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Note: Church Invitation is an occasional series at OnFaith where we ask people of various backgrounds to attend houses of worship and write about the experience. Recently, atheist Herb Silverman attended an Anglican church.
There are about 28 Roman and Byzantine Catholic churches within a half hour’s drive of my Pennsylvania home, and I’ve attended nearly all of them at one time or another. I’ve also accepted invitations from friends who were pastors at Episcopal and Lutheran churches. Indeed, my whole life of Christian worship has been around altars, vestments, stained glass windows, icons, statues, candles, and sacred music. So my recent attendance at a Saturday evening service at the non-denominational Cornerstone Ministries in Murrysville, Pennsylvania, was a completely new experience.
I had never been in a church with a lobby, welcome desk, café, people at tables having snacks and soft drinks, and a staff of friendly team members smiling and opening doors. It felt like opening night at the movies. The dim sanctuary doesn’t even have an altar, but rather a stage with two large projection screens flanking the band. The rows of pews were the only thing that came close to suggesting “church.”
The band opened the service with contemporary Christian music and the words projected on the screens. Everyone stood for the singing. I didn’t raise my arms in praise, even though I felt uplifted by the verses about love and forgiveness.
Two songs later, the screens switched to images of marching Roman soldiers and chariot noises, then flashed to Romans 12:1–2.: “Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God — this is your spiritual act of worship.”
The theme was sacrifice and commitment, part of the summer series on “Romans II: From Guilt to Glory.”
I’d heard Dr. Donn S. Chapman, the senior pastor, speak at ecumenical pro-life events, and heard him talk about being arrested and going to jail for his participation in a sidewalk vigil at an abortion clinic. Every January, his church sends five or six full buses to the pro-life march in Washington, D.C.
“Jesus came to give us all the perfect sacrifice and all that is left for us is to believe,” he said. “Paul is pleading for an end to tokenism. What God wants is all of us.”
A real commitment of love, he preached, is never measured. It just loves and it just gives. “Love demands my soul, my all,” he said.
Contemporary culture has become a cesspool, he charged, and we are directed to separate ourselves from the world. But not like the Amish, who stand out. “God doesn’t call us to wear something that makes us look different,” he said. “What sets us apart is our Godliness, our service, and our love.”
Chapman challenged the congregation to let God change their lives and to change their hearts so that they aren’t ruled by sin. “How do you know that God has a good and perfect plan for you?” he asked. “How can you know God’s will? Have you considered how he loves you?”
The screen changed to St. Paul’s quote in Romans 12:3 admonishing the people to “not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you.”
“We’re not the center of the universe, but we were worth dying for,” Chapman said. We were saved, he added, because God loves us so much that he came down from heaven as Jesus Christ, and we were saved because of the blood of Jesus.
On this weekend, the church offered communion. Team members passed around gold plates of broken unleavened bread and servings of wine in tiny plastic cups. The band played another unfamiliar song, and I joined the refrain: “What can wash away my sins? Nothing but the blood of Jesus.”
I had never remained in a pew to partake of communion, nor had I ever attended a service where the lights are down and go even dimmer for the music. It was odd, too, that there were no children present — I later learned that they were having music and bible studies in other parts of the building. I also was not used to seeing the clergy dressed in ordinary shirts and trousers.
There were no liturgical elements to the service, nothing in the room that meets my definition of a sacred setting. But any notions that this was just a concert with a sermon faded when the congregation shared in the Last Supper, just as Jesus directed in Luke 22:19–20. Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox — we all do this in memory of him.
I don’t know what this congregation believes about the symbolism or the substance of the bread and wine. But this very act, whether believed to be just bread and wine, or understood as consubstantiation, transubstantiation, or any miracle or mystery at all, is the very foundation that binds all Christians. The body, the blood, the sacrifice — the fact, as Chapman was preaching, that Jesus died for everyone, even you and me — is the real deal for Christians. All are welcome to believe it.
“We accept people where they are,” Chapman told me over cookies at the after-service social. “Our challenge is to help them find where God wants them to be.”
Good enough, and Christians can get there whether they ride along with a way cool band or take the road trip with a beloved and ancient liturgy. We are all looking for Jesus.
The next morning I attended mass at my own place of worship, St. Bartholomew Parish in the village of Crabtree, a small country church staffed by Benedictine priests from nearby St. Vincent Archabbey. This is where I am in my faith, finding meaning not only in the liturgy, but also in the word physically expressed through the beauty of stained glass windows, a statue of Jesus with his arms outstretched, an altar, a golden tabernacle, a priest wearing vestments, and a prominent crucifix — the ultimate reminder of the sacrificial promise to all Christians, every one of us.
Though many, we are one body in Christ. St. Paul said so.
Image via Shutterstock.