Monday, October 8, 2007

Conversion

Often used as an example of what could get young people to come to church, the compline service at St. Mark’s Cathedral has gained notoriety for the hundreds of young people who show up each Sunday at 9:30pm to listen to a small group of men sing the night service. As we walked to the cathedral late last night, a car pulled in front of it and out jumped six college age men who raced up the steps to the service that had already started. When we walked in the giant doors, we were met with a room full of people. We joined the group of younger people who were lying or sitting on the floor in the back.

Not too surprisingly, I had been skeptical. The idea that you could just sing night prayer and draw young adults to church seemed ridiculous to me.

But it was beautiful. The cathedral is an old giant building with white brick walls marked with water stains and patched cement floors. And the music was peaceful and gentle. People sat silently with their eyes closed except to stand in unison for the singing of the Nicene Creed. When the service was over the choir filed out and people milled about, listing to a presentation of the altarpiece from South Africa and lighting candles at the peace station or listening to the organ music.

When we were in Santa Fe, learning about kundalini yoga, my friend told me that the group of sheiks who brought the practice to the United States did so with no intention of converting people to be sheiks. They just thought it was a beautiful, life-giving practice that they wanted to share with people.

When we were in Salt Lake City, we visited the Mormon Temple. I found the experience incredibly disappointing because I really wanted to learn about the Mormon faith, even though there’s almost no chance I would ever convert. Instead, we were met with pairs of missionaries at every turn who were constantly trying to tell us that Joseph Smith was the true prophet and seemingly evading the questions we asked, which I thought seemed rather straight- forward. Everything about the place seemed secretive. No one can go into the temple. The movie on Joseph Smith that we watched left out any part about him that might make him look less than desirable (his multiple wives, arrest as a gold seeker, etc) and skimmed over the parts where basically everyone from the Bible came to him and restored the true church. It took us three hours to find any depiction of what is actually in the Book of Mormon or what Mormons actually believe.

I left the Temple wondering why it is that we as Christians need to convert people. Why we can’t be like the sheiks and offer to others the practices of our faith that we find life-giving. Like singing compline in an ancient cathedral. Or walking the labyrinth. Or praying the rosary, or sitting in silence or reading stories in the Bible—or whatever. I understand that if you believe that people who don’t accept Jesus Christ as their personal savior are going to burn in hell for eternity, why such information might seem at the very least urgent if not the most important thing you had to give as a Christian. But you have to admit that its not very life-giving.

Compline at the cathedral works because it does not demand conversion. Instead it is a beautiful offering of an ancient practice that honors God, which the cathedral chooses to share with the community. I’m sure there are people who come to that service and eventually convert to Christianity or being Episcopalian or going to St. Marks, but it didn’t seem like that was the intended result. It seemed like the men who sing compline loved it, and wanted to give it as a pure gift to the larger community in the hopes that it might give them a glimpse of something eternal.

My generation can see a salesman a mile away. So when churches start new services or open coffee shops or put up cool websites in the hopes of attracting people to come to their church or accept Jesus as their personal savior or whatever, they’re mostly like to skip it. What makes compline attractive is its an offering of pure joy. The service itself is the expected end result.

We have good things to offer. The early Christians built the church by living as Christians and offering what was life-giving to them to those around them. Maybe its time for us to do the same.

2 comments:

tamie said...

this post rocks. i am going to link it from my blog. yep, it rocks. maybe i will even read it out loud.

donnav said...

Hey Kate!
It was nice to meet you guys yesterday at The Bridge...hope you enjoy Portland and if you need anything let me know!
Donna