Friday, February 20, 2015

The Big Tent Church

            A few Sundays ago, I was asked by the Youth Group of the church I serve, Lawrence Park Community Church (LPCC), to preach about prayer.

            Hmm. This is going to be interesting, I thought.

            Not interesting because I don’t have something to say about prayer. I do. But preaching about prayer will be hard because my congregation is a big tent congregation. People are all over the map on prayer and whether there is a God who listens.

  • Some members at LPCC are post-theist. Post-theists believe sacredness is the quality that makes us fully human, the energy driving us to the fullness of life. They think sacredness is not up there, but in here and among us. For these church members prayer is sharing hopes and concerns and dreams with other church members.
  • Some members at LPCC are traditional in their beliefs. They believe in God the Father (and Mother) and pray the Lord’s prayer expecting a divine audience.
  • Some members at LPCC don’t have strong opinions about what they believe. But they are curious about faith, love worship and value trying to live like Jesus.
            We’re a big tent church, a place where people care deeply about spirituality, morality, and church community. Many members are also knowledgeable about these things. But few members are concerned when others don’t agree with them.

A worship dialog about Art and Spirituality
with Alice VanderVennen

            So, what do I make of this sort of church? After nearly three years I’m still figuring it out. But here are a few thoughts.

            For the first time in my career as a pastor, writer, editor and educator, I’m not looking over my shoulder, worried that someone is gunning for me because I have some moral, social, or theological formulation wrong—from their hallowed perspective, at least. Over time, I’ve learned that the pressure to conform to a small community’s doctrinal standards, to that community’s squeakiest wheels, can be very painful, intellectually and spiritually. The freedom to change my mind now comes as a great relief, even as I still treasure all I learned in my first community.

            I think that this sense of safety extends to my congregation as a whole. Many of these people have strong convictions. Many are well educated—including a few who are at ease in the worlds of theology and philosophy. I can learn a lot from many of them. Few, if any, however, insist that their way of seeing things is the only way. They know how to muse, how to throw out an idea for discussion, or how to get their oar in a conversation, all without clobbering others. This attitude is deeply writ in this congregation’s culture. I love it.

            Am I sugar coating a situation because I’m still enjoying the honeymoon, or because I’m in full marketing mode? Perhaps. On the other hand, it isn’t all smooth sailing. Not everyone is always pleased with everything that goes on at LPCC. Some gripe about the lack of contemporary music. Some think we’re missing the boat with respect to youth programming or adult education. Some people think I’m too focussed on stewardship issues. Like every church, we have our fair share of difficult personalities and recurrent building problems.

            Another difficulty is that where so many perspectives are present, preaching is challenging in a way it never was. I used to see my audience as a pitcher to be filled. Even when I tried to be imaginative about it, I didn’t leave much to the imagination.

            It’s different now. I’m trying to inspire people to do the right thing rather than think like me. Sure—that suggests I know what the right thing is, and they need to be told. It is more complex than that, though. The right thing is has more to do with a few general commands we do agree on—love your neighbour (for example)—than it does on specific demands—don’t get divorced. I try to encourage people to explore what to do, exactly, on their own. Jeremiads are not recommended.

            Another strategy I’m trying out is “sampling” spiritual treasures from different traditions, not to critique them so much as to ask what makes these treasures valuable to those who have them. And what might we learn from them? Understanding is more important to me than defining “us versus them.” My prayer sermon, for example, lays out how people with very different ideas about God can still do the discipline of prayer together.

            Still, I’m opinionated. Sometimes I rant about what I believe are badly mistaken ideas. I know that seems inconsistent with what I’ve said up to now. I’m working on that.

            Does anything go? I don’t know, yet. Certainly, by embracing and learning from people with post-theistic inclinations we certainly go a long way compared to most churches. But we do have standards. I think these are the implicit rules that govern where we are: love for each other is more important than being right; theological curiosity does not kill the cat; community is more important than getting your own way. Do unto others and all that.

            I’ve been trying to think of an analogy for the big tent church. Pizza? Every topping has its own flavour, but the whole would be less if the pizza was limited to one topping. Maybe a Biblical metaphor, like the body, works. A variety of limbs and organs are required to make the whole work. In the end, I think the best analogy is the Apostles’ Creed’s “one Holy Catholic (universal) Church,” shrunk to congregational size. The worldwide church today has Pentecostals and Liberals, Liturgical innovators and those who recite medieval chants, Unitarians, Arminians, five point Calvinists, and maybe even Mormons. At LPCC we’re like one Holy Catholic Church. All of us, regardless of our doctrinal distinctives, sit together in one congregation. Sometimes it is a circus, but always a big tent.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the reflections. I'm fascinated by our broader norms impact the formation of communities and their practices. That's part of what makes your story fascinating to me. The CRC obviously had rather thick, sometimes rigidly enforced norms and expectations. I would expect that this new community likewise has norms but they might more more implicit and subtle.

    Most of the churches in my geographical proximity of my ministry context are African American, Hispanic or Slavic. I'm often quite interested in why many church shoppers pass on what we have to offer and why others stick. I often find the sticky stuff is subtle, having a lot to do with education and culture. While my congregation is significantly African American most have decided NOT to be in a more traditional black church. There are ways we/I do things that other churches don't. These are implicit norms and cultural cues that you won't find in a church order or a book of doctrine. Thanks for your reflections.


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