A few months ago I wrote about our family’s task of finding a new worshiping community for the next couple of years. While many families struggle for months or even years to find a church where they feel comfortable, spiritually fed/challenged, and at home, it didn’t take us nearly that long, for the sole reason that in the community in which we live we really only had two options to choose from.
That means that we have been able to bounce back and forth over more than one Sunday (because every church has an “off” Sunday once in a while) to get a real feel for the life of the community and the worship style of each.
Both are lovely churches. If only one of these had been available to us, we would have been satisfied with our new church community. Picking one over the other doesn’t mean that one was bad and one was good. In the end it was about where we felt the most comfortable, where we felt the most fed and challenged, and where we felt the most at home.
The first church we attended pretty regularly at the start of our search is distinctively ecumenical and non-denominational. What this means is that members there come from a variety of Christian backgrounds and participate in worship leadership, education and prayer bringing with them the particular habits of their tradition. Honestly most congregations today are probably just as diverse, but with no single tradition providing a backdrop for the worship life of the church, week to week we can never be sure what our worship experience might be like.
This meant that some weeks there is liturgy, and some weeks there is none. Some weeks multiple readings from scripture, some weeks just the text to be preached on. Some weeks a full praise band is amplified so loud that I can hardly hear myself singing, some weeks there is just a piano and guitar. Music actually takes up about the first 30 minutes of the service, and each week after about fifteen I relent and let my son sit down and read his book or draw in his notebook.
The first time we celebrated the Sacrament of Communion the liturgy was so sparse that at first I thought the pastor was just mentioning that we would be having Communion later in the service - nope, that was it. Sermons are organized around a thematic series, sometimes a few weeks in length, sometimes a couple months.
This community has many of the qualities that a lot of young families like us look for in a church. It is always brimming over with members week to week. People have to squeeze into pews just to ensure everyone has a seat. Children are everywhere as well, underfoot, playing in the yard, crying and whimpering from a pew in the back. It is the kind of full and family vibe that a lot of churches wish they had. Children’s Sunday school happens each week, with the children dismissed right before the sermon.
Honestly, the biggest draw for us to this congregation is that we have friends there. It is good to sit in worship with friends and for our son to have friends he can walk to Sunday school with and play with after church.
The other church we have been attending could not be more different if it tried.
This church is rooted in a combination of Presbyterian and Lutheran traditions, even though I suspect again that congregation is much more diverse. It is a much smaller congregation; frequently we all sit just on one side of the sanctuary to make it feel a bit fuller. There were many weeks this summer when our son was the only child in attendance.
There are no screens or projectors. On most Sundays there are not any musicians and the hymns are sung a cappella. But there is liturgy - there is even a bulletin so that I can show my son where we are in the service and he can participate in what is happening. Each week we hear all four scripture passages from the Revised Common Lectionary - Old Testament, Psalm, Epistle and Gospel. Sermons are guided by the movement of the liturgical year and respond to the breadth of the biblical witness.
There is no formal education program for our son, and so he sits with us through the entire service each week. Sometimes he listens to the sermon. Sometimes he occupies himself in other ways. We are working on that.
We have friends and colleagues in this church as well, but none of them with children our son’s age, and so he occupies himself during fellowship after worship.
I think that the choice we have had to make is similar to the one that a lot of people struggle with in choosing a church these days. There are elements to both of these communities that I value and appreciate. I wish I could take from each to create the perfect church community for us. But the most important lesson to learn in choosing a church is that none of them are perfect.
In the end we have decided to be a part of this smaller and decidedly more traditional of worshiping communities.
Here is why:
First, I knew that I loved liturgy, but didn’t really understand how much until I didn’t have it anymore. Maybe I am strange, but there is something different that happens to my soul when I pray a congregational prayer of confession and hear the words of grace and forgiveness from the lector, than when a worship leader simply reminds us in between praise songs that we are in desperate need of the blood of Christ to save our souls. I also like standing with my son to recite the Apostles’ Creed each week, feeling connected to the ancient nature of what we are doing together as a modern family. I like hearing the rhythm of his voice during intercessory prayer as he responds to each petition, “Lord, hear our prayer.”
Second, at the first church the children were almost always dismissed from worship before the first (and sometimes only) scripture reading. Church for my son really was just standing up and singing for a half an hour before he left for Sunday school. At the second church he and I flip through the Bible together looking up psalms and prophets, letters of Paul and passages from the Gospels. He carries his new Bible with him to church, and when he needs a distraction he sometimes even reads the illustrated notes found around that day’s passages.
Third, when we sing hymns that I remember loving as a child, I can hear his tiny and clear voice singing next to me. The music may be “old fashioned,” but I swear he sings louder, probably because he can finally hear his own voice. I like that after a hymn the adult sitting in front of him will often turn around and tell him what a nice job he did.
Finally, I mentioned in my advice to church shoppers that it is important for parents to take into account their own spiritual needs when choosing a church for their family, and the clincher for us really did come down to my own needs and the ways I was and was not being encouraged and fed by the preaching at these two different churches.
I know that our choice is not necessarily the one that most families would make. If you read enough blogs and articles about the shifting nature of the church you might think that we are clinging to a tradition and a worship style that is rapidly on its way out, or that aging churches are out of touch with what people and families need from church these days.
Here is what we need from church as a family today - I need to be able to hear my son’s voice.
I need him to learn that prayer can be beautiful, meaningful and thoughtfully prepared for the worshipping community. I need to hear in his voice the echoes of generations who have spoken the same words of faith and petition before him. I need him to hear the full witness of scripture in the presence of a community. I need his visual impressions of faith not to be images projected on one more screen in his life, but shaped by the presence of the table, font and pulpit.
I need him to know that church is not just about what you get out of it, but about how his voice adds to the life of the community.
This week he and my husband led the congregation in lighting the first Advent candle. On our walk home from church he told me that one of the older women came up to him after worship to tell him that he did a good job and that she loved the sound of his voice. He said to me, “I really like that she told me that. It made me feel good.”
I really like it too.