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.