Dan Stringer

navigating the convergence of faith, culture and the common good

7 churches in 9 days

August 22, 2012

A couple months ago, a rare opportunity arose. My wife, who is employed at our neighborhood Lutheran church, took a trip to visit her family with our son for 2 weeks. With no official church responsibilities during this period, I suddenly had the freedom to partake of wild and crazy weekend indulgences I’ve always wanted to try. My chance had come and there was not a moment to lose. Yes, it was time for a multi-weekend, multi-tradition, investigative church sightseeing tour around Oahu.

What I did: Over a span of 2 weekends (from a Saturday evening until the following Sunday evening), I visited worship services at 7 different local churches from a range of faith traditions.

Why I did it: I was not assigned to do this for any seminary class, employment or other requirement. I simply have a curiosity about Hawaii’s church landscape and I enjoy discovering what others find spiritually meaningful. The goal of this project was neither to church-shop nor church-scoff, but to further my own understanding and awareness of Hawaii’s local church scene. In the long run, I’m hopeful these experiences will enrich my spiritual growth and competence in pastoral ministry.

How I selected the churches: In his acclaimed book, Streams of Living Water, Richard Foster surveys church history to identify 6 dimensions or “streams” of faith and practice that have shaped Christianity:

• The contemplative tradition: discovering the prayer-filled life
• The holiness tradition: discovering the virtuous life
• The charismatic tradition: discovering the Spirit-empowered life
• The social justice tradition: discovering the compassionate life
• The evangelical tradition: discovering the Word-centered life
• The incarnational tradition: discovering the sacramental life

In planning my visits, I tried to choose one church from each of the 6 traditions while balancing geographic and scheduling considerations.

—Wait, you visited a Mormon church too? You’d better explain yourself, Stringer. Indeed. As a seventh site, I chose to visit a Mormon church because a) I wanted to see for myself what actually takes place in a Mormon service contra stereotypes/rumors, and b) Mormons represent a sizable religious segment of Hawaii’s population (5.3% according to 2009 data).

Caveats: As a one-day visitor, I did not expect to gain an exhaustive understanding of each tradition or congregation. My purpose was merely to experience a taste of what might occur in each worship space on a given weekend. Naturally, some churches align more closely with their “tradition” than others. To the disappointment of some, I won’t get into every point of doctrine on which I may agree, disagree or not care. To protect the innocent, I have refrained from mentioning specific church names, locations and individuals.

Visit #1: A Large Seeker Church (evangelical tradition)
At a glance: With 6 convenient weekend service times to choose from, this was the most slick, positive, peppy and efficiently choreographed production I’ve ever attended, plus everyone on stage was conspicuously good-looking. In short, very Hillsong.
Highlight: In an uplifting Father’s Day video montage, teenagers in the church spoke lovingly about their dads.
Lowlight: The hard-driving content left no space for reflection, wonder or mystery.
I did not expect: Less than 100 people were in attendance, although it was one of 2 Saturday night services.
Implications for pastoral ministry in Hawaii: You cannot out-slick these flashy productions, so don’t bother comparing your church with theirs. And beware the temptation to define yourself as “not them,” as you’re still pivoting around their model.
Question to ponder: It’s easy to scoff at megachurches as a foil to our superior sophistication, but what might be some of their undervalued contributions to the body of Christ’s overall health?

Visit #2: A Mormon Church
At a glance: Despite being the only adult male not wearing a white dress shirt, plenty of friendly faces, scurrying children and well-dressed adherents greeted me at every turn. One person even told me, “This is your home now.” A simple hour-long service included brief prayers, announcements, 2 speakers, 3 hymns on organ and “the sacrament.” Oh, and a woman delivered the benediction.
Highlight: A host of adorable children (who easily outnumbered the grownups) performed a charming musical number for Father’s Day.
Lowlight: Communion was served with bread and water (no wine or juice to be found).
I did not expect: One of the hymns went like this:

1. ’Tis sweet to sing the matchless love
Of Him who left his home above
And came to earth—oh, wondrous plan—
To suffer, bleed, and die for man!

2. ’Tis good to meet each Sabbath day
And, in his own appointed way,
Partake the emblems of his death,
And thus renew our love and faith.

3. Oh, blessed hour! communion sweet!
When children, friends, and teachers meet
And, in remembrance of his grace,
Unite in sweetest songs of praise.

4. For Jesus died on Calvary!
That all thru him might ransomed be.
Then sing hosannas to his name;
Let heav’n and earth his love proclaim.

Implications for pastoral ministry in Hawaii: With Mormonism on the rise while traditional Christianity recedes or treads water in the West, perhaps we should temper expectations for ministry initiatives striving to be ‘progressive’ or ‘relevant.’ Mormons don’t seem preoccupied with becoming either, yet they are thriving more than ever.
Question to ponder: Much ink has been spilled on how evangelical Christians feel about Mormons (especially this election year), but what is their prevailing view of us, if any? Are there aspects of historic trinitarian Christianity with which they resonate?

Visit #3: An African American Church (social justice tradition) 
At a glance: Welcomed by ushers wearing white gloves, I entered a worship experience that could only be described with one word: freedom. From the gospel choir’s musicality, to the soloists’ improvisation, to the celebratory offering procession, to the preacher’s dynamic delivery bridging text to altar call, everything was about finding freedom in Jesus.
Highlight: The choir’s phenomenal rendition of “Can’t Give Up Now” brought me to tears.
Lowlight: Realizing that I’ll never be able to sing like that.
I did not expect: A hula performance. Then again, if other non-Hawaiians can dance hula, so why not African Americans too?
Implications for pastoral ministry in Hawaii: As diverse and inter-racially mixed as we claim to be here in the islands, many of our churches still have much distance to cover toward reflecting Hawaii’s multi-ethnic integration seen between Monday and Saturday.
Question to ponder: How can Hawaii’s evangelical churches better relate/integrate/collaborate with our African American brothers and sisters in Christ?

Visit #4: A Roman Catholic Mass (incarnational tradition)
At a glance: A diverse multitude of over 300 made for a vibrant atmosphere, and this was just one of their 5 weekend Mass times. Portions of the liturgy focused heavily on guilt, but the readings, creeds and musical elements blended well thematically.
Highlight: The call and response Psalms were musically accessible, yet evocatively profound given the sheer volume of congregants singing in unison.
Lowlight: No one personally introduced themself or initiated any conversation with me.
Something I did not expect: A semi-modern worship band (piano/guitar/percussion, but no bass/drums) led praise choruses with video-projected lyrics.
Implications for pastoral ministry in Hawaii: We can learn a great deal from Catholics about including all our senses and incorporating the physical in worship.
Question to ponder: It seems like evangelicals and Catholics find ways to be ecumenical for common political causes, but how can we learn to work together in other contexts?

Visit #5: A Methodist Church (holiness tradition)
At a glance: Though small in number, this group of mostly elderly congregants gave me a huge and heartfelt welcome. I had barely made it up the steps before 5 people knew my name. By the time I found a pew, it seemed like everyone knew who I was. A familar selection of organ-accompanied hymns were fervently sung, while the 18-minute sermon supplied comfort and wisdom from the Psalms.
Highlight: At the service’s conclusion, everyone stood encircled and joined hands to sing “Shalom to You.”
Lowlight: The service was over in well under an hour. I wanted more.
Something I did not expect: When one of the greeters found out I regularly attend a Lutheran church, she said, “Those Lutherans are pretty conservative aren’t they?” I was speechless.
Implications for pastoral ministry in Hawaii: With so many older congregations owning such nice church buildings, is there any chance of working something out with an aspiring church plant?
Question to ponder: What church will I be attending when I’m 75?

Visit #6: A Quaker Meeting (contemplative tradition)
At a glance: About 45 people entered quietly into a large living room. Some sat on couches, others on the floor. We began with 15 minutes of piano-led hymns requested a la carte. Then came a full hour of mostly unguided group silence, interspersed with spontaneous but thoughtfully succinct “messages” spoken by anyone wishing to do so. No one spoke more than once. The vibe was literary, refined and culturally savvy.
Highlight: Easily the longest period of silent group prayer I’ve experienced, I found it calming and refreshing.
Lowlight: Politically-driven posters and literature in all directions.
Something I did not expect: A free and tasty lunch was provided, not to mention enjoyable company at the table.
Implications for pastoral ministry in Hawaii: Though we cannot cater to every whim of the ‘spiritual but not religious’ crowd, pastors should at least understand the factors shaping this increasingly common perspective.
Question to ponder: When I asked a few people if they had heard of a Quaker named Richard Foster, they all said no. Should I have been surprised?

Visit #7: An Independent Charismatic-Evangelical Church (charismatic tradition)
At a glance: Similar to the seeker church, this gathering also featured a talented young praise band and polished multimedia elements, but the emphasis was more on becoming equipped with spiritual gifts and empowered with inner strength “to fulfill your destiny.”
Highlight: I was encouraged to see so many college students and young adults participating in church life.
Lowlight: After being compulsorily guided to the second row, I got blasted with sound and had to awkwardly angle my neck to see anything above the ankles of people on the platform.
Something I did not expect: A well-crafted, balanced and exegetically substantive sermon on forgiving your enemies.
Implications for pastoral ministry in Hawaii: The charismatic and evangelical traditions seem to garner the most ecclesial attention these days, but we cannot naïvely dismiss the other streams from our awareness without risking long-term harm to a robust and sustainable Christianity.
Question to ponder: How can we help younger Christians in church #7 benefit from the wisdom of seasoned Christians in church #5?