Scoping out the competition

“I’m just church shopping…” is what I said when asked what brought me to their church doors that morning. A more accurate response would have been, “I’m checking out how you do church.”

I spent every Sunday in July this way: walking into a different church to see and evaluate what the church “culture” is like in Evanston. I picked congregations that are similar to us in values, tradition, and outreach. I picked ones that I’ve heard are “pulling” members away from my new church home. I’m also coming from having served a congregation in the distinctive church culture of the South. Even though I attended and served congregations in the Chicago area before moving to Texas, I was curious to witness some other churches in Evanston, “The City of Churches.”

What I found surprised me in some ways, and didn’t in others. First, there was the superficial, like how the ministers at all the churches not only left their robes in their sacristies (apparently) but dressed incredibly informally — no ties, sleeves, or even (in one case) long pants! They all reflected a “come as you are” culture. Second, they all focused on outreach. The message in these liberal churches was clear: To be a good Christian, you have to get into the world and be present to its hurts, discomforts, and people. It was clearly a primary motivator for participation in these neighbor congregations. Third, I received a warm welcome at each place I visited and could tell there were designated staff and volunteers to hone in on me as a newbie. They did not take my presence for granted, as much as I tried to keep to myself and just observe.

Finally, the biggest surprise was that each sermon I heard dwelled, not superficially, on mindfulness. (Each congregation also offered yoga classes during the week, a coincidence?) One Baptist minister even read from the appropriate sutta/ra on mindfulness and quoted the Buddha before relating it back to the Gospel message of the morning.

This is where we have a true “niche” in the religious culture of Evanston: As open and affirming as each of these neighbor churches is, the goal of membership is to become closer to Jesus in some way — to become better disciples and servants of Christ. I am not one who would for a minute want to pull anyone from a church where they feel fed and alive. I celebrate when someone finds a path that speaks to his or her heart. Each of the congregations I visited offered a valuable path to insight, and I found people joyfully practicing faith. I also know there are countless seekers in our area who are hungry for the unique theology that our faith offers, and who might not be comfortable with a singular expression of the holy. Our tradition includes the teachings of the Rabbi Jesus, but it does not privilege them above words of wisdom from other sources. We acknowledge there are many teachings worthy of our attention.

Competition? There is none that I could find. I saw four vibrant congregations — each providing a unique approach and model for living that worked for its members. I was also encouraged to find there’s nobody offering what we offer with our pluralistic and radically inclusive approach to religion. From humanist to theist expressions of belief, we celebrate human religious imagination and the divine mystery without clinging to one particular set of words or symbols to describe our experience. Indeed, our church holds a unique and vital place in the religious culture of Evanston, the North Shore, and Chicago.

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