What do you put out in front of people when you want to tell them about your church? This is a fundamental question today with, I think, quite different answers than even one generation ago.
The answer hangs on whom we want to speak to. We might want Episcopalians to know that we are in their area, and that we have the “flavor” of worship that they want. So we could advertise “Rite One” or “Eucharist” or “Choral Mattins” or “Informal” or whatever.
Similarly, we might want Christians who are church-going already to know we are around, and to know something about the Episcopal difference. So we might say we’re “the Catholic Church with Freedom” (a late bishop used to describe us that way) or “a middle way between Protestant and Catholic” or “biblical and ancient” or, again, whatever.
Both of these are necessary. But they are, it seems, increasingly less helpful. Here are some quick sightings of churches in recent memory. All of them are in cities where people walk, and thus they don’t easily adapt to car-culture cities and towns. The questions they raise, however, are worth our pondering.
Churches in New York City are often hidden away, squeezed by neighboring buildings and definitely shorter than most of their neighbors. A steeple does not stand out on the Manhattan skyline! Once, walking to a hospital, I happened to notice a Greek Orthodox church. They had chosen to put this rather cheeky but memorable line on their signboard: “Preaching the Gospel since A.D. 33.”
Another city church conveyed great busyness with multiple signs telling of programs, services, homeless assistance, elegant dining (yes, they had both), and on and on. It was like walking past a market.
A friend recently wrote about a small church he visited in France. He walked in—one loves a church that one can walk into—and found inside just one sign. Standing there to greet the visitor the sign says: Notre Père, qui es aux cieux, que ton nom soit sanctifié, que ton règne vienne, que ta volonté soit faite sur la terre comme au ciel. Donne-nous aujourd’hui notre pain de ce jour. Pardonne-nous nos offenses, comme nous pardonnons aussi à ceux qui nous ont offensés. Et ne nous laisse pas entrer en tentation mais délivre-nous du Mal. Amen.
That’s the Lord’s Prayer—and it stood there to greet the visitor, with no other signs around it. One line was in bold italics: Lead us not into temptation. My friend reflects that anyone who would walk into a church is someone who has known temptation, and has doubtless succumbed, and wants help. And here it was: not why they were Catholic, or what being Christian means, but just (!) a prayer.
One wonders, too, how many visitors might enter that church never having heard that prayer before.
Out & About. My August 5 sermon, which turned out to be on manna and remembering, can be heard here: https://incarnation.org/worship/sermons-archive/