Friday, January 29, 2010

Stealth Church

It's difficult to know even where to begin to blog after spending a week of nonstop activity in Florida -- and I'm still bringing my brain up to speed after a day of recuperative collapse here at home -- but since I'm a church geek, perhaps I'll start there.

We didn't get a chance to visit the ELCA church just a couple of blocks from our resort, because Saturday and Sunday were our busiest family-and-friend days. I enjoy intramural church tourism, so that was a bummer. As far as that goes, even in a tourist-focused community like the greater Orlando/Kissimmee area, it's hard to spit without hitting a church of some kind -- on the 192 main drag, usually a Spanish-speaking Protestant congregation operating out of a storefront.

What I found amusing, though, were the stealth churches. On our one free morning we decided to have lunch in a nice little Chinese place in the Watertower Plaza of Celebration, the Disney-engineered planned city between Kissimmee and Orlando. Despite the Disney connection, the plaza was refreshingly free of theme-park-icity, and actually seemed to be more geared toward locals than tourists. As we drove around the neat yellow blocks of storefronts we came upon one with a sign reading "The Hub"; underneath was a subtitle something like "A Place To Connect," with information about meeting times. A logo reading "Celebration!" was off to the side. Then, in the billboard equivalent of 5-point type, like the kind on the back of your credit card bills, was something about "Church." My keen analytical mind kicked into gear: Aha! A church that doesn't want you to know it's a church!"

After we got home I tried looking up this outfit online. Apparently it is a kind of satellite ministry of Celebration Community Church, a non-denominational congregation whose theological orientation was difficult to ascertain, even after wading several pages deep into its website and into its "What We Believe" section. I'm guessing Southern Baptist in a cabana shirt with a happy-face pin on the collar. I'm also guessing that, after getting involved in the congregation enough to feel comfortable enrolling in a "Lifeshaping" class ("I went to Pilates this morning, and then after dinner we're all going to Lifeshaping..."), one would find out that if you're female your role in the congregation is pretty much relegated to Kinder und Kueche, and that if you're gay or lesbian...well, let's not even go there.

My reaction to all this twee coyness and equivocation: Oh, cut the crap already. Or as our church-estranged Orlando kids, whose livelihoods are based on creating convincing worlds of illusion and who can thus spot fakery in a nanosecond, would say: Really? I mean, seriously?

On Monday, while visiting St. Augustine, Fellow Traveler and I paid a visit to the St. Augustine basilica in the middle of the old town. (Son-in-Law's comment, when we've gone church sightseeing before: "I'm always afraid I'll spontaneously combust if I step inside.") Here we got unabashed old-school Roman Catholic: crucifixes, candles, statues of Our Lady and the Infant of Prague, holy cards of tortured saints. A hint of lingering incense.

It is what it is. Hallelujah. As are the multitude of shabby little Pentecostal tabernacles and white clapboard churches dotting the backroad Florida countryside. As are the ecclesias along 192.

Here's a unique marketing concept for churches desperate for outreach: Stop the bullshit. Please. Stop trying to pretend that you're a "lifestyle center" or "gathering place." Stop the lying-by-omission on your signboards and in your websites.  You're not fooling anyone.

Authenticity. Being who you are, not what you think other people want you to be. What a concept.


zorra said...

I can deal with the crucifixes and holy cards and serious incense a lot better than I can with the Hawaiian-shirt-football-analogies-movie-watching-big-fake-grin-happy-talk "seeker" church experience. Granted,it's not aimed at/intended for you and me. (And those midweek services for "more mature believers" have just a hint of gnosis about them, IMO. Am I being unfair?)But do we really want to try to draw in honest seekers of truth with this sort of crap? Does that really work, by the way?

LutheranChik said...

Not only Gnostic (the same scenario happens in neopaganism, where initiation into the "mysteries" happens gradually), but bait-and-switch...theologically naive people being drawn into relationships and experiential stuff in these churches until they're hooked, and then they go to the next level and find out what the church REALLY thinks about this or that. It's a very dishonest m.o., IMHO. Say what you mean and mean what you say and be who you are.

zorra said...

I attended a Baptist church that some friends had joined, that didn't have the B-word anywhere in its name. I wondered,at what point do you tell people they've joined (or are about to join) a Baptist church? Do you lock the doors at that point? I'm not just picking on the Baptists, but yeah, what you said, be who you are. This gradual drawing-in to the next level isn't much different from the way Scientology works, although it may a bit less expensive.

Deana said...

Same goes for inviting the community to an evening Christmas concert at your church and then announcing that this is a "worship service in song" and telling them they can't applaud until the end.

LutheranChik said...

Yes. To me it speaks to a real lack of faith in the Holy Spirit to think that one needs to trick people into church. Come on.