Tuesday, April 29, 2008
A Tale of Two Churches
This weekend was a study in contrasts for me when it came to church experiences. We had canceled our usual Sunday morning gathering for Via Christus because the majority of our church wanted to take a field trip down to visit Wicker Park Grace, an emerging church in the city led by my friend Nanette Sawyer. We attended their evening Jazz Vespers service, and it was quite the experience. However, before I did that I also attended a new local church plant called Jacob's Well. (I also know their pastor, Rob Hager, and he's a really good guy.)

The difference between these two churches was striking. While both pastors have expressed a desire for their churches to be both missionally focused and contextually relevant to their communities, it's amazing how differently these values can be expressed. Granted, this is probably largely due to the rather large differences between the respective communities that they are in. While Jacob's Well is in Plano, birthplace of the harvester (as in mechanical corn harvesters) and hometown of former Republican Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert - a blue collar, rural-turning-suburban town through and through, Wicker Park is very much a young, trendy, artistic, politically progressive neighborhood in urban Chicago.

Walking into Jacob's Well in the morning I was immediately greeted by four different people. They were all very friendly, though this can be a bit intimidating for an introvert like me who prefers to get the lay of the land first when I'm somewhere new. I was also struck by how completely identical their MO was to our parent church, LifeSpring, over in Plainfield. They had the greeters, the snack info tables, and the kids area sign-in with the high-energy children's ministry going on in the cafeteria (like LifeSpring, they meet in a rented Middle School). In the gym where their worship service took place they had the seven-piece contemporary praise band attempting to do David Crowder songs (which I never recommend - they're hard enough to sing along to even when Crowder himself is leading them), as well as a mix of others of the latest contemporary worship music. Most were upbeat and high energy and they interspersed the set with various heartfelt prayers and familiar evangelical exhortations to give the glory to God in all things and not to rely on one's own strength.

I apparently chose an interesting week to come, since the topic (as part of a series on ways in which we are "screwed up") was homosexuality. You can guess from the series theme what their default opinion was on the topic. However, I was very glad when Rob started off his talk by acknowledging that this was a difficult issue, that the few biblical passages on it are often misapplied and used in hurtful ways, and that his goal was to share his own imperfect observations on the topic and to start a "dialogue" rather than give the "official word" on the subject. (Unfortunately however, the dialogue was supposed to happen not then and there during the service but later, at their "LifeGroups" throughout the week, which I am unable to attend.) Rob's main point throughout the sermon was that we need to show greater compassion to homosexuals and make their church a safe place for people to talk about these struggles, and while I disagreed a few of his apparently misinformed assumptions (especially the repeated assertion that being gay is a choice), overall I appreciated the effort he took to address a very difficult topic with compassion, and to acknowledge that his was not the final word.

After the service was over most people filed out pretty quickly. I didn't notice too many people hanging around to talk, and the narrow hallways of the school wasn't really very conducive to this anyway unfortunately. At any rate, on the whole their model was very stereotypical of the standard contemporary suburban evangelical church these days. Nothing wrong with that of course. In many ways it is exactly what people out in our neck of the woods are looking for in a church and they have done a much better job than our church ever did of attracting people to their service. And they are also a very missional church, in that they have tried from the very beginning to get their people involved in serving the community (especially through the local resale shop and the food pantry) even before they were meeting regularly for worship. However, just speaking personally, I was reminded that after being immersed in a highly participatory house church community for so long, it would be really hard (if not impossible) for me to go back and be content in that non-interactive "sermon and a sing-along" format anymore, not even if I was the one up front getting to do the sermon.

Contrast this with the service I attended five hours later down in the city. I showed up to the art gallery where Wicker Park Grace meets about half an hour early with two other guys from Via Christus, and we were immediately put to work helping with the set-up. As people started showing up it was startling how overwhelmingly young and "interesting" they all looked (I could use words like "hip" or "artistic" or "earthy" but that would be overgeneralizing. Everyone was unique and didn't fit easily into any single stereotype.) We sat in a semi-circle on an odd collection of folding chairs, benches, hard-backed dining room chairs, and cushioned arm-chairs. The liturgy began with several minutes of an improvised jazz prelude done by two guys with a keyboard and electric guitar. The theme of the evening was "Sustainability" (also part of a series) and the readings began with a reading of Isaiah 24:4-5, a poem by Barbara Pescan, and another reading from Isaiah 55. This was followed by more musical improv, a poem by Wendell Berry, a reading from Jeremiah 29, and a sung refrain from Psalm 19. Then there was a short reflection on sustainability of body, mind and spirit by Shawna Bowman, their seminary intern, followed a musical reading of prayer requests written in a book by members of the community. The service ended with two more poems (by Yehuda Amichai & Mary Oliver) and finally with more musical improv.

However, as soon as the music ended everyone was invited to stay for a potluck dinner, and almost everyone did. For over an hour we were able to stay and talk and get to know one another. There was a real sense of community, of family. In fact, I got to talking with one regular attender who also happens to be an atheist, and he remarked that he doesn't really think of WPG as "going to church". It was more like just hanging out with friends.

What I was struck by at Wicker Park Grace's service, in contrast to both Jacob's Well and to our usual Via Christus gatherings, was that is was more of a contemplative, reflective experience and less an analytical encounter with the Bible. It was more about "soaking in" than about "picking apart". And while I confess I do enjoy the latter, it was refreshing to simply let my emotions be spoken to through art and music and poetry for at least one evening.

Depending on your definition, each of these churches, and Via Christus as well, might be described as an "emerging church". Instead of saying that any of them is the "truly" emerging church, I'd rather just point to and celebrate the diversity of expressions that are included in this movement. From more welcoming and less dogmatic suburban/rural evangelical churches, to participatory house churches that major on in-depth discussion of scripture, to contemplative and artistic urban mainline communities, exciting new things are being birthed by the Holy Spirit in this emerging, postmodern world of ours. It's exciting to be a part of it all.


posted by Mike Clawson at 5:40 PM | Permalink |


At 4/29/2008 08:44:00 PM, Blogger gerbmom

I was reminded that after being immersed in a highly participatory house church community for so long, it would be really hard (if not impossible) for me to go back and be content in that non-interactive "sermon and a sing-along" format anymore, not even if I was the one up front getting to do the sermon.

um, yeah.....


At 4/29/2008 09:56:00 PM, Blogger PrincessMax

I was so glad you all could come out. I know you and I didn't hang out much but it was nice to envelop your group into our experience.

OK. Midterm tomorrow. To bed.


At 4/30/2008 07:34:00 AM, Blogger Linda

Thanks for sharing this Mike. It is always great to hear about how other communities are attempting to walk out the values and ideals of emerging/missional church.


At 4/30/2008 09:17:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous

I think this is a good example of the fact that there is no such thing as the emerging church. It's a very amorphous thing and our language can only be so helpful, and at times is quite unhelpful.


At 4/30/2008 11:07:00 AM, Blogger ba

You can never go back to the way it was!

Mwah ha ha ha!