Author’s note: Apologetics is the religious discipline of defending doctrines through systematic argumentation and discourse. This is a piece of Christian apologetics: I am defending the importance of strong relationships among the people of our community; they speak to the strength of our faith.
I knew it very early in my time at Old First. Ours is a more the horizontal spirituality than a vertical spirituality. Let me explain.
When I arrived, there was already a family leaving. The mom was upset that the congregation had decided to try the “covenant ministry” route — a 3-year contract with me wherein both sides could feel their way to deciding if it was working out, if I was a good fit for Old First. She had wanted the church, instead, to go through the more traditional search process for calling a pastor.
But she explained to me, “It isn’t really you; I’m just looking for a different experience of worship.” I wasn’t taking any of this personally; I was too new for her to even know much about me. And what she said about Old First, though the congregation was very new to me, already was recognizable. She talked about how Old First is “all about” passing the peace, social service and an eclectic crowd, whereas she wanted — needed — a worship service that was more settled, quieter, reflective, mysterious, deeper.
It’s always a loss when someone leaves a church community, but spiritual needs are important too, and they deserve to be met. I affirmed for her that many people find God in the stillness of a more solitary, reflective moment, just as others find God in the interactions of people working and serving together. In our tradition we talk about Jesus living in our hearts, as well as meeting Jesus in the other or the church as the body of Christ. The higher churches with their liturgies and hierarchies often serve people looking for some stillness before God. The lower and free churches often emphasize finding God in community.
Many Christian traditions ground their spirituality in stillness before the mystery of God. Think of the silence and awe of a cavernous and hence shadowy, ancient cathedral and its masses. It’s an authentic place to look for God.
But we have a sanctuary that’s open and clear, with clear glass windows, and fairly square dimensions. It’s designed to give an equal emphasis to the congregation as to any “sacred precinct” up at the chancel. And our fellowship and our social service ministries are often focused and we claim some expertise in building community across some of the divides that often separate us in our lives. Our worship and ministry intend to stress the transformative nature of community-building; it is of God that we come away from our solitariness and find our place among others. We are a body, and each part has its role for the up-building of the whole. Someone here once said to me, “It’s how we come together here against all the odds that we become holy.”
Truth be told, it’s never really an either / or. Christians never have to choose one way to be or exclusively where they seek God. All of us find our spirituality in some combination of the communal and the individual. But faith or worship traditions, they do often lean one way or the other.
Since we have a more horizontal orientation, maybe we as a faith community or as individuals should be asking what we can do to strengthen our vertical spirituality?
In the meantime, and in line with Old First’s tradition, I truly believe that for us building strong relationships among our people is about strengthening Old First. In part, that’s because as a downtown church, our folks don’t have any of the relational reinforcements that most neighborhood churches count on. We don’t live in proximity; our children are not in the same schools; we don’t share a specific heritage or demographic; we don’t run into each other in the grocery store or at the movies, and we don’t share mutual friends and acquaintances.
But it’s also because we say we find Jesus and God in others or in between us — where ever two or three are gathered. A few weeks ago, we had an intense, fellowship-focused weekend. Beth had organized the camping trip. Twenty or so Old Firsters were not only spending a day and a half-plus with each other outside of worship and our normal church interactions; more powerfully, they were at least provisionally living together! Back at church that Sunday, we had the second Summer Brunch after worship with over 20 people attending. Two long tables of Old Firsters relaxed and chatting over beers and lunch. I marveled at who showed up and how God arranged us just right at the tables so everyone could meet someone new. There’s actually something holy in that.
We have another opportunity this Sunday. The church picnic is being held at church this year, beginning with the normal summer worship time of 10 am. We will have a brief, informal worship service that will involve more interpersonal interaction and movement than most services up in the Sanctuary. And then we will have the picnic. BBQ by Chef Adam and helpers. Games orchestrated by Deanna. Side dishes provided by the people of the church. And all along, there will be time to get to speak with one another and to get to know people better. I hope you will come, and take advantage of the opportunity to deepen your relationships and spirituality. It will up-build the church and you…
And if you have any ideas how we can up our game on our vertical spirituality, I’d love to hear that too. You can tell me at the picnic!
See you at church,