Was this Pleasantville? Church of Christ vs United Church of Christ

Below this commentary/rant are two articles I wrote on two recent church visits: the Church of Christ and the United Church of Christ.

I felt that I’d just experienced the movie, “Pleasantville” in the move from the safe black-and-white, carefully managed world to one of chaotic color and the messiness of human emotions.

One had only a finger snap and four people on microphones as musical accompaniment. The other a full orchestra and two choirs. One was full of older, heterosexual, pleasant, friendly, kind adults, primarily female, 99% caucasian, all dressed in more or less formal church clothes in passionless, routine, perfectly timed worship. The other . . . well, there were more men than I’ve ever seen in worship, perhaps 75% of the several hundred there, all shades of skin color, pageantry, full voice singing, equally full of spontaneous moments of visible praise to God with a service than ran 50 minutes overtime. Oh yes, many were there with their same-sex partners.

I walked out of the second thinking, “Why on earth is much of the UMC so afraid of full inclusion?” Do we really prefer the blandness and safety of the b&w Pleasantville? Seriously? Is the kingdom of heaven where we all look and think alike? Are safety and homogeneity the hidden leaven that turns pasty flour, oil and sugar to golden, raised, mouthwateringly delicious loaves of raised bread?

I don’t think so. More, I so very much hope not. This just doesn’t sound like a religion that centers on Jesus, the one who touched the unclean bleeding woman and healed lepers and ate with sinners and broke ritual laws of behavior and ignored parts of the holiness code that was used to keep people controlled and safe.

Nonetheless, human nature and cultural observation do suggest that most people are actually uncomfortable with those who are radically different from whatever the norms may be for that particular group. We do prefer sameness and predictability because it frees up energy for other things. Like fight the “other.”

In this sense, the inclusive call of the gospel just pushes too many buttons. It’s why Peter and Paul fought so bitterly about the inclusion of the Gentiles and the unusual agreement reached in Acts 16 about how to make it work. It’s why we still fight religious wars to death and destruction: why we use our beliefs to marginalize the other and to keep ourselves unquestioned and safe.

Clearly, I think the UMC is wrong with the current statement that seems to focus all sin on the genital actions on the part of those who do not fit the sexual mainstream. I think sin is much, much more complicated than this, and many things other than that should disqualify people from entering into the ministry of the ordained.

But we’ve narrowed it this way: Paragraph 304.3 in the 2012 Book of Discipline reads, “The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Therefore self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church.”

Nothing about idolaters or the greedy or the power-hungry or the narcissistically ambitious apparently disqualifies them to serve under appointment in the UMC. It makes no sense. And our unwillingness to recognize a wider definition of sin and a wider awareness of human nature will indeed split this church.

Some may become like the safe, secure Church of Christ. Others may become like the inclusive, complex, colorful United Church of Christ. Most will probably just give up and leave. But none can claim the fullness of Jesus as their own because all will have neglected the fullness of sacrificial love for the other and ignored the wideness of God’s mercy that seeks out all people, conservative, progressive, traditional, orthodox, heterodox, heretic, faithful and sinner.

What a sick mess. In my opinion, this post states most clearly where we are and where we are heading if we don’t stop this madness. May God have mercy upon us all.

Cathedral of Hope

[Note: this article is scheduled to run in the March 27, 2015 print edition of the Denton Record Chronicle]

I found the location unimpressive. The buildings sit far back from the street in a beat up area of Dallas not far from Parkland hospital. The main parking lots look badly in need of repair and available grass parking swam underwater from the recent rains. Weedy lawns framed the structures . . . but walking in the door was transformational.

Throngs of people, helpful greeters, sounds of musicians getting ready to offer their gifts, rapidly filling worship area, people happily talking with others, and attitudes of hopeful expectation swirled around the stone-floored, ivory brick walled, soaring-ceilinged room that houses the Cathedral of Hope, part of the United Church of Christ denomination.

After 11 chimes marking the hour, two french horns and organ played the Toccata on In the Cross of Christ I Glory, followed by welcome and announcements. One of the announcements blew me away. The congregational yearly meeting approached and centered on the election for new members for the church governing body. What so intrigued me was that there are multiple candidates for limited positions. To have people sincerely want to serve in what is often a thankless and always a time consuming job of keeping a large church on track speaks well about the service culture of the church.

Another important announcement: the chair of the pastoral search committee said that they had finished their work. The person chosen would be in the pulpit the first Sunday after Easter. No other information was given to preserve confidentiality, but the congregation responded with hearty and thankful applause.

The congregation then stood to sing the same song as the Prelude, this time accompanied by the full orchestra and excellent choir.  The music team was placed to the side of the expansive worship center, so attention was focused on the act of worship itself rather than on the musicians, something I admire and wish were more the case in other churches.

I sang the second verse thoughtfully, “When the woes of life o’ertake me, hopes deceive, and fears annoy, never shall the cross forsake me. Lo! it glows with peace and joy,”  This congregation, formerly known as Metropolitan Community Church, is well-known for becoming a place of welcome for the gay and lesbian community in the central Dallas area.

Many here have suffered much at the hands of religious practitioners. They’ve been reviled for their sexuality, had epithets hurled at them in the name of Jesus, been despised and excluded from many a Christian fellowship. Yet here they stood, hundreds and hundreds of them, singing in joy, many grateful to be with their life partners in active worship and heartfelt praise to God.

The service continued using a traditional format. Unobtrusive projection technology with two screens made it easy to see. The names of the liturgists and musicians were on the screen as well, a sign of welcome to the stranger. A reading that set the scene for the sermon was followed by an exquisitely sung Kyrie, confession and assurance of pardon. A sung response lead in to the Gospel reading from John 12 and a lovely anthem.

And then came the message, brought by a special speaker, The. Rev. Carlton Pearson. I somewhat guessed when I drove up for the 11 am service about 20 minutes early and realized that people were just then leaving the 9 am service that it might run a bit long. And it did as Rev. Pearson held us spellbound in a humorous and poignant message.

Pearson’s father had “transitioned” from this world to the next just the day before. Pearson wove into the theme of faith coming by hearing his own path of accepting his father’s death.

Sometimes it takes faith a while to catch up with what we see. Light, after all, travels much faster than sound.

Pearson also offered hope of authentic living to a group of people who have had to spend too much of their lives pretending to be something they are not. He contended that children are born knowing how to love, but have to learn to hate. He insisted that to live faithfully to Christ means living in the way that God foreknew of us before we were born as we were being formed in our mother’s wombs.

He joked about the constant state of change, saying, “90% of the dust in our homes is made up of human skin–and the skin of those who came to the 9 am service is still floating around here!” Pearson, who is black, said that those with dark skin can see this much easier as they see the “dust” on their hands and feet and elbows much easier than the light-skinned can. That “dust” is our skin flaking off–which ultimately means that in some way, all of us are connected and/or incorporated into all others who are alive or who have lived.

Pearson’s message ended around 12:35, and the offering and Service of Holy Communion followed. The expansive bulletin as well as the spoken invitation made it clear that this was not a closed rite, but a place of grace wide open to all who would come, just as Jesus has opened the kingdom of heaven to all who will receive the invitation.

With some disappointment, I learned that a gluten-free option for the reception of the sacrament was not available. However, I asked for and received a prayer of blessing from the server and returned to my seat, knowing I had been a cared for and a welcomed participant in a powerful, thought-provoking time of worship.

Singing Oaks Church of Christ, Denton

[Note: this article originally ran in the March 20, 20, 2015 edition of the Denton Record-Chronicle]

After the service, I asked the young men who accompanied me to worship last week: “What did the music leader use so that people would know the beat of the music?” In unison all three replied, “He snapped his fingers!”

And that is how the people in the instrumentless Singing Oaks Church of Christ know how to keep pace with the tempo of the hymn. The words are projected on the two large screens flanking the simple chancel area of the spacious sanctuary. The worship space is decorated in muted colors, with comfortable stadium seating in fixed rows curving around the central stage, which fronts a baptismal pool. The charismatic worship leader, with only a “Good Morning” as preamble, began the service, leaping into the hymns with finger snaps and joyful voice.

Without songbooks or hymnals, no aids were available for those who need to know what note to sing. But the congregation didn’t seem in the least bothered and many joined in with good harmony. Although the worship leader only was on the platform, I noted that three others sitting in the front row, two females and one other male, sang into microphones. Each offered a different part as they gave vocal leadership.

Although some individual Church of Christ congregations now have instrumental accompaniment to congregational singing, the majority of them apparently do not. This stance comes from a unique interpretation of the Bible texts. The Psalms describe Instruments as ways to praise God. However, the founders of the Church of Christ movement do not see the Hebrew Bible as part of their covenant with God today. With no express mention of the use of instruments in early Christian worship gatherings, they used the argument from silence to choose to engage only in a capella voice to offer their praises to God.

Despite the beginning of spring break, many were in worship at the 8:30 service, although they did cancel children’s church. Primarily senior citizens, they clearly attend regularly and very much know when someone attends who is not there normally. The warmth of their greetings surrounded me and my worship companions for the day. 

Singing, welcome and greeting, scripture reading, prayer and more singing led into what is termed “Believer’s Communion.”  A man went to the podium, read a scripture and offered a prayer over the bread. Then the many well-trained male ushers spread around the congregation and distributed trays of matzo cracker. Each individual could break off a piece and eat it. A few moments later, the same man said a prayer over the cup. Trays of individual cups of grape juice were distributed.

I was not able to discern precisely what was meant by “Believer’s Communion” and  could not be sure I fit their definition as “believer.” Yet again there was no provision made for the gluten-free. I chose not to risk either my health or my integrity to participating in this weekly observance.

After communion and then the offering and registration of attendance, the preaching minister, Ross Thomson, came to the pulpit. Reminding us that “It’s crazy when God does stuff,” he remarked on the many activities of the day before and then launched into the seventh of a series about the Kingdom of God.

The chosen text was a parable of Jesus found in Matthew 20:1-16, a troubling story of a landowner who kept hiring people during the day to work his vineyards and then paid them all the same wage at the end of the day. Jesus summed up the story by offering this enigmatic statement, “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

Minister Thomson preached the narrative verse by verse rather than as a whole. One or two verses would appear on the screen, followed by the point Thomson wanted to make. A fill-in-the-blank guide was printed in the bulletin to guide the congregation through the individual points. Thomson drew analogies between this story and the many day laborers that gather in Denton at the corner of Carroll Blvd. and Eagle Drive. He mentioned the privilege of work and that work gives us a reason to live. He contended that the parable teaches that we must have faith in the owner and we are to be glad he chose us as we celebrate the wild generosity of our God.

The message ended somewhat abruptly after about 25 minutes with an invitation to receive Christ. Another song followed, giving any who might wish to do so time to come forward. After the song, another man came to the pulpit. He briefly summarized the message while adding a few thoughts of his own and then offered the final dismissal from this warm, friendly morning of singing and sermon.

3 thoughts on “Was this Pleasantville? Church of Christ vs United Church of Christ

  1. While I applaud the UCC for their inclusiveness, and am happy to hear about the vitality of the Cathedral of Hope, the UCC itself is cratering. I have read studies on this. Inclusive denominations are declining, and declining faster the moment they started their inclusivism. The TEC, the ELCA, the UCC, they are are dying mainline denominations.

    The UMC is declining but at a much slower pace. And the losses in the secular first-world is being replaced by the religious third-world. And they are more “traditional” in terms of marriage. I myself believe in partial inclusivism. We must accept LGBTQ as full members, but not as ordained clergy. You can wax eloquent about the theology of sin, but in the end the plain reading of Scripture is clear, as is most of Christian historical thought is clear. Homosexuality is an abomination. Homosexual members are living in sin and must seek sanctification to be a proper temple of the Spirit.

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  2. Thank you for reading this blog. I’d love to know more about your experience. About General Conference: I would very much like to attend as the “fly on the wall” blogger, something I’m particularly good at. But I need a place to stay–do you have any leads about an option? I figure I can get there and feed myself, but can’t afford a hotel room.

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  3. I appreciate your insightful comments as you join in worship with the various congregations. While still UM by membership, I attend the UCC in my town so this post was particularly interesting. I agree that many mainline churches are dying and some will soon be looking to shutter windows and join with another congregation that is similar in theology, service and leadership structure.
    Are you by chance coming to Portland for General Conference? Would be very interesting to meet you if you get up this way.

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