“It takes courage, I think, for a community to come to a publishable consensus for the above three headings… Would your church be able to come to a consensus and publish a statement that visitors would read immediately upon entering?”
I visit many churches of differing denominations. This happens mostly when I am asked to be a guest speaker or teacher for a Christian Formation series. Whenever I do this, I stay and attend the service at the church I am visiting. Honestly, I am not usually wildly impressed or joyfully surprised at most of the churches I visit. People are nice, services have mostly decent liturgy, sermons are well-prepared but minimally challenging, music is adequate and communion, if it is served, is always my favorite part.
So I paid close attention when I was not only surprised but impressed with a recent visit to St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church on Park Avenue in New York City. I had heard about this parish from many friends, and my daughter has attended on occasion. This visit was my first, and I was excited to be there because I had heard that they were known for their radical hospitality.
Values expressed in greeting
Many greeters awaited us on the front steps to the church. When we entered the narthex there was coffee waiting and a lovely bookstore, open for service. (Yes. In the narthex.) While I was browsing book titles a gentleman introduced himself to ask if he could help me. We began a conversation about my visit there and how he came to be a member. I was commenting on how gorgeous the church was, and this was his response.
“We are very privileged to have these facilities. They are amazing. But the truth is we would be fine without them. This church is not about the buildings. It is all about the people.”
Wow. Really? A massive, beautiful church that is not consumed with its buildings?
“That’s impressive,” I responded quizzically. “Is that what drew you here?”
“Absolutely. I was looking for community as much as for church.”
My mental writing file opened. Note to self: You might want to write about this… I was handed a bulletin, walked in, and found a seat.
Values expressed in the bulletin
Looking down at the front page of the bulletin I was disoriented. What? No pencil sketch of the church building? No list of who’s who, the hierarchy carefully and boldly delineated with full titles at the bottom center of the front cover. How strange. Not consumed with buildings or hierarchy? What I saw were three carefully crafted paragraphs with these headings:
What we are for
What we are against
What we value
I stopped myself from going any further and just read. St. Bart’s mission statement was the entire front page of their bulletin. I agreed with what I read, and I understand that not everyone would agree with what was written in that statement. But to its credit, it was specific. It was bold. I had an immediate sense of what this community would be about should I want to be involved.
It takes courage, I think, for a community to come to a publishable consensus for the above three headings. It must have been hard work, requiring astute listening and care to craft a statement like this. How would you answer these statements for yourself? What would your family’s statement say? Would your church be able to come to a consensus and publish a statement that visitors would read immediately upon entering?
Values expressed in community
Of course, what would really matter to me, and I believe to others, would be if the church’s day to day actions actually matched their mission statement. I would be looking for integrity. I have no idea about the workings of St. Bart’s. This was just a first visit. But I can tell you that I would go back again. My interest was piqued with the gentlemen’s comment at the bookstore. I became exponentially more interested as I read the bulletin cover. Oh, and the gay couple who sat behind me and the African-American family whose baby was baptized and the eccentric woman who sang too loudly all spoke to me, offering me warm smiles and words of welcome when the service was over. Yeah. I’d be back.
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