Foothills Community Church is 6.2 miles from our house, making it the closest church to our house. We never considered attending there, as we’ve considered ourselves Episcopalians since our confirmation in the mid-1990s. My parents are new attendees there, and attend the 8:15am service, and our good friends the Baldwinis*, finding themselves on the other side of town, in an urban setting, are in the process of leaving. Some years back, when the Baldwinis* were new to town, and searching for a faith community, we invited them to our church, then ECOR, an invitation they accepted with some reluctance, in case they didn’t like it, and we didn’t want to be friends with them any longer. But I assured the entire Baldwini* clan that we would certainly like them, whether or not ECOR ended up being the church for them.
It didn’t, but on their journey, they found Foothills Community Church, affiliated with Village Missions.
The people were warm and welcoming, and knew that we were new. In the foyer, we found a welcome packet, which included a copy of “Our Daily Bread,” a business card with contact information for the two pastors, a tri-fold doctrinal statement, a tri-fold “Information for New Worshippers”, and “Let us get to know you” card we could fill out with the enclosed pen. The bulletin was likewise packed with information about the church’s class, group, and ministry offerings, as well as a budget for the month-to-date. The bulletin also had a page-stuffer of “Bible Studies & Care Groups” and a second page that included the sermon title (“Some errors That Will Ruin Your Faith”, the date, Scriptural reference (Colossians 2: 16-23), and listed the three main points (Empty Ritualism, Mysticism, Asceticism) on which the pastor spoke, with spaces to take notes.
In evangelical traditions, the focus of the service tends to be the sermon, and Foothills Community is no exception to this. This is actually what initially drew Michael away from the evangelical tradition and toward the liturgical–in his studies in theology, he hit a point where he just couldn’t take another bad sermon. This isn’t to say that Episcopal priests preach good sermons–some of them preach pretty poorly. But they tend to do so usually in under 20 minutes, and, the focus in the service has two parts: reading scripture and participation in the Eucharist (communion). In Michael’s opinion, even if the sermon is a real stinker, at least the hour wasn’t a complete waste, as you’ve still heard scripture (even if the sermon mangled it), and you’ve still had communion.
The sermon this Sunday, on Some Errors that Will Ruin Your Faith, spent the lionshare of the time on the first point, Empty Ritualism.
I’m not really sure what to say here, as this happened quite by accident, when I googled “Colossians 2: 16-23” and got the sermon “The Things That Can Ruin Your Faith” by the late Ray C. Stedman. The delivery of the sermon was natural, such that it would have never struck me to look online for an original. The many anachronistic 1980s references to the New Age movement and to such personalities as Oral Roberts had been removed, and he critiqued instead liturgical Christian traditions. In the grander scheme of things, it was a very mild critique, and he was quick to move on to the section about turning off one’s mind during the message, or hymns, and other ways that evangelical traditions might practice empty rituals. But there was a sense of irony in critiquing pre-written prayers in the liturgical traditions while reading a pre-written sermon–down to the roast in the oven, and the potential dullness of thoughtless involvement in public worship.
Preaching and Plagiarism is apparently a pretty contested idea, as we see in Steve Mathewson’s “In Praise of Plagiarism?,”
discussed here on NPR with Rev. Claudia A. Highbaugh, chaplain and lecturer at Harvard Divinity School in 2002, Terry Mattingly’s “Plagiarism and the Pulpit” includes the story of A.J. Gordon, an American preacher visiting a church in England, only to hear one of his own sermons preached from the pulpit–circa 1876. Scott Hoezee, at the Center for Excellence in Preaching, talks about how to give verbal footnotes and give credit to the debt of using other people’s materials.
The very best article on the topic I’ve found is “Stolen Goods: Tempted to Plagiarize“, a piece by Thomas G. Long, professor of preaching at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. Among many other things, Long writes:
But preachers who stand up on Sunday morning with a sermon ripped off the Internet and preach the words as if they were their own almost certainly violate the implied agreement with the congregation.
A good test of this point is to ask, What would happen if the preacher told the truth? “Hey folks, it’s been a busy week and I didn’t have time to work on a sermon, and honestly, I’m not all that creative anyway. So this is a little something I found on the ‘net.” The fact that the air would immediately go out of the room is a reliable indicator that the tacit agreement of the sermon event has been violated. This is why plagiarists, for all their blather about God’s words being free for all, never confess their true sources and always imply that these words are coming straight from the heart. Yes, Augustine made space for preachers to memorize the words of other, more eloquent proclaimers, but note well that he added the test of truth: “supposing them to do it without deception.”
On the other side of the fence, is Steve Sjogren, who urges pastors, on pastors.com, in an essay by the same name, “Don’t Be Original–Be Effective!” and goes on to tackle the question of what is heavy borrowing, good stewardship of time, and effective with an audience.
In the sections of the sermon that were original, two things jumped out to me.
As he hit the section about dullness, first, he said, the service, “becomes bull.”
“Dull!” he said, “Dull . . .Freudian slip,” he blushed, “It might be the other, too.”
After the laughter died down, he continued, about mechanical worship becoming dull. And he said this, “I’m not responsible for you having a vibrant spiritual life. You are.”
I think he’s right. While the pastor can certainly inspire action with the sermon, and the quality of worship has an impact on if of not people return and become part of the congregation, we are each responsible for our own spiritual life.
The sermon had no noticeable effect on the singing of the congregation, which I would describe as “lackluster” although I was rather enjoying it, since it included a number of pieces I haven’t heard lately. My dad informs me that the 8:15 am service is much more “alive” “contemporary” and “relaxed” in that way–and that it is the younger of the two congregations. This was surprising to me–in many churches, it’s the later service that the young families with children attend–until I thought more about the congregation, which incorporates many folks from the surrounding farming community. Farmers = up early = want to maximize daylight hours = attend early service. The older, retired folks attend the 11am.
Michael suggests that the keys they chose to sing in were too high. I agree with him, but I have a really limited range.
Many of the songs we sang were not in the hymnal, but beamed via PowerPoint from a projector to a screen that pulled down from the ceiling in the front. The addition to the church, which includes the sanctuary, has a surprisingly low ceiling, padded red pews, and isn’t really quite tall enough for the screen to sit high enough for the people in the back to see the words past the heads of those in front of them. The words themselves are printed in yellow on top of a variety of pictures, many of them clouds with rays-of-light-pouring through, crosses, individual persons praying, church buildings, and a scale. The scale was cause of a number of debates today.
First, when the scale was featured in one the slides, I leaned forward in my seat (as if an extra 8″ would help my vision), and Mrs. Baldwini* whispered, “Yes, yes, it is,” in my ear.
“Yes it is . . . . what?”
“Drops of blood,” she said, shaking her head.
“Are they dropping into a grail or something?”
“I don’t think so.”
“What’s on the other side of the scale?” It looked like three bags of dirt.
“Sin,” she said, matter-of-factly. She’s been attending there for three years. I have no reason to disbelieve her.
Mr. Baldwini* said he’d long since tuned the background photos out.
This is where I began to think that maybe we should have sat a wee bit closer to the front.
My mother’s explanation was more metaphysical. She agreed the the one side of scale had the blood of Christ, but that the other was anything from power, to money, to goods, to a person’s way of thinking–anything that represented something you might hold dear in your life, balanced against what Christ can do for the person. Farmergirl thought it was rose petals and bags of gold. Her dad weighed in that it might be all the world’s riches, or gold, weighed against the blood of Jesus.
The pews were outfitted with NIV Bibles and copies of The New Church Hymnal (Lexicon, 1976). There were also copies of the tri-fold doctrinal page, pencils of the short golfing/library/ Yahtzee size, and A6 envelopes with inserts (to designate a recipient) for the offering plate. There were also holders built into the backs of the pews, indicating the communion is taken individually, and not by common cup. My folks and Farmergirl, who’ve both been there on a Sunday communion is offered, inform me that the communion bread is of a particularly small size, which Farmergirl described as “half an oyster cracker” and my parents described as similar to the shape and size of a “large pill.” Farmergirl was thrown off by this method of communion. As a cradle Episcopalian, she’s pretty exclusively been exposed to the common cup form of communion, with the variances of intinction and crossing one’s arms (like signing “love”) to signal you do not with to partake, but instead receive a blessing.
*not the real sur name of this lovely Italian** family
**not their real ethnicity of pre-American origin