Recently, I was having coffee with someone who has visited Old First a few times. He remarked to me, “I’ve never experienced a church like that before.” I hesitated on that one! What did he mean?
He explained, “I expect church to be stuck in the past; obsessing over debates from 500 or 1500 years ago. Dogmatic and depressing; still in the dark ages.
But Old First doesn’t pay much attention to the dividing lines of Christian history. It’s not lost in the fine print. Or trumpeting some fine point.
I have been leaving church feeling relieved — you all aren’t forseeing dire consequences because I am off-base sometimes.”
I liked that he’d heard permission-giving — our willingness to talk about what doesn’t matter (because God’s grace is bigger the limits of our knowledge AND the limits of our faith) in order to set people free.
But, I wondered, did he experience us pointing towards what does matter? Ok, I was worried: did we come off “so anything goes” that we weren’t really about anything?
(I’ve always appreciated the definition that says your religion is whatever is most important to you… what you identify — and live — as ultimately mattering.)
So I asked, “If we’re not concerned with your understanding of the authority of Scripture or whether or not you believe in the Virgin birth or an afterlife, what, in your experience of us, do we care about?”
He thought for a minute. Then he said, “Well… my impression is that Old First cares about how people treat each other. The message is you really can’t love God unless you love your neighbor.
Your church meets people where they are and jnvites them to walk toward treating each other with respect; with equality and justice; offering support; sharing what we have to meet other’s needs… It’s about love, but in daily, real-life, tangible forms.
But even there,” he continued, “Old First is different. You believe in different ways of showing love. You share God’s love differently in your daily lives. Some are artists. Others lawyers. Teachers. Doctors. Laborers. Some volunteer in your shelter. Others teach Sunday school. Or take care of their parents. Or their children. Or their neighbors.’
That’s helpful to me: none of us can do it all. Certainly not me. Or be all things. That’s why we work together: pooling our efforts and styles, we get closer to what Love is like.”
It was one of those moments in ministry — when all the work and head- and heartache feels worthwhile. I just hope he keeps coming back!
What he was seeing does ring true. Instead of orthodoxy or “right belief,” we focus on the practices of our faith. I sometimes borrow the phrase “service Christianity.”
But it’s not orthopraxy (some singular prescribed practice) because everyone isn’t the same. The path is neither narrow nor only one. With a good dose of universalism thrown in into the mix, we celebrate the myriad, different ways of being loving, all the different pilgrimages that lead to Love.
Working on “a case statement” that can explain our church — for us here as well as for those we’d like to attract or at least speak to– we’ve been trying to develop a short phrase that points to what we’re about. Or the important things God has gathered us for.
If we list everything, all our commitments, like our mission and vision statement, it becomes too long to remember and share. So we’ve been looking a short phrase that, laden with meaning, intimates much more. This is what we’ve come up with, so far. Let me know what you think:
Gathered in service.
Join us for a surprising journey.
See you in church,
Michael W. Caine, Pastor-teacher