Stranger In A Strange Land: Church Search, Part 137

We’ve been here in Sarasota for three and a half months, and not too long ago, someone asked me how the church search was going.

“It feels like we’ve been looking for a church for the last four decades,” I answered. Maybe because we have.

Between moves and various unhealthy situations that often served as an unwelcome catalyst to begin searching for a new congregation, Bill and I have done way more than our share of church searching. I understand why those who’ve been burned or burned out by the church head for the exits, rarely or never to return. Despite all the garbage we’ve experienced, I still trust that connection with other believers is essential to learning the way of Jesus, though we are unlikely to ever go through a formal membership process again.

I’ve visited (and Bill, who has made a few visits with me when he’s here*) several congregations including an artsy start-up non-denominational, a troubled Messianic fellowship, a small Episcopal congregation that functioned as a family church, and a large, very traditional conservative Episcopal (Anglo-Catholic) church smack-dab in the middle of town. We’re also currently attending a Community Bible Study that draws from Baptist, Nazarene, and various non-denominational congregations in the area, giving us a way to meet believers from a variety of local bodies.

So after ruling out the sermon-centric non-denominational churches in the area (we’re weary of all that talking), we find ourselves back in the Anglican stream. We’re attending the large, very conservative Episcopal/Anglo-Catholic congregation in downtown Sarasota. Though we’ve been in many different kinds of worship settings over the years, including an Anglican congregation that used formal liturgy, we’ve never attended a church where (a) they use a pipe organ instead of a piano, guitar, or band (b) they have a gowned and very well-trained choir performing sacred classical music (c) the prayers and responses are mostly, but not entirely, canted (sung) and (d) the congregation wears suits and dresses to worship services.

I love and miss Jewish liturgy, but traditional Anglican liturgy echoes some familiar Jewish worship themes and styles – understandable, as distinctly Christian liturgy emerged out of the Jewish soil of Jesus and the early church. I’ll probably never like organ music, though in this setting and performed by someone who knows what he’s doing, at least I don’t feel like I’m at a depressing 1950’s-era roller rink. It is weird to be in a place where people get DRESSED for church, and it did freak me out at first to be the most underdressed woman in the place. I wear long shorts or capris (with an occasional casual skirt, just to mix it up), and a dressy tee. I don’t have the wardrobe, funds, or the inclination to join the fashion parade. The homilies during the service have been refreshingly Jesus-centered and less than 15 minutes in length. You can’t beat a liturgical service for the amount of Scripture read/proclaimed as part of worship.

But the real moment for me in these services is walking forward each week during communion, holding my hands open like a beggar, and having a pastor or deacon place in my extended palms the body of Christ, broken for me, and then another pastor or deacon taking that unleavened wafer from my hands, dipping it into the cup of wine, blood shed for me, and then placing it in my opened mouth. It is an enactment of the reality that Jesus has done for me what I can not do for myself. This is not worm theology. It is good news. In that moment, the organ music, the pomp and ritual, and the suits and dresses don’t matter at all. Every single one of us comes to Jesus as beggars, and he loves us just as we are.

I do feel like a stranger in a strange land, but it’s not a bad place to be. Bill and I aren’t alone there. God is with us.

If you’ve been in a church that doesn’t use formal liturgy, and then moved to a church that does, what surprised you most about the switch? 


* Note: Bill is still commuting back and forth to Chicago for work. His current contract ends in December. His other full-time job is looking for his next job. Please pray for him as he searches for a job that will bring in some income, use his skills, and allow him to live here full-time. 

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9 thoughts on “Stranger In A Strange Land: Church Search, Part 137”

  1. I appreciated your words of evaluation for your church search. Since June I have been touring different churches in my area. I haven’t moved in 40 years, but haven’t had (or taken) the opportunity to visit widely beyond my own denomination. This adventure just seems to be serving my spiritual place right now. I plan to write about it later, but I’m not ready yet. I’m having a grand time seeing what God is doing in different places that the body meets.
    Thanks for sharing your experience. There’s no perfect church, but I hope you find most of your needs met.

  2. Really enjoyed reading this, Michelle. I attend a very informal church and sometimes steal away to attend the Anglican church I went to as a student. I love going forward for Communion, too. There are definitely aspects of the more formal liturgy that I miss. I hope you continue experiencing God’s love and grace wherever you are.

  3. Glad the body of Christ includes diversity in membership and in worship styles. Thanks. 🙂

  4. Michelle, I so appreciated this post as I do feel like a stranger in a strange land at times. Yet, I know we are where we are supposed to be. Communion has always been, and remains for me, a most profound moment in any service. To think that Jesus is waiting for me, for us, to drink again in His Father’s Kingdom moves me every time. May God be with you and Bill, blessing you as you come before Him every week.

  5. Michelle,
    I enjoyed your post. Serving as a pastor of a Lutheran Parish with historic liturgical roots (no I don’t chant and our people are thankful for that!) I see a few advantages. True, the liturgy is rooted in Scripture and styled in Old Testament forms. With respect to the Sacrament it is tied not only to the Passover but to the sacrificial system which all points to Christ. From a practical standpoint I do not need to be creative or innovative when planning worship. The liturgy sets the table for us. The rhythm the church year as laid out in the assigned readings for each week (again reaching back to the Old Testament) allows us to know what is to come. The Transfiguration will always be the last Sunday in Epiphany. The temptation of Jesus will always be read the first Sunday of Lent and so it goes. As we live in a world with so many distractions a liturgical setting help us keep focus. With respect to a dress code – I doubt if the Savior really cares. His gifts are there for you to receive. His open hand is what is truly important.

  6. Yes, I’ve been in non-liturgical settings most of my life, but have always loved liturgy when I’ve had the chance to ‘get in on it’ here and there. We recently moved from a Plymouth Brethren Assembly to an Anglican Church (ACNA). Of course the externals are entirely different, but there are incredible similarities as well. The centrality of the Lord’s Supper, for one. The amount of Scripture read is another (both have about the same amount each Sunday, amazingly). The sermons are candid and rich – accessible to both low-brows and lofty ones. I once wrote a paper comparing a more traditional P.B. church to an Episcopalian church, and again found more that correlated – Christo-centric worship etc. Of course I see huge differences as well – but I embrace the FULL body of Christ, which means the external forms and trappings are ways of expressing a communal identity, more than dogma. At least that is how I look at it. I love quiet, meditative music and silence. I don’t always love loud, boisterous expressions, but recognize there is a full gamut of human emotion that is appropriate in worshipful expression. I like hymns and new songs, and play both at the piano. I’ve been at what I call ‘rock-band-churches’ and formal-high-churches. I’ve been in Africa with acapella singing that is rich and full and harmonious, and in shrinking elderly gatherings states-side with weaker acapella voices singing. All are beautiful, all are blessed to enter these moments. On Sunday I played piano at my old church and there were about 20 or so gathered to remember the Lord. It is a blessing to be there, to hear various ones rise and read Scripture, pray and offer a hymn or song. Our worship, whatever the form, I believe, is a blessing to the heart of God, as well as a blessing to us who participate.

  7. I spent two years and change searching (and sometimes not searching…returning again to Rachel Held Evans’ book Searching for Sunday for a recharge every few months) for a new church here in San Francisco. I left my previous congregation after 4+ years because the leaders endorsed Donald Trump and suddenly, sermons, conversations, small group interactions etc felt like a tsunami of Republican conservativism and homophobia. After the 3rd experience of “gay people” and “homosexuals” being used as illustrations of what is wrong in the world, church, marriage etc (often utterly unrelated to the actual focus of the sermon or sharing), I left.
    I am not a lover of liturgy. I am a Holy Spirit, dancing lady charismatic. I sing in tongues and own an entire set of worship flags. I am also an ordained pastor, missionary and trauma-informed psychotherapist who specializes in women survivors of trauma and abuse. So, I’m not superficial. I’m not “one of those emotion-driven charismatics” as I recently heard in a liturgical setting….

    I searched for a church with:
    women in leadership (I’m DONE after 50 years as a follower of Jesus) with male-only led churches.)
    LGBTQ affirming (or at least working toward inclusion and doing the theological work required)
    people really WORSHIP Jesus. No forms. No “stand up, sit down sing another hymn”. Deep and genuine worship.
    A place where community, commitment to each other, and family actually HAPPEN.

    I found a Cumberland Presbyterian congregation here in San Francisco. Holy Spirit LIVES in this fairly traditional church with a largely Asian membership. Many families have been here for 30 and more years.The love of people for each other – and for me as a new congregant – is visible and strong.
    Frankly I still don’t find liturgy itself significantly meaningful. AND, within the deep and loving relationships in this church, I LOVE the passing of the peace (which often takes so long that the worship leader starts playing the piano as a way of saying, “Okay everybody….time to stop hugging”). I actually enjoy saying “Thanks be to God” after someone I love reads the scriptures for the week. And, surprise to me, I have joined the “preaching/teaching team” – a wonderful gathering of church members who share responsibility for contributing to teaching and preaching on Sundays. I’ve discovered that Holy Spirit OFTEN uses the lectionary passages for the week to speak to me and my daily life…and when it’s my turn to preach.
    Though I didn’t choose this church because it is liturgical, joining with a congregation that would probably be “low church” in terms of liturgical practice, has convicted me of times in the past when I dismissed “canned” prayers or “too many old hymns” as “form” instead of substance. And, my Holy Spirit dancing lady self is still present – though I look a bit different in this space.

  8. Anyone who owns their own set of flags ain’t messing around. 🙂 I’m so glad you’ve found a welcoming home congregation.

  9. I am an older-middle aged single woman. For most of my adult life I was part of larger churches (non-denominational and protestant), but it wasn’t until I joined a small congregation meeting in a gym that I felt at home.

    I left a larger church about 5 years ago because I felt so invisible. It wasn’t until a few months in and I had my two great-nieces with me that someone actually spoke to me, asking if I was new.

    Finding a church home is so difficult. Each church has it’s own “feeling” and some are welcoming and others are not. Even the welcoming churches can have walls up to cordon people into groups. So what was it about my current church that kept me returning and has given me the feeling of home and family? The people there were generally the outsiders in other churches.

    On the first Sunday I walked into the school gym the thought that came to mind was the “Misfit Toys” from the animated, holiday movie, “Rudolf the Red-nosed Reindeer.” In fact, the first Christmas I was part of this group of about 140 people I gifted our (female) pastor with an ornament featuring characters from the movie.

    My church family has walked/sat/prayed /wept with me through caring for both my parents as their medical advocate and DPOA, death, and family challenges. They’ve cared for me and continue to do so, and I’ve found my niche as a family member. They are as the Church is intended and it’s beautiful!

    Recently I heard about a church in an African village where young children stand up in front of the congregation and share what Jesus has done for them/is doing in their lives. My heart ached as I heard this because American Christians are so busy with other things and we should just be sharing the Gospel.

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