Too Many or Too Small?
Marina Pacific, Long Beach, CA - Outside Jamba Juice/Starbucks I began this thought over a month ago... shows you how slow I can move sometimes. In that much time I've finally managed to venture out for a second time and continue the dreaded adventures in "Church Shopping."
It's one of those wierd freedoms of our culture to be free to go to any church one wants to go to. But in an area like Southern California one could easily drown in the ocean of choices when it comes to churches. I imagine that this is not the case in many communities where there might be a some kind of Catholic church and some flavor of Protestant congregation and that might be it. You practice the Faith you were raised in, which happens to be probably one of the few options available in your community. My love told me about growing up in her small rural community and that there was this one old guy who went to her Presbyterian church because there was no Seventh Day Adventist congregation in the area (she noted that he seemed to really know his bible). Anyway, I happened to live in the area with the opposite extreme: a community with too many choices.
The night before I began this latest adventure in church shopping [July 30th] I went online to see if I could find something close to home. When I started (or restarted) all of this two years ago I went to the local Vineyard and Calvary Chapel, but found them too small for my needs. What I mean is that the church would need to be large enough that I could hide in my anonymity until I felt comfortable enough to open up. The local Vineyard, for example, was certainly close enough (they met at a YMCA building which was just down the street from the school I worked at). Alas, the fellowship was also about the size of average living room meeting hovering around 20 souls (just a bit too small for my needs). Now, when I went online on the 29th I was overwhelmed by the dozen and dozens of churches that were in my general area. Unfortunately, very few of them offered much more information than their name and address. This would have been a case where a smart-bot like the one Amazon.com uses would have been helpful ("we noticed that you bought X, other users who have bought X have also enjoyed Y..."). But then it is a bit much for me to expect the garden-variety local church to invest the resources needed to make their presence known on something as new-fangled as the Internet. Damn.
So I looked and looked and was still looking come Sunday morning. One church caught my eye, but it wasn't because of their beautiful website or even something remotely "spiritual." This local Presbyterian church named Christ Presbyterian Church had pictures on their website from a recent Dodgeball tournament (vs. 1st Presbyterian of Orange). In an era when elementary schools were banning dodgeball because of the psychological damage it supposedly was doing to our children, this church had the balls to not only have a tournament but to also post pictures on their website. Oh yeah, the senior pastor was also a Fuller Seminary alum.
Okay, besides the obvious sense of humor (their dodgeball team jerseys had a large "bull's eye" in the center of it), I was also halfway thinking that because they had their own permanent structure/building that they must be well established within the community and of a half-way decent size. Well, I certainly hit the nail on the head as far as the church being "well established." On the morning I attended the population seemed to be 1/2 half 30-something couples and some kids families and the other half octogenarians. Ugh. Add to that, even though they had a very nice sanctuary I would have to guess that the number of attendees to be less than 50 souls. Ugh. This wasn't going to work. I felt bad when I didn't hang around in the courtyard after the service and instead chose to get to my car right away.
Now, upon reflection the attendance could have been down because the senior pastor was on vacation, leaving the youth pastor in charge. The youth pastor had a good message but besides the kids he was probably one of the youngest adults in the room. They did seem to mix the more modern/folk/acoustic worship songs with traditional hymns, but the congregation didn't quite seem to get into participating in the singing. But then that could have just been more their tradition to not be quite as "enthusiastic" as I was used to from my more casual Vineyard/Calvary worshippers. Oh well, I might try this church again, but I was getting a negative vibe from my beloved because she'd had such a bad experience growing up in her Presbyterian church (but then again, we're not yet in a position where we can talk about attending church together... argh).
So after that Sunday I had two Sunday's running Vineyard Newport's powerpoint during the service and one Sunday sick and on my back. This Sunday, being my first Sunday after "officially" announcing my departure from Newport Vineyard, I selected a local Calvary Chapel located near Belmont Shore called, interestingly enough, the Shore. Again, I'd found the church through their website and because they advertised having two services I was hoping that they'd meet the "anonymity size" requirement.
Finding them was a bit of a chore (they meet in the upper floor of the Sea Explorer's building near the Naples marina), consequently I got there late and missed the worship. Ack! They had a large TV in the foyer that was showing the service in progress, thus the foyer acted as an "overflow" room. But when I stepped into the room I almost laughed because it was a pretty small room, only accommodating two long rows for the worshippers to sit in with just enough space in front for the music stand/pulpit and space for the guitar player and some loud speakers. This place was way smaller than the Presbyterian church and obviously the "overflow" room might have been needed not because there were so many worshippers but because the room was so small (and it probably also worked as a "crying room" for mom's with babies). Ugh. And somewhat true to form, the pastor gave a somewhat rambling message from John Chapter 4 (where Jesus talked to the samaritan woman by the well). That isn't a criticism as much as an observation, in that Calvary pastors I've known focus more on teaching from a passage or series from scripture versus coming up with a more concise thematically based sermon.
When I walked back to my car I really didn't think that I had experienced enough to really say whether I'd want to be a part of this community (though the small size was still ... well, too small). The next thought I had was how "ineffective" it seems to be to have all of these dozens and hundreds of small "churches" (really not being much larger than a home fellowship) scattered all over the city. I don't buy that "bigger is better" but just in terms of organizational structures there must be a huge duplication of efforts to have all of these little groups trying to support their parishioners and also have some effect on the outside community.
Maybe this is the unfortunate effects of having too much choice and such low-levels of commitment to community and maybe even the ego-needs of some group leaders mixed with the popularity of some religious "brand identification" (like Calvary Chapel, for example). In a city the size of Long Beach how many thousands must have no church community affiliation and spend their sunny Sundays ignoring these big largely empty ecclesiastical buildings in the downtown area and the huddled few meeting in YMCA meeting rooms, middle-school auditoriums and one-room store fronts in the surrounding neighborhoods. There would seem to be dozens and dozens of tiny meetings like so many upside-down miniature baskets hiding the little lights within from anyone who might happen along the way. We are so small that we seem to not only be ineffectual but irrelevant to the communities and neighborhoods surrounding us. That seems so sad to me, to have this life-changing message of love, forgiveness and community and yet to be so entirely invisible to those who might most benefit from such a message. JBB
music: Stuck in the Middle - Mark Heard - Stop the Dominoes