Sunday, June 29, 2008

Attention Portland-area Episcopal churches

After several months of making excuses (it's too hard to do while coaching debate, we're still moving in, we're kind of tired), my wife and I have begun shopping around for a faith community around here. We've looked at four different churches, including two over the last two Sundays.

I've learned that we really, really had it good at St. Mark's. Loved it there. Miss it deeply.

In the process of looking for a new church, I've learned that there is a bit of a problem putting butts into pews. There have been quite a few empty spaces at services. So it doesn't surprise me much that there is a definite campaign to recruit new members! So, as a free agent looking for a new Episcopal team, let me tell you some things I've noticed that are red flags which would prevent (and are preventing) me from returning to a congregation.

1. Please, please keep your hands off of my wife and off of me. On a trip through the Bible belt two years back, Swankette and I overheard a woman describing her church as "The Huggin' Church." It creeped us out.

So if we're the new people in your smallish church, and you recognize us as new, do NOT...take your hands and stroke us up and down our backs. Do not put your arm around us. I don't know you. I don't touch strangers without getting permission. Yes, we share a faith, but that does not mean that all conventions of social vs. intimate distance break down. Even in God's house, these apply. Stop touching us. Seriously. We mean it. In fact, we've nicknamed your church "The Strokin' Church." We'd rather become members of the aforementioned Huggin' Church than have to go through those sustained hands-wandering-down-our-backs moments every Sunday.

2. Don't call us out by name in front of the entire congregation. Our modus operandi when we're trying out a new place is to take in the full service, then decide whether or not to fill out the visitors' card based on whether we're interested. But nobody likes everybody in a place to turn around and look at them. I don't think we're alone when we say it doesn't make us feel welcome, unless by "welcome" you mean "horribly uncomfortable from being put on display." Handshakes? Smiles? Absolutely. But if we tell us your names, don't then say in front of the whole congregation: "Be sure to welcome Bob and Jane, who are sitting back there in the back row!" That smile we gave was a smile of great discomfort.

It's like dating. You come on too strong, we run away. If we like you, we'll let you know.

3. We'll come to the post-service potluck if we want to. Don't pressure us. Don't say "It's okay you didn't bring anything!" to pump up what a giving person you are. We heard the minister invite everybody. We know it applies to us. You don't have to add to it--the fact is, by the end of the service, if we've already decided yours isn't the church for us, we don't want to drag it out any further. Don't make us tell a lie--lying in a church!--to get away.

4. If we fill out a card, please don't stalk us. We are very thankful we did not fill out a newcomers' card for one church we visited. According to its website, if we had, this would have happened to us:

Following the services each Sunday, our newcomer visitors take welcome gifts to the homes of those who have filled out a visitor card. The visitor comes by to say thank you for attending Good Shepherd, but will typically not come inside or linger to get acquainted on this occasion.

Newcomer callers keep in touch by telephone for several months. Their job is to be “mentors,” to check in with our newcomers to answer questions and make sure that they are receiving all the help they need to become fully integrated into the church community

That's right...after having a parishioner follow us home uninvited, we'd have had our own personal telemarketer for "several months" thereafter.

Is there anyone in the world for whom would this be a positive selling point? If there is, I don't know that person.

4. There is no need to put one's hands up when singing. When you look at charismatic churches, you'll see that the parishioners, when they sing (or during a particularly important prayer, or a less-important one for that matter), often have one hand up, palm out. This weirds me out, and the more hands there are extended to the sky, the less at home I feel. I think it's because I view church as a very personal experience...I'm connecting to God in a way that only I can know, and I don't want people looking at me while I do it. Those with their hands up; well, I feel like they're calling attention to themselves, saying "Look how into God I am!" Swankette suggested today that it looks like they're eager for the teacher to call on them.

Today was a first, though...I saw someone singing while extending both hands skyward. This led me to wonder if someone had kicked a field goal nearby.

Seriously...if there are multiple hands up, there's little chance I'll be back.

5. I'm not a fan of the praise band. Today's service featured one that was actually pretty talented. But something about the predominance of the keyboards reminds me of Marty and Bobbi Culp. I can't help it. I don't feel that way about a guitarist, or a pianist, or an organist. But try to put together something resembling a band, well, that waawaawaa of the faux-piano takes over. I just can't focus on God.

6. And if you must have a praise band...Do NOT clap on one and three. At one of the churches we tried, everybody did. The band, the minister, the congregation...everyone. They all started at the same time, which led me to believe that they did this every single week. They do the white-guy clap every single week.

I've seen this before among older parishioners. I'll never forget going to a gospel choir night in Louisiana, with African-American choirs from around the state performing. When the woman in front of me clapped on one and three, well, I figured she'd matured pre-Elvis and never got into rock. But that was nearly two decades ago. Now, anyone 70 and younger matured post-Elvis, and therefore should have no trouble understanding the idea of clapping on the backbeat.

To put it another way, if I'm the funkiest dude in the pews, that's a deal-breaker. (And if you know me, and how comically Caucasian I am, this statement takes on all the more power.)

7. Presentation really matters in a sermon. I know ministers have been taught to lead with a joke or two...but too many are trying too hard to be hip.

When I was in high school, I twice accepted more-religious friends' offers to attend some big weekend-night shindig at their churches. I particularly remember the one where we sang "Pharaoh, Pharaoh" to the tune of "Louie, Louie." ("A-Pharaoh, Pharaoh/Whooooa!/Let my people go./Yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah/Pharaoh, Pharaoh...") I was a somewhat-casually-religious teen, I felt like the uber-religious were actually demeaning religion. (This teenage realization has, of course, grown into a passionate rebuke of the James Dobson crowd.)

While we haven't been asked to sing "Pharaoh, Pharaoh," I do feel like some of the ministers at the churches we've visited lately are the same guys who were leading the songs at those high school events. It's all in the presentation. Rather than talking to me, they're putting on a show. I don't want a show. I want a smart person who will help me get deeper into Scripture and challenge me to be live better than I am.

To put it another way, I do not go to church for entertainment. If that were my goal, I'd stay home with the TiVo. Instead I want a time and place to think about God and re-center myself.

I don't even go to church to make friends. That's a secondary concern. I do hope to make friends at church, but that's a byproduct of meeting people with similar values. When I'm at a service, it's not to be friendly. It's to connect with God.

When any of the seven rules above are broken, I can't re-center. I can't connect.

So we'll keep shopping around. If you're a member of an Episcopalian church in either Vancouver or North Portland, we might be visiting you next! You might want to abide by these rules. If you do, you might have yourself new parishioners who will likely be around for about a quarter-century.


Jim Trimble+ said...

Spot on! Happened to come upon your blog after services today. I'm an Episcopal priest in Kentucky and I couldn't agree more with your observations. In fact, I might print this and give it to my staff this week. I hope you guys find a good church. The new bishop in Olympia's a friend from Austin when I was there in seminary...good guy. Peace,
Jim Trimble

Anonymous said...

Hey there -- nice post, and I had to smile since I've thought these things too.

I'm wondering if you've tried St. Matthews in Portland.

I haven't worshiped there but have heard good things . . .

Good luck with your search,


TeacherRefPoet said...

Rev. Trimble--

You totally made my day. Thanks for understanding...I'm thrilled that someone out there commiserates with my pet peeves. I bet your congregatio is a great place to be. Any chance of you doing some preaching closer to my place?


St. Matthew's looks like it's a bit of a haul, but we'll put it on the list for later. Thanks for the tip.

Anonymous said...

Good luck in your search for a perfect church full of people just like you. I just hope that when you find it, you aren't the only one there...

TeacherRefPoet said...

Anonymous: You're 0-for-2. I do not want a perfect church, and I don't want it to be filled with people just like me.

When people's actions distract me from God, however, as these 7 actions do, I need to move on. What's wrong with that?

Anonymous said... is pretty progressive--may be of interest. I know them from their community involvement, not worship services though.

Good luck!

Kate said...

TRP - so glad you wrote this. Absolutely brilliant. I hope you will find what you are looking for soon - it's gotta be there somewhere.

tommyspoon said...

I tried to leave this alone, but this passage really offended me:

Today was a first, though...I saw someone singing while extending both hands skyward. This led me to wonder if someone had kicked a field goal nearby.

A number of my extended family members pray in just this way, and I guarantee you they are not signaling a field goal or trying to get your attention.

Please read this, and then try to refrain from insulting spiritual behavior that is different from yours.