Dear “Welcoming” Churches

Dear So Many Churches,

Every Saturday this summer, I considered going to church services the next morning. I’m a preacher lady the rest of the year, so this is my time to worship without any leadership responsibilities.

I am a Christian. That is why I want to go to church. I want to hear the Word preached. I want to be part of the body of Christ. I want to sing the songs and be in the incarnate community of disciples of Jesus Christ even if I am not geographically or technically in your local community.

I am also a Unitarian Universalist. I presume that any time, anywhere, I will be welcome to worship with the UUs. I have been a Unitarian Universalist all of my life. I know that I can experience the beloved, incarnate community among our congregations whether or not they retain any outward signs of cultural or theological Christianity. I only want to share the love of God (by whatever name  the worship leaders call it – and that name doesn’t have to be traditional). I am also ministered to by worship services that are  generically reverent, for instance, worship that focuses on the immanent divine or creative force in nature and human nature.

So I’m actually kind of easy!  The only churches I avoided visiting were ones where I knew I would be recognized as local clergy and need to be “on” for that reason. I did not have the energy for that. Sometimes I do. This summer I did not.

That said, here’s why I did not attend your church or why I would not return:

  1. Your website is completely unhelpful and confusing, eg, your main page announces worship services at 10:00 AM but your interior page about summer services says that they’re at 9:00 AM. No one is in the office when I call on Saturday, of course, and nor does your outgoing message on the voicemail clarify the issue.

And I really, really wanted to visit you. I have heard beautiful things about your congregation but you didn’t care enough about those outside your vibrant community to inform us how we could join with you. It made me very sad. You don’t have an updated Facebook page. In fact, what you have is a pinned post from February promoting your chili cook-off. All the photos are insidery images with no identifying information. There is nothing posted about current programming; ostensibly because you presume everyone should already know. They do not. There are no links to go to to find out where and when you’re doing what you’re doing.

2  You also don’t have a Twitter account. In other words, you’re directing your social media presence to people who are already integrated into the community. This is a grave and common error.

I live 45 minutes away and we are strangers, but everything on your website and social media accounts should keep me in mind.  Very few people will even make the multiple attempts I made to figure out how, when and where to find you.

3  Your services are bereft of spirituality.

UUs, this is especially for you.

I can attend  a lecture or forum at the Jewish Community Center, the Salem Athenaeum, the ACLU, the Ipswich Historical Society, and many social justice organizations with which I am connected. What I cannot get in those places is corporate prayer, theological reflection and a message grounded in the wisdom of hundreds or even thousands of years of tradition. What I can’t get there is silence held by a people who have faith that they are called to be a people of Love, shaped and oriented in this shared hour to the contours of grace, peace and justice. If you’re unwilling to provide that, I’ll look elsewhere — conversation with friends, private prayer, a walk by the ocean, journaling.  If your summer services are a series of people essentially lecturing on a topic, advertise as such.  Call them “Summer programs.” Don’t call them worship, and please don’t quibble with me about the old English root of the word in “worth-ship.” Worship has a religious connotation. If you’re avoiding religion during your summer Sundays, you’re engaging in false advertising by calling the gathering “worship services.” It makes you look confused or lacking in integrity.

3  You have an evident immature spirituality.

When I did attend your church, you did not greet me as a soul but as a customer.  You barraged me with greetings, chattered at me before, during and after the service. You asked me to join the choir but did not ask me how I am or what promptings of the soul brought me to your church that morning.

You stuck your hand in my face for a handshake, you hugged me, you touched me on the head — you treated me like public property, like a nursery school child, like a new granddaughter. It was alarming, and I felt violated or insulted more than once. Your welcome was not authentic. You did not really look me in the eye. You were performing welcome, and I knew it.

You made assumptions about me: that my husband is at home, that my children will love your Sunday school, or that I’m interested in the singles ministry. Stop pigeon-holing people or trying to match them with others in the congregation you think they’re similar to. It’s a form of objectification.

Your bragging about “how great” your church is makes me feel like we’re on a first date and you’re desperate. Quite frankly, if the church is great, I’ll find out in time. But during our first conversation I don’t need a sales pitch. I need a connection.

You said petty, catty things about your minister or other members in my hearing. I overheard one man grumble to a woman next to him, “Is the pastor absent again?” The pastor had been on vacation, he wasn’t “absent.” And the pastor, an ethusiastic young man, was indeed present that morning — having flown back to town at 3 AM.

There was a deafening chatter during the Prelude and you all got up during the Postlude and started loudly socializing with one another. This says a lot to me. A congregation that cannot allow not one second of quiet or peace to allow the spirit of worship to resonate is not a community makes a space for contemplative spirituality or contemplative individuals.

4. You don’t understand the times we are living in.

It is 2018.  Almost no one in New England is under any social pressure to affiliate with a house of worship.  Church attendance is not only not de rigeur, it is almost counter- cultural.  I love and commend all of you who have been church folk for a long time and who continue to be so. However, you have to know that new seekers (especially anyone under fifty) are probably not visiting in order to fit in with the neighbors, to network professionally, or even primarily to find a way to engage with social justice. They might be, but most likely — in fact, almost certainly, they are looking for a spiritual organization.  They want a place and a community with whom they can learn about God/God- concepts, responsibly question or jettison theological ideas they received as children or from the wider culture, and attend to their inner lives.

If they came in order to become part of the Resistance, they need more than information on how to contact legislators or attend the march or accompany immigrants to deportation hearings: they need soul strength and spiritual practices that help ground and protect them against depair. They  need the witness of the prophetic ancestors.

They want a place where they can find peace and be given tools for cultivating it within their own lives.

If they are atheists, they want to be an ethical community of encounter and practice, but still within the context of reverence and compassion.

No one is there for therapy, or to be told by an emotionally manipulative minister (however piously) what they feel about the world. They need to see religious people being religious, which is to say living with a sense of commitment to the most profound intimations of their moral sensibility. They need to see those people taking seriously the obligation to discern morality together, and to act on its promptings.

They do not need idle chatter. They need to know that the people who are gathered as a congregation are real; that they tell the truth, that they suffer, that they do not have all of the answers, but that they are faithful to the quest to discover wisdom where it may be found.

Above all, I think, they need to believe that they can grow in some good way along with this community, even if just sharing one hour of worship. If the din of the socializing, requests to fill out forms (no, thank you) and the barrage of small talk and probing questions inform the visitor immediately that the people there do not not how to engage with them as a spiritual being but only as a potential customer, they will not return.

We must learn how to greet souls, not voraciously descend on potential members.

But first, we need to make it a non-mystery to find us and know what time and exactly where we are gathering.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Straight Dope: A Blunt Guide To Best Practices For Lay Worship Leaders

All worship services happen within a larger context. How does this service fit in with the other worship services in that season or series? How will it minister to the congregation and to newcomers? What story does it want to tell and what message does it convey? What is its emotional arc, and how will you use music to achieve that? These are the essential planning questions.

Internal preparation: worship preparation begins for me when I wake up on Sunday morning. I’m thinking through the entire service (including the transitions between elements), proofreading, thinking about the message, the community, and considering any last minute edits or adjustments. I always check my e-mail and the headlines to see if there is anything that may need to be addressed in a pastoral way during the service.

Whatever your role in the service, prepare internally for it. You are the medium through which an important message will be communicated and a ministry shared. Don’t walk in cold.

Do a sound check. Know what you sound like when the mic is on, and know how to turn the mic on and off. If the mic takes a few seconds to come on, accommodate that. Stand for that three seconds in silence. NEVER blow into the mic or tap on it.

Similarly, please never, ever say, “Is this thing on?” or “Can you hear me” during the worship service unless there is a true tech breakdown. Worship is an art form and Sunday mornings are the performance of that participatory art form. It is the leaders’ responsibility not to disrupt the worshipers’ experience. Handle insecure moments silently and swiftly, and if all else fails with a microphone, project your voice and carry on.

Do not allow interruptions of worship for any reason. Gesture to the ushers or a staff member if you need assistance dealing with an interruption. Do not engage with the interrupter, as this will prolong the distraction.

Sarcasm, jokey asides and insider language are the fastest way to communicate that we don’t like newcomers (because this sort of humor and commentary presumes an intimacy that isn’t actually shared among all present) and that we don’t take worship seriously. Jokes at your own expense are also distracting. Please avoid the temptation. Worship is a formal occasion even when it is warm and friendly.

Review your content to assure that no one would ever have cause to ask, “What is she talking about?” This includes acronyms, shorthand for church or denominational programs, and references to people you presume everyone knows.

People don’t know who you are! Wear your nametag and please introduce yourself if your name is not in the order of service.

Review your sermons or homilies for negative or insulting content, particularly prejudice or sarcasm against political figures or religious groups. This is very common among Unitarian Universalists. There is a different between an honest observation or righteous anger and snotty put-downs. It’s okay to be critical, but do it thoughtfully and within the context of our theological tradition. Every week, dozens of people walk out of our congregations and vow never to return due to our hypocrisy. We have to get better at this (Again, see note about sarcasm).

Representation matters: review your content for diversity of voices in readings, stories, quotes and songs. Review readings for gender-inclusive language.

Storytellers:  please see me or Julian about guidelines for Time For All Ages. They are, in brief: 1. Respect the children and never laugh at them or join in congregational laughter at any of them. 2. Choose age-appropriate material. 3. Try to be thematically connected to the rest of the service. 4. Do not give the children the mic but repeat their comments after them so the congregation can hear. 5. Tell stories by heart or use notes; do not read books. 6. Have a strong beginning and ending and make a smooth transition to the Recessional hymn.

All worship leaders and participants should be aware of issues of cultural appropriation. When in doubt, bring in another opinion. We’ll research, discuss and make decisions together.

PRACTICE. Whatever your part in the service, practice it. Think about what has gone before you in the service and what will come next, and how you fit in the flow of things. Be aware of transitions: is there a hymn after your part in the service? Who will introduce it? It might be you. Worship services have an emotional arc that is broken by awkward, insecure transitions between liturgical elements. Start strong, end strong. Know why you’re up there.

Volume and diction: Please project!!!! Do not rely on the microphone!!! This is imperative and is the single most avoidable problem in worship services. Being heard and understood is an accessibility issue. If you are someone who is afraid of having a big voice and tend to swallow your volume, try singing your part at home and learn how to take deep, full breaths to support your sound. So many wonderful sermons and readings have been inaudible due to insufficient breath support, dropped volume at the ends of phrases, and rushing.

Let’s say it again for the cheap seats: DO NOT RUSH. You don’t want to speak at a ridiculously slow pace but most speakers need to slow down and allow time for ideas to sink in with the congregation. Slowing down also allows more opportunity to connect with eye contact. I still have to remind myself to slow down while preaching.

If you’re preaching, see my hand-out “How To Preach a Sermon.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Missing Ears

I wrote this for the Wednesday Word, a weekly column sent to members and friends of the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship. You can learn more about us here.

 

I noticed a christological debate being waged on my Twitter feed recently; in-fighting among liberal and conservative evangelicals. It was the same arguments that Christians have been having for hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years (you’d think by now we would have found something more important to talk about):  Jesus is a godly man! No, Jesus is the Son of God Himself! Jesus is a social justice prophet! No, Jesus is the agent of your salvation! Jesus is this-or-that and if you say he was not, you are not a real Christian.

Since it was not my fight this time, I could just observe the way that the Body of Christ manages to fight like weasels in a gunnesack for supremacy and righteousness in almost exactly the same way as did the original disciples. You would think Jesus, and then Paul, had not left us specific instructions about how stupid and wasteful is that exercise, but we are a persistently ridiculous community. Just for fun I checked to see what Jesus himself had to say on Twitter – there is a very funny account by someone with a talent for interpreting the gospel in contemporary terms tweeting as “@JesusofNaz316” – but the account didn’t wade into this fray. The latest tweet from Jesus of Naz says, “The greatest among you must be your barista.” Whoever you are, JesusofNaz216, thank you for your ministry.

Jesus was not a fighter, as we know. He was a healer, and it is his ministry of healing miracles that I seldom hear about lately as Christians bash each other around arguing whether to worship and follow Jesus Christ the social justice warrior or Jesus Christ the agent of personal salvation in this agonized moment in America.

Jesus was a healer. Jesus spit in his hands and laid them on a blind man’s eyes and the man could henceforth see. Jesus passed by ten lepers on the road and they were cured. A woman plagued by a chronic menstrual flow reached for Jesus and the mere touch of his garment healed her. What all of these people had in common was that they wanted to be healed and they had enough humility, desperation and faith to receive healing. Christians who think that it’s someone else who needs to be fixed and healed scare me. They’re standing in the wrong line and walking the wrong road where Jesus is not passing by.

What is for me Jesus’ most startling healing happens at his moment of crisis and the fulfillment of Judas’ betrayal. The New International Version reports this moment in Luke 22:

While he was still speaking a crowd came up, and the man who was called Judas, one of the Twelve, was leading them. He approached Jesus to kiss him,48 but Jesus asked him, “Judas, are you betraying the Son of Man with a kiss?”

49 When Jesus’ followers saw what was going to happen, they said, “Lord, should we strike with our swords?” 50 And one of them struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his right ear.

51 But Jesus answered, “No more of this!” And he touched the man’s ear and healed him.

Jesus is a healer. Even in the midst of a chaotic fracas that threatens his safety and during which he may have had an opportunity to take up arms in his own defense or flee, Jesus notices that violence has caused a wound to someone in his proximity and he stops what he is doing to heal it. Perhaps he pulls himself away from guards who are trying to detain him. Perhaps he has been knocked down and has to pull himself to his feet to get to the bleeding slave. Perhaps he has to wrest himself from the protective embrace of his disciples who are trying to spirit him away to safety. That detail is lost to us, but the healing is not, nor is the symbolic message contained in the fact that it is an ear – the incarnate symbol of listening – that Jesus makes whole in this moment of danger.  If anyone has ears to hear, let them hear.

The christological bickerings that besets the Church universal are mostly egotistical indulgences that have very little to do with discipleship even as they mimic the dumb questions and propositions argued the original twelve, and which Jesus roundly mocked and chastised. As we walk the path of Lent to the Cross, let us listen to Jesus together, listen for his word, and humbly implore him to reattach our own ears and the ears of our opponents where they have been amputated by violent and rancorous debate.

The peace of Christ be with you.