Several years ago a team of involved, intelligent and supportive people worked with me to design and put into practice an alternative worship service in our fairly traditional, upper-middle-class Episcopal church. At times the level of enthusiasm was almost frightening and taxed our commitment to keep the “bones” of our ancient worship tradition while we enfleshed it in more current expressions. One small group was tasked with the challenge of inviting the community into the service. Led by a dynamic, intelligent woman with a love for country and western music, they came up with a slogan: “No shirt, no shoes, no problem!” This apparently was a take-off on a popular country and western song that was then dominating the C&W airwaves. While I admitted to having some misgivings about the slogan, I was particularly concerned about how some of our more straight-laced parishioners would respond to it. The group put the slogan on a large A-frame sidewalk sign in front of the church. It wasn’t long before those with the strongest reactions let us know what they thought. A couple of parishioners called the church office, laughing. They thought the slogan was wonderful. A larger group was led by our self-appointed doyenne of manners, who wrote a long and very angry email to me. She pointed out our long and revered history and tradition. Then she went on to question who we were trying to attract, finishing with, “Exactly what are you trying to bring into our church?!” Not “who”, but “what”. I shared the email with the team, and after a long and emotional discussion, the decision was made to drop the slogan, and we moved on.
The incident caused me – not for the first time – to think about why people go to church. Some go, clearly, because they are able to lose themselves in worship, and meet God in the liturgy of Word and Sacrament. Worship is holy time for them, and they are fed and nurtured, as they are enlivened and strengthened. Others go because going to church fits their definition and image of respectability (decent people go to church.) Some go because their families have always gone, and they uphold the family tradition. Some, unfortunately, attend church because they find in church an opportunity to exercise power and control they lack in other areas of their lives. Many go to church simply for the sake of community. And for most, there probably is a bit of everything in their motivation.
My team was attempting to reach people who had little or no experience of church. Probably their slogan was more inviting than many others would have been. But in the end, it was decided that it could cause more harm than good in our church community. The service we initiated turned out to be beautiful worship, surprisingly contemplative and wonderfully building of community. We never did reach the folks we set out to reach – the non-churched. And maybe, given our larger church community, that was all right. I know that I nurtured a hope that, one day, I’d find a church where “no shirt, no shoes, no problem” would not be a problem.
PS to those who enjoyed the “Creed” – still trying to find out where it came from. I’ll keep you posted!