Sunday, October 14, 2007

What Church Looks Like to the Unchurched

This is one of the most powerful articles I have ever read.

An independent newspaper in Seattle (one of the most unchurched cities in America), The Stranger, sent thirty-one writers to thirty-one different churches one week to record their experiences.

These are their thoughts:

A few excerpts (I've changed color when the author/church changes):

If you're thinking of attending a church, I beg you not to attend the CFC—find one that understands humility and grace and charity. I'm an atheist, but the CFC brings Bible imagery to my mind. Standing in all the gaudy sound and tacky fury, all I can think of is the perverted temple that Jesus Christ ripped to pieces with his bare fucking hands.

At that point, Pastor Tim's worship band got back onstage and they started the whole booze and crackers thing—but I bolted. I could see all the single guys scanning the room for single ladies—and the last thing I need is some sissy Christian boy trying to knock me up.

On the front wall, where one expects Jesus to dangle, there's a large photograph of a mountain lake at sunset. "Lake Wenatchee," it reads, "January, 1986." Just to the right is a tiny door with no doorknob, which could only lead from the adjacent chaplaincy. The door has a peephole in it. Is the chaplain in there behind the peephole? Is he peepin'? Can he peep all the atheism that fills my cold, doomed heart?

I lower my head and pray to Lake Wenatchee. I get the overwhelming feeling that Lake Wenatchee doesn't give a shit. And even if it did, what could it possibly do for me? Or my family, or the hobo taking a nap, or all those people terrified to get on all those planes? How awful, to blame your misfortunes on a personal failure to pray persuasively enough. Anyway, at least Lake Wenatchee exists.

I slept badly the night before church: I was scared because I had never been before, and everything I know about Sunday services comes from David Lodge novels and Garth Ennis's Preacher series. "Are they gonna make me confess my sins?" I asked my boyfriend. He promised me they would not. "Can I eat beforehand? Can I get up to pee?" I was sure I would stick out.

There was only one point when I felt totally out of place: Toward the beginning, the pastor asked those of us who were guests to introduce ourselves. You're not likely to find someone more reluctant to speak up than a bashful Jew at Sunday morning church services. So I didn't, but the church is small enough that everyone knew I was a stranger, and that made my heart pound.

Two things worried me: how to dress, and the dread of singing. Dress is not normally a dilemma. Nor is singing. But in this instance both were concerns. I craved anonymity.

I stood out like a sore heathen thumb. To complete my sense of alienation, the sermon began with a pop quiz.

"What was Nebuchadnezzar's Folly?" Pastor Sam asked.

I stared at my neighbor's hands to avoid eye contact.

A toothy beard in back spoke up: "He didn't take the tree stump seriously." Pastor Sam nodded and expounded on the disrespected tree stump. I put on my thoughtful face.

After the show I chat with the main pastor, Ken Hutcherson. I confess to him that it’s practically my first time in a church. He announces it loudly and excitedly to the people around us. Then he puts a firm grip on my shoulder and steers me to a table where some women take my information so they can follow up with me later. Luckily I have Christopher Frizzelle’s e-mail address memorized.

Finally, a couple of positive ones:

This place is fucking gorgeous: 50-foot ceiling; stone-slab floors; white concrete pillars bookend the altar; light-pink, yellow, and off-white stained glass filter the morning light; and the piano-and-flute-heavy ensemble croon away.

In an era when Christianity is marketed as a sort of rock concert meets Gatorade commercial—with TV-screen preachers beamed into makeshift houses of worship in high-school gyms—St. Mark's splendor is awesome. I understand the populist impulse of the evangelicals, but God deserves some gentle beauty.

The words from prayers I thought I'd long forgotten rose to my lips unconsciously and there was something soothing in of it all. I'd expected to feel a lot in my return to church—hypocrisy, boredom, and unease at least. What I hadn't expected was the sense of calm and goodwill that enveloped me the rest of the afternoon. Nostalgia? Father-son bonding? That delicious BLT I had at our postCommunion lunch? I don't really know, and I don't think I'll go next Sunday, but now I'm wondering if church might be something more than church after all.

What impression does your church give to its visitors?

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