Experience, community and evangelism

Harriet Baber makes a couple of provocative claims in a comment on yesterday’s item about why people don’t go to church. She notes:

There was a survey in the UK and it turns out that the two kinds of churches that get increasing participation were, predictably, pentecostal megachurches and, surprisingly, cathedrals. Why? Because, first, people are looking for experience: not “teaching,” or information–we’re inundated with that. We want the emotional, aesthetic, even mystical experience which pentecostal churches proved and which cathedrals provide through elaborate ceremonies and high-quality art and music. Secondly, they go to cathedrals and megachurches because they’re large and impersonal–because they can hide behind a pillar, or walk around at the back, and not have to make contact.

I read her comment just before going out for an evening in Seattle that included Eucharist at Church of The Apostles–one of the better known emergent faith communities in the Episcopal church that blend the ancient and the contemporary in the worship–followed a few hours later by compline at St. Mark’s Cathedral, a solemn service that has become a cultural happening in young Seattle.

Both churches offer a very distinctive experience. At Church of the Apostles, the vibe is contemplative, the Eucharist feels handmade, the power point that guides you through the worship is aesthetically compelling, and the indie rock style service music is distinctive and engrossing–to me anyway. It is the type of the church where people greet you at the door, ask your name and where your from–the kind of place where you can ask someone if they are the priest and find out they are the sound engineer. There’s that widespread a feeling of ownership. It is, as you might guess, a church where community matters a great deal.

St. Mark’s is also heavy on experience. Compline is beautifully sung, but that is only the beginning. At some point this service became a cultural phenomena is Seattle. Crowds of 500 or more show up at the service each week. The great majority of the are young, and many lie on the floor around the altar staring up at the ceiling. Others sit on the floor facing the back corner of the cathedral to which a vested men’s choir processes at the beginning of the service. The crowd itself, is very much part of the experience. Yet–and some people have issues with this–nothing obvious is done to shape this audience in to a community. There is no welcome, no celebrant, no coffee hour. I suspect if these elements were in place it would somehow break the spell that is cast by the particular alchemy between the choir and the crowd, but I could be wrong.

At any rate, I wondered what others thought about the importance of experience and community is drawing people to church and keeping them there.

Category : The Lead

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14 Comments
  1. Derek Olsen

    Personally, I find the experience primary and the community secondary. Don’t get me wrong–I’ve met a lot of great folks at church and have some strong personal connections with people at my parish, but the experience is the primary part for me.

  2. Bill Dilworth

    There’s a place for both, but in general I agree with Derek. At my first visit to my present parish I was very glad that the other people there were happy to give me my space. It took some weeks of experience before I was even getting ready to meet people or introduce myself. My parish is heavily experiential – great emphasis is put on the liturgy, and we’re one of the few Episcopal parishes I’ve visited in Yankeeland where congregants don’t chat amiably before the service. In general, we’re there for the liturgy.

    We’ve hired a parish development consultant, and one of his recommendations that we’ve acted on was to form a committee of “meeters and greeters,” who would make a point of welcoming each person and inviting them to the coffee hour afterwards. I recognize the logic behind the move, but am afraid that people who need more personal space will be put off.

    I recognize that some people *do* come to church specifically for community, but am leery of adopting the community-seeking model as the default. For some people, community comes about through the repetition of shared worship experience, doesn’t precede it, and can’t be rushed.

  3. Jeffrey L. Shy, M.D.

    It seems that the “reasons” for “not” going to church are about as diverse as the people who are not going or who have been unhappy at some past point in their experiences. Harriet Baber wants ceremonial, no sermon and no social contact. Several want liturgy. For others, it is the community of welcome. If there is a lesson to be “learned” here, its that there is probably no “answer” to this question in the singular, but only numerous “answers.” If nothing else, it may make planners think “outside the box” a bit. We might, for example, have a meeting on how to recognize and respect those who want to be left alone. That’s certainly not a discussion we’ve heard much in planning meetings.

    I wonder, however, if in the end, a parish needs to be “Itself” and “genuine” by its own lights? To use a tiny example, my present parish uses copious amounts of incense and sings practically everything but the sermon. Some people don’t make it to the offertory before they flee in terror. Others are hooked immediately–should every parish try to “be all things to all people,” or should we practice more “truth in advertising?”

  4. Derek Olsen

    I think Jeffrey has touched on an important point. I don’t think it’s insignificant that Bill, Jeffrey, and I are from Anglo-Catholic parishes and (certainly in my case) have made that a deliberate choice out of other options.

    I’d be interested in what some of our broad/low church comrades think.

  5. C. Wingate

    Well, my personal churchmanship of choice is nosebleed-high but I can put up with a lot (except guitars). I think, though, that I am very much with Harriet’s other comments. I am about as introverted as someone can get without actually being socially crippled by it, so that when people start talking about “community” I get the same reaction that Newton Pulsifer has in Good Omens: I deduce that it excludes me, because it expects a kind of involvement which makes me quite uncomfortable.

    I come to church for religion, which means both decent liturgy and good preaching. Therefore the clergy are what are going to make the difference for me. I don’t necessarily have to have elaborate ritual (though I like it), but when the celebrant keeps sabotaging the seriousness, I am repelled. If the preacher cannot preach, seriously, from the text, then at my age I’m going to nap through the sermon. Community is nice and what community there is must be kept away from pathology, but there are other places to get community. Communal worship is the one thing that one has to have a church congregation for, so getting good worship is to my mind the sina qua non.

  6. Adam Spencer

    I’m definitely of the experience school of thought, myself. If the people at my church are kind and interesting and if the parish is doing works of mercy in the world, all the better. Primarily though, I’m there to contemplate God through the liturgy, to pray and worship with others, to hear the Scriptures and receive the Sacrament.

  7. Melissa Holloway

    What strikes me about this question of community or experience drawing people to church, is its contrast to the dialogue about the unbaptized being offered the Eucharist. Generally, the argument is that the unbaptized are not a part of the community in at least some sense. I guess its possible the requirement could also be the draw.

    I guess can mean all the people that showed up and were welcomed at church to do stuff at a certain time, or it could mean the ones that have gotten a certain spiritual mark on them through baptism, or even though no one ever suggests it, it might ought to be the ones that have the mark as well as live out our promises(but then we would be Mennonites).

    The word morphs so much I don’t think I’m too comfortable with it.

  8. Mary Anne Chesarek

    Count me among the broad/low church folk. I am the most introverted (according to the MBTI) person our priest had ever met, yet I come to church for the experience of worshipping with my community. For me, the miracle is not what happens on the altar, but the gathering around the altar of people who differ in their political opinions, in their theology, and in their lifestyle, but who exchange the peace joyfully and stand together to receive commmunion. I also want to be able to participate in the service as much as I can. I attended a parish where the psalm was sung by the choir and the congregation was allowed to sing a refrain. Perhaps a large congregation of good singers could have made this work, but I was glad when I moved to this parish where I can again speak some of the most beautiful and heartfelt poetry in the Bible. Finally, I think coffee hour is part of the worship experience. That’s when you find out who needs a ride to church, who wants to be placed on the prayer list, who just needs a hug. The liturgy and the sermon remind us of God’s call to us. The announcements and coffee hour show us where we can start answering that call.

  9. Jonathan Galliher

    I suppose go to church at all for the experience, since I go to mass primarily to meet God, but I decide on a specific church based on my ability to feel like I’m part of the community. I can’t even imagine being happy in a situation where I was living alone with God spiritually, while I get my socializing needs met by an entirely different set of people. Granted I’m fairly high church, but I can be happy in a wide variety of liturgical and musical settings, even if the music is all provided by guitars.

  10. barbara snyder

    I would definitely attend St. Mark’s before the other.

    (I don’t see what’s wrong, BTW, with offering the 500 people who come every week a place to hang out afterwards. You could set up a room with stuff to nosh on, and videos, maybe, or books to read or things to do. Purely voluntary and free – so that people who might want more could have it. I would certainly stop by that room, myself, to see what else the place might have going….)

  11. Wow, I’ve started something: thank you!

    I’m delighted to see that Seattle Compline is still going. But amazed and distressed that church growth gurus and their disciples just aren’t paying attention. Here we see people, indeed young people, coming to church to a enjoy an aesthetic-mystical experience, without any “community–but clergy refuse to pay attention, and continue to preach that to get people in, the church has to promote “community,” “programs,” contemporary language and pop music. Hello, priests: any of you listening?

    Different people have different tastes: why is that so hard to understand? Why shouldn’t churches provide for those differences? There’s plenty of opportunity for people who want “community” to socialize at coffee hour, to join parish organizations and to make friends. Make that available to people, but don’t force “community” or personal contact on people at Sunday services. This is the way megachurches operate: Sunday services are like a pleasant time at the mall; if you want “community” it’s readily available, but optional.

    Recognize also that there are some tastes that the Episcopal Church can’t accommodate or shouldn’t try to accommodate. It certainly can’t accommodate the taste for homophobia promoted by conservative Evangelicals. But also, really, certain aesthetic/religious tastes aren’t the Episcopal Church’s thing and there’s no reason why the Episcopal Church should try to make it their thing since there are other churches that do it better. There’s no reason why everyone should be Episcopalian.

    Let many flowers bloom! Let people take church on their own terms. Give us what we want.

  12. Gerry

    I am an Episcopalian. I am low church or broad church. I don’t know. I think community is important. I have tried a lot of different churches and religions. The Episcopalians are the “most” right for my family.

    Church planners should take into account what flavor a particular church is and advertise that. They should also help people who aren’t that flavor find a church for them.

    I am an Episcopalian because a “very” high- church man invited me to coffee hour when I was seeking.

    Clergy and vestry seem to think music isn’t important. For me, it is. I do not like traditional hymns and would prefer a mix of traditional music mixed with upbeat modern music (like Matthew West). Programming is very important to me.

    I do like the structure of our service.

    I am an evangelical liberal. Hard to find a church.

    Thanks Gerry but please sign your full name when you comment. ~ed.

  13. C. Wingate

    And the other thing I would add to Harriet’s last comments is that all of these semi-hysterical efforts to win the world by changing everything presuppose that the people already in the parish are won souls and don’t have to be retained. Therefore their trust is abused by telling them that they are supposed to like whatever the latest hot idea is. The result is the loss of any base, because people who are already regular attendees and who care about what happens on Sunday get frustrated and burned out.

  14. @Wingate, absolutely! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told that even if I (and other members of the congregation) didn’t like (fill in the blank), we were just being a bunch of selfish jerks because (fill in the blank) would bring people–especially YOUNG people in. Of course it didn’t–and I could never see why even if it did work we were supposed to sacrifice our interests to the interests of these others. I am frustrated, and burnt out, and haven’t been to church on any regular basis for over 12 years now.

    I remember a sermon when I was in college–and the only student to attend the local Episcopal church. The priest told a little story about a service at which a doddering old lady going up for communion blocked the center aisle, walking very slowly, so that no one could get past. The moral: that was what church people who resisted change were doing. They were keeping from getting what they wanted and needed. She should have moved over and let the others pass. And it was now time in the church for people to move over and let the younger generation have what they wanted and needed.

    I was the only person in the church under 50. And I was bothered. Considering the alternative, I hoped to be an old lady one day and I didn’t want to be told then “Shove over, Granny, and let us pass.”

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