Wednesday, December 27, 2017

We Go to Your 5 Favorite Churches from 2017

I almost wrote that we didn't go to a new church this week -- but that isn't quite true.

Christmas Eve morning we went to The Bridge, the Evangelical Free Church next door to where we live. We go there most Sundays, and we've written about it a couple of times, so nothing new about that worship service. But on Christmas morning, we worshiped at home with our son, one of our daughters, her husband, and my brother.

Our son read the nativity passage from Luke 2. We sang a carol, "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing." We prayed. It was a traditional Christmas worship service for our family, but since this was our first Christmas in our apartment on Ashlan in Fresno, I'm calling it a new church. (Later that day, our other daughter joined us via video chat, and together we shared another Christmas tradition: singing carols in bad Cockney accents like Dickensian orphans).

As the year ends, we're thankful for more opportunities to see God working a variety of creative ways in His church. Going to church in 2017 was a different experience than we had traveling from state to state in 2016, but we appreciated the adventure of exploring one place and discovering that the diversity could still be so great.

One reason this ongoing experience stays fun is that we get to share it with you. We so appreciate hearing from you and knowing that this blog has been an encouragement.

To close the year, we thought it'd be nice to look back at our five most popular posts of the year.

We go to our new home church
We go to church in 2017
We go to a church in transition
We go to Spring Hills Community Church
We go looking for young adults

Thanks for going to church with us in 2017. May God bless you in 2018!

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

We Go to Church for the Carols (but not the Beer)

Woven Community, Fresno, California
When Mindy was researching church Christmas events and found “Beer and Carols,” we knew we had to go. We don’t only write this church blog, we also write a bar blog. It was obviously a must-go event for us.

Beer and Carols took place at Tree of Life, a restaurant in downtown Fresno (more about the venue on Saturday at Dean and Mindy Walk into a Bar). It’s a Wonderful Life was playing on the big screen, which was fitting, too. It’s a Christmas film with bar scenes and at least a cameo appearance by a church.

We ordered our drinks (there was a nifty beer tap, but we went another way). The folks behind the counter told us there were snacks on one of the tables for the carol sing, so we decided to hold off on ordering any other snacks after seeing the plates of Christmas cookies (I choose a stocking shaped sugar cookie) and tortilla chips with dip. “Beer and Carols” song books were stacked at one end of the table, so we each picked one up.

A few people were already sitting at the tables, one large family group eating dinner together before the singing got started. People greeted friends warmly; some folks had brought friends and/or family, and introductions were made all around. A man was playing Christmas music on a keyboard (including some Vince Guaraldi Charlie Brown tunes); he was later introduced as E.J. Hinojosa.

The singing didn’t start promptly at 6:00 pm (scheduled starting time), but about at about ten after or so. April, a staff member of Woven Community Church, welcomed everyone to the fourth annual Beers and Carols event and kicked things off with “O Come, All Ye Faithful.” People joined in heartily.

Mostly we sang “church carols” (“Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” “O Little Town of Bethlehem”), but April introduced a song “for some of our favorite members of our community - those under five and those under five in their hearts.” That song was “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer,” and as happens with that song, people added extra bits. (“Like a lightbulb,” “Like Pinocchio,” and “Like Monopoly”)

After about half a dozen songs, a break was announced. We were next to a mother whose seven-year old was playing with another family’s toddler, leading to a pleasant conversation between Mindy and Elizabeth. I tracked down April to talk to her about the event and Woven Church.

April confirmed this was the fourth Beer and Carols event, which is especially impressive since the church is only a little over four years old. I asked who had the idea for the event, and she admitted it might have been hers. The first years, the event was held at Fresno Brewing Company, then it moved on to Mia Cuppa. That space has new owners and a new name since last Christmas, so this year, the event's moved to Tree of Life.

I asked what April thought were the best things about the Woven Community, and she said, “Woven is a place people are safe to be themselves. We have people who have been hurt and here they feel safe.”

The church website says that Woven Community started as a group of friends, many of them who hadn’t been going to church. In January of 2013 they began to meet and look at how they could be a place that would welcome outcasts and restore them into community. They wanted to make a place where people could “ask questions, share life with others, and practice gratefulness.” April obviously loves this church and the people in it.

Still, after we’d bought our drinks, picked up our songbooks, and sat down at a table, nobody connected with the church greeted us before the singing began, even though we at a table that shared a bench seat with others attending the event. (Well, someone asked to borrow a chair.)

I get it. People are excited to see friends and family, especially at Christmastime. We certainly don’t always notice newcomers at church and Mindy, especially, tends to feel uncomfortable greeting strangers. Still, it seemed like this was a small enough community that people might notice a table with isolated strangers to Woven who seemed to want to be part of the event (having picked up the songbooks and all).

The idea of Beer and Carols is a great one, and with the event ad on Facebook and various local bulletin boards, it seems likely that newcomers, maybe even people who don’t go to church, would come. Even people who were already at the restaurant and spontaneously decided to join in would likely appreciate a greeting. Such a wonderful opportunity to meet new folks shouldn’t be lost -- it would be a good thing for some people to intentionally look out for newcomers to the event.

We had a good time singing. April introduced the last song by saying, “We wouldn’t want to you to leave here without ruining your voices altogether” to lead into “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” “Five golden rings” was loudly stretched to the limit every time. As the gathering officially came to a close, everyone was invited to worship at Woven Community Sunday afternoon at their 5:00 pm gathering. I hope new people go, and are made quite welcome.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

We Go to Bethlehem on Foot

Living Nativity at Memorial United Methodist Church, Clovis, California
Memorial United Methodist Church, Clovis, California
Last Saturday and Sunday night, Merced, California, was the City of David. At least that’s how the guide at the Living Nativity explained Mary and Joseph’s journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem -- he compared the distance they traveled to the distance between Clovis to Merced.

So we managed to walk all the way to Merced, er, Bethlehem on Sunday night. (Or we walked around the church and into the sanctuary. Still, it was a journey.)

Confession time: we’ve been to this church building before. We visited a Hmong service a few months ago (it took two tries), and Mindy’s been to their thrift store several times. That’s where she heard about the church’s live nativity, and we decided it wouldn’t really count as a repeat.

A centurion greeted each group of new arrivals, announcing that Caesar Augustus had commanded everyone to go to their ancestral home for a census. (More quietly, he directed us to the table where we were to register for our tour. Everyone was assigned a letter for a “census” group, along with a number. We were in group D) As we waited for our tour, we stood by the fire, which felt quite nice. The fire doubled in the program as a couple men from the church cooked hot dogs over the blazing logs.

With our guide, we followed a sidewalk lined with luminaria to the first scene: Mary being visited by an angel, Gabriel. (The Scripture called the angel a “he,” but the angels we saw during our walk all looked female. Scripture also indicates that gender might not even be a thing with angels.) We found Mary cooking matzo bread when the angel brought the news that she would be the mother of the world’s Savior. There was then taped music of “Love was Born at Christmas”.

We next visited Joseph who seemed to have fallen asleep while snacking on the same bread Mary had been baking. After the angel’s announcement about the coming Messiah, we had live singers lead us in singing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” (They said we were all welcome to join the church choir.)

Off we went to see another angelic announcement when the shepherds were given the good news of the baby in the manger. Our guide (in standard church Biblical costume/bathrobe) told us that Scripture said that a “multitude” of angels appeared to the shepherds, which could have been millions… or two. For budgetary reasons, I assume, we had two. Our guide also mentioned that the sheep these particular shepherds of Bethlehem were tending could well have been sold to the temple to be used as sacrifices for sin. The lively group of shepherds of different ages and shoe types (dress to tennis) reacted in a variety of ways to the angel’s announcement, and we all joined in singing “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” One of the shepherds seemed to be dancing her excitement about the newborn king.

Next stop was the Magi. Our guide noted that although there were three men in the scene and we sang “We Three Kings,” the Bible never says how many men came from the East, but that tradition has named three, probably came from the fact that three gifts were mentioned (gold, frankincense, and myrrh). The guide also pointed out that their wise men were obviously genuine wise men because they all had glasses.

The final stop was in the scene at the manger with Mary, Joseph and the Baby, joined by angels, shepherds, and their dog. (The dog never did make it into the manger, but it did make me think of that phrase, “dog in a manger,” which I never understood. So I looked it up when I got home. If you’re curious, follow this link.)

People were encouraged to stay as long as they wished at the nativity scene as Scripture was read and "Silent Night" was sung. It is a wonderful thing at Christmas to have time to stop and consider what it means that God Himself entered this world as a human baby.

After awhile, we left the sanctuary and went outside, where we could pick up one of those hot dogs we’d seen cooking. We brought our plates inside the fellowship hall where there were also drinks and cookies and flyers listing upcoming Christmas services. “Angels Among Us” is the church’s seasonal theme, and there was a photo op off to one side. You could get a picture of yourself with angel wings and a slogan of your choosing.

It was a nice night to hear again the Christmas story, sing carols, and eat warm snacks. The walk was nice too. We were glad we could make it to Bethlehem (if not Merced).

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

We Go to Church for Advent (and Pancakes)

Roger was wearing his Knights of Columbus apron when he stopped by our table. Someone asked if his wife was there yet, and he said he’d left her asleep at home. He said he’d pick her up in plenty of time for 11:00 am Mass. Nobody was criticizing Roger’s wife for sleeping in -- after all, the K of C pancake breakfast began at 6:00 am, and I’m sure Roger was there before that. I can’t blame her at all for staying in bed.

We didn't get there in time for 6:00 breakfast either, but we were there for 6:30 Mass; we went for breakfast after that. When we arrived at the church door as the service began, everything outside was still dark and chilly. We were trying to remember whether this was the earliest worship service we’d been to since we began this blog a little over two years ago, then remembered we went to an Easter sunrise service in Atlanta.

Still, it was an unusually early morning for us -- but not, it seemed, for many others. Though not at capacity, there was a good crowd for the service, and they weren’t just older folks. We saw a number of families with school aged and younger children and realized that this service time must be a real blessing for soccer families.

We entered the sanctuary a couple of minutes after the service began, so I believe we missed the announcements -- but not the musical prelude or opening hymn. There was no music in the service except for a line of Alleluias from the missal. (There were several other lines in the missal that had music, but we just spoke the words.) I don’t know if this service is always sans music or not. It could be they didn’t have a cantor for the morning or they might always skip music in that service to keep the running time tight. We did see someone with a guitar entering the church for the 8:00 am Spanish language Mass.

The priest leading Mass was from Africa (I’m guessing from his accent). I got to thinking about how much easier it is for the Catholic Church to move clergy to different countries and cultures. The service is the same everywhere, if one can just learn the language. (This would have been even simpler in the Latin always and everywhere days.)

His homily began with a story from the sinking of the Titanic illustrating the need for vigilance against icebergs, leading to a lesson for our need to be vigilant during Advent, looking for the Lord’s coming (and second coming). After the homily, an older couple lit the first Advent candle, with a special blessing for the beginning of this exciting season.

After the service I asked the priest whether he would be having pancakes, and he said, “No.” I wondered whether he is fasting festive things until Christmas, since Advent is a traditional season of fasting. At one point during the service, he’d mentioned that his vestments were the same as those for Lent, another season of waiting and preparation. (Aside from the Advent candles, the church won’t be decorated for Christmas until December 24th.)

We walked next door to Our Lady of Perpetual Help School, where the pancake breakfast and Christmas boutique were being held. Outside the door, donations were being taken for the church’s Saint Martha’s Pantry and for Toys for Tots.

The pancake breakfast was offered on a donation basis, no required minimum payment. All the servers were quite cheery, and we sat at a table with kindly retired folks who quite obviously were a part of the church, and greeted each other happily. When Roger stopped by, he asked Richard (seated next to Mindy) about his golf game. Richard said he hadn’t golfed for some time. Roger said he’d gone golfing the day before with his son who told him (after the game), “Dad, I’m not taking you golfing anymore. You’re losing too many of my good balls.” Roger said he’d also gotten a complaint from nearby fishermen. Too many of his balls went into the river, scaring the fish.

I’m sure the money raised by the breakfast and boutique will make many people’s Christmas season more joyful. This church’s activities have already made our Advent more joyful.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

We Go to our Mailbox (and our Inbox)

How churches respond to visitors
We don’t get much mail. Being on the road last year without a physical address seemed to discourage all but the most persistent junk mail from catching up with us. (Some still found us. It’s rather sad when we've sent a small amount to a charity that more than two years later, they’ve spent at least that much on requests for more money. We tossed those letters without opening, but one organization has followed us to three addresses, with no response on our part.)  

But we do get mail from churches. We go to a new church almost every week (though we didn’t this week, just went to the same one we attend most weeks), and MIndy faithfully fills out the response cards. Even though some churches never get around to mentioning where visitors can register their attendance, Mindy tracks it down if she can. Some churches ask visitors to  stand, even to introduce themselves. More than one church had ushers who handed us a card and pen and watched as we filled it.

Last year we didn’t have a physical address, only email, but this year we have both, and we often fill out both kinds of addresses. Strangely, some churches don’t offer a choice of which you’d prefer. They have their own preferences. We recently visited a church that announced they’d send a gift to our home. It turned out to be a gift certificate for a free burger (which could have probably been sent by email just as easily and more economically, though of course we're grateful for free food!).

It’s a very good thing for churches to reach out to visitors. It’s definitely worthwhile to thank visitors for coming and even better to offer opportunities for people to become involved if they choose. But there are some things we think could be improved.

For instance, Mindy usually fills out the cards, and she usually writes, “Dean and Mindy Anderson” because, you know, those are our names and she figures one registration card is enough. A number of times, we’ve gotten letters or emails addressed to “Dean” alone. Would they have been addressed to Mindy if she’d put “Mindy and Dean Anderson,” or was unthinking sexism at work?  It seems to us that if two names are on the card, two names should be on the letter.

Another occasional problem with giving an email address has been those churches that never stop sending emails. Like the charity that found us after every move, some churches don’t manage to ever take us off their mailing lists, even after we ask.

Sometimes those letters come with an assumption that the receiver is already excited about and committed to the church. “Now that you’re part of our family” is the tone -- even when we just visited once. I guess the next step after one visit is membership...and probably a place on one of their boards.

But any of this is preferable to churches that don’t follow through at all (or worse yet, make no effort to know who's at church on any given Sunday). A visitor who comes as a stranger and remains a stranger -- unless that's their choice -- indicates the church is not doing what the church is called to do, to be Christ’s representative to the world.

So those letters, whether electronic or snail, are good things. Even better is a greeting from a person in person that can lead to a real relationship, like some of those we've found since the start of this project.