Mystery Church Tour p.5

(This blog series is not intended to be a critique of the churches
we visit, but rather an expression of our observances and how they
relate to our quest.  We recognize the fact that each and every church
we visit belong to Christ and His glory is on display to some measure
in each one.  We also realize there are no perfect churches and we all
rely on Jesus to clothe us with His righteousness.)

The 5th stop of the tour was a bit of a contrast to the week before in several ways.  Besides the obvious size difference (this church was much smaller and operated out of a little shopping center), the service had a very intimate feel to it.  We went to an earlier service where there were very few people and the room itself was small.  The band was pretty good and the music really pumped due to the low ceiling.  After a couple of opening songs, we had a greeting time.  It is funny how so many churches despite denominational differences include a time to get around and greet each other.  The only think I didn't like about it was that it was 10 minutes long.  No exaggeration there.  10 minutes with no background music at all. Very awkward, especially since there were only about 30 people there.  Everything the worship leader accomplished in helping us to focus on Christ was lost with the greeting time interruption.  As a result, the 2nd set of music was lacking a little.  As a worship leader myself, I know how difficult it is to reign everyone in.  I have a close pastor friend who teaches his church that the foyer or front lobby of their building is "horizontal", but once you come in to the main sanctuary it is "vertical".  That is great advice for any church.
So after the music, one of the associates preached that morning.  Again, we caught a Sunday where the main pastor wasn't preaching.   That's not such a bad thing though because you can get a better feel of the church as a whole and you can evaluate it without being influenced by the pastor's oratorical skills.  The sermon delivered was from the text which is good, however it wouldn't make for a good defense of expository preaching.  Whereas the sermon the week before was more topical, this sermon was technically expository, but it was an example as to why so many churches have replaced biblical preaching with "relevant topical preaching".  It was just plain boring.   In other words, there is such a thing as bad expository preaching.  Read a verse, make a comment, read another verse, make a comment and so on is not expository preaching in its fullness.  The best sermons are not only straight from the text, but also straight from the heart of the preacher.  You can tell when the sermon that the preacher has prepared has affected his own soul during its preparation.  When it has, there is a passion that gushes out of him.  A good preacher is one where the Word has gotten into him before it comes out of him.   If you want some examples, I highly recommend you listen to John Piper or Matt Chandler.  Listen and tell me your heart is not moved away from yourself and toward God.  That's my challenge to you.  Okay, enough with the commercials for Reformed preaching.  : )

The pastor did come up at the end of the service and he seemed like a very authentic guy and so I would have liked to hear him speak.  He comes from a bible church background so my assumption is that he is a bible preacher.  Overall, this service was a mixed bag of intimate worship, dead time, and boring preaching.  It is so hard as I write this blog to take off my minister's hat as I see so many things I would like to do to make the service more Christ-centered.   The challenge to just get "lost in worship" is great for me because I keep thinking about ways to improve it.  So far, The Village has been the only place where this has happened, but I'm not giving up hope yet.  The mystery church tour has been so helpful in reminding us that the church isn't perfect, yet we know she is the bride that is being prepared for our great groom, Jesus Christ!  I just wish that more churches operated like this was true. 

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Mystery Church Tour p.4

(This blog series is not intended to be a critique of the churches
we visit, but rather an expression of our observances and how they
relate to our quest.  We recognize the fact that each and every church
we visit belong to Christ and His glory is on display to some measure
in each one.  We also realize there are no perfect churches and we all
rely on Jesus to clothe us with His righteousness.)

Our fourth stop on the tour was a large church that we had heard about for years from friends who attend there.  This church has grown by leaps and bounds and has a reputation for connecting with the community.  The pastor has a reputation for being bible-driven and bold in his presentation.  So even though we did not plan to attend this church originally, we changed our minds and decided to give it a try.
The facility is rather impressive cosmetically and as soon as we walked into the foyer, we were welcomed by their greeting team, and I mean team!  They have a very organized plan for welcoming new guests. Since the church is so large, no one assumes that you a regular attender so they come right up to you and ask if you are visiting the first time.  (I'm sure the looks on our faces are an indication as well).  Then they lead you to a table where you fill out their visitor card on a clipboard and offer you a cup of coffee and a gift bag.  Tina remarked that it reminded her of the survey people in the mall.  This approach is definitely effective in building your database of guests, but I'm not big on being solicited.  Having said this, I'm sure a great deal of people love the personal attention. 

After being welcomed, we walked into a large sanctuary and grabbed a seat in the back which might not have been a great idea.   There was an upbeat jazzy song being played by their band which consisted of drums, guitars, piano, bass set combined with a brass section.  I love jazz bands so I had high hopes for their music on this occasion.  After the opening number which was your typical "get-them-in" song, we stood for a more participatory song "How great is our God".  I'm not sure if was due to the rather cavernous atmosphere of the room or the fact we sat in the back, but I felt really disconnected during the worship music time.  Even though we were singing, we couldn't shake the whole performance feel of the service.  I am not against musical performances in a worship service, but I believe participation is much more vital.  The first song was really slow and I guess I'm just accustomed to beginning a service with much more energy.  The jazz band at the beginning was only a tease as they left the stage after the first song.   After the song we took communion.  Then after communion, there was another performance song which was a "Casting Crowns" cover aimed to be an obvious lead in to the sermon the preacher would deliver shortly thereafter.  So, there was basically ONE song of participation.  That's it!  Now, I know I'm a worship leader by trade and therefore a little biased, but one song?? Really?

Then after the last performance song, the Pastor delivered his message.  It was on marriage and although I'm not against marriage and parenting sermons because obviously the Bible is not silent on these issues, I'm not a fan of topical messages that use the Bible for mere proof-texting.  It is dangerous ground when we use the Bible to support our preconceived ideas no matter how practical and sound they are.  I feel the sermon should not be just bible-based, but bible-saturated.  This particular message amounted to nothing more than marital advice as the 6 or 7 points he delivered were similar to what Dr. Phil could have given me.  By contrast, when John Piper preached on marriage it was focused more on the display of Christ and His glory and how marriage between a man and woman is a temporal image of a greater marriage, namely Christ and His church.  I feel so strongly that in order to have a God honoring marriage, we need to have the glory of Christ preached to us so that we will understand the true context of earthly marriage.  How do we know this? Because the scriptures tell us this much.  Why would we want tor trade the thoughts of God for the thoughts of Dr. Phil, Oprah, James Dobson, or any other?  The Bible isn't a handbook for right living, it is a revelation of Christ.  This is what gospel-driven, Christ-centered preaching is about.  If this particular church were to offer marital classes at other times, I would find no problem with it.  But when you replace the most central means of worship in a gathering, namely the proclamation of the Word, then you really don't have a worship service.  Add in the fact that another key aspect of the worship service was limited to one song, then you walk out feeling empty.  I realize that a healthy church consists of more than a Sunday worship service and that it is a living organism that thrives throughout the week, but it has no chance to be any more than a social activity if the gospel isn't proclaimed.  I could be just fine with a church that does very little music if they are committed to preaching the Word, in fact, after the one song, I just assumed that this church was all about the sermon.  But alas, I was wrong. 
Now to be fair, this church has been instrumental to many changed lives, and no doubt many have been led to Christ through their various ministries.  I only attended one service, so it would be unfair to characterize this church in generalities.  Again, this is our Mystery Church tour and it is based on our observances of one service.  Maybe the other 51 Sundays weren't like this, so I want to give this church a little grace. 

Mystery Church Tour p.3

(This blog series is not intended to be a critique of the churches
we visit, but rather an expression of our observances and how they
relate to our quest.  We recognize the fact that each and every church
we visit belong to Christ and His glory is on display to some measure
in each one.  We also realize there are no perfect churches and we all
rely on Jesus to clothe us with His righteousness.)

Yesterday was week three of the tour.  Diversity has been the theme in summarizing these past few weeks.  Week one was a medium size church, week 2 was a very large church, and this week we visited a small church in a country town.  When we walked in to the foyer, we were greeted by a couple of people, but not immediately.  I guess some would find that a negative, but for me personally, I would rather not be "targeted" as greeting ministries often do.  I was, however, appreciative that the two people were sensitive to the fact that we were visiting and took the time to inquire.  Let me add that they were not official greeters, just a couple of alert members. At 10:20 we decided to find our seats in the auditorium as we waited for the 10:30 start time.  The pastor greeted us as he walked in and talked to us for a few minutes.  He explained that the service would be a little different because the town was celebrating "Founders Day" with a festival and many of the church members were working there or had been all weekend to raise funds for the summer mission trip.  
As it turned out, there were about 96 in attendance which was about 60-70 short of a normal Sunday I'm told.  You wouldn't have thought so during the music as the band played.  It seemed like there was near 100% participation in the worship time because so many were singing around us as we sang some familiar tunes like Blessed be the Name, Awesome is the Lord, and Your Grace is Enough. The worship leader and the band did an awesome job in leading us and you I didn't sense anything but a humble spirit from them!  Tina really enjoyed it because she always felt like she stuck out when she sang at our old church.  Yesterday, she could belt out the songs and blend in with everyone.  One thing I appreciate about the churches yesterday and last week was the volume of the music.  They really pumped it up and in doing so allowed everyone to really sing without self-consciousness.  I wonder if the reason people don't participate in some of our modern churches is because the volume of the band is too low?  Hmm.  Maybe.
The pastor gave a short message that I think was intended to be shorter, but I got the feeling he had more to say than intended and went longer than planned.  He spoke from Matthew 5 about Jesus calling us to be salt and light and applied the message in a practical sense by the opportunity to be salt and light in the small community that gathered for the festival  only a couple of blocks outside their door that day.  In fact, the church was in charge of trash duty at the festival which the Pastor pointed out was compatible with taking on the lowest form of servanthood.  I was especially moved when he reminded us that Jesus would be at the festival probably picking up people's trash as well.  It challenged me to find ways to serve others while I'm in this downtime between jobs. 
We really felt we met with God yesterday which is the most important thing, but I would be remiss if I didn't mention a couple things that I would have liked to see improved.  First, the service didn't start on time.  The start time was supposed to be 10:30 but it was somewhere between 10:35 and 10:40 before it started.  In defense of the church, they are in a laid back country town and the church reflects that which is often a refreshing attribute.  My personal preference is if you have a start time then you should stick to it.  Now as far as a stop time?  No guarantees there!  : ) 
Next, there was a little inconsistency with the media as there were different fonts from one slide to another and often we were on the wrong slide.  Not a huge deal, but distracting none the less.  By the way, it has nothing to do with being a small church because there were similar issues with the media at the large church last week too.  In fact, I went to a Worship Leader's Conference a couple of summers ago and THEY were having issues with it!   Sometimes, the leader improvises (I was rightly accused of that so many times ), but most of the time a little preparation will go a long way. 
Again, these distractions were minor but might have been major to someone who is new and isn't familiar with the songs being played. 
On a positive note, communion was offered after the message while the band played one more song and I happen to know this church takes it every week.  I really wish Communion was taken more in our evangelical churches. While I don't think it has to be every week, I know the reason why churches don't do it more is because they've made it so formal that it's quite a chore to do it that often.  Also, the reason given for not doing it more is because they want the few times they take it to be "special".  Personally, I think taking the blood and body of Christ is always special (yes I know the bread and juice is symbolic, I don't hold to transubstantiation).  It's this very Christ ordained rite that is special.  It's impact on our lives is not dependent on our formalities or productions.  Taking communion is powerful because Christ ordained it as a means of grace, not merely for remembrance.   If we get to the point that Communion "doesn't work so let's take it less", then when will we apply the same theory to preaching, singing, praying?  Oops. That has been done. :(   Pragmatism should never be a church's driving force.  I'm glad this church doesn't forsake God ordained activities for clever marketing driven ones!   (ok, time to get off of my theo-soapbox)  I
There was much to like about this church despite the minor blips.  This particular church is obviously one that loves Christ by evidence of their overwhelming spirit of worship and service!