Yesterday, I Went To Church: Duane W.H. Arnold,PhD
I’d not really planned to do it. Earlier in the week, I had been doing some research on the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA). This is a breakaway Anglican group essentially formed in protest of the liberal direction of The Episcopal Church (TEC).
While ACNA is not formally recognized by the Archbishop of Canterbury, this new breakaway movement has over 100,000 adherents and looks to a number of African Anglican bishops for oversight and a connection, albeit one step removed, with Canterbury.
In doing my research, I noticed that ACNA was involved in planting a new church in my area. In fact, they were meeting on Sunday afternoons just a couple of miles from my home. I noted the time of the service, 4:30 pm, and the address of the small public building in which they were meeting and then continued on with my research. As the weekend approached, however, I decided that I would attend their service. The theology of the group seemed to be right, they were using a version of the old prayer book – very similar to Rite 1 in the TEC’s Book of Common Prayer – and, who knows, I might find a church home where I felt comfortable with the theology and liturgy.
Sunday afternoon came around. I changed into a suit (yes, I’m still that old fashioned), got in the car and made my way to the location of the service. Well, first of all I struggled to find the building entrance, until I noticed a single, small realtor type of sign stuck in the grass at the edge of the parking lot. While the lettering was so small as to be unreadable, I did see a cross in the middle of the sign, so I assumed this was the place. When I looked around, however, there were only three other cars in the parking lot and the service was scheduled to begin in five minutes. Well, I thought, maybe there’s another parking area to the rear that I don’t know about.
I walked across the lot to the entrance of the building and went in. Standing in the foyer was a thirty-something young man wearing a tab clerical collar. His reaction on seeing me walk in was something along the lines of greeting an extra-terrestrial newly arrived from another solar system. Maybe it was my suit, maybe it was my long hair. We introduced ourselves. His first question was, “Are you an Anglican?” I said that I was, as well as being a clergyman for over thirty years. He asked, “Where have you served?” I gave him an abbreviated list and watched as his expression changed from one of anticipating a potential new member of his flock to one of concern that he was going to be observed by “someone in the game”. He directed me to the room where the service should have already begun (it was now 4:40) and I took a seat in the back row.
There were five rows of seats, lined up to imitate pews or chairs in a classroom. In the seats were eight adults (including myself) and six children. The pastor, his wife, his sister and brother-in-law and mother made up over half of the adults in the congregation. His four young children and the children of his sister – all present during most of the service – made up a good portion of the rest. That left three of us who were not members of the family to fill out the assembly.
By 4:45 the pastor announced that we would be using the long form for the Holy Eucharist and asked us to stand for the processional hymn – “Abide With Me”. Now, of course, there was no procession and, to be honest, in decades of attending church services, I had never heard of using that particular hymn – a favorite at funerals – as a processional hymn. There was no music to accompany the hymn. It was sung acapella… all four verses. I began to think, “This is going to be a long afternoon…”
I shook off the dread of a lengthy service and directed my gaze away from the door marked “Exit” to concentrate on the Prayer Book in my hands. Despite the few people, the lack of music, the lateness of the start, I could still say the prayers and, I thought, find a place of worship and consolation. So it continued through the readings, two more hymns (one wholly unfamiliar to myself and everyone else apart from the pastor and his wife) the Psalm said responsively, the Gospel and then on to the sermon. The sermon started with a special welcome to “all the visitors” (that would be me) and then continued on to the exposition of the Scripture set by the lectionary for the day.
The sermon was not written or, from what I could observe, even outlined. Instead, it was what I can only describe as a stream of consciousness which seemed more about the pastor applying his favorite themes and interests to the Gospel and readings for the day. “Choose this day who you will serve” provided a launching point for the Christian-Secular culture wars, churches that have abandoned the faith, etc. Philemon allowed for a description of the local church as a family and, with his wife almost ready to deliver their fifth child, the pastor explained how we could all join “his family”. The Gospel, telling us that we must “deny ourselves and take up our cross” became the platform for stories about the commitment of Navy Seals and their willingness to kill even a “nine year old sniper” if necessary. Bonhoeffer (his greatest hero, we learned) made it in, martyrs were extolled and then he read a three paragraph passage from a new book he had come across. All this went on for over twenty minutes.
The offering basket was passed about by the pastor’s eight year old son, the children screamed/sung the Doxology and we moved on to the celebration of the Eucharist.
Now, there was obviously no altar. There was a folding table covered with a white tablecloth and two candles (lit by the pastor with a Bic grill lighter). Inexplicably, there was a large brass Cross placed on the floor in front of the table. Once again, the longest form available for the consecration of the elements was used. Prior to the distribution, the pastor explained (for whom, I am not sure) the various ways in which one might partake of Communion – one kind, both kinds, intinction, crossed arms for a blessing, etc. Following distribution, rather than a time for prayer, a Nigerian church chorus was sung – a chorus apparently known only to the pastor and his family, followed by yet another hymn of five verses and then, at long last, came the final blessing.
I said my prayers as the children ran around the room and, as there was no coffee hour, prepared to depart. No one else greeted me. At the door, I thanked the pastor for the service. He asked nothing about why I was there. Nothing was said about hoping that I would return. No list was provided for my email address or phone number for future contact. As I tried to make some polite conversation with him, I did learn that he was bi-vocational – a software engineer during the week – and that he had been involved with trying to plant this new church for over two years. The conversation apparently at an end, I told him that I would remember him and his work in my prayers and left, walking through the empty parking lot to my car.
Now, before setting out a few observations – some with conclusions, some not – let me say that I admire the work that this pastor is attempting and I have no real doubts about his sincerity or his Christian commitment. That being said, here are some other thoughts that arose after this experience.
If, after two years, a congregation still mainly consists of a single extended family, is it perhaps time, at the very least, to change the approach? Something, obviously, is not working…
To emphasize, Sunday by Sunday, what we are “against”, rather than what we “affirm”, in my mind, is a losing game. It is a losing game for those within the church, creating a “bunker mentality” and it creates instant barriers for those outside the church that we hope to attract. While I hope that there is a different message on other Sundays, from the reaction of the congregation, I have my doubts.
If we truly wish to engage visitors… converts… new members… I think that we need to show that we are more concerned about them than we are concerned about ourselves. We might show this by a shorter service, familiar music and, especially, an opportunity for conversation with them and about them… not us.
The so-called “Moses model” of leadership is not confined to Calvary Chapel affiliates. I think it occurs when ever and/or where ever pastoral leadership is idiosyncratic, that is, emphasizing the particular interests, “hobby horses”, or concerns of the pastoral leadership over against the actual needs of the congregation at that given point in time. (For instance, I love Athanasius’ On the Incarnation, but I realize it is not exactly a “page turner” for most people in the pews.)
Finally, joining the “family” of the church is not joining the pastor’s family, however wonderful they may be. Many people are wary of relationships from past experience. For others, the word “family” has negative connotations. Still others are solitary by nature. Our outreach, in my opinion, should transcend our particular life experience to embrace “all sorts and conditions” of people.
Now, I realize that I only witnessed one Sunday service. Maybe it was a bad day, or a holiday weekend. Maybe other Sundays are different. Then again, in my experience, we often have only one chance of exposure to to a visitor. Moreover, every Sunday is important. Outside of the liturgical calendar, there is no “ordinary time” or “ordinary Sundays”, especially if we are looking to grow a church.
I am certain, that there are even yet more lessons to be learned and would invite comment.
Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD