Rose Madrid-Swetman

— Random Thoughts, Stories of Life, and Questions about the Journey —


August 31, 2008

The Congregation Next Door

It is Sunday around 3:40 in the afternoon. I have just come home from a baptism. This afternoon four VCC’ers were baptized in a pool with family and friends there to witness, pray and celebrate with them. Before I go on, let me back up about one year.

Our home is located in a neighborhood in a suburb just north of the city of Seattle. I live in a cul-de-sac that is reflective of the ethnic diversity and religious pluralism of our time. Across the street is an Asian family, immigrants from China that practice Buddhism. Next door to them is a family that immigrated from Bangladesh and are practicing Muslims. Our neighbors to the west are a retired couple from Japan. In the eight years we have lived here, the church next door showed very little signs of life. The only person we would see during the week was an elderly man that kept the grounds. On Sundays during their worship gathering, we would see at the most six automobiles.

Last summer we noticed activity. Even the church sign board came to life and was changing every week. The messages seemed to be following a sequence of Scripture verses from the book of 1 Peter. The first one I noticed said, “Judgment must begin at the house of God”; the second, “Elders, feed the flock of God”; then, “Your adversary walks about seeking whom he may devour.”

I began to ask myself, “I wonder who this particular church is hoping to serve”? I found out that a new pastor had come in to restart the church. The church sign had a website address. Out of curiosity I looked at the site. Here are a couple of excerpts from the website:

    A little about us…
    • WE ARE A CONSERVATIVE, family-oriented fellowship desiring to serve God in our families, in our church, in our community, and everywhere else that God leads.
    • We are evangelical in our practice of faith and are in substantial agreement with the Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689.
    • We are traditional in our approach to worshiping God and we praise Him with hymns, choruses, played and sung in a non-contemporary style, and other inspirational music.
    • We are affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention through the Northwest Baptist Convention and the Puget Sound Baptist Association.

    Philosophy of Ministry
    Worship Style

    The admonition by Paul to believers in Ephesians 5:19 is to speak to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, making melody in our hearts to the Lord. The music in church, therefore, can and should be varied. However, the heart focus of our music and singing must be on the Lord, on what would be pleasing to Him. An admonition found in both the Old and New Testaments is for Christians to be holy as our Lord is holy, to be in the world but not of the world. While there is no guidance in Scripture that prohibits a specific music style, clearly the Audience of our praise and our obedience to God in the matter of holiness must be reflected in our choice of music and singing. Rather than guess what or what is not acceptable music for the church, the church should purpose to exclude those forms of music that are easily recognizable as worldly. Therefore, contemporary Christian music that incorporates the different forms of rock and roll should be avoided. In my view, unacceptable contemporary Christian music is identifiable by its dependence on drums with a significant back beat and driving, repetitious, or sensual rhythms. A blend of hymns, sacred music, and melodious praise choruses that do not incorporate the rock style are certainly appropriate in the church.

In all the years we lived next door to this church the parking lot was used by us and the neighbors for parking when we had company, the kids rode their bikes and played ball there. After the new pastor came to revitalize the congregation, towing signs went up in the parking lot and the kids were told they could not play in the parking lot.

We met the new pastor and talked with him a few times. I think he felt sorry for us because we were not KJV only Christians.

A few months ago, Rich noticed several trucks moving stuff out of the church. He asked the pastor what was was going on. The pastor said they sold the building, that they were merging with another church. When Rich asked who they sold the building to he said he couldn’t say and that we would know in about one week. We were curious…

About a week later a new sign went up:

The Seattle Meditation Center

For the past few months we have watched cleaning, remodeling and a ton of landscaping going on. We have had several conversations with our new neighbors who immediately took down the towing signs and welcomed the kids back into the parking lot. It is a Thai Buddhist congregation.

This last week they have had an “Open House” invited all the neighbors. Here is part of the invitation we received tucked in our front door:

    You are cordially invited to join us for an open house celebration of the Seattle Meditation Center. The center is a non-profit organization dedicated to teaching meditation as a means to relaxation, stress reduction, peace of mind and numerous other benefits.
    For guests who are interested in meditation, we will offer 3 meditation introductory sessions in a non-religious manner for beginners.
    We are looking forward to meeting you in order to know each other, build up our friendship and be good neighbors. We hope that you will kindly accept our invitation and come to see what we are doing and what benefits we will bring to the community.

Here is what their sign looks like:

DSCN1443

We wanted to check out the open house but couldn’t. We talked with them and they said it went great. They had an authentic Thai buffet. Almost the entire congregation is from Bangkok. There are five monks with this congregation. They live in a house a few blocks away.

Today they were having their Grand Opening Ceremony. When we left for our worship gathering this morning, Alex and I went out the door and I heard Alex say, “whoa” because the parking lot was more than full, cars were lined up and down our street, we have never seen so much activity. The Grand Opening was from 9:00-3:30.

When I arrived home after the baptism I went over to check it out. I walked through the parking lot which was still full, there were Thai kids playing everywhere, from small children to teenagers. They were all dressed in white. There were several tent covers up with people scurrying to put food away. It looked like it was a full on Thai buffet. I walked up to the front door of the temple and took off my shoes (there must have been several hundred shoes) then went into the temple (which used to be the church sanctuary) and sat in the back. Here is what I observed:

It is a small building, probably holds a capacity just under 200. They had carpeted with an off-white carpet, there was a blood red runner running down the middle aisle. We sat on plastic white chairs (the kind you rent for a wedding). The room was packed with almost all Thai people all dressed in white. I stood out like a sore thumb! There were two other Caucasians in the room. One of which was sitting next to me. She asked me if I had ever been there before. I told her no, I was just visiting, that I live next door. She introduced me to the women sitting next to her, a Thai woman that traded places with her so she could explain to me what was going on.

In the front on what used to probably be the altar/stage (elevated about 5 feet) area were 15 monks dressed in an orange wrap around. They had a table in the front with microphones. The head monk was in the front and center. They were all seated. Above them (tall ceilings) was a gold plated enormous statue of a Buddha. To the right of the altar, stage area were seated another 15 or so monks. The rest of the room was facing them and did I say packed! At this point in the ceremony is was the offering time. Several young Thai women brought gifts to the monks on what looked like tall glass cake plates that were decorated with flowers. I asked my interpreter what was in the boxes, she said, “gifts for the monks, shaving cream, personal items and money”. The woman on the other side of her said to me, “you probably remember this was a Christian church, a dead Christian church, well this is different, all the work that has been done to renovate here came right from these people, they did it all and now they are bringing their offerings to the monks. Very different than Christian churches that are usually supported by endowments.” I nodded.

Next the head monk was saying something and then everyone brought their hands together in a prayer posture and all the monks began chanting something. My interpreter told me that the monks were praying a blessing. She said, “close your eyes and make a wish, as you make a wish the monks blessing will help it come true.” So, I assumed a posture like everyone else and observed the blessing. As the blessing came to an end, my guide let me know what was happening next. The young women were coming back with gifts on the platters for those that had been the most generous contributors. They called them forward, several people went up front and they were brought gifts. I asked what was in the boxes and she said, “framed pictures of (the head monk).” She said the name in Thai but I can’t remember what it is. Next she told me the head monk was going to give a sermon (in Thai) and then there would be meditation and chants.

The woman sitting next to her told me to come back on Sunday’s. They will begin with meditation at 9:30 and at 11:00 the monks eat and then at noon everyone else eats authentic Thai food. After lunch they then have a sermon, blessings and then more meditation. Sunday’s from 9:30 until about 3:00 there are activities. She told me to be sure to come. Then a man behind me leaned up and began to explain what the meditation was about, what the blessings were about and wanted to help instruct me on what was going on and to invite me to be sure to come back. He told me they were going to begin offering training for young boys and girls on Saturday’s from 9:00 – 3:00.

At this point I needed to go. I didn’t want to sit through a sermon in Thai so I thanked my guides and walked home. A couple of things I noticed:

1. Very, very kind people

2. The entire service was in Thai so I couldn’t understand

3. There were no kids or youth in the service

I have more thoughts about this but I have to get to something else and this post is getting way too long.

I wonder what it means to be faithful to Jesus in my pluralistic neighborhood. I will go back often to talk with my Buddhists neighbors. I wonder about a lot actually…

12 Comments »

  1. this was so interesting. fascinating in all kinds of ways, the contrast between the two, the vibe, the hospitality. i look forward to hearing more about this over time. celebrating with you, too, with the baptisms & the joy and beauty that they represent. so fun.

    Comment by kathyescobar — September 1, 2008 @ 7:37 am

  2. Rose, thanks fro sharing this. I enjoyed reading it, and found it challenging to our church culture.

    BUT! I think you missed one very important observation in your list… the Buddhists had NONE of that devil driven back beat rock and roll! Does that mean the SBC found the Buddhists worship more acceptable to God than the worship we did at VCC?

    Comment by jimfox — September 1, 2008 @ 9:19 am

  3. Kathy,
    It is very interesting on so many levels. I read about Thai Buddhism this morning. I thought of other things I “noticed” like:
    1. The women were definitely in subservient roles
    2. The monks were seen as the “holy” men and were held in an elevated postion.
    3. They are very “evangelistic”

    Jim,
    Yes, I think you hit the nail on the head and now can see why the SBC pastor probably thought Rich and I were not really saved!

    Comment by rose — September 1, 2008 @ 9:49 am

  4. Interesting story, Rose. Left me with more questions than answers. I hope that God will use you and your husband to see some of them enter into the Kingdom.

    Comment by Pastor Mike — September 1, 2008 @ 2:12 pm

  5. i think about your story and something that was said several weeks ago at VCC… i can’t remember who it was that said it, whether it was Winn or Rich, but it was speaking of why Buddhism was so popular, more than say Christianity, and it the key difference was Buddhism was a ‘way of life’ and Christianity was viewed as just a system of beliefs. So when i think about it people are not looking for ‘something to believe in’, they are looking for a life-changing, spiritual lifestyle, and most of Christianity represents a system of right beliefs pointing a self-righteous finger at a system of wrong actions. this is very eye-opening of how our lives should be lived publicly (and privately) and exactly what we as Christ-followers need to reflect… not ‘what we believe’, but how we live because of Who we follow.

    and by the way… i am SO going to hell in at least a dozen different ways according to that part of the SBC for sure!! 🙂

    Comment by jeff greer — September 1, 2008 @ 9:40 pm

  6. Jeff,
    good thing they don’t get to decide…. lol

    Comment by Pastor Mike — September 1, 2008 @ 10:53 pm

  7. Jeff that was me telling the story of Brian McLaren introducing Peter Senge at a gathering of 500 Evangelical pastors. He talks about it in his book, Finding Our Way Again.

    Pastor Mike,
    Welcome. I am interested in the questions this raises for you. Do you have a blog?

    Comment by rose — September 2, 2008 @ 7:36 am

  8. Great stuff, Rose! Wow… I was in shock after reading the snippets from the church’s website, and also how they were so exclusive… kind of sad!

    Comment by jake — September 2, 2008 @ 9:25 am

  9. Thank you Rose. I don’t have a blog and I don’t know how much in common that I may have with many who I might expect to interact here. I do find your perspectives interesting.

    Anyway, this story really saddened me, it really did. I see the former group that owned this property that probably have much of the truth in place but being in danger of honoring Him with their lips, but their hearts being far from Jesus. The other side of the coin, the new owners are open and engaging, but I’m afraid they are on the broad road.

    Perhaps the former group were just insensitive. I can be insensitive, the problem is, I don’t realize it until it’s too late……. another reminder that not everyone sees the world through my lense……

    I’ll be around.. Thanks again Rose.. God’s blessings to you.

    Comment by Pastor Mike — September 2, 2008 @ 12:17 pm

  10. Wow! Great post, I really enjoyed reading your observations. I had to come back today and re-read.

    Comment by Colleen Echohawk — September 2, 2008 @ 1:51 pm

  11. […] Rose Madrid-Swetman » The Congregation Next Door What if the fundamentalist Christian church next door scared away its neighbors but then sold their building to a Christian meditation center for Thai buddhism? Rose Swetman tells about her new neighbors. (tags: missional missionalchurch) […]

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