That Church Feeling

That Church Feeling

 The biggest challenge that my wife and I had when we planted a little church with two others in one of Chicago’s up-and-coming neighborhoods was convincing ourselves that what we were doing actually qualified as “church.” We knew in our minds what the Biblical definition of Church was; “where two or three are gathered” and all that (we had four to begin with so we narrowly made that benchmark.) We knew that large amounts of people, an expensive building, and elaborate worship productions didn’t mean a thing to the Lord so long as we were being faithful. But still, when we opened the door to the dank storefront where we met, cleaned up all the spilled beer from the night before, set up our wall hangings, and arranged the chairs, it just didn’t feel right.

Apparently, most visitors felt the same. Getting people in the door wasn’t a problem for us (since we were the only Anglican game in town.) But getting them to stay was a problem. Even church seekers who were close to us and people who appreciated what we were doing, even people looking specifically for a small Anglican congregation didn’t commit. It’s impossible to know for sure precisely why, but I think I have a pretty good idea. Our Sunday morning meetings just didn’t feel like church.

To be fair, this was understandable. We were meeting in an abandoned storefront that smelled of beer and jalapeños. There were acrylic paintings of Native American folklore bolted to the walls (I know because I tried very hard to remove them) and at the end of two years, our “congregation” didn’t even enter the double digits. Officiating a service in such…unusual environs meant a significant shift in style. I had to be more conversational and relational to make people feel comfortable. Solemnity is a hard tone to strike with a painting of a bear emerging from a hill sitting behind you. For all our good work–and it was good work–we didn’t have something that I came to call “that church feeling.”

When you walk into a movie theater, you know where you are. The soft lighting, the dark interior, the giant screen up at the front, are a nearly universal experience. It is, depending on your denominational heritage, very much the same with churches. Whether you are used to pews and wood-panels, vaulted ceilings and stained-glass, or video screens, there is some measure of immediate recognition upon walking into a well-established church building. Sitting down in a very small group of strangers in an apartment or storefront doesn’t come packaged with this subconscious experience. I know this because I did this every week.

I don’t bring up “that church feeling” to denigrate it as vain or artificial. I am not planting a church because I am fonder of smaller, bare bones services than I am of opulent, well-attended ones. I love stained glass and high ceilings, soft lighting, and all the reverence these forms inspire. I don’t even necessarily find small churches to be more “authentic” than larger ones. But I do think it is important to talk about what “that church feeling” brings to a congregation, because the church is going to have to do with a lot less of it in the future.

Churches in America are in decline everywhere. This is indisputable. The sad truth is that many of the keepers of the beautiful forms of singing and art that have hallmarked past ages and traditions of the church have departed from preaching the gospel plain and true, and so their congregations have shrunk. These churches may have “that church feeling” in spades, but when it is bottled up and set aside from the word duly preached and the sacraments duly administered, it may as well be an exhibit in a museum. At the same time, the churches who have not departed from the truth find themselves scattered. Congregations in the ACNA for example have either been kicked out from the sanctuaries they loved or are starting up new churches without much money or property. Overriding all of this, churches of all stripes are experiencing a lack of interest in Christianity in general. Heretical or orthodox, people are less interested in being a part of a church these days. For these reasons, “that church feeling” is in short supply. Those who rely on “that church feeling” for their worship will likely see it considerably dried up in their lifetime. The truth is that more and more churches in the future are going to look like church plants and that likely means they will have to do without the immediate spiritual comforts offered by a sanctuary, handbell choirs, and priests in seasonal garments; or if you like, leather seats, radio-quality sound system, and video screens. Turns out that stuff costs a pretty penny! Even simpler rituals come with hidden costs, like the rent required for a sanctuary large enough to get a decent processional going.

But the altars of Rome and the Cathedrals of Chartres were preceded by a still more ancient way. Before the saints presided over altars, before “that church feeling” even existed, Christians met in secret. In fact, during times of intense persecution, Christians sought out places that were so unpleasant or profane that they knew their pursuers would not follow them there. These were not ideal worship facilities, and I would hazard to say that they presented some difficulty to church leaders trying to set the right tone.

Today, we find ourselves in a similar predicament to the earliest apostles. Storefronts, apartments, schools, art galleries, restaurants; these are our modern catacombs. Many of the ancient rituals that make up “that church feeling”–those that we now emulate in comfort–were forged in hardship and lean times. I think it’s time that we conjured a new church feeling by styling our services to meet the spiritual needs of small congregations. The Book of Common Prayer is a great place to start, since it was originally written in a style that celebrated the beauty in plain song and recitation. I don’t think we should forget about “that church feeling.” Instead, we ought to to reimagine and rebuild it.

IMG_0073Alex Wilgus is the lay-catechist and leader at Logan Square Anglican, a four year old church plant in Chicago, IL. Lauren Wilgus is a marketer for Team World Vision, raising money for clean water projects in Africa. Their first baby will arrive in August.

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