We headed to my mom's house in Iowa for Christmas this year. While there, we went to her and my step-dad's church for Christmas Eve services. It was an experience. When I was growing up, my family was a member of the only Catholic Church in town and that is all we experienced. Since then, my mother remarried, dropped Catholicism (which, really, was my dad's religion), and began attending a non-denominational church with her husband. From what I remember of Iowa in the 80s and early 90s, the was no such thing as a mega church and people would have looked at you funny if you said you went to one. Things have changed.
I had no idea this church existed in Cedar Falls. In fact, it isn't the only one. We drive up to it, but because it is so dark and snowy out, I couldn't really see the building in all its enormity. I came to realize that it actually had a traditional sanctuary (I was told, used by the more traditional folks), but the majority of the services are conducted in this gym like room set up with a sound system, flat screen TVs, and a stage.
The kids loved it. First, the setting couldn't have been more perfect: snowy and cold. The moment we walked in we were greeted by friendly folks and the entry was decorated with more snowflakes. Then the heavenly (no pun intended) smell of hot chocolate and fancy coffee wafted by. They had a coffee bar!!!!! We then walked into the new-sanctuary to find it decked out in Christmas lights and a stage with a winter-wonderland theme. On each side of the stage, there were TVs airing *ads* for Christmas and playing music. After we got our drinks and settled into our folding chairs, the evening service began. First, a band of hipster looking twenty-somethings came out and performed some meaningful/catchy music. Between their sets, sermons and testimonials were given by the ministers. While the ministers were definitely not twenty-something, they had a youthful exuberance about them and gave passionate, funny, yet touching sermons regarding the importance of Jesus and Christmas. The service ended with familiar carols while the congregation lit candles. With approximately 800 people in attendance, the candle light was beautiful. My youngest son (9y/o) turned to me and said, "this is a lot more fun then our church"!
He was right. For pure entertainment value, it was more fun. We all had a good time and all left with a warm feeling. I can so easily see why people like these places. You immediately feel welcome, that people care, and are swept up into the belief that something larger then yourself is looking out for you. Sure life is hard, but you are not alone - you matter. Who wouldn't want that? They tread a fine line of not diminishing your hurt while also being relentlessly positive.
It was disturbing to me to see how easily I could be "let me join!" I don't even like flashy spectacles, but the it was more then that. They don't even know me, but I felt like they only want the best for me. My kids felt that too. Of course, they don't really want me and I don't really want them. The beautiful charade hides the repressive, conservative faith they truly follow. If I was LGBT, or pro-choice, or a non-biblical literalist, or pro-women, or one of the many of the other things they deem un-Christian, I would not be truly welcome. They would welcome me with arms intent on converting, not accepting or meeting me where I was.
As UUs, we do preach welcome and acceptance. Somehow, though, the message isn't getting through. I have been to many UU Christmas Eve services. They have been lovely with signing and acknowledging the season, but they haven't been passionate. They have felt more like an obligation, not because it was something the congregation or minister really wanted to do. I am pretty sure that if I was attending a UU service for the first time, my first thought wouldn't be "let me join!".
I wish I had some great ideas on how to change this. I would suggest that sometimes, perhaps, we take ourselves a little too seriously. Dare I say that sometimes our services (and I am broadening this discussion to regular Sunday services) are a little too stodgy. In an effort to be seen as a *real* religion, we have limited our thinking to a more traditional program that is unappealing to those who are trying to leave it behind? It is a hard balance between solemnity and joy, but we might take a look at those mega-churches because they have seemed to have found it.