Just One Star?!

Rating systems and pollsters have hit some new lows, yet we remain surrounded by subjective public ranking. The church Facebook page gives the ability to any user to rate the church. Equally, hotels, restaurants and even a public washroom can have star quality. In some news there’s been reports of the famous Michelin Stars being granted to a Canadian highway rest stop because of the quality food they sell. The same star rank was given to a food truck in another country.
There is some debate about the levels of quality, nonetheless the stars are there along with the opinions. Do they really matter? I believe they do, and they don’t. Read on and I will try to explain.

In the church there are a couple of tests, quality controls, or plain simple observations that can offer constructive feedback – at least that’s the ideal. One such test is the “mystery worshipper” who, like the commercial equivalent of the mystery shopper, has a list of check points to cover. If you’re still not clear, think of the mechanic giving your car a 21 point inspection. I’m not sure if the Anglican Church in Freiburg folks are aware, but they’ve been reviewed by a ‘Ship of Fools’ mystery worshipper. You can find the review online.

In past congregations I have brought in mystery worshippers to give some evaluation. It helps me to get another point of view. I try to alternate between a Christian reviewer and someone who is Spiritual but not religious (SBNR). The reviewers have different points of view: someone of a different church or denomination makes comments that are, well, ‘churchy’. They have a bit of a critical eye towards form and function. For example, they might suggest that ‘you say baptism declares full participation in the church, but then only adults do the major rolls of service in worship’. The non-religious, or the spiritual but not religious person usually has a very different report that is no-less important. The SBNR person usually has some powerful insights about belonging, and some that are so basic that they are invisible in plain sight. Here’s some comments as examples – ‘do you really think that everyone knows when to sit stand or kneel? I felt foolish as the only one mumbling along to a prayer everyone else seemed to know. I couldn’t find the front door.’
Another test that I have done personally in churches that I might visit is the ‘Coffee test’. Esenially, the coffe test is a test to see if the community ‘walks the talk’. They’ve been in worship, now what do they do afterwards? Grab a cup of coffee and see who talks to you. What do they talk about? Is God mentioned in the conversation?

Travelling with my own small children we found a local church to go to for a Sunday morning. It was a disaster! The online presence was nothing like the actual experience. Admittedly, I was only there for one Sunday so I can say it is a limited survey, but the impressions were long lasting.

I felt lied to. Pictures of a young active church online was replaced with the reverse. Apparently everyone was on holiday. We were forced to stand and introduce ourselves. The congregation was small enough that we were easily recognised as ‘others’. Worship was standard. The children were children and the adults did their bit by making ‘ssshhhhing’ sounds at us. I felt like crawling into a hole. I was just glad we made it to church as the online directions actually brought us to another neighbouring building and the only door with a sign said ‘Ancestry research library open Tuesday to Friday.’ I nervously explained that we were at the Jehovas Witness’.

At coffee I was told the pastor would come and introduce herself. She was nowhere in sight. I was given a ‘visitors mug’ to identify me as a visitor (as if standing up and publicly stating this fact in worship had now slipped the minds of the regular worshippers).
Needless to say, I had a cup of coffee and ate several doughnuts. Maybe I’m a nervous eater, as nobody ever came to speak to me. I was upset. I did however, fail the church as I never gave any polite comments about my feelings. How would they ever know if I didn’t tell them? How would they ever try to make changes or corrections when I had never expressed my own perceptions and needs? Of course I didn’t think that they would automatically change things just for me, but I had a feeling I wouldn’t be the last to feel this way. We are not consumers of religion, yet rankings somehow make us fall dangerously into this model.

Saying this: the rankings do have a role that the church needs to be aware of in its service to the wider community. I therefore see both the good and the not so good power of rankings. If we put all our hope on one system it will sadly let us down. If I go to church strictly for the top quality raking I might be disappointed. Fortunately, I have found that no matter how great, or how terrible the worship was, I’ve still been able to meet God in the experience.

Let me propose that God is always calling us for better, but at the same time we live with the brokeness, the complex relationships and the fragility of the world knowing that God has already declared it Good.

Now, let’s see how many stars I get for this post!

(Editorial Notes: I pounded out this article the other day while I was waiting for my language exam to begin – that’s another story.  Typing with my thumbs on my smartphone keyboard was less than ideal, but at least my nervous energy was directed toward something constructive.  

What I would like to add is, there are, and will be times when the congregation does not pass the coffee test.  Perhaps a ranking of one star will show up sooner or later, however, this is no reason to fret.  Conversely, if we always get high rankings, 5 stars, can’t we then aim for a sixth…just one more star?  As Advent will begin soon, the seasons of Christmas and Epiphany will soon follow.  Upon reflection, this long article might be left as ‘all thumbs’ if we just follow the stars.  The Magi certainly follow the star, but it is not what they come to worship.  As communities of faith being aware of the rankings is one thing, but forgetting who we really worship is a much more risky and damaging game to play.)

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A Sign, sign… everywhere a sign.

Advent is a season full of signs and symbols whether it is the Advent candles, or the signs of watchful expectation that Jesus calls us to in the scripture readings.  There are also many other signs that I have seen as someone who is learning German and is at times dependent on info-graphics for getting around.  Most of the familiar signs are the “EXIT” signs that show a person running through a doorway.  These picture signs are frequently seen on the British Columbia Ferries that anyone from Vancouver Island knows well.  The new vessels were actually built in Germany so they have many of the same signs.

Not only are there exit signs, but there seems to be a sign for just about everything.  Many of the written signs that I see end with stern punctuation (!!) alerting those not to park in this spot, or walk through this private roadway.  It is not always easy to figure out what is being asked in the signs so I bring out my dictionary to help me translate.

One of the more entertaining areas for signs is near my new home in the Kur Park of Bad Krozingen.  A natural setting with health activities and health services being located all around.  There is a nice area with garden sculptures, peacocks shaped out of a variety of bright flowers.  Dogs on leash, pick up after your dog, don’t walk on the grass, don’t walk through the flower beds, don’t feed the birds, Watch your step, and don’t sit on the fence.  All these signs are visible from one point in the walk. Oh, and don’t litter.  At times it seems a bit overwhelming, and at others, it seems a bit absurd to have so many directions.

What about the call of John the Baptist to prepare the way for the Lord? Make his path straight, bring the mountains low and fill the valleys so they are flat.  At times the signs, although clear, can be confusing.

I am particularly mindful of the special Nine Lessons and Carols service that we will be holding at the Anglican Church.  How much effort has been made in preparations for music, singing, readings and readers.  It is a worship service that attracts a lot of people who don’t normally come to church.  There have been loads of advertisements, and personal invitations.  Will we make the signs clear to those whom we welcome? Will we, with all our preparations, not forget the simple message that people long to hear? That Christ is coming this Christmas season.

The age old readings form a tradition that climaxes with the pointing of the coming of the child Jesus, God’s Son.  I know that in welcoming those to our church that we will not overwhelm them with a mixture of signs, rather we will welcome them in to hear the simple message of God’s word, and promise of salvation.  Gratefully, the church is clearly marked for finding the front door, the elevator, the sanctuary and the washrooms.  We are so blessed with those who also ‘show the way’ with their words and actions.  Gratefully, the church is not full of confusing messages telling us in pictures that there shall be no parking, no skateboarding, no walking on the grass, and no fence sitting.  (Thank goodness, as I would not feel so welcome, myself).

I am most grateful for those who have prepared, and those who will enter to hear the simple signs of God’s promised Son.