I have been thinking about this for a long time: how does Valley and Mountain compare to Restoration?
Restoration Church is an evangelical Assemblies of God-affiliated church in Dover, NH, where I spent a year trying to wrap my head around their sincere belief that everyone who isn’t saved is going to hell. They are a fairly young church, congregation-wise, and that intrigued me. They met in a movie theater. I made friends with women who dressed and acted like me (i.e. they wore leggings and ate too many Oreos), but really truly (“honestly, seriously, yes, Alicia, why do you keep asking us, will you please talk about something else, literally anything else”) believed that homosexuality was a sin, that men should “lead” their wives, and that Jesus was their savior.
This last part gave me the most trouble–saved? I wondered for a year if I was saved. (If you are interested, I’d be happy to send you the book I wrote about it.)
And then, I stopped. I quit church for real, pretty much without noticing. Andrew, the tactful instigator, even encouraged me to go to church at some point last year, just to “keep my hand in the game” (the game of writing about American Christianity in the 2010’s). I didn’t even think about it. I always found a way to go to church before, but for most of last year, I stayed home guilt-free.
Then I stumbled upon Valley and Mountain, and I was in heaven, pretty darn literally. A super-liberal “church” that was more like a conglomeration of people who do things like make sandwiches for shelters during “church.”
But several times, I have had a twinge. I’ve thought, Whoa, this is the liberal equivalent of Restoration.
The most obvious similarity between the two churches is their names. Restoration always struck me as a little too purposefully ambiguous name. To me, it epitomizes the evangelical phenomenon of using universal language to discuss something very specific: for example, being “saved” could mean almost anything (saved from what?), but to evangelical Christians it refers to acceptance of a very specific version of God.
If you are an evangelical Christian, then “Restoration” might signify to you that Jesus restores us to God, heaven, and goodness. We are sinful and we need restoration. That’s a very specific type of restoration and it comes with many strings attached: once you are restored by God through his son Jesus, you are obligated to believe in certain things that are in the Bible and to save others.
But “Restoration” also implies restoration to a good life—salvation from addictions to drugs and alcohol, abusive partners, and truly shitty families. People who battled these things made up a not-negligible proportion of Restoration, and they would tell you absolutely that they are better off for being in this church. (For the record, I believed them.)
Valley + Mountain, on the other hand…well, not on the other hand. I don’t love the name of this church. It also strikes me as ambiguous, though Andrew likes it, which is a point in its favor. To be fair, I don’t love the name of most churches—I love only churches named after saints. (Basically, when I rejected Catholicism I doomed myself to cheesily named churches for the rest of my life.)
In this case, the ambiguity is also purposeful. Life is full of valleys and mountains, and this church will be there with you through them. Every Sunday, John (the “convener”/pastor of the church) welcomes everyone by saying something along the lines of “You are welcome here, no matter what kind of energy you’re bringing today. If you’re happy and excited, or if you’re depressed and anxious, you are welcome here.” The message of openness to all types of people is echoed when John says things like “No matter what your theology or your philosophy of God is, you are welcome here.” (That part I love.)
To bring things full circle, what John says reminds me of what Pastor Nate of Restoration used to say, early in the service and at nearly every one: “In case no one has told you, you are welcome here.” After I wrote my thesis about his church, Pastor Nate told me in an email “I’ve said this for years but you don’t have to believe what we believe to come to our church.” It’s true; I didn’t believe any of the things they believed, and they not only let me in, they put up with me at a small-group-style Bible study, hung out with me at church potlucks, and invited me to their parties.
The similarity between the two goes deeper than the name. Having a vague, non-saint-related name reflects a deep desire for both communities to practice “radical hospitality,” which just happens to be the topic of our sermons at V+M over the next few weeks. Both churches want to welcome everyone who will walk through the doors; they want to be a part of the community, not isolated from it. They want to help people outside their walls. Pastor Nate talked a lot about outward-focused churches, as opposed to inward-focused ones; similarly, Valley and Mountain’s motto is “Inward, Outward, Onward, Together.”
Pastor Nate and the other leaders on the church tried to come up with creative ways to reach out to Dover–they helped at the Dover Apple Harvest Fest, they invited people to nondenominational holiday services, and they helped with local food kitchens. V+M does similar things to be a part of the community: they rent the Hillman City Collaboratory, which operates like a community center for the Hillman City neighborhood; they (we) go to the community barbecues on Sunday after service, which are open to everyone; they run an art gallery within the Collaboratory, which is where we have services.
I don’t know what it means that both churches act so similarly when what they believe is so different. I think it shows something I figured out while spending all my free time with evangelical Christians: we are more alike than we would like to think. Even though these are only surface similarities, I think Pastor Nate and John have enough in common for them to compare notes at a conference on reaching out to your local community. Is that really cool? Or really strange?