Big Church

Big Church

Anne and I recently returned from a 2-month sabbatical. It was the third one I’ve had since being ordained, and in a word it was–epic. We ran and rested, biked and hiked and toured. I read and wrote extensively while Anne (a studio artist) sketched and painted. We spent time with our family and close friends in the Pacific Northwest and on the East Coast, then traveled to Norway and Denmark and an extended stay in Italy. The European countries were all ones we had never visited before.  If you want significantly more detail, you can look at this write-up I did for our church family: Sabbatical

One thing I love about traveling is getting to worship in other places. Let me briefly describe a few things about some of our worship experiences:

-a small village church in Compito, Italy (in Tuscany, south of Lucca). Roman Catholic, perhaps 50 people, very traditional, and of course, in Italian. When you can’t understand most of the words, you notice different things. The Statement of Faith was mostly from the Nicene Creed, I could make that out. The centerpiece of the service, besides the Eucharist, was the reading of the gospel. Other scripture readings were done at a small lectern, but the gospel reading was marked by altar girls coming to hold up tall candles on each side of the Bible, and the priest coming to the main pulpit to read from it. The gospel matters.

-the Duomo Cathedral in Florence, Italy. Also Catholic, and we were able to attend a Saturday evening mass in English. The experience of words echoing from a (large) side chapel out into that huge and ornate space was beautiful.

-St. Mary’s Cathedral (Catholic) in the Trastevere district of Rome, an evening Vespers service hosted by the Community of Sant’Egidio, a Christian movement that started in Rome and is now in 70 countries. They emphasize prayer, service to the poor and peace and justice work, going out to minister in daily life and then gathering each evening for Vespers. I love the movement–sent out, perhaps being worn down in service, then gathering together for worship and refueling.

-Hope Church Midtown in New York City, on 52nd St in Manhattan. A small missional church in the city, part of a group of churches around the metropolitan area. A newer friend of mine, Drew Hyun, is the pastor to a couple hundred people in a very multiethnic and young community. On this particular Sunday, there was an adult baptism. After sharing his brief testimony, the new believer climbed into the only receptacle the urban lecture hall setting would really allow, which strangely resembled a coffin filled with water. Drew made a point of not only joking about that, but powerfully noting the theological significance of dying and rising with Christ.

Mattituck Presbyterian Church, Long Island (NY).  I was invited to speak at the installation service of a younger pastor friend, James Cubie, in a gorgeous vineyard area near the water. Mattituck Pres has a couple hundred people and is an evangelical and traditional East Coast PCUSA community. Founded in…1715.

You can tell that these were exceedingly diverse settings, yet they all shared some commonalities. Every single worship venue…had technology issues! Hah! Microphones didn’t work, slides didn’t appear, you name it. If you are involved in church ministry, the very things that drive you crazy are present across the globe.  But much more importantly, our Lord Jesus Christ was lifted up in Word and song and art and prayer and architecture everywhere. The differences in culture, language and tradition faded away as people worshipped in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

These worship experiences and our travels helped us remember a few things that seem important to me today:

  • We were repeatedly reminded that it is a big, beautiful world that God has placed us in. The beauty we experienced, from Vashon Island in Washington state, to Pulpit Rock and the fjords of Norway, to the rolling Tuscan hills of Italy, to the David of Michelangelo. Beauty to fill the soul.
  • We were reminded that the people made in the image of God are everywhere. We were more amazed than we should have been, perhaps, that at every turn we found people friendly, welcoming and helpful. As we know from recent events in Ukraine and the Middle East and our own country, we are surrounded and overwhelmed by daily conflict and vitriol. It can train us to view every person as a threat, every encounter as dangerous. That is, unfortunately, a piece of our reality. But only a piece. There are good, good people everywhere. We met many of them.
  • We were reminded that the Lord’s Church is very large, deep and wide. With the diverse worship experiences I highlighted above, we were ecstatic to learn all over again that the Church of Jesus is (blessedly) far bigger and more diverse than our rather narrow American expressions of it. The gospel is being preached. People in need are being served. People are coming to faith and being baptized. It has gone on for 2,000 years, in cathedrals and churches and homes and streets. It will keep going on, one way or the other, because it’s the Lord’s Church and not ours. Sometimes it’s just good to be reminded.

Peace of Christ,

Dan Baumgartner

Dan Baumgartner is the senior pastor at The Cove in Santa Rosa CA and serves as Secretary on The Fellowship Community Board.