I had one of those weird epiphanies right in the middle of delivering my sermon last Sunday. I was talking about excessive, crazy piety, and I was referencing those hip, counter-cultural, storefront, Jesus Freak churches of the 1970’s. So many of those “non-denominationals” morphed into glitzy, mega-churches. You know—the ones with the big video screens and really cool, professional praise bands. Once upon a time these were the churches of the discouraged hippies. They were the churches that rejected the stuffiness of the “mainline” denominations. They had a new look, a new energy, a new musical style, and they attracted a new generation of believers.
I’ve suddenly realized that these “counter-culture,” “non-denominational” churches have now actually become the mainline. It’s little churches like the one I pastor which are suddenly the new counter-culture. I always thought that I was pretty “establishment.” I mean, I like traditional hymns, I wear traditional vestments, and I really get off on traditional liturgy. But somehow my traditional church seems like it’s cruising the shoulder of American Christianity on a Vespa scooter while the mega-churches hog the main road in their SUV’s.
I’ve been to the fancy mega-churches and they’re pretty cool. I have nothing against them. They preach the Gospel and they do a lot of good. They just lack the weirdness factor which, I think, makes my little blue-collar Philadelphia parish so special. I would bet you dollars to Dunkin Donuts munchkins you’d never see stuff in one of these super Christian centers like you see at Faith Lutheran.
Without going into detail, there have been, and still are, some pretty interesting characters who come through our doors. Some have developmental disabilities, and some have been just plain whack-o. Sometimes there are inappropriate interruptions during worship, but we’re a forgiving people, so we just carry on. We know who are “special” people are, and we love them.
Our church is also pretty tiny. We’re like an ameba compared to the giant church in the shopping mall up the street. But that’s cool because we all know each other. If you’re new, we know you’re new and we all greet you. We like to greet so much that the “passing of the peace” before Holy Communion looks more like your elementary school at recess. Everybody gets out of their seats and shakes hands or hugs. It’s usually chaotic, but there’s a great family feel to it.
Our church is also noisy. Some mega-churches won’t let kids under twelve worship in their main sanctuaries. We have kids running all over the place. They come to the communion rail for blessings, sometimes they sing in worship, or come for kid sermons.
Where the mega-church is brilliantly organized with an almost corporate structure, my little congregation is virtually a co-op. We take turns making the bulletins, cleaning the bathrooms, and vacuuming the narthex. We have virtually no structure, and yet things always seem to be accomplished. If the assigned worship assistant doesn’t show up, somebody jumps up and volunteers and the job gets done.
We welcome LGBTQ folks. We figure Jesus does, too.
Our building gets used by all kinds of people from the neighborhood. We figure Jesus would want us to welcome the stranger. To that end, we have seven AA meetings a week. There’s a bunch of senior citizens who play bingo on Wednesday afternoons. We provide a worship home on Saturdays for a Seventh Day Adventist fellowship comprised of the nicest bunch of Haitians and Haitian-Americans you’d ever want to meet—and we don’t ask to see anybody’s green card. We have homeless people sleeping in our basement during the month of August. We even just had a meal with our Muslim neighbors from the mosque around the corner. Now that’s pretty radical in my book!
And, because our church is here to serve the PEOPLE, I would certainly be remiss if I didn’t point out that, like all good nonconformists, we’re growing an organic vegetable garden on the church lawn. Yup. We’re feeding the hungry through some urban farming. Do you know of any mega-churches that do that?
Our denomination was started 500 years ago by a pretty radical guy who liked to speak truth to power. If you check out the ELCA website or facebook page, you’ll see we’re still doing that. We may not look like hippies or radicals here in Northeast Philly, but we have a funkiness all our own.
I’m pretty proud of that. And if pride is a sin, at least I know I’m forgiven.