A prominent sign on Route 66 in the nearby town of Azusa displays a message that is by no means unique to Azusa, but which might be seen in any of a number of cities not only in Southern California, but all over the country (indeed, some of my "Bible Belt" friends, who have formed their own opinions of what Southern California is like on the basis of what they see on television, might be surprised to learn just how common such a sight is around here!): "Attend The Church of Your Choice." This particular sign then proceeds to to offer a dozen-and-a-half options representing a range of denominational options within the broad Christian tradition.
There's quite a bit about signs like this that I appreciate. I appreciate the ecumenism that such a sign represents. Rather than encouraging particular denominations (be they Roman Catholic, or Southern Baptist, or Presbyterian, or whatever) to see themselves as holding exclusive claims to "truth," this kind of sign encourages Christians to think of each other as part of a family of equals. Likewise, I'm a fan of encouraging people to make their own "choices" about where to worship, and feel that this sign provides that kind of encouragement in a low-pressure, guilt-free way.
I do have a few concerns, however. The first and most obvious one is the lack of non-Christian faiths represented on this kind of board. Far from being encouraged to attend a Christian church (much less become a Christian), I imagine that a person of Jewish or Muslim background would look at this kind of sign as kind of Christian "imperialism," whereby Christians assume that they are the only people that matter. My evangelical impulse is bothered by this potential problem, but I don't pretend to know how to fix it, nor would I suggest that including a more diverse set of worship gatherings would necessarily solve the problem. Indeed, I'm sure it would just raise evangelical questions of its own.
The idea of "choice" in worship also raises a few questions for me. There seems to be a hyper-individualism at work in American society (perhaps especially in Southern California!) that tells people "if you don't like your current church, just go to another one!" I'm sure that I've been guilty of this, myself. On the one hand, I don't think that a person should just go to the closest church to where they live (or even necessarily the closest church within that person's denomination), nor that a person should just "put up with" any amount of dysfunction within a congregation. On the other hand, I think that it's important to recognize that any church, being a gathering of human beings, is going to reflect in some way or another the broken nature of humanity. There is no such thing as a perfect church, and I can't help but wish that more people were committed to seeing their local congregations through periods of difficulty. Or, to put it another way (and to paraphrase a former president's famous words), I wish more people would "ask not what their church can do for them, but ask what they can do for their church."
I do find myself wondering about what attendance is like at the churches mentioned on this sign. Whatever its intentions originally were (and I suspect that this sign dates back quite a few decades!), do people attend these churches on the basis of having been made aware of them by their mention on the sign? Does the sign encourage newcomers to attend, when they first arrive in town? (And how many "newcomers" come to Azusa these days?) When new members come to one of these churches, do they come from one of the other churches on the sign, or are they truly new to church attendance in the first place? I fear that quite a bit of new church membership comes at the expense of church losses somewhere else, rather than representing any true growth.
None of this is to say that I don't think that this sign should be here. I'm glad to see this kind of open expression of Christian involvement in a community. But it's also a reminder of the fact that this world is not as it should be....