I had a month of my sabbatical in January, and I got a lot done. It is the practice of some churches to give the pastor a 3 month sabbatical every 7th year, much like in the academic world. I have had very few sabbaticals – when I was a Methodist, we didn’t even have continuing education time, much less sabbatical time, and my first sabbatical as a UCC pastor was spent over 7 years working on a PhD. I took a month in my 14th year (4 years ago), and was unable, because of family commitments, to take the other two. I began to realize that I might not get my time in before my next 7th year, so I am taking two months spread out over this year.
During my month off, I read and wrote a lot – two papers to be presented at a meeting and research for what I hope will be a book on Christian fundamentalism. Which is the point of this long introduction – I was able to attend a worship service of a local fundamentalist denomination and take notes. My wife – a very devout and loving person – was so incensed by the experience in this that she wanted to leave in the middle of it. I am grateful that she did not, or my notes would have been incomplete.
This church – which will be anonymously written about at length in the book – is what many people now consider to be relevant and modern. All of the locations are filled with worshipers at multiple services, and they follow a model of seeker worship that is used all over the country. So let me, briefly, express our experience.
First, the campus pastor greeted us warmly, but he was the only person who did. The service began with 15 minutes of extremely loud Christian rock music – the words were posted, but few people sang. There was a light show and some fog, and they were fantastic. The campus pastor then gave lots of announcements, prayed for about 30 seconds, then introduced the continuation of the sermon series. At this point, a huge screen dropped, and a video sermon came on. It seems that the same sermon is shown at every service at all the locations. The sermon had too many theological flaws to go into at this time – I’ll do that next week. It was communion Sunday, but there was no consecration, nothing special – the man on the drop down screen led that part too and actually said that – and then we ate the condensed bread and drank the grape juice. A few more rock songs, then an altar call, which was done very discreetly. We walked out, again having nobody greet us except for some people at the welcome desk.
Let me be very clear – I think all styles music are acceptable in church, and I am not a slave to any one type of liturgy. My problem was with the lack of church. Here is what I mean: Church needs to be welcoming and warm. People – not just the paid staff – need to make eye contact and greet you. There should be scripture read – there wasn’t. There should be participation by the congregation – there wasn’t. There should be prayer, maybe even the Lord’s prayer – there wasn’t. If you have a full-time campus pastor, that person should preach. By making sure that all the people at every service in every location hears the same sermon, what you really are is a cult, not a Christian Church.
Defining “Church” is not based on size or theology or denomination or anything like that. Church is the gathering of God’s people to share the Good News, celebrate the Sacraments, and offer help to those in need. From my experience in the congregation (I also attended another location a few years ago with the same experience), this wasn’t church. Again, not that the congregation I serve is perfect – we have lots to improve on. We try very hard to live up to our calling as a welcoming place for all of God’s people. Being Church is not about world domination – it is so much more. Let’s try to be Church together. Peace.
Steve Ohnsman has been the pastor of Calvary UCC in Reading, PA since 1999. He has a BA in Religion & Philosophy from Wilmington College (OH), an MDiv with a focus on preaching from Drew Theological Seminary (NJ), a DMin in Christian Ethics from United Theological Seminary (PA), and a PhD in Leadership from Alvernia University (PA).