The people are welcoming and warm, but thankfully, they won't chase you to your car to recruit you or breathlessly ask if you've yet accepted Jesus.
It's a down-to-earth,comfortable bunch. On Sundays at the second service, the church is filled with people dressed in "business casual" as well as t-shirts and shorts. (It's rare at most churches these days to see men in suits and women dressed to the "nines," as was the case in my youth.)
The pews are filled with young and old, middle aged and middle schoolers. There are twentysomething couples with hair I personally don't understand, and a subtle tattoo or two I don't want to understand. There are thirtysomethings in trendy attire, freshly brewed Starbucks in hand. There are families with squirmy young children, and empty-nesters beaming in their childlessness. The pews are filled with the pretty and not-so-pretty.....attractiveness and style of dress are not a prerequisite for belonging. There's one rumpled, elderly man with a frizzy crown of white-gray hair who serves as usher. It gives him purpose, and everyone knows him.
The two middle-aged pastors are likewise warm and friendly, and seem to recognize all faces and names. They preach of service and helping others, of health and moderation in all things, of building a medical clinic in Africa and of a summer mission trip to Brazil, of faithfulness in worship and Bible study. They preach of peacemaking and social justice, and at all times, express their personal imperfections and frailties.
There is no bureaucratic kingdom teeming with assistants and associates, fancy program designers and singles/recreation/recovery/divorce/young married/seniors/small group ministry specialists. Just two experienced, hands-on pastors, a couple administrative employees and an empty high school pastor slot being filled by two local seminary students. And hundreds of "partners in ministry" (not the archaic "members") teaching Sunday School, leading Bible study, serving coffee and donuts, greeting at the Welcome Center and much more.
It's actually not a small church. Sunday attendance at the three services may reach 800 or more, and the membership roster lists 1,500 to 2,000 names.
Akin to dating, we're taking our time to get to know the church. Truthfully, we're pondering joining this congregation as a "partner in ministry," but we're not so sure about joining a big denomination again, and don't know much about committing to be a Lutheran.
You see, until four and a half years ago, I had been a Presbyterian for all my almost-50 years. In the past 15 years, I became an ordained elder and ordained deacon in the Presbyterian Church (PCUSA). What I learned about denominational politics wasn't pretty. In fact at times and over many subjects, it was ugly, mean-spirited and cruel. Anything but loving and kind. ( Love is patient and kind....") Rolls for this 110-year-old church rapidly dwindled, and the music and style of worship were straight out of the 1950s. (All of the music.)
So the Holy Spirit led us to seek a new church in which to joyfully worship in the 21st century. Our then-elementary age daughter enjoyed a local evangelical semi-mega church, so we jumped in and joined.
But times have changed over the past four-plus years. As that semi-mega church became more politically active in quite conservative realms, it also also morphed in other ways.....it became uninvolved in and detached from local community affairs, and actually serves no local health or welfare (hunger, homeless, etc.) organizations in any meaningful, substantial or helpful way.
The millions in annual tithes go to three main areas: building maintenance, salaries for a growing multiplicity of staff, and overseas missions to evangelize, but not to provide assistance.
The church atmosphere is decidedly emotional, and church lay leaders emote during praise songs, and shout amen after salient sermon points. And to be deeply respected, you need to know the Bible very, very well. And vote Republican.
Here's the rub....campus facilities are lovely, the people are nice, and the music is divinely touching. And we have friends there. It's a community unto itself, and it takes care of its own. It's a very comfortable place...if you pass judgment.
But....it feels like delicious candy-coating around a center of air. There's no spiritual growth. There's no loving every neighbor as we love ourselves; it's about loving only neighbors who might become church members. There's little serving others outside the church "family." Pastors and church leaders will even state that their first goal is to build community within the church.
Our daughter is now a high school freshman, and in need of a creative, challenging church group. But the semi-mega church's high school group emphasizes parties, coolness, emotional logic, sports, fluff and lots of emotion. In the spirit of attracting numbers and "accepting" everyone, young women attendees dress and flirt provocatively, and young men attendees seem perpetually obsessed with horseplay and sports. Intellectual scholarship is shunned, and almost all attend local Christian colleges or junior college. High school leadership is generally limited to the children of staff.
So we made the difficult decision to look around elsewhere. Difficult to leave because we love some people there.....but difficult to stay because the spiritual meal is unsatisfying; difficult to stay because we often have to hide our views and perspectives, which don't always toe the church "family" line of acceptability.
We've remained active in a weekly small group, though, to keep in frequent touch with a handful of semi-mega churchers.
Last night, the small group met at our home. In preparation, we took days to clean and spruce up the house. (I confess...it was holiday cleaning, too.) I carefully prepared a lesson, and even distributed helpful read-aheads the week before. I made a yummy lemon dessert, and set a pretty table to serve all.
One family lost the read-aheads and never told us, and another hurriedly skimmed it in the car to our home. I discovered later that considerable tension exists between two couples, a state made palpably clear during the lesson. In consideration for all viewpoints, I attempted to serve as facilitator for discussion, but they just wanted to sit and be taught. Some members of the feuding families rushed out to their cars after the lesson, and never said thank you or good-bye. The evening was not a success, all things considered.
People behaving melodramatically, based on their feelings...it's a pattern at this semi-mega church. Frankly, it's tiresome and self-absorbed, and it gets in the way of spirituality and worship.
So I feel sad today, and at a loss. Inevitably, I guess we will lose touch with most of our semi-mega church friends. Yes, the semi-mega church environment is myopic and emotionally dysfunctional. And no, we don't fit in with the preferred model of a member.
Our daughter, a bright girl who can go to college wherever she chooses, needs and wants to be in an intellectually supportive and emotionally stable church group environment.
We desire to be in a church where the theology reflects the loving, serving Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace. And deep down, we know that God's plan is not about us being comfortable, hearing delightful music, and hanging with our friends.....God also planted in us a hunger to study, grow and serve.
But we're afraid to jump in again and "join" another church. How do we know that all is as it seems? I think we'll keep dating for a while, but perhaps take a more serious look at our date, with an eye to possible commitment. We're just not yet ready for marriage....