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.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.