Editor’s Note: Fountain Street Church Palm Sunday Reflection
Church (s)hopping is an undesirable habit to cultivate. At the heart of the practice is the assumption that it is I, the individual, whose desires are and should be met in a religious community. It places an unfair burden on the communities who have to host freeloaders, and disadvantages me as the seeker because I cannot begin to grasp the depths of a church’s joys or sorrows with one or two visits. Churches, ideally, are sites of depth, integrity, and learning, and stained-glass-window shopping, while it might offer a tantalizing glimpse or an off-putting spectacle, is no substitute for effortful action. Religious communities, after all, do not exist either for my sake or their own sake. They are places for meditation on things only signified by the building, if there is one. Fundamentally, they are in-between spaces, negative regions where disparate groups of persons project their efforts and involve themselves in communal faith and work. Church (s)hopping suspends commitments and therefore real, physical presence in relation to the community.
Such fine sentiments can only be followed by a confession of hypocrisy.
I haven’t trod the path out of institutional religion that many skeptics of my peer group have taken. To my mind, the church is the best place for a skeptic because it makes demands on my intellect and time, forcing me to develop my critical perspectives with rigor and grace. Not all churches would welcome my questioning, of course, but a church that walks with humility, can make room for a few mavericks, and is able to speak about its failures as well as its successes–I would sacrifice much to belong in such a place.
Last fall, I left the denomination in which I was raised. Most of my family has worked in that church, which owns and operates the college I attend, for three generations. En route out the door, I found myself drawn into a commitment to a local meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). I have been with that meeting since, attending almost every Sunday. While still afflicted with ideological divisions (exacerbated by the wide theological diversity in the group) and personal conflicts, the tradition’s emphasis on communal discernment, silent waiting, and a focus on the immanent, mystical experience of God, it was a natural home for me. Here was a long tradition, vetted by time and tried by schisms, that, while small, has had an extraordinary effect on American history.
That said, I have recently become involved in what is colloquially known as a “serious relationship” with a beautiful young woman. My significant other and I now find ourselves in the position of both being stuck between an old tradition we have largely abandoned (not the same one) and an uncertain future. Therefore, we have tacitly committed to a phase of exploration–of, yes, church (s)hopping. We hope that this will be temporary and that we will find a place in which both of us can meaningfully and joyfully contribute to the life of the church and its work in the community.
This brought us to the door of a handsome, if eccentric, gem of a church in downtown Grand Rapids. Fountain Street Church.
Ensconced in a Romanesque and quasi-Byzantine structure erected in the 1920s, FSC (as it will be known from now on) describes itself as “Protestant in tradition and Baptist in history, we are now liberal in defining faith and nondenominational in expressing it.” Emerging out of a liberal Baptist congregation, over the 20th century the church moved further away from its more orthodox roots and became what I would describe as post-Christian in worldview. It imagines itself as a place where Christianity’s liberating vision for humanity outgrew its dogmatic specifics and blossomed into something more vibrant and open.
We attended the church on Palm Sunday, which for a more conventional church would mean a meditation on the story of Jesus’ procession into Jerusalem to the acclaim of the crowds, who expected him to inaugurate a new age of Jewish political independence. So, too, did Fountain Street commemorate this event, albeit in its own oblique way. Its liturgy could be best compared to collage art, appropriating disparate elements of what we normally think of as “profane” and “secular” culture and making a larger point. This is representative of the church’s overall approach, positioning itself as a locus whirling around which is a boundless world of wisdom and beauty to draw from. The church’s “gaze” on its appropriations ranged from almost naïve affirmation to intensely critical. I doubt one could come to FSC, stay for a whole service, and not come out without knowing something about where it stands.
We read a call-and-response liturgy from Roald Dahl, heard both classical music and songs from The Little Shop of Horrors, heard readings from Mark and Dr. Seuss’ Yertle the Turtle. Eclectic, almost ravenously so, the church nevertheless never came off as pandering, at least to me. This was largely because of the presence of Rev. Dr. Frederick Wooden, the Senior Minister of the church. Affiliated with the Unitarian Universalist Association, he brought a critical rigor and skilled oration to his sermon, entitled “Power and Glory.” Hopefully the church will post the text of the sermon online soon so I can speak about it in more detail, but suffice to say it was an unusually winding, deliberately structured sermon that avoided explicit bullet points but maintained rhetorical integrity.
A side note: the church seems to do far better than the college I attend at applying its principles of openness to culture and discernment. I want to discuss the reasons why in more depth at a later date.
My impressions of the church are largely positive. It is focused, rhetorically and–I hope to find–actually on serving the city in which it resides. The affirmation of beauty I found there resonated with my own leanings, its worship space is grand but relatively tasteful, and the clergy, if not the congregation, does not display a hostility for Christianity that I feared I might find. While it is nondenominational, it has a strong identity. It might be vulnerable to particularly bad leadership, but that is an issue for any church, and its freedom to colour outside the lines should serve it well. One caveat: it is a big church, which means that it could be easy to become chameleons, clinging to the fringes and camouflaging ourselves. Such are the pros and cons to weigh. Nonetheless, both of us have expressed a strong interest in returning here.