The Rev. Gordon Atkinson had few specific goals when he started planning his 13-week sabbatical from his duties at Covenant Baptist Church near San Antonio. "I knew that I didn't want to be in charge of anything," said Atkinson, long known as the "Real, Live, Preacher" to those who read his intensely personal online journal (reallivepreacher.com).
"Preachers talk and talk and I wanted to get away from that. I didn't want to be a worship tourist, but I thought it would be refreshing to worship in some places where I was the person in the room who knew the least about what was going on."
It helps to know that Atkinson leads an unusual Baptist flock, a "contemplative Christian community" that holds spiritual retreats based on the writings of St. Francis of Assisi and men's fellowship meetings over beer and pizza. Covenant's belief statement stresses that the "fullness of the gospel cannot be contained in any one church."
While proud of his Baptist heritage, Atkinson said the "glory days" when "moderate" and "conservative" Baptists fought to control the old corporate machinery are long gone. Now, many congregations are experimenting with "emerging," "post-denominational" and "postmodern" identities and forms of worship.
Thus, Atkinson began his sabbatical by visiting the radical stillness of a Quaker gathering, a tradition that asks believers to remain silent until God inspires someone to speak. For 30 minutes, every cough, sneeze or stomach growl was audible.
"You have to lose a lot of your shame when you sit in silence with people," he wrote. "These sounds are not disturbing to the time of worship. Not at all. They are the delightful sounds of humans trying to be quiet. And we cannot. ... So even the sounds of people trying to be quiet are a part of the lesson."
A few Sundays later, Atkinson found himself swimming in words and symbols when his family visited an Eastern Orthodox sanctuary.
"It was like they were ripping raw chunks of theology out of ancient creeds and throwing them by the handfuls into the congregation," he wrote. "I heard words and phrases I had not heard since seminary. Theotokos, begotten not made, Cherubim and Seraphim borne on their pinions, supplications and oblations."
The experience, he concluded, was an "ADD kid's nightmare," with the "robes, scary art, smoking incense, secret doors in the Iconostas popping open and little robed boys coming out with golden candlesticks, chants and singing from a small choir that rolled across the curved ceiling. ... There was so much going on I couldn't keep up with all the things I couldn't pay attention to."
His family struggled, but Atkinson had tears in his eyes by the end of the nearly two-hour liturgy. After years of focusing on user-friendly ways to attract people to church, he was stunned to attend a service that -- much like the Quaker meeting -- placed intense demands on all the participants.
It was, he concluded, as if visitors were being told: "You don't know what Theotokos means? Get a book and read about it. You have a hard time standing for two hours? Do some sit ups and get yourself into worship shape. It is the Lord our God we worship here, mortal. ... THIS IS BIGGER THAN YOU ARE."
Atkinson was intrigued and eventually attended Russian, Greek and Antiochian Orthodox churches.
Nevertheless, by the end of his sabbatical this liberal Baptist preacher knew he had a problem. While Atkinson appreciated the symbols, rituals and sacraments he encountered, he also knew that he couldn't accept the doctrines that defined the worship, especially the Orthodox rites.
Simply stated, his views on sin, sexuality, salvation, heaven and hell were too modern. There was "no wiggle room" in the ancient doctrines and, Atkinson concluded, "I just couldn't buy all of it."
Now he is returning to his Baptist pulpit, while hearing choirs of voices arguing in his head representing many different eras of church history.
"What I don't know how to do is rank all of these voices and decide who has authority," he said. "Who is right and who is wrong? ... And I want to know, where does Gordon Atkinson fit into this whole picture? I know that I can't go back to the old Protestant, evangelical way that I was, but I don't know where I'm supposed to go now. This is a problem."