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Experience, community and evangelism

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.


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Harriet Baber

@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.”

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.


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.

Harriet Baber

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.

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….)

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