(I first posted this a year ago, though the incident I describe here happened 10 years ago or so when I was serving as pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Wheaton, Illinois.)
Imagine my surprise early one Friday morning, as I was sitting quietly at home with my coffee and the Wall Street Journal. There on the op-ed page was a piece about my church.
Actually, it wasn’t so much about my church, as it was about the sign in front of my church.
Facing a well-traveled street in the Chicago suburb where I used to live was a church sign board. On one side of the sign board we posted worship times and a welcome to visitors. On the other … well, that was the problem.
What do you post on a church sign board?
For some reason this was a responsibility that always fell to me. As hard as I worked to delegate it, I always ended up with the final decision about what to put out there.
I resisted the use of clever and catchy sayings. What I preferred was to announce events like Vacation Bible School, the Mother-Daughter Tea, Nursery School registration, and so on. However, there were church members, now and then, who wanted to do more than that. Much more. And they would bring in pictures of sign boards from other churches to make their case.
One year, heading into the summer season and without a lot of church activities to announce, I gave the custodian two words to put out there on the signboard, two words that I thought were utterly innocuous: “Celebrate Pentecost.”
I ordinarily don’t go looking for controversy. But to one driver who passed by my church in the days leading up to Pentecost a few years ago those were words that couldn’t be ignored.
“Celebrate Pentecost?” she wrote in her Wall Street Journal column. “What could those words mean for a Presbyterian Church?”
She argued that celebrating Pentecost would be understandable in a Pentecostal or charismatic church, where speaking in tongues and faith healing and so on were practiced. But a Presbyterian Church, she wrote, was being misleading at best by encouraging its people to celebrate Pentecost.
What does Pentecost look like for a Presbyterian Church? The truth is, I’m getting a lot of blank looks from staff members this week as I try to make plans for this special day. It seems they’re not exactly sure what a Pentecost celebration would look like either. “Why is the color for Pentecost red?” one of them asked.
I’m stunned. In popular culture, I realize, Pentecost doesn’t rank up there with Christmas and Easter, but within the biblical account I would say Pentecost is an important day – very important. I would say the story tells us a great deal about how God calls a people to himself – and then sends them out again to be the church. Maybe our ignorance about Pentecost says a lot about where the American church is today.
I plan to say something about this on Sunday.