Mixed Messages?

The seeker after that perfect spot to experience the presence of God, the person Diana Butler Bass calls the “spiritual nomad,” often finds the church a bit disappointing. It seems that often we send mixed signals, especially mainline churches. At one moment we’re progressive and seemingly traditional if not regressive the next.

Because I write a weekly op-ed column for the local paper I’ve come to be known as the liberal pastor in town (this in spite of the fact that I hold two degrees from an eminent evangelical seminary in Southern California). I have tried to write a sophisticated and thoughtful column dealing with politically and culturally sensitive issues from a progressive faith perspective, so it’s no wonder this perception of me has developed. But, if you were a reader of the column and then visited my congregation you might be in for a surprise.

My little church is small and admittedly a bit folksy. We do have a lot of fun, but at least on the surface, we’re not all that sophisticated, especially when it comes to things like music and liturgy. Gaither is preferred to Handel and Bach, and I’m not just the preacher, I’m the guitar player (and let’s just say I’m not Jimi Hendrix or George Benson).

What we are though is a family. Now, when it comes to being church, the image of the family isn’t always a positive thing. Families can be a bit of a closed circle, as many a new bride or groom can attest. We’re folksy and a bit unsophisticated, and yet the love God is truly present in this place. This is a place of welcome – not because there is sufficient signage and such, but because when people come they’re loved. We are a place where conservative Baptists and a bisexual Episcopalian have found refuge; high school drop out and school teacher serve side by side. It’s even a place that lets the preacher observe Evolution Sunday and Pluralism Sunday – if only we sing a Gaither tune occasionally in exchange.

In an age when bigger is better, and slick is what attracts, we’re not on the cutting edge of things (though we do have power point). But if you will stay a while (and become what Diana calls a “spiritual pilgrim”), this place grows on you.

My sense is that we’re not unique. There are probably lots of little congregations which aren’t too sophisticated – even if the preacher pretends to sophistication – who are places of welcome and even refuge. They too deserve our respect. These communities of faith may not grow large, and they do send mixed messages, but if you’re willing to look you will find God present and working, and you will find that lives are being changed by the grace and love of God. So, even if first impressions aren’t the best, why not give us a second and a third and maybe a fourth chance!


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