I visited Glide Memorial United Methodist Church this past Sunday. It is known as one of the largest, most diverse, and most dynamic churches in San Francisco. According to their website, 2000 people attend their Sunday “celebrations.” The congregation is actively involved in their local and urban community, offering programs that address hunger, healthcare, homelessness, and violence. They pride themselves on walking their talk, and rightly so.
Because Glide is so well known in the Bay Area, and because many of my peers in seminary were inspired by attending Glide’s Sunday celebrations, I wanted to attend at least once before leaving the Bay Area. I was looking for inspiration and innovation as I prepare to plan my first worship year as a settled minister. And frankly, I wanted to get a sense of what all the fuss is about with Glide.
Here’s what I noticed and liked about the Sunday celebration I attended:
- Their website does not tell you what the upcoming Sunday service is about. Nothing. Not the title, not who’s preaching, zip. As I read it, the expectation is that you are coming on Sunday or you’re not, but your decision should not be based on the stated subject matter of the service. And there is also an implicit message that the quality of worship/celebration is not influenced by who is preaching or what the service is about. (Now, for all I know, church members receive a weekly or monthly newsletter that tells more about the Sunday celebrations, but…I kind of doubt it.)
- We were welcomed by people who shook our hands and said, “Welcome.” Then we were directed to where we could sit. Nobody asked if it was our first visit, or why we were there, or if we’d been attending, or anything. As I opined in my blog post Introverts at Church, this is my preferred way to be greeted and welcomed (and I’ll be honest, I feel personally vindicated that one of the most radically inclusive and welcoming churches in this large metropolitan area is low-key with their greetings).
- There was no order of service handed out or projected or referred to. That means there was no paper to hand out for people to clutch in their hands or to stare at, nothing to be taken home or gathered at the end for recycling. Nothing for their office to finalize and print out during the week, nothing to proofread for typos, nothing to limit or confuse last-minute changes.
- There were no hymnals or bibles in the pews. Nothing at all we had to hold in our hands, to try and find the right page, to squint at to try and read. Nothing that had to be made available in larger type for those who need it.
- There was no overt religious iconography decorating the worship space. The stained glass windows initially struck me as simply decorative, but then I noticed the window design did feature crosses; they were almost Celtic crosses, with the cross bar centered rather than elevated. Don’t get me wrong, this is definitely a Christian church, with ample references to Jesus in song and image. But there was nothing in the physical setting to alienate a first-time visitor.
- The use of visual projections during the service were, for the most part, a powerful addition to the celebration. (I have not been a big fan of projecting visual images during worship because I have largely experienced these as a distraction from rather than an enhancement of the worship.) The images used reinforced the identity of this congregation as diverse, urban, inclusive, and acting on their mission to reach out to a suffering world. These were most powerful during the hymns, when music and image combined in dramatic synergy.
- The band included saxophone, trumpet, and trombone, as well as drums. Awesome.
- The hymns and music were incredibly well done and professional.
Now, all of these are the nuts and bolts of offering a worship service, and I could make another list of things I noticed and didn’t like. But what makes Glide so dynamic is its focus on its mission: “to create a radically inclusive, just and loving community mobilized to alleviate suffering and break the cycles of poverty and marginalization.” This mission is at the forefront of everything they do, and it is likewise at the forefront of the entire celebration service. It would seem, in fact, that this why they’re celebrating, not worshipping. They’re celebrating the hard and meaningful work they are doing to heal and transform the world.
This is a powerful reminder to me that although we talk a lot about the desire for worship to be powerful and transformative, that’s actually a misplaced focus. It’s not the worship that empowers and transforms. It’s the work of the congregation, the living of mission, that empowers and transforms. Worship, celebration, morning service—whatever we call it, no matter how well or how poorly we do it—our Sunday morning gathering must be secondary to our work in the larger world.