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Monday, February 14, 2011

Leave Your Preconceptions at the Door

Cyril and Methodius - Missionaries to the Slavs (869)

Those of us who are deep enough in the world of religious geekdom to be aware of the Ship of Fools live in mild trepidation of the possibility our place of worship will be a port of call for that phantom menace, the Mystery Worshiper.  You never know that a visitation has taken place until (s)he leaves the trademark calling card: literally, a card in the collection plate.  Of course, everybody from the altar guild to the homilist fears such a guest will come on the day we are least prepared to impress, and the reviews, while taking into account a congregation's resources or lack thereof, make no bones about elements of the service they find less-than-heavenly.

 My own congregation has yet to be paid such a visit, but my previous one has been.  And -- while a few of the comments were beyond argument -- it's one of those things where it's okay for us to say it, but when you hear it from an outsider, well, ouch.

Thus, it was with some interest that I learned about a blog project underway called "Who are the Churches in Your Neighborhood?"  If that sounds like the name of a song from Sesame Street, that's not an accident.  In fact, the writer adopted as a pseudonym "Bob McGrath" after the actor who gave voice to the puppet character with the same first name.  His reasons for anonymity are similar to those of the Mystery Worshiper: he wants to experience congregations as they really are, not when they're putting on a show.

However, while I've deduced that the purpose of the Mystery Worshiper is to gently and humorously show us how we are perceived by others , Mr. McGrath's intentions seem purely introspective.  He decided to -- over the course of a year -- visit the 50 houses of worship closest to his home, simply "because they're there." He knows that his understanding of the various faith communities around him are shaped by everything except what they should be: direct contact with the people inside.  Thus the one person he expects to be changed by this experience is the one person who should be: himself.

This is not to say that he is not observant of what he's taking in, and sometimes it is delivered with the same biting humor favored by the crew of the Ship of Fools:

"I was intrigued to see that they had built an enclosed cage for the drummer. I thought it was probably needed to mute the clanging cymbals in the acoustically challenged room, but when I saw that the drummer actually looked like Animal from the Muppet Show, I wondered if the box was for safety reasons."

Of course the article through which I stumbled into this project is the one where he visits "the gay church" aka the local Metropolitan Community Church.  Founded in the late 1960s by a defrocked Pentecostal minister, The Rev. Elder Troy Perry, the MCC has emerged into a worldwide Christian denomination whose 250 congregations are majority-LGBT.

Mr. McGrath's account of his visit to the MCC church near him is three-quarters about what was going through his mind as he approached, entered and participated in the service, and very little about the service itself, much less detail than he gave to the megachurch the week before.  I think that's because what struck him about it was not how "different" it was, but how different it wasn't.  I'm not going to deconstruct every line, instead I invite you to read it for yourself.  However, I was struck by his honesty about what was in his head going towards that visit, and what he took from it.

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