Thomas McKenzie
by grace alone


Thomas McKenzie's Blog.

What Matters in Worship

A view on Orcas Island

What Matters in Worship
A Tale of Three Churches

In this post I compare three congregations and make unflattering statements about all of them. This is judgmental on my part.  However, this experience was important to me.  So I am going to put my judgments out there, not because I want to be hurtful, but because I discovered what is important to me as a worshiper.  I hope this will help you think about what you value as a worshipper as well. 

My family spent the month of June on Orcas Island, off the coast of Washington State.   Orcas is a lovely place with a few tiny villages, one which may be large enough to be called a town.  The residential population of the island is only about 5,000.  The island features amazing scenery, including a 3,000+ foot tall mountain, fresh water lakes, plenty of wildlife, and no traffic lights.  There are art galleries, small shops, and restaurants.  It is the perfect place to unplug and relax.

It was important for me to find a church to attend while we were there.  Looking on the internet, I found that I would not have many choices.  As far as I could tell, and I could be wrong, but there seemed to be only three active Christian congregations on the island.  

One church is Episcopal.  It has a lovely building right on the water.  I was a little suspicious because the pastor is a former bishop who had a very main-line “liberal” background.  Those churches tend to the moralistic, deistic, and therapeutic.  My suspicions seemed to be confirmed when I read their vision statement (on the sign in front of their building): “our mission is to love God and God’s creation with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength.”  I’m all about loving God and loving creation; but striving to love creation as much as you love God is--how do I put this gently?--pagan.  Confusing the Creator with his creation is not acceptable to me.  Twisting the words of both Moses and Jesus in your mission statement is distasteful at best.  I enjoyed the view from the church, but I decided not to attend.  

Of the two remaining churches, one is non-denominational and the other Roman Catholic.  The Catholic church happened to be next door to our house.  The non-denominational church had two morning services, the other had Mass at 1 p.m.  I decided to attend both of them on that first Sunday.  My family came with me to the Mass, but not the other service.   

The non-denominational church was laid back and inviting.  When I walked in, people were friendly.  The music was way better than I expected.  It was their once-a-month communion Sunday, which meant I shouldn’t expect to receive communion there again while I was on the island.  The pastor had a good message about caring for your soul.  However, I kept asking myself “did the Son of God need to die for this sermon to be true?”  The answer, I’m afraid, was “not really.”  After the service was over, the pastor found me and introduced himself.  He asked me to have coffee.  Our appointment later that week was really good, and I genuinely like him and admire his work.  He's a really cool guy.  

The Catholic church was a very different experience.  The sanctuary was small, and we were uncomfortably close to the altar area.  It did have a lovely stained glass window.  No one was friendly to us.  There were ushers out front, but they only stared at us when we walked up.  To follow the liturgy required four objects: a bulletin, a missal, a song missal, and a laminated sheet with liturgical responses.  None of these were offered or even pointed out to us, and no one offered to help when my daughters were obviously struggling.  The music was not what you would call good: a few older ladies singing in the choir, a piano player who kept making mistakes, and a congregation that didn’t seem to want to join in.  The priest seemed to be a nice enough guy.  He was Vietnamese (I believe) but his English was fine.  After the service was over, no one made the slightest effort to be welcoming.  On the way back to our house, one of my daughters commented how this made her “miss the South.”  

All that said, I found myself moved to tears in the Catholic worship.  For all the lack of hospitality, there were two things that ministered to me.  First, the liturgy.  Yes I struggled with the new Mass, and yes the music was distracting.  But I felt so at home, like I was floating down a river I had been in a thousand times.  At the end of it, I got to receive Holy Communion, and I knew that Communion would be available next week as well.  (Yes, I did take Communion in a Roman Catholic Church, but that is an entirely different blog post).  Second, the priest’s sermon was exactly what I needed.  He didn’t have a well planned, well worded homily.  He didn’t give me any good advice.  Instead, he stood up there and told me of the beauty of Jesus.  He pointed me to Christ.

I didn’t go back to the non denominational church.  I felt guilty about this because the pastor had been so nice to me.  While his congregation was much more welcoming, and the service so well done, I felt that it wasn’t what I needed.  Instead I kept going back to Mass.  The people didn’t get any more welcoming, the music didn't improve, and I still fumbled with all the books.  But I was being fed with Word and Sacrament.  The priest preached the Gospel and then he gave me Communion.  That’s enough for me.

At our church, I want members of our congregation to be welcoming.  I want the music to be beautiful.  I want the sermon to be inspiring.  I want everyone to feel blessed.  Most of the time I think this happens.  Sometimes it doesn’t all come together.  I’m not sure what people expect when they come to our church, or any church.  But I know what I expect.  I know what I need.  I need to be served the Body and Blood of Christ every Sunday, and I need someone to preach the Gospel of Jesus to me.  That is why I need, and that is what I intend to provide for others.