05/14/2014 03:55 pm ET Updated Jul 13, 2014

A Visit to Thad's

This past Sunday morning in Los Angeles was bright with strong wind blowing clear air over the mountains from the high desert. The palm trees swayed along Highway 10 west into Santa Monica. Two right turns at the Cloverfield exit took me past the garbage company and into the chain-link gate of Bergamot Station, a former warehouse complex turned into dozens of art studios. In the back corner, in a galvanized iron building, is the "Writer's Bootcamp", a complex with offices and meeting spaces, where I found Thad's.

Thaddeus, also known as Jude, was the lowest-profile of Jesus' disciples. (His unexalted status may be connected with the fact that the Catholics have anointed him as the patron saint of lost causes.) Thad's is a "mission" congregation of the Episcopal Church, and from the beginning it has kept itself low-key. The congregation explicitly intends to rent its facilities rather than buy or build. Thus liberated from the "edifice complex" that bedevils so many congregations, it puts all its energy into the life of its community. "We avoid a lot of programming, too," says Scott Claasen, the congregation's associate rector. "We focus instead on building up the relationships among our people as a whole." And on making a difference in the community. Scott was recently ordained in a laundromat, a site where the congregation engages in a project called Laundry Love. The church gives tickets to homeless and other people who need help getting their clothes clean, and then the church members show up and hang out and share the love at the laundromat where the tickets are honored. (Antonia Blumberg, religion writer for Huffington Post and graduate of USC, who was active in our Interfaith Council, wrote about Scott's ordination here.)

People drifted in: single older folks, young couples, and lots of kids being ushered into the Sunday School rooms, where a home-grown curriculum based on the morning's worship topic is taught.  The sculpted, tanned bodies, the blonde hair, the obvious face-lifts, and the designer clothes adorning many of the parishioners suggested a preponderant representation of the wealthy, white demographic of Santa Monica.  But there was a smattering of economic and ethnic diversity visible in the crowd of about 75 people filling chairs on three sides facing a low wooden stage where Thad's team of musicians started the worship.  The light-rock musicians in tee-shirts and jeans opened with Jorma Kaukonen's version of "Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning", which got me swaying and singing right away.  Music at Thad's appears to be more about performance than participation, but a few people joined in the tunes.  The lyrics were vaguely spiritual or Christian - some songs were written by the church's musicians.  The church avoids any doctrinal heaviness in its choices of songs, which fit neither in the hymnals of mainline Protestant churches nor in the repertoire of evangelical "praise music".  It's a mix of the spiritual and the secular:  

Are you ready for the Kingdom come?
Unplug the sockets girl and feel the hum
Jack Kerouac put on his backpack and stuck out his thumb
Rode it all the way to Big Sur
Looking for the Kingdom come....

There was a reading from the Bible, followed by a thoughtful homily delivered by a retired Episcopal priest who was filling in for Jimmy Bartz, the church's founding rector, who is on sabbatical.  The preacher wore comfy street clothes and sat on a stool next to a music stand holding his notes, and focused on the scripture story in a way familiar to the Jesus Seminar perspective.  It was biblically focused with a progressive theological slant.  It was followed by a very rich "talk-back" session with the congregation.  Scott says that while the content of the sermon was more formal than is the case most of the time at Thad's, the conversational style and the talk-back were normal.  

The offering was then taken while the band played.  Then a time of announcements and prayers.  That was followed by the "passing of the peace" - greeting each other in the congregation.  The band started up again with closing music as the congregation moved into "coffee hour" time.  No litanies.  No prayers to repeat.  No arm-waving or kneeling.  No eucharist (though this is celebrated 8 times per year).  A short, sweet, very simple worship, and then time for hanging out with each other.  The coffee's nothing special.  The snack consisted of cut-up donuts.  

Thad's delivers on its website's simple promises.  The church projects itself as a a place where "everybody's in".  But unlike a lot of congregations that say they welcome all, this one doesn't sucker-punch new folks with the old dogma dressed up in jeans and designer tee-shirts and served with hipper music and better coffee.  Thad's avoids being specific about what its wide welcome exactly means.  Folks don't know up front that they're going to hear a consistently progressive theological and social expression of the gospel.  That makes room for more conservative folks to show up and get comfy in an environment where their usual expectations aren't being met - though some eventually leave in disappointment.  The low-key style and avoidance of detail mean that the leadership must spend more time explaining the church to inquirers who cannot tell from the website where the church stands on such issues as LGBT inclusion.  But clearly the staff has a progressive perspective.  Scott was aBeatitudes Society fellow in his ministry formation, doing social justice-focused work, and spent a "carbon sabbath" year without driving a car or flying in a plane.  He says the church has a mix of liberals and conservatives, traditionalists and folks who otherwise would never darken the door of a church.  

Thad's reminds me a lot of the church to which I belong, Mt. Hollywood Congregational United Church of Christ in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles. 

Our churches have arrived at a roughly similar way of being, but from opposite directions.  Thad's is a relatively new progressive church that started with simplicity as its mantra from day one.  Mt Hollywood has been a remarkably progressive congregation since the 1920's, but with a traditional building and worship style and manner of programming.  But a few years ago, we sold our building and became renters in a nearby Lutheran church building.  Our space is bright and airy.  We've simplified our worship, making it more informal, artistically-oriented, and relaxed.  Our pastor sometimes preaches in her bare feet.  Instead of being landlords of an aging and expensive facility, we now put our energy into the worship and community life of our people.  The lightness of spirit that followed has been palpable.  Thad's and Mt Hollywood are picking up new members, a few at a time -- but neither congregation has grand ambitions for major growth in numbers or programming.

"'Tis a gift to be simple," says the old Shaker hymn.  "'Tis a gift to be free, 'tis a gift to come down where we ought to be."  To be no more and to do no less than what is really worth being and doing as a congregation.  How simple and welcoming can we make our religion?  How free-spirited can we make our congregational life?  How many useless assumptions and counterproductive HTOTBs ("how things ought to be") can we give up?  How can we emulate Jesus in his manifesto of simplicity - the Sermon on the Mount - and make our churches birdlike and barnless?





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Associate Dean of Religious Life at University of Southern California