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Megachurch vs. Episcopal Church

Today on my main prayer site, dailyoffice.org, I posted a new poll question. We’ve been dealing with evangelism and church growth lately, and there’s a new survey out called “Faith Communities Today 2005.” It’s the biggest congregational survey ever done in the U.S., with over 3000 participating worship communities, including Christians, Muslims and Jews. To come up with a (simplistic) poll question, I had to give some background information first on what the study’s findings were.

Churches that grow tend to be conservative; no surprise there. But among the mainline Protestants, liberal congregations grow more than conservative ones do.

That’s a bit of a surprise amid all the hubbub about conservatives’ secession from the Episcopal Church. A lot of the secessionist, anti-Gay parishes have driven out many of the Episcopalians and replaced them with Baptists and holy rollers instead.

Other findings in the survey do not bode well for the Episcopal Church. The four main results are these: growing churches are well-located in newer suburbs (or revitalized downtowns); they’re marked by an absence of conflict within the congregation; an internet outreach program; and contemporary worship.

People like drums more than they like pipe organs.

They’d also rather have worship that is “joyful” rather than “reverent.”

Episcopalians tend to do reverent, accompanied by organ music. (And that’s what I like!)

Congregations with a lot of older people don’t grow. The greater the proportion of women in the church, the less likely men are to come.

Kids need to be up-front, in speaking and reading roles. Younger parents like their kids involved.

Parishes established a long time ago grow more slowly than newer ones. The survey breaks down four periods: places founded from 1695 to 1900; 1901-45; 1946-74; and since 1975. The older the church, the more set in its ways. Episcopalians have a lot of old churches. (We were here first! But then we decided to stand pat.)

Seekers are looking for a church that has a clear mission (e.g., “We minister to young families” or “We’re a church for urban sophisticates”). They want spiritual vitality—which I interpret to mean an emphasis on “I” and not “thou.” (Episcopalians are better at “We.”) Seekers want a church where everybody feels “close but not too close”; they don’t want a place that’s ingrown, “one big happy (or dysfunctional) family.” In other words, they want some boundaries, some privacy.

They make choices like consumers, while Episcopalians are critical of drive-thru pop culture.

And then there are those drums!

Last night I watched the video stream of the Wednesday night service from the Cathedral of Hope in Dallas. Their midweek service is very different from their Sunday “liturgical” worship. I’m sorry to say I pretty much hated it. I’m not saying they’re wrong; they’re not. I just don’t go for revivalism and testifying. Wednesdays at CoH cater to Southern pentecostalism; same religion, different language. One I don’t speak and don’t care to learn.

So it’s good they offer two different types. The Wednesday “singspiration” reflects CoH’s MCC/Troy Perry roots. I’ve known a lot of Gay and Lesbian people who get into that, who grew up in that tradition. Bless ’em all, but it ain’t for me.

You know my biggest objection to MCC? Going up for Communion and having the ministers put their hands on me—like I’m supposed to get pawed by some faggot I don’t even know (and saw in the bar last Saturday night).

A boundary issue, no doubt. And The Hug isn’t any more welcome from a Lesbian minister than a Gay guy. I don’t even know these people! And at Communion time, I don’t want to be thinking about them, I want to be thinking about Jesus.

Sorry, that’s just how I feel.

I freely acknowledge that the Cathedral of Hope is a fabulous place. Remember those survey findings, that people want joyful worship? CoH does “joyful” in spades. And yes, I do respond to that on Sundays. Their worship never fails to lift me up.

But there’s more to church than feeling uplifted all the time. Church is not about “I” but “we.”

CoH does a good job of getting to the “we.” I respect that immensely. But the way they get to “we” is by going through “I” first.

My response is that it was “I” who came through the door, ready to get to “we” immediately. They do it a different way. Okay. That may be psychologically wise for most people coming through the door; of course they have themselves on their minds. I just think Episcopalians are better at it, that’s all; we’re ready to focus on God and the people who need us from the minute we sit down.

You know what helps with that? We have a tradition of silence upon entering the worship space. No saying Hi to your neighbors or chatting about the Super Bowl before the bells ring. “The LORD is in his holy temple: * Let all the earth keep silence before him.”

Naturally the silence puts us in reverence more than joy.

But what about those drums? I’ve told you before that I love the Sunday music at CoH. They have an organ, a choir and an orchestra, including a percussion section. At the Wednesday “singspiration,” they have a 10-voice Gospel group and a very talented band. Is the medium the message? It sure seems that way.

I think I’m all in favor of “meeting people where they are.” That’s a culturally sensitive thing to do and frankly, no other approach works. A church has to take people where they live. Only then can a church take people where we need to be.

On my Daily Office site, I posted a picture recently of a guitar mass at the Church of the Good Shepherd, the Episcopal campus ministry at Purdue University. Good Shepherd is also putting on a U2charist next Sunday, not in the church building but in a ballroom in the Union Building. I’m going to check that out, and I’ve even interested a couple of Catholic friends in going with me. A couple of us watched a U2 concert video/documentary so I could get more familiar with their music; turns out I do know some of it, although I thought U2 came along after I stopped paying attention to rock music. I mostly know the group from Bono’s efforts to engage people and governments in working against poverty and HIV/AIDS in Africa. That’s something Episcopalians can get into; many of us are learning about the UN’s Millennium Development Goals to eradicate extreme poverty and promote girls’ education within 10 years.

Guitar masses and U2charists are about as “with it” as Episcopalians get. But at least I’m broadening my horizons; I watched CoH’s “singspiration” all the way through, and I’ve been known to drop in at my local Disciples of Christ congregation. They’re yet a different stripe, and the difference isn’t theological so much as cultural.

I don’t think people give a rat’s ass about theology; I think they want to know Christ.

One problem I see in Episcopal churches is that our clergy care deeply about theology. They all have M.Div. degrees, usually from academically challenging seminaries, and when they get together they love to argue about how many angels can dance on a pinhead. This obsession, which often leads to great preaching, still ends up disconnecting the priest from the people. The clergy know they’re not professional theologians, but they got enough exposure to theology in seminary that they love to debate their understandings, and none of this has anything to do with the people in the pews (or the people who ought to be in the pews but aren’t). In the Church of England, the government actually appoints theologians to serve as bishops—which is a pastoral function, not a theological one. As the Anglican Communion falls apart, we are extremely ill-served by these theological pinheads. We need a strong leader who can communicate an intelligent sentence that people can understand, but instead we have an Archbishop of Canterbury who dithers prettily while the Church burns, and whose pronouncements no one can decipher. Laypeople take one look at him and throw up their hands; maybe they’ll stumble on a “singspiration” somewhere else.

Does God want sexually-active Gay people to go celibate? Or does he want us to worship and sing, preach and lead?

Solve that and I’ll happily let you bring drums and testifyin’ into my church; I’d even let the faggot hug me and pray over me while I’m trying to concentrate on the Body and Blood of Christ. Just decide, one way or the other, so we can get on with it.

Cathedral of Hope decided about queers 30-some years ago, and its latest baptism/reception class welcomed 90 people. Can I get an Amen on that?

Believe me, the string quartet’s optional.++

3 Responses

  1. Hi Josh,

    Your post brings up a lot of questions, but what I want to focus on is the personal boundary issue. I am trying to visualize how hugging or being pawed while receiving Communion works! I mean isn’t the priest busy with his or her hands already? The priest shows you the Host, says, “The Body of Christ, the Bread of Heaven,” and then places the Host in your hands (or if really traditional on your tongue.) Where does the manhandling come in? The only time I have seen the priest place hands on the parishioner is if the parishioner (or a visitor) indicates by crossing his hands over his chest that he wishes to receive a blessing instead.

    At the Peace, presumably people have worked out cues to show where their boundaries lie, i.e., stick out your hand for a handshake if that’s as far as you want to go with it. I tend to be a hugger myself, if people wish to do so and even the Kiss of Peace if they are cool with it.

  2. Good question. I’ve probably overstated the case, but the ministerial clench is common in MCC churches, which Cathedral of Hope used to be. They don’t do it on Sundays anymore, from what I can tell by watching their videos, but they still do on Wednesdays in their informal service.

    MCC usually has two Eucharistic ministers concentrating on one or two communicants at a time. That’s how they choreograph The Hug.

    I just find it distracting and intrusive during Communion. I know the intent is good, to touch and love those who don’t feel loved and may have lived a lifetime of exclusion; but not even my Mom gets to hug me during Communion, okay? If I tried to do it to her she’d have slapped me silly.

    Of course, my adherence to the norms I grew up with is the same thing I recoil from when other people with very different norms do the “singspiration” bit. It is good that churches offer a variety of styles, and we all need to be more flexible; “to each his own” and “when in Rome…”

  3. Saw your blog…any advice for 2 partnered women (of 10 years, monogamous) with 2 kids who have attended a local Episcopal church faithfully for several months and midway through baptism preparations/classes (after months of regular attendance) got sat down for a 2-hour talk about conversion and the fact that they will not allow us, nor our children, to be baptized, now that they have come to understand the nature of our relationship (we have been open about it from the time of signing up as members) many months ago. What should we do? We were so looking forward to the baptism and to becoming part of a church. Unfortunately, this was not the church for us, much to our chagrin, dismay and utter disappointment.

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