Retired pastor reviewed worship services

`An ordinary death'

The Rev. Christy Thomas’ recent writing projects include the book “An Ordinary Death: Where Grief and Relief Hold Hands.” It’s an account of her mother’s decline and death, and a companion study guide offers mediations on end-of-life issues and planning.

She sat silently among Quakers. She had her ear drums nearly punctured by amped-up praise bands. She breathed incense with the Greek Orthodox, and joined a hot chocolate-sipping cowboy church crowd.

As a newly retired United Methodist pastor, the Rev. Christy Thomas attended worship at 50 different places from summer 2014 to summer 2015, and wrote about her experiences as a columnist for the Denton (Texas) Record-Chronicle.

There were highs and lows, and the lows were way down there.

“There were about five churches I went to where I walked out the door and said,  ‘Get me to the nearest bar,’” said Thomas, 66.

Many United Methodists know Thomas as a blogger who has written candidly and passionately on a range of denominational issues, including the Bishop Earl Bledsoe controversy in 2012.

As pastor of First United Methodist Church in Krum, Texas, Thomas also wrote columns on the Christian life for the Krum Star newspaper and the Record-Chronicle in nearby Denton, about 40 miles north of Dallas.

Thomas retired as pastor in December 2013, in part to spend more time writing. The Record-Chronicle’s managing editor, Scott Parks, decided she should continue her column but model it after one that Rice University professor William Martin used to write for Texas Monthly magazine.

Martin, a biographer of Billy Graham, would visit a place of worship somewhere in Texas and write about the service.

Parks really liked that idea.

“I was always fascinated by the idea of a knowledgeable and credible person going to visit different churches and then reporting on what he found,” he said.

Thomas had known Martin when she was an undergraduate at Rice, and had majored in anthropology there. So she was game to follow Martin’s example and bring her social science background to bear.

Her worship review columns began last summer and appeared almost every week for a year. She reported on her visits to a wide range of churches, as well to a Reform Jewish Shabbat service and Muslim prayers.

Though she has collected the columns on her website under the title “Mystery Worship Series,” Thomas always introduced herself before the service to an usher or the pastor, and explained what she was doing.

“That was Scott’s request,” she said. “He wanted to make sure this was above board, that people didn’t feel that I had snuck in or not been up front.”

Welcomes, warm and otherwise

Thomas’ accounts were, in the main, reportorial, offering a visitor’s perspective. She would cover everything from parking to the quality of the sound system to the availability of gluten-free communion bread to the organization of the sermon.

Almost always, she would note the welcome she received.

“I am often ignored when I, an older woman, walk into a church alone,” she wrote in one column. “Immediate greetings come if I am accompanied by a male companion. The greeters swarm all over us if I have young people with me. But we older women aren’t called invisible for nothing.”

(The church she was visiting that Sunday —  St. Andrew Presbyterian in Denton — was a happy exception, with members greeting her warmly.)

Thomas had many good experiences, including at two United Methodist churches she reviewed: First United Methodist in Denton, and Hollywood United Methodist in Los Angeles. She found herself deeply moved by the highly liturgical Greek Orthodox service she attended, and by a far simpler Quaker service she attended. (United Methodists, Thomas believes, could learn a lot about holy conferencing from Quakers.)

Of Friendship Baptist, an African-American church in The Colony, Texas, Thomas would write glowingly:

“I was enveloped and engulfed by the music, led by this exquisite set of voices, highlighted by two soloists. I was near tears by the time they finished, steeped in a sense of the holy presence of God, touched by the expressions of response by various members of the congregation during this time.”

When Thomas had a bad experience, her reports for the newspaper were restrained — notable more for lack of enthusiasm than for outright criticism. But she would post the columns on her blog and then offer more commentary, a kind of director’s cut of her impressions.

Of one megachurch where she heard the prosperity gospel preached amid aggressive appeals for money, Thomas wrote on her blog: “I think it is the most evil place I have ever seen.”

The prosperity gospel, Neo-Calvinist theology, lousy biblical exegesis and any worship service where the pastor and praise band’s performance seemed to matter more than the congregation’s involvement in worship all these were subjects for hot comment on Thomas’ blog. When any of those elements was combined with male-only church leadership, she felt even more need to vent.

Thomas spent years in conservative church circles, including as a student at Dallas Theological Seminary. While grateful for the academic rigor there (especially the grounding in Hebrew and New Testament Greek) she ultimately rebelled against its theology and restrictions on women as ministers and found her way to Southern Methodist University's Perkins School of Theology and The United Methodist Church.

The year as worship service reviewer wore on her as she often went to churches of a kind she’d fled years ago, as well to other churches whose theology and worship style she found objectionable.

“If I had not been well-grounded as a Christian, I would have lost my faith,” Thomas said.

A new gig

This summer, she and Parks agreed she needed for her sake to end the reviewing column. But they came up with an alternative.

Both are fans of the “Dear Prudence” advice column on Slate, so Thomas has in recent weeks been writing something similar for the Record-Chronicle under the title “Ask the Thoughtful Pastor.”

Thomas had expected to get light-hearted or basic factual questions, but readers have asked about abortion, biblical inerrancy and the value of prayer. So Thomas has been giving her opinions in a pastoral tone, but with no varnish.

The questions keep coming, and there have been letters to the editor about her column too.

 “People like it or hate it,” Thomas said. “But they’re reading it.”

Hodges, a United Methodist News Service writer, lives in Dallas. Contact him at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected]

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