Over the first weekend in January, Lisa and I traveled to Washington, DC to visit our son and daughter-in-law. Aside from the great meals and conversations, we also joined them for Sunday worship at a church they attend periodically. The congregation is All Souls Church near the Adams Morgan neighborhood. What follows are some brief observations of what it’s like to attend a church of another tradition.
- Parking was a bit of pain, as you have to park on the street. No parking lot. We normally take mass transit in the cities we visit, but several factors made us drive including the need to drive out to the burbs for an afternoon visit with my brother and his family.
- It was easy to find the entrance, and despite the cool drizzly weather there were people outside greeting us. They had name tags and a smile, “welcome to All Souls.” They were expecting guests. Does your church?
- Once inside someone handed me a bulletin, and said “sit wherever you like.” This was important, cause I’ve never been to a Unitarian church. Did they have special rules regarding who sits where?
- I sat about 2/3 of the way back, cause it was filling up fast and I needed to save four seats together.
- The church filled between 11:10 and 11:25, with worship beginning at 11:15. There were many people of a wide range of ages. It was mostly white, with about 10-15% African American, and there were many same gender couples.
- Worship was vibrant, a great mix of music, with hymns that were easy to sing. “Hush, Hush, Somebody’s callin’ my name” “Morning has Broken” “We are marching in the Light of God” and a gospel version of “This Little light of Mine” The fact that the songs/hymns were easy to sing was very important to me as a non-musician. I’ve been to churches where no one knows the songs, and we all just mumble through. In contrast, everyone sang and this brought energy to the place.
- There choir anthems were much more intricate and sophisticated, and they were well done – really well done. There were 3, and they ranged in musical styles from classical to jazz to gospel/rock. Apparently, sometimes they do opera pieces.
- There was a hokey children’s sermon, but then again, I’ve yet to see or give a children’s sermon that I liked.
- The sermon was well done with both biblical references to Miriam as well as contemporary authors and poets. The theme was around this new year and a chance for each of us to Sing a New Song in our lives.
- Since it was a Unitarian worship, we did not have Holy Communion, and there was minimal, if any reference to Jesus. It was a worship service focused on a broadly defined understanding of God.
- I left energized and inspired. The community was welcoming, and if I was a newcomer looking for a faith community, I’d probably go back. As a theologian, were there pieces I would have hoped for, of course. But I was not there to evaluate and judge, I was there to enter into the experience. I was rewarded.
All Souls has clearly carved out it’s mission as the liberal social justice church. They make no bones about it. They don’t apologize for who they are and what they are focused on – rally’s for an affordable housing project, a film group going to see “Selma”, an LGBTQ emphasis. They know who they are, and people embrace it.
What can we learn from this experience that can be applied to our churches?
1. Be intentional about welcoming people. Have greeters outside with name tags.
2. Make music accessible for people who don’t sing much, and use your choir/band/specialists for the more sophisticated pieces.
3. Know who you are. Don’t copy All Souls or any other church. Carve out your own identity and make it clear.
4. Notice the outward or externally focused nature of this congregation. They are committed to serving their community, their context. Once again, I’ve said it a million times, “Externally focused churches have a future. Inward, self-serving, we are here for our people churches have a very short lifespan.”