I once preached in an historic church sanctuary and – in the middle of my sermon – I noticed a small tour group in the balcony. The tour guide was wearing a baseball cap and carrying one of those red pointer lights so that she could point out the architectural highlights of the space. I am not kidding. To her credit, she did not have a megaphone.
What they don’t teach in seminary is how to deal with a tour group in worship. And increasingly we have spiritual tourists in our worship gatherings.
It used to be true that everybody in the pews self-identified as Christian. They ascribed to The Apostles’ Creed and “believed the same thing.” Of course, I think if we had hypnotized those people, we would have found out that their theology was more diverse. I remember one nonegenarian – a life long Christian – disclosing before she died that she “never believed in the resurrection of the dead.” She also had a hard time with the Trinity. And yet she stood and recited the creed each week like a new confirmand.
In my previous congregation, a small group of Turkish Muslims from the Rumi Forum regularly sat in the pews on Sunday mornings to meet Christians and make interfaith connections. Although they didn’t sing the hymns or receive communion, they occasionally brought Turkish treats for coffee hour. On Ashura they brought Noah’s pudding for everybody. Nice.
This is not to say we were or wanted to be an interfaith spiritual community, but the truth is that – on any given Sunday – many of our worshipping congregations include people who would not consider themselves Christian. There might be a Jewish spouse sitting there to support the family. There are definitely seekers and spiritual anthropologists in the pews in many of our congregations.
Our job as preachers is to proclaim the Word as we always have, but recognizing that some (many?) in our pews are not believers. For more information on this shift from a Believe-Behave-Belong culture to a Belong-Behave-Believe culture, re-read the appropriate chapters in Phyllis Tickle or Diana Butler Bass’ books.
People want, first and foremost, in our disjointed culture to belong to a community. I love what Rob Bell said in Velvet Elvis about our 21st Century duty to be Tour Guides, interpretting where God is in daily life. This happens best in a community, I believe, and we start by welcoming people into our community, even if they seem to be Hindu or agnostic or Muslim. We teach them what Jesus said and did. We show the love of God.
Two last things:
Almost every church sanctuary uses the standard stage/audience architectural arrangement. (We usually call “the stage” a chancel and the “audience” a congregation.) Outsiders come in and it looks, to them, like an auditorium or a theatre, and so – accordingly – they expect the person up front to perform. A sermon and worship leadership is not a performance. In the PCUSA we are called Teaching Elders for a reason. We teach and we lead, but we give our people the wrong idea if they come to assume that it’s a one way experience. We teach them to be observers, an audience. In my opinion, responsive litanies don’t make the point clear enough. Being part of the worshipping community involves participation. If you are present, you belong. And you are expected to do more than sit there and applaud stirring music. We want you to engage, reflect, speak, sing, pray – in whatever way you choose.
Secondly, too many of our churches today are indeed museums of what once was. Tourists come in to see the extraordinary art crafted in carvings, fixtures, windows, and murals. But there is no connection to God’s glory or the profound spiritual meaning of those details. They tell a story, and we pray that the story is about more than a 20th Century industrialist wanting to build a monument to himself. It’s our job to tell a different story. To be Spiritual Tour Guides – and not only in sanctuaries.
Where is God in all this? What’s the meaning of all this? I believe people are wondering.