Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Menlo Park Presbyterian Church

"We were looking for a church that challenged us intellectually. So many churches are emotionally driven," Valerie said over tacos. That Menlo Park Presbyterian would have such a focus is not surprising, considering where it's located. Often with church there's a bit of destiny in geography and MPPC is just a couple of miles from Stanford University, so yeah, there are people there interested in things of the mind.

It makes sense, then, that the church called someone like John Ortberg, who has his doctorate in psychology as well as his masters of divinity, and who has achieved some renown for his writing and teaching. His preaching is clear and focused and Christ centered. And I can say from the couple of minutes we spoke with him, he also seemed quite gracious. Claudia, a very kind woman we met when we arrived at the church, approached Pastor Ortberg just before the service started and asked him to meet us.

On Saturday evening, the sermon is recorded for use at the other campuses on Sunday morning, and  just before a service is not always a time when pastors love to meet new people, but Pastor Ortberg gave no evidence of being displeased or rushed, and even asked about our blog. When I said we'd been to Anne Lamott's church the previous weekend he certainly perked up. I believe I remember hearing him praise Lamott years ago when we attended an arts conference at Willow Creek Community Church, unless my memory is playing tricks on me (and my memory does play tricks on me, because I remember the diving board at Healdsburg Memorial Beach was 1000 feet tall when I was a kid, and I'm pretty sure it wasn't). One thing that very much impressed me was seeing Ortberg stay after the service to pray with people; which I heard is his regular practice.

MPPC has other blessings and challenges due to its geography. The community is wealthy, and members of the church are generous. This allows the church to do projects like Compassion Weekend -- in addition to service and mission projects throughout the year, one weekend the whole congregation (or most of it, over 3000 people) takes on projects all around the Bay Area: at schools, homeless shelters and other places with great need, teaming with a number of groups, religious and secular. A lot of money (I heard the figure $400,000) is used to help people.

The church has also needed and has used significant sums to plant other campuses in this pricy part of the country. Another great financial need came up a couple of years ago when the church decided to leave the PCUSA denomination and join the ECO (A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians) denomination. The PCUSA required the church to buy back its property and building to leave. One of the reasons they decided to leave the PCUSA was to have the freedom to plant daughter churches. (A number of churches less financially blessed have had the difficult choice of remaining in a denomination with which they have fundamental disagreements or lose their building and property.)

Another challenge of this area at this time is that there are many people in the community who don't think kindly about churches. Many people in the Bay Area think of churches as festering clusters of bigots and haters.

The idea of churches as places of prejudice comes from a few churches that have been pretty awful, as well as bad press and, I believe, lies from Satan. To counter such hostility, the church emphasizes and tries to live by the following motto: "Everyone's Welcome, Nobody's Perfect and Anything's Possible."

New acquaintances told us before the service that over the last few years the church has been trying to overcome some perceived weaknesses. Though people have been free in giving financially, they've been less generous with their time -- so there has been an emphasis on service. They've also have been working through a perception of not being a friendly church, (which was quite strange to hear in the midst of a conversation with a group of very friendly people). But hey, people get different impressions and have different expectations when they go through church doors.

For instance, we were warned before the service that the music would be very loud. Apparently this has been a complaint from some longtime members. It's caused some people to check out other churches, even though there is an early Sunday morning service with traditional music (from the hymnal). Some people, we were told, choose to worship from the library, which has screens displaying what's going on in the sanctuary. Maybe it was because there were no drums in the service we attended, maybe it's that years of youth ministry have made me rather callous to "loud music," but I was baffled by this being a source of conflict (though most churches have bafflingly sources of conflict). I did appreciate the lyrics of the songs being quite legible on the screens (showcasing the worship band and leaders).

I mentioned tacos earlier, and perhaps, if you haven't had lunch, that's all you've been thinking of since you started reading. During the summer, the church is serving dinner after the Saturday evening service (which we attended this week). There is a charge for the meal, but first time visitors eat free -- and it seemed that those in need were provided for as well. There was also a bounce room in a second courtyard area for the kids, with tables nearby where most of the young families ate.

The tacos were very good (catered by a local restaurant). But the welcome we received, the worship, the teaching... all of these things were even better.

Service Length: 1 hour 5 minutes
Sermon Length: 38 minutes
Visitor Treatment: We were welcomed as we walked around before church. There wasn't a greeting time during the service, but there was a card for visitors or regular attenders to fill out. First time visitors were especially encouraged to join the meal (right outside the church doors) afterward, as the church's guests.
Our Rough Count:  200
Probable Ushers' Count: 245
Snacks: a table with free trade, organic decaf coffee, water and lemonade was just outside the main entrance to the sanctuary before and after the service
Musicians:  keyboard (man, also sang)
            2 acoustic guitars (men, also sang)
            singer (woman)
            electric bass (man, didn't sing)
            drum setup, but no drummer this time
Songs:  You are the Giver
            By Your Grace I'm Saved
            All Creatures of our God and King
            Come Thou Fount
            Amazing Grace
            You are my Vision
Miles to place:  94
Total California Miles:  8,633

-- Dean