My visit to the Church of Nativity

On the weekend of September 9-10th, I made a trip to Timonium, Maryland. I was there to experience The Church of Nativity. This church is somewhat famous or infamous depending on who you talk for being the subject matter of the book, Rebuilt written by Father White (more on him later). The book outlines questionable methods used by the church to rebuild into the thriving parish it is today. I’ll admit that at one point in time I was a huge fan of this church. Thus when I found out that they’d be opening a new building on September 11th, I decided to make a special trip.
I was very excited to visit the church especially since I felt like I was an honorary member. I knew people, who attended due to joining an online small group ( a decision I had made because I wanted something to help me spiritually grow without any leadership role). Thus I was also excited to connect with them in person as well.
Having attended in person, I finally feel qualified to judge the experience. I do have mixed feelings on Nativity has a whole.
So the first thing I would like to say is that this church is beautiful and the online pictures do not do it justice. However, if you are a fan of traditional cathedral style architecture then you will hate it. When you come up to the church, you are greeted with a white stone sign with the churches name engraved in it. There is a curvy road, which leads up to the parking lot. In between the road are trees and flowers. The first part of the building you see is the glass coffee shop. Then you see the main doors and as you head out of the parking lot you see the old church, which has been converted into a children’s wing. Once inside, you see a white brick wall with a cross carved into it. To the right of the front doors is a bench. Next to the bench is a stand and video screen, which says next steps. After passing that you enter into the coffee shop.  I would later learn thåt to the left of the main entrance is guest services.
I arrived at 9:50am for 10:30am Mass. We were greeted by parking lot ministers. These volunteers were very good at their job. They told the person driving me that I could get dropped off and that they would have a spot open in 15 minutes. So I texted my small group leader, Sue, and had her meet me outside.
She met me outside and we proceeded into the building. Now here’s where things got interesting. Nativity’s claim to fame is their radically welcoming environment. However, walking into the building I didn’t notice any greeters. I am not sure why but I suspect several possibilities.  First, I was with someone I knew and seemed to know what I was doing and second, Mass was not over yet and thus the greeters were not out yet. Third, there may have been some confusion regarding where they were supposed to stand and greet since it was a new building with multiple entrances. Even though these are all possible excuses, it still feels odd. First of all, if the volunteers wait until Mass is over to do their job, then why are the parking ministers already directing traffic? Second of all, even if I am in a group and seem like I know the place, I still deserve to be treated the same as someone new. In fact Father White in the book, Rebuilt, mentions that the inspiration for the hospitality team stems from his visit to Saddleback Church, where he was greeted so warmly, he entered the building not once, but twice.  I also find it hard to believe that the greeters would not have been trained regarding the entrances and exits of the new building. It may seem that I am being overly harsh since most Catholic churches don’t make greeting a priority at all. However, when you write a book about it and do several T.V. interviews on how to have a welcoming environment, I expect a level of excellence that goes above and beyond the normal. I guess I have abnormally high standards due to my experience at nondenominational churches.
So after chilling with my small group while waiting for my other friend, Andrea to park the car, Sue convinced me to go ahead into the sanctuary and wait for Andrea so that I could have a good seat. By the way, Andrea says that she wasn’t greeted either. We headed into the sanctuary, which is located right behind the white brick wall. There were doors on either side of the wall. In front of the door, I see my first greeter/usher. They were passing out a pamphlet. I didn’t take one, but I could see that it had a map.  Once inside the doors to the left, I notice a silver dish with holy water. I bless myself, as is custom. Sue meets me and she says, “you found it, I was looking for it.” We head down the center aisle. The sanctuary sort of slopes down and is curved, but not completely circular. Above the main pews is a white balcony. There is a cut out in the front pew for someone in a wheelchair. I take that spot with my chair. To my left is the baptismal font. In front of me is the altar. It is wooden dark brown. On the base of the altar are carvings of religious figures. Behind the altar is a white jeweled box, which I am guessing is the tabernacle. Surrounding the tabernacle is candles and a wooden carving of Mary and Joseph. The altar is light with stage lights. To the far left and right of the altar platform or stage are two screens. Underneath the screen is a camera crane, which I guess it is used to record the Mass. I thought that it would be more distracting than it was. The lectern is to the right of the altar. The drum set was off to the side. The service started with a video. At first I thought it was an announcement video, but instead, it was a voice reciting scripture about the importance of church. Then the band came out. To my dismay, the band was on the first-row step, not necessarily in front of the altar, but to the left and right of it. I don’t quite understand the placement of the band. It is my major critique, especially since a brand new sanctuary can easily be designed to have a side space. If intentionally left out then it shows that the church prioritizes a view of the band rather than the altar. If unintentional, then it shows a lack of Catholic architectural understanding by the designer.  If the church wants to prioritize the band, then why spend money on a new altar design.
As much as the placement of the band frustrated me, I must say that the music quality is excellent. I still maintain that the Catholic Church would do well to invest in quality music. Andrea compared my old parish to this one’s music style by saying, “if a parish is going to use contemporary music and instruments then the need to invest and go all the way or the need to stick with traditional hymns; your parish tried to straddle the middle line and it didn’t work.” I think that modern instruments can work, but you have to always be mindful of tone. Nativity’s worship team does tone well in that a Eucharistic song is not upbeat, but slower and meditative. I also enjoy the modern twist on Latin chant; it actually sounds really good with an acoustic guitar. As far as style goes, I am not sure all modern contemporary praise and worship is the way to go. I wouldn’t mind hearing some older hymns occasionally.
The Mass itself was pretty standard. There were a few things that bothered me. First of all, I am not completely sold on the idea that the reader should be the same person or that they should be paid. On one hand, it gives it a sense of quality, but on the other hand, I feel like it loses the human element to it. For example, when she got up to read and the light shined on her face, I could shake the sense that I was watching the performance of the mass and not the mass. The lack of children or any noise for that matter made it super easy to concentrate, but also made it feel artificial. Second of all, the Eucharistic ministers felt irreverent at times. I am also a little unsure about when they received the consecrated Eucharist since they never received it from Father White.
I would be remiss if I omitted my thoughts on Father White. I feel like he is a great speaker and gives a great homily. However, I do get a general sense of aloofness from him. This began during the administration of the Eucharist. He administered the first few to parishioners but then decided to sit down and chat with the altar server. Second of all, he did not do the final blessing or process outward but rather retired to the sacristy. Lastly, when Sue asked if I could meet with him, Jackie, one of Father White’s helpers, said that he would try, but most likely not since he was tired and didn’t want to be mobbed by the crowd. At the risk of sounding ungrateful, I was able to get a blessing from him, but the gesture felt empty and cold considering he did not approach me in a friendly demeanor. I hope that maybe he was just having a bad day and tired. Andrea said it best, “this church is his baby, he conceived it, he birthed it, and now he needs to rock it.”
There are a few last details that I’d like to comment on. One positive thing is that I really did enjoy how the narthex and concourse were uncluttered and spacious. There weren’t a million different ministries trying to grab my attention as I walk out of the sanctuary. There weren’t multiple fundraisers going on. It was nice. On the negative, I am not sure I liked how the cafe was set up. If the cafe was a place for people to fellowship, I believe it defeated that purpose by having mass live-streamed. If the purpose is overflow space then food or drink should not be sold in that space. I personally liked the idea of it being a fellowship hall.
Overal I want to like Nativity, but in their pursuit of excellence, they may have unintentionally created a Mass that comes across as a production rather than something personal and human. If I lived closer, I would definitely go back if for nothing else than to experience good music and receive a good homily; however, I would hesitate to endorse it wholeheartedly due to a little bit of irreverence and impersonalness.
Should Mass be a production? If not, what should Mass be like? Can we pursue quality and still keep the humanness of Mass?
 
 

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