't stand some of the things about the churches you've been to, you might want to check out the United Church of Christ. I honestly don't know a whole about it right now. But, what I know so far seems pretty good.