Wednesday, November 15, 2006

This Church Keeps Faith Hidden

James Choate-Munitz, special from The Christian Centurion

A man in his mid 30s sits in a recliner in a dark room. Bursts of light from an episode of Dancing with the Stars appear on the walls and furniture. In his hand is a cold beer, and in his lap is a bag of potato chips. This man is a pastor, and he is--at this very moment--leading his flock.

When most people think of ministry, they conjure images of prayers with upraised hands, bold marches for peace with justice, a praise song to a rockin’ beat, or fiery sermons. “That’s just not me,” says Michael Bunglebottom. “My congregation understands that and even appreciates it. We’re not your ordinary church.”

The church Bunglebottom refers to is The Master’s Playhouse in Toledo. The congregation is affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (USA), but you’d have a hard time figuring that out if you wandered in to one of their worship services on a Sunday morning. “We understand that people don’t go for labels anymore,” notes Martha Edwards, one of the church’s Assistant Directors, which is roughly equivalent to a Deacon.

Actually, you’d have a hard time even getting to one of their services. They do not advertise--not even in the yellow pages--and their telephone number is unlisted. Their denominational office only has a post office box on file for the church, not even a street address. In order to attend one of their Plays--as they call worship services--I had to be blindfolded and driven on a circuitous route through Toledo by one of the Cast Members.

“We try to eliminate the temptations inherent in most ministries, the pride, power and politics of what they do, including the fascination with numbers,” said Bunglebottom in an interview conducted on the Playhouse’s Main Stage, an exquisite mahogany platform supported by the latest in audio, visual and lighting equipment. The stage is framed by a series of giant maroon velour curtains edged in gold stitching. “We don’t worry about the ego of huge numbers because most people don’t even know we exist,” he said.

Despite the wealth of theater images, it is the intentional invisibility that is the identifying mark of The Master’s Playhouse and similar groups in what is called the Submergent Church movement. The core theological distinction of Submergents is that they see their faith lives as “hid with God.” “We stay put in our prayer closets. With all the violence in the world driven by religious fervor, we don’t feel the need to show off,” said Bunglebottom in a quiet moment backstage. “Besides, we’re comfortable here with our close friends and family. Having strangers come into our midst would throw off the delicate balance of fellowship.”

For all the subdued praise Bunglebottom and his Cast Members--as church members are called--give to the Submergent Church movement, there are many detractors. “What about the call to make disciples?” asked Violet Long, Bunglebottom’s presiding elder in the Presbyterian Church’s Northwest Ohio District. “What about ministries that strive for God’s peace, justice and mercy?” Long suspects that advocates of the Submergent Church movement are simply lazy.

Johnson Clinebell, chair of the national board of the Submergent Church Dialogue Team, says Long and others like her do not understand the movement. “With respect to God’s grace,” he says, “less is more. It is not something that should be received in large doses. Nor should we show it off like it’s some expensive pearl.”

This theological approach means that in most Submergent churches, worship seldom lasts longer than 15 minutes and, apart from the service, there are usually no other activities. Instead, they believe faith is lived out in the ordinary moments of life. That means while Bunglebottom is watching television alone at home, eating potato chips and drinking beer, he is feeding his own soul and providing a good example for the congregation.

“What we have found,” said Clinebell, “is that people are more than happy to put a lot more in the offering plate if they don’t have to sit through long sermons or serve on committees.” The Master’s Playhouse is a prime example. The congregation generates so much revenue from its weekly offering that the church could purchase--in cash--and completely renovate a historic downtown Toledo theater. Bunglebottom is also able to farm out all the administrative work to outside companies. In fact, he works only about an hour and a half each week for his full time salary, and that 90 minutes includes his commute time.

Many people, Clinebell says, have a hard time picturing a 15-minute worship service. “Most Submergent congregations have great sound systems and will listen to a praise song on CD. Then, if they can find a Bible, someone might read something. After that, the pastor will say what’s on his mind. Then they go home.”

Clinebell admits that most people “just don’t get” the Submergent Church movement. “That’s okay. That’s just the way we like it--off the radar. We’re the unseen leaven in society.”

A Submergent Church may be coming to a neighborhood near you soon, but you won’t ever know about it.


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