Saturday, September 3, 2016

City of Light

Last weekend, I drove to Atlanta to visit some good friends. We had a great time, as we usually do when we get together. Atlanta is a fun place to shop and dine and catch up with friends, but that is not the point of this story.

Sunday morning, I visited my friends' church home, City of Light. I may be hopelessly nerdy, but I always enjoy visiting churches. I am interested in how different churches approach "doing church." My visit to City of Light gave me a lot to think about, and I would like to share some of my ideas.

It's not about being a member

If you were to visit City of Light, one of the first things that you would see in the lobby is a table with bulletins, information, and sign-up sheets. There are four clipboards with attendance lists for people to sign in: members, regular attendees, regular visitors, and first-time visitors.

Many people are reluctant to join things. They may be afraid of commitment, or they may shy away from a perception of responsibilities. City of Light does not let that reluctance get in the way of reaching people. Is "member" a scary word? Fine! If you are more comfortable with "regular attendee" or "regular visitor," City of Light will accommodate you. Whatever you call yourself, they are happy that you are there.

It's not about the church building

When I visited City of Light, they were in the middle of a big change. This change is so big, and potentially traumatic, that some churches do not survive it. City of Light sold their building and were preparing to move into a new building.

City of Light has been in its current building for over twenty years. They have obviously put a lot of time, effort, sweat, and money into creating an attractive, welcoming sanctuary. But, the building's location puts it in the path of the local children's hospital's plans for expansion. Project Q Atlanta did a story about the move.

City of Light could have dug in their heels. They could have fought the hospital's plans. They could have refused to sell and refused to move. They could have made a stand to save their building. They did not do any of those things.

Instead, City of Light saw an opportunity to expand their mission and reach more people. As much as they love their current building, they do not exist to support the building. Rather, the building exists to support their mission.

It's not about the numbers

I have a mental tendency to count things. I noticed, for example, that approximately 40 people were in the worship service that Sunday. The choir numbered ten or fewer, but it had the energy of the Mormon Tabernacle. City of Light's youth group serves about 15 kids. The Project Q article stated that City of Light's membership is around 230.

Some people would look at a membership of 230 and conclude that their church is "dying." They would bemoan how empty the sanctuary looks with "only" 40 people. They would shake their heads about having "only" 15 kids in youth group. They would complain how much better the choir sounded when it had more than "only" 10 people. Not at City of Light.

It does not matter whether there are 40 people in a church on Sunday or there are 4,000. What matters is this: How deeply is the church affecting people? City of Light has fellowship opportunities and opportunities to serve others throughout the week. It has a theological institute where anyone can take life enrichment classes. It is apparent that City of Light's emphasis is on quality rather than quantity.

It's not about the worship style

City of Light has one worship service every Sunday, and I thoroughly enjoyed every aspect of it. Some parts of it I found extremely touching and meaningful. It was only later, as I reflected upon the worship service, I realized I could not categorize it as either "traditional" or "contemporary." It was informal, like a contemporary service. They played traditional hymns like "Softly and Tenderly." They also played contemporary worship songs. True worship is neither traditional nor contemporary: Worship just is.

It's not about the pastor

I brought the City of Light bulletin home with me. The bulletin lists six pages of church activities. On the last page, the bulletin says, "Please let us know if you are going to go to the hospital or are ill. Our Congregational Care team wants to be there to offer prayer and assistance if needed." At the City of Light, the congregation is responsible for visiting people in the hospital.

I suddenly realized: I did not see the pastor when I visited. I do not know if he was there or not. A cheerful face greeted me at the door -- but it was not the pastor. A friendly person helped me to a seat -- but it was not the pastor. I heard a meaningful sermon, participated in a rich worship service, and received the Lord's Supper -- and I never saw the pastor. Churches can do so much more when they do not rely on the pastor to do everything.

So, what is it about?

As it happened on this particular Sunday, there was breakfast before service. My friends and I shared a table with several other people who were strangers to me. They caught up on each other's lives, and I was content to dig into my eggs and bacon and sausage, and generally listen to the conversations around me.

Many of the members and regular attendees at City of Light are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. One young man described being followed in a grocery store by a person who shouted "faggot" at him. One woman talked about going to the pharmacy and being called "sir" by the cashier. The people around the table discussed these insults as if they were everyday occurrences; I am afraid they probably are. If you were surprised that a man could go into a gay nightclub in Florida and kill 50 people, if you thought that such a thing could not happen in 2016 . . . well, I do not think that these folks were all that surprised.

And something remarkable happened during communion. We all shared the bread and the cup together. Church elders offered to pray over anyone needing a special benediction, and several people came forward. Elders put their hands on people's shoulders and spoke quiet words of healing to them. It was a profound moment that brought tears to my eyes.

Can you imagine what powerful work that is? Can you imagine the prospect of being insulted and despised any where, any time? And can you imagine having one safe place where you could go every week? Where someone would touch your shoulder and tell you that you were known and loved and accepted?

Jesus sought out the despised and the condemned. He touched them and told them how much they meant to him and to their creator. I know that I saw Jesus' love made real that Sunday morning.

And that is what church is about.

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