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! 

Mystery Church Tour p.2

(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.)

This morning we attended the 8am service of this week's mystery church.  Easter is the hardest Sunday to visit a prospective church because presumably you will get their best effort and not necessarily their normal effort.  I was already familiar with this particular church today so I knew what to expect.  We were not disappointed.  The parking lot was packed and their  crew did a great job of moving cars through.  We were just a tad late (I had to get gas on the way), but came in during the first song.  We sat near the back right again, but this time we had no choice.  After a celebratory song, there were a couple announcements and then the lights went down for the music worship time.  I like having all of the lights up and a kickoff song followed by announcements to clear the way for non-stop focused worship (I include the sermon as part of the worship as well).  We used to do that when I was leading music and often called it the "throw-away" song because people were still coming in.  I regret using that term because it's only a throw-away for the people who don't get there on time.  For everyone who already have their seat, it's a great way to celebrate Christ! 
Even though the band and worship leaders were excellent musically speaking, they did little to draw attention to themselves.  I love the fact that the only things that command your attention in the room are the lyrics on the screen and a well lit cross on the stage.   The songs were Christ and Cross centered and theologically rich.  My philosophy of church music is that it's not only a vertical experience, but a horizontal one as well.   The early church sang hymns and spiritual songs to each other for the purpose of teaching.  So, there needs to be a balance of prayerful songs sung "to God",  with theologically deep songs "about God."   People fall into two basic personality types, instinctive and intellectual.  So I believe music should engage on both levels especially intellectually.  There's no such thing as mindless worship. 

After the music portion of the service, the preacher came up and went right to work.  He didn't do anything to ruin the mood, in fact, he capitalized on the pervasive ambiance and rightly divided the scripture.  Not surprisingly, he preached from Luke 24 regarding the aftermath of the resurrection.  He explained very clearly how the crucifixion saves us "from" God's wrath, and the resurrection saves us "to" life now.  The main idea of his message was the resurrection and it's implication to life now.

Prior to this, he discussed how as a preacher on Easter Sunday, that he might be expected to take an apologetic approach to the resurrection.  He then went down a list of evidences that refute the modern secular explanations for the empty tomb.  He pointed out how crazy the theories are in light of historical evidence.  For example, if Jesus didn't really die when he was entombed as one prevailing theory suggests, then how did he walk the Emmaus Road 7 miles out of Jerusalem within 48 hours of being nailed and hung to a cross and run through with a lung collapsing spear thrust? 
He also quipped how difficult it would to be an atheist in relation to the deep groaning in our souls regarding the diseases and deaths in our world.  If, according to natural selection, nature is just weeding out the weak links then why dig wells in Darfur?  Why attempt to feed people in Africa if there is no redemptive purpose for humanity? 
Of course, in his attempt to "avoid"  an intellectual defense of the Bible, he masterfully defended the Resurrection in his 5-10 minute discourse as the precursor to his main sermon idea.  He went on to explain what the resurrection means to us and for us.   As usual, this preacher left the listener with self-examining questions and in doing so, clearly drew the line between true gospel preaching and the "therapeutic" nonsense that is prevalent in many evangelical churches today.  In light of the fact that the crowd was diverse on this Easter Sunday, the sermon provided "thinking points" for nearly every possible type of parishioner. 
At the sermon's close, he dismissed us in prayer and asked everyone to leave quietly to enable others to stay behind for counsel or prayer.  Overall, this was an inspiring, convicting, Christ-centered worship service.  It was no-frills in its approach (no latte bars or pageant like production),  but deep in purpose and meaning.  

Mystery Church Tour p.1

(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.)

Last weekend we said "goodbye" to our church of 19 years.  This week, we began the mystery church tour.  It is a mystery because I want to blog about our Sunday experiences and keep the identity of each church anonymous.

This morning we attended a Baptist church in the area.  As we drove within a few blocks, I began to feel something I haven't felt in years.  It was the feeling of complete stranger about to walk into someone's house filled with other people who we had no connection to.  Now, I realize there is a trend in mainstream evangelical churches to identify guests and overwhelm them with hospitality, but I can tell you from my perspective, that is the last thing I wanted this morning.  I wanted to blend in with the crowd and slip in the back door and find my seat.  My prayer as we approached the parking lot was that there would be a crowd big enough to do so. 
This church is not a large church, however they do have 3 services and we attended the 9:15 service.  (talk about getting a jump on the lunch crowd!)  When we walked in the front door we were confused by the layout of the building.  There were two doors and there seemed to be many people going through either one. We took the one on the right and noticed we were walking down a hallway leading to offices and classrooms, although there were many people traversing them.  We thought maybe we were going the wrong way, but we soon found that this hallway included entrances into the semi-circle shaped auditorium.   As soon as we sat down in the back right corner, we smelled coffee to our great relief! There was only a few minutes till start time so I went on a short expedition to locate the source of the aroma.  I walked out into the hallway again and knew immediately I didn't know where to go, so I flagged down a guy to ask about the coffee and he pointed me up the hallway to the kitchen.  Once I got to the kitchen I saw some coffee pumps on a little bar.  There were a few people getting their coffee and some ladies behind the counter.  As I listened to the small talk at the bar, I was reminded of my old church and had a mixed feeling of familiarity and self-consciousness.  It was surreal.  It was like the people around the coffee bar had been substituted by other people. 
After taking our coffee back to our seats in the auditorium, the music was ready to begin.  We took a couple sips and placed our cups on the floor and participated in worship.  The worship team consisted of a pianist, drummer,  bass, two acoustic guitars, lead guitar, and 4 worship singers.  The lead worshiper was a guy with a guitar who did a very nice job and had a calming effect.  The mood was worshipful and the song selection was good.  SInce this is palm Sunday, there were many songs about the Cross which I loved, and frankly I think every other Sunday should have a heavy dose of the Cross.  There were scripture readings, two to be exact,  which I appreciate because this time should not be just about music.  If I regret one thing in my time leading worship, it would be that we didn't read and meditate scripture more.  The only negative is that the flow was broken up a little too much with the two separate readings, but I won't complain too much.  Overall, I was able to connect with God and focus on the cross!
 I have to say, there is a huge challenge to keep from being distracted in a worship service when you have an evaluating attitude as I did.  That will be hard for me to overcome as I visit around.  I found myself thinking about little things that could be improved.  Here are a few:  volunteers to help guests find their way, lighting in the back corners of the auditorium (where we sat, there were no lights so I had a difficult time reading, I guess that's what we get for being back-row baptists 🙂 , an over the ear or lapel mic for the pastor (he used a hand held mic for his sermon and at times I couldn't hear him)
That brings me to the preaching.  This by far is the most important aspect of the service.  Preaching is central and although the church has many activities, preaching is its primary function.  The pastor seemed personal and with a healthy sense of humor.  His sermon was packed with scripture, and most importantly he preached what the text was saying.  I never had the feeling that he was trying to find scripture to support his topic, it was the other way around.  He began with the text of Isaiah 53 and communicated it's message. 
The downside?  Most of the sermon was read and felt like it.  He used a personal illustration where he could break away from his notes a little, but then it was back to what was more of a lecture than a passionate sermon.   To me, there are pastors who spend a lot of time compiling information for a sermon, and then there are pastors who spend hours meditating on the information. That is a huge difference.   If you've ever enjoyed a great home cooked meal, you actually appreciate all the time and effort that went into the preparation even though you didn't see it.  
Although the sermon this morning was packed with truth, it lacked passion.  It was a going-through-the-motions experience.  Despite that, it was Gospel, and it was Christ-centered, and God's Word is powerful in spite of our lack of passion. 
At the end of the message, there was an invitation which is standard Baptist fare.  As a personal aside, I think it's time to put this tradition to rest.  I prefer something more like the Village Church as their messages come to a close, people are invited to stay and pray, self-examine while the exiting crowd is asked to step out quietly.   Then again, I think the focus and content of the sermon preached has a lot to do with this.  A good sermon always convicts and challenges self-examination.  The natural effects of a gospel driven message is that God's holiness is revealed, our self-righteousness is exposed, and the question is asked "what will we do? bow down before Him or continue in our ways?"