“I believe we are at another such time in our life together when the focused and timely work … could help us seek a more excellent way, a way guided by the Spirit of Christ seeking mutual understanding and enabling us to speak the truth in love,” – the Rev. Syngman Rhee, Moderator of the 212th General Assembly
How can a Presbyterian congregation embrace “emergence” while remaining true to its historical roots? The members of Mountain View Church in Loveland, Colo., struggled with this thorny question, as have many other Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) congregations. It is answering it in both a creative and unified way.
As preferences in worship styles began to threaten the polarization of the congregation into traditional and contemporary camps, MVPC found direction in the hope of a more excellent way. Entering into a season of intentional listening and honest openness, the +500-member congregation discovered that its desire for carefully framed theology and supportive community far outweighed its desire to fight about worship and music. Individual members held strong and often contradictory opinions about worship, but they were even stronger in their desire to remain one Reformed body. Recognizing this deeper commitment became the catalyst for engaging in creative thinking without sacrificing foundational convictions.
The church’s leaders looked for solutions that could protect the integrity of individual principles without allowing “individualism” to drive a wedge into the community of faith. Two issues required immediate attention — developing two different but distinctly Reformed worship formats, and intentionally scheduling them so as to promote community. To help alleviate tensions, the standards in the Directory for Worship became the measuring stick by which all worship — traditional and contemporary — was to be evaluated at Mountain View Church. This assured the elevation and maintenance of our covenant with our Reformed heritage. The congregation was then presented with the striking theological similarities of the two styles and their faithfulness to Reformed standards.
This hurdle crossed, the Session began to deal with the even knottier problem of developing a new worship schedule. It began by setting contemporary worship at 8:15 a.m. and traditional worship at 11:00 with Church School in between. This addressed the diversity needs of the congregation, but it failed to support the people’s desires for unity — with the participants in the two different worship services only passing one another in the parking lot as they came and left.
The first solution the Session tried was to schedule combined worship on every fifth Sunday (four times a year). This service met at the 9:30 a.m. hour, and was followed by a fellowship event. The blended style of worship entirely satisfied neither the strong traditionalists in the congregation, nor the fervent supporters of a contemporary style — although it clearly addressed the congregation’s need to be together. Still, the feedback was hopeful with the people underscoring the enjoyment that they found in each other’s company.
Then the Session began to get even more creative.
Often, congregations that provide two styles of worship find it problematic to share worship space. They may meet in the same sanctuary, but they do so at different times, and the accoutrements of each style (for example, the drums and the organ) are a constant reminder of the polarities that exist between the two worshipping groups. Moreover, because they worship at two different times, the two congregations are separated on most Sundays.
Building on the positive feedback from their “fifth Sunday” experiences, the Session (many of whom were Hewlett-Packard employees) began to ask the question, “What if?” “What if we stopped struggling with sacred space issues and began to look at things in terms of sacred time?” “What if we were all to meet together the same time in two different spaces on the same campus with each space adapted to a different worship style?” Asking and answering these questions opened the door for the Mountain View congregation to emphasize working on its foundational unity while supporting legitimate diversity.
Today, the congregation meets in the narthex of the church for a time of fellowship at 9:00 am. This includes all the expected trimmings — especially coffee and donuts. At 9:25, the congregation is called to focus attention on worship with a greeting and a prayer. From 9:30 to 10:30, two parallel worship services occur — one in what we call Sanctuary West (the traditional sanctuary) and one in the newly renovated fellowship hall now known as Sanctuary East. To make sure the whole congregation hears the proclamation of the same Word, the two pastors “flip-flop” (that’s a technical liturgical term) between the two services on a weekly basis. The two services conclude with more fellowship time, and church school for all ages. Then, on the first Sunday of every month the entire congregation meets as one to celebrate the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper united together.
As Mountain View continues to work at a kind of unity that forbears reasonable diversity, it is clear that all of our problems have not been solved. We will have to intentionally work at new and better solutions. But, the congregation continues to use its energies in a way that is beneficial for the entire church, and hopefully for the entire PC(USA) as we continue to seek “a more excellent way.” In focusing on Reformed unity first, Mountain View maintains both its Covenant with the Past and its commitment to the future in diverse emerging times.
For more information about what is happening at Mountain View, go to www.mtnviewpres.com.
Robert D. Dooling is pastor and James Webb is associate pastor of Mountain View Church in Loveland, Colo.