I find myself wanting to reflect on where I am with this project overall. I don’t want change it, but I’m looking for something cohesive about the last seven weeks that hold them together in some way. Some of my observations so far may be a good start:
Assumptions are powerful.
Part of showing up to a church for the first time means people make assumptions about you. Who are you? What are you doing there? What do you want? And I’m not saying assumptions are all bad. We make assumptions all the time. Someone has long, styled hair, a curvy body and wears lipstick, you assume they are a female. We rarely assume gender incorrectly and it would be difficult to interact with someone if we didn’t make a few assumptions about them. Living in an area populated by English speakers, I wouldn’t start talking in Spanish to someone new I’ve just met. I assume they speak English. So far I’m correct. As far as my project goes, there have clearly been assumptions made each and every Sunday I’ve shown up at a new place. At the very first church I visited I was told (as a selling point) that the church has “plenty of single young ladies”. I have to believe this was because they assumed I was a single young lady and wanted peers. Well, I look young and showed up alone. It’s not like I’m offended, it’s just interesting to note. Another big assumption made several times over is regarding the nature of my search. What do I want in showing up at a new church? The assumption: I want a spiritual home. Again, it’s not like I’m offended. Most people going to a church for the first time want this. In a way, I’m not reviewing churches at all. I’m reviewing how churches treat newcomers. I have welcome packets from nearly all the churches I visited. They are all oriented towards new members. Many of them use the word ‘home’ or ‘welcome’. When I go up to the pastor after service they (usually) try to assume intelligently and not guess in the dark, often asking my religious background. I tell them I was raised Catholic. The natural guess from that alone is that I am looking for a new version of Christianity. Many pastors follow up by asking what I am looking for. Some places this also happens with others in the congregation. I like the questions, because they help minimize assumptions. I usually say I’m doing a personal project to visit area Christian churches and learn. Once I actually said learn things and teach things. Which brings me to my next observation,
I like churches that assume I’m smart
This is not to say I want a church to recognize that I’m more intelligent than the average person. Of course I think that I am (don’t we all?) but comparison with others is not what I’m talking about. I really want a church that recognizes the people inside as smart enough to know things regarding God and Jesus. This is a thing I definitely dislike about my Catholic heritage. The way the church is structured is very formal. There are various ranks starting at the parishioner and ending with the Pope. Each is supposed to have more knowledge and answers, making the people stupid, and the Pope infallible. A woman who works at a Catholic church I used to attend once told me that as a child she was not allowed to read the bible. The Catholic church at the time discouraged it; the idea being that without guidance of a priest or other clergy member, the casual bible reader might misinterpret it to their own detriment. I don’t know how far this really went. I read the bible as a child, at least a junior version. And I had the real thing available to me since middle school. But that’s getting off track. My point is, some churches act like their members are stupid. I like it best when I churches act like their members are smart. This, as most of my observations, is hard to judge based on a single visit. There are some good clues though. I like getting encouragement to read the bible myself. I really appreciate a sermon that goes into some depth historically. And I love it when those I talk to seem to view my project in a positive light. Then I know they trust me to be able get it right on my own, rather than needing to return to their church in order to escape damnation. I guess the biggest plus to having a church assume you are smart is the aspect of learning vs teaching. I think it’s maybe possible that I could have something to teach others who are different from me. I want this project to not only be me learning new things, but teaching others new things. I may be just dreaming about this last part, but it’s my wish that others can be open to listening to what I say, as I’m open to listening to what they say.
Where does this leave me?
Well, I’m not sure. My project continues hopefully next Sunday when I am feeling in normal health. I’m ready to hit a couple of churches more in my original tradition. I’ve rarely done a Catholic church as a stand-alone, so that will be something to note for sure. I definitely will have a better idea what to expect there than churches I’ve never heard of before. I will try not to get too many expectations in my head though, and just let the experience be what it is. I am thinking of contacting several churches I’ve been to and sharing the blog address. It might benefit them to have an account of how I felt as a visitor, especially if there were negatives. A friend of mine recently pointed out to me that criticism doesn’t have to be automatically negative. For one thing, it can help you improve. And it could be seen as a sign of respect. If you really didn’t care about a thing, you wouldn’t be bothering. I remember saying something very similar to a friend of mine in a leadership position. He was directing me and I decided to be bold enough to tell him what he was doing wrong, instead of just assuming he had somehow turned into a jerk. I said, “You are my friend and I’m letting you know because of that reason. Otherwise I would just ignore you. I don’t want to do that.” I cared for this person and wanted him to be better. And I care about Christian groups in my area. If I didn’t, I would just ignore them. I don’t want to do that.