Monday, October 23, 2006


(Church visit # 13 took place on 22 October 2006)

This past Sunday we visited a church that we have visited before - about 14 years ago! It is not substantially changed. The most noticeable difference is the addition of an "early, contemporary" service. Like many other churches, this church offers separate "contemporary" and "traditional" services.

I should probably address the issue in a separate entry, but basically I believe that having two services that have different musical offerings is ill-advised. I believe it unnecessarily divides the congregants. I fully understand all of the standard justifications for setting up two services in this way. I just happen to feel, strongly, that it highlights a superficial controversy regarding musical style; and I think that is a bad idea.

OK. Back to this specific church.

The service we attended at first looked like it was not going to be very well attended. There were about 20 people, including the leaders and sound techs, present at the scheduled starting time. However, by the time the 15 minutes of music was over, there were more than 50 people present.

The music was very well done. Good selection, well led, well sung, well played. The "leader" sat at keyboard in the center of the platform; she was accompanied by a bass player, a guitarist (amp'd acoustic) and a drummer. No extra singers on mic. At the risk of sounding picky, I will note here that the congregation seemed not too familiar with the songs, and they did not exhibit much enthusiasm. Also, the songs - although I personally thought it was a "good selection" - the songs were not what I would call "accessible" to the congregants. In other words, the average musical ability would be likely to have trouble finding and singing along with the melody. Some songs seem to flow naturally from one syllable to the next. Others are not so predictable. We can debate the benefits of "predictability" some other time; but in general it is tough for average folk learning a new song to get a true sense of worship if they are struggling with a melody. The lyrics were awesome, of course.

The church happens to be in the midst of its annual missions emphasis, so the speaker on this day was a visiting missionary. He brought a good, thought-provoking message. It examined the issue of cultural diversity from a biblical perspective. It was not a "gospel" message, though.

The service was closed with a rather abrupt dismissal. No benediction. No closing prayer.

The people were warm and friendly.

All in all, we enjoyed the service. We want to go back some time and hear the pastor preach, though.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006


(Church visit # 12 took place on 15 October 2006)

This church visit was to a large church that conducts three Sunday morning services each week. We attended the middle one, at which there were about 300 people in attendance. This is a popular, neo-denominational (theoretically non-denominational, but it is affiliated with a large association of churches whose origins go back about 40 years).

The music had already begun when we entered (on time). People were still finding their seats; probably only about half of the eventual number were present when we arrived. There was about 20 minutes of singing. The worship leader did make an effort to encourage the congregation to "enter in." But we had a sense that, at least on this particular Sunday, a significant number of the people were not very focused on worship. Nevertheless, for any who were expectant and intentional, the worship leadership facilitated communion with the Lord.

After the singing, the senior pastor came to the platform to deliver the sermon. The sermon was excellent, expository preaching / teaching. Conversational in style, yet depth of interpretation and application.

We enjoyed our visit to this church, but we came away with a clear sense of how easy it is to attend such services with little or no interaction with any of the other gathered faithful. It would be a cinch to attend regularly for a long time - indefinitely - without doing anything else to be a part of the ministry of the church.

Granted, this church has many, many programs and opportunities throughout the week for its "members" to participate in. It just doesn't seem like there is any dedicated effort to ensure the "status" of attenders; i.e., are they saved? are they walking with the Lord daily?

This could all turn into a lengthy discussion of grace, works, legalism, empty programming, effectiveness of small groups, etc etc etc.

In our estimation, we might have difficulty sustaining discipleship at this church - which is probably more of an indictment of our ability to apply ourselves voluntarily to the opportunities the church provides for fellowship and study.

I feel like I can't think of the right way to wrap up this entry. It does not seem right to "downgrade" this church based on one visit and rather vague "feelings." The church seems to have a lot going - it is "successful" by nearly every measure one could apply. The sermon was outstanding; the music was fine; the building and grounds are clean, fresh, inviting; plenty of what appear to be well-organized opportunities to grow, minister, participate.

...maybe it is just a little too "cookie cutter" for my tastes...

Saturday, October 14, 2006


(Church visit # 11 took place on 8 October 2006)

Last Sunday we went to a WONDERFUL church! It has a beautiful campus nestled in the wooded hills, and we can think of nothing negative to say about it!

It is in a beautiful location. The grounds are well tended. The buildings are in excellent condition. I guess I never really thought to mention this about previous church visits because all the previous experiences so far have not been "extraordinary." Worshiping at this church, and the fellowship before and after kind of felt like we were at a retreat center. I will have to pay better attention to such things, perhaps. Or maybe the topic of architecture, physical layout, location, property condition and appearance, etc, should be yet another separate topic.

Anyhoo - the people were warm and friendly; not in a superficial "nice to have you have you here" way, but in a genuine, spontaneous, enthusiastic (without being scary) way.

The music was outstanding. Excellent musicianship, leadership, song selection and placement, resource management. They made the most of what they were using. The leader played bass, then there was an electric rhythm/lead guitar, acoustic piano, keyboard, drums and two (female) singers. The sound tech / projection team was superlative. I specifically went to them after the service to compliment them on a flawless execution of their role. The key: not once was I tempted to look over my shoulder and wonder whether the folks in the sound booth were paying attention; i.e., no squeaks, no feedback, no frantic signals from the platform, nobody tripping over cables, the song lyrics were projected at just the right time to sing along comfortably. It was simply ALL GOOD (actually, it was beyond good).

The offering, the announcements and the "special music" were so much a part of the flow of the service that I had to prompt myself afterward as to whether these elements had even been present.

The bulletin did not feature a play-by-play "Order of Worship." It was essentially a brochure announcing all of the activities and events of the congregation and its programs; and it had an outline of the sermon, complete with scripture excerpts.

The sermon itself was among the best I have ever heard. Dynamic, challenging, conversational, memorable.

No invitation, per se. See previous post on that subject.

There was plenty of opportunity for fellowship before and after the service, but no one made us feel like we were obligated, nor did we feel like flies on the wall watching strangers enjoy each other while we quietly wondered how we somehow managed to become invisible.

The whole experience was a complete joy. I have no trouble suggesting that we may eventually find ourselves "visiting" this one again.

Friday, October 06, 2006


Church visit # 10 took place on 1 October 2006 (World Communion Sunday).

Back home from our vacation, we visited a small, sweet church here in town. It happens to be of the denomination in which I was raised: Church of God (Anderson, IN). That is to distinguish it from the Church of God (Cleveland, TN). The latter is unabashedly Pentecostal. The former, not so much. Once when I was in Georgia, I actually saw a sign in front of a Church of God (Anderson, IN) that included the disclaimer "Non-Pentecostal."

That could be a whole 'nother topic of discussion; i.e., how certain terms have been co-opted by segments of the Body to the point that the rest of us consciously avoid being "labelled" with those terms.

ANYway. This was a pleasant enough church visit. There really was a sweet, sweet Spirit in that place. There were about 35 people present, which the pastor told us later was less than usual. However, it looked to me like if you got much more than about 50 or 60 people in that church building, it would have started to feel crowded.

The sermon was brought by a young man (30-something) who is working toward ordination. It was a very good message regarding the need to be broken to allow God to use us as He wills. The same man led in serving Communion, and he brought a bit of a fresh perspective to the sacrament by relating it to the traditional Jewish wedding feast during which the prospective groom offers a glass of wine to the prospective Bride, and the Bride may accept or reject the wine as an indicator of her willingness to "give her life" for the Groom. Powerful.

I am tempted to say nothing about the music, just because I do not want to seem uncharitable. I can certainly say that, even while we were singing I was thinking about how blessed God's heart is to receive the offering of song brought by His children, even when our imperfect ears do not find the sounds objectively appealing.

I'll just spit it out: Piano and organ; neither very talented, had a very hard time staying together; resulted in agonizingly slow progression through the songs. (the only song vaguely like a "contemporary" song was "I Love You, Lord") There was no leadership from the platform. Although a woman was standing behind the pulpit "leading," she did nothing to help the accompanists establish or maintain tempo; no hand waving or other visual cues such as head nods or foot stomping.

Nevertheless, the musical "quality" did not detract from the overall sweetness of the service in general.

Church visit # 9 took place on 24 September 2006, during a trip back to our "hometown." We visited the church at which we were married almost 33 years ago.

This was a great visit, not just because it was nostalgic. The sanctuary in which we exchanged vows back in 1973 burned down in 1993. The new sanctuary is very much like the previous one, with only a few subtle changes to the style and size. The rest of the church campus is much expanded and improved.

I believe this church must have close to 2,000 regular attenders. The sanctuary seats at least 1,000, and they have two identical services each Sunday morning.

We were very blessed by the service. The flow was close to perfect. The music was excellent; a seamless blend of "traditional" and modern songs. The sermon may well have been the best sermon I have ever heard. It certainly ranked among the most memorable and most relevant and most challenging. The key point was the difference between "commitment" and "surrender," the idea being that, while we value commitment very highly, it still allows us to be in control. What scripture calls us to is SURRENDER. It is relatively easy to be committed to our own plans and our own way of interpreting things. It is quite another matter to surrender ourselves utterly to God's plan for our lives.

The people of this church were warm, friendly, delightful. Although we could tell that most of the hundreds of people there would not (could not) have known whether we were visiting for the first time or had been members for forty years, we were nevertheless greeted by several who clearly knew that - at the very least - they did not recognize us as regular attenders.

The obligatory letter was waiting for us in our stack of mail when we got back home. It even featured a "wet" signature from the pastor.

All in all, this was a delightful visit. I am sure that if we lived in our "hometown" we would seriously consider making this church our "home" church.

(Updated 11 October 2006)

I have a lot of catching up to do, and as much as I am not that keen on tossing multiple entries out at the same time, it looks like that may be what I need to do. So, "saddle up your horses, we've got a trail to blaze."

This entry is titled "Canticle for Brothers Apart" because I intend for the key feature of this entry to be the lyrics of a song by that name. It is from a musical called "It's Getting Late for the Great Planet Earth" that was performed and recorded by the Continental Singers back in 1972. I have often (though not lately) sung this song as a solo because it is poignant and it is a beautiful song musically.

I want to include it in this blog because it speaks directly to the theme of UNITY.

I am going to post from memory, then later I will update this entry when I can find the lyrics and verify their accuracy. I googled the song, but it is apparently not yet googleable.

So, here we go:

(by Cam Floria (I think))

"I see you standing in your corner
enclosed in walls of sacred stone,
while I watch through painted windows,
just as distant and alone.

"If eyes meet, we smile politely,
thinking definitions, thinking names,
quick to catch the subtle differences;
never seeing we're the same.

"Canticles of separation,
chant the hallowed pious fears,
Beneath our shadowed, lonely altars
we ignore the stifled tears.

"In whitewashed tombs of our distinctions,
fondling bones as if they live,
we offer silences for anguish
finding nothing else to give.

"Oh, why can't we learn?
Tell me why can't we see
that the Body's being broken,
that we're tearing it apart?
It was broken once and mended,
meant to last for all time.

"But when the hand is turned against the eye,
we're crippled, blind, we die

"We break dry bread to eat in shadows,
drinking cups of soured wine,
while the wheatfields lie abandoned
and tangled branches choke the vine.

"Oh, why can't we learn?
Tell me, why can't we see
that the body's being broken;
that we're tearing it apart,
it was broken once and mended
meant to last for all time.

"Oh, heal me with your hands,
let me show you with my eyes,
let the Body grow between us,
let it reach out far beyond,
let the Body that was broken
come together in us now.

"Won't you take my eyes and see?
Give me your spirit to sing.
For together we're the flesh and bone
of the Son of the great High King."

Tuesday, September 19, 2006


Church visit # 8 took place on 17 September 2006.

One of the first things I noted about this church visit was how great it was to be able to walk to the church from our home! That aspect of "local church" had escaped me, but as we walked up the street to the church, I told my wife "this is how it ought to be for everyone. Everyone ought to be able to walk to church, even if church is just in a neighbor's house."

Well, this church was a well-established Episcopal church, and we enjoyed our experience there very much.

Naturally, the service was very structured and we spent a good bit of time in "The Book of Common Prayer." I am not used to so much "formula," but the words we were speaking and singing were very powerful and meaningful.

The musicians were three guitarists and a flautist/percussionist, and one of the guitarists also played the harmonica (a la Bob Dylan). We found out later that this was a rare event. Usually, the music is led by an organist. Good stuff, though!

The sermon was very good, if a bit on the "intellectual" side. The main thrust was an examination of "hope" in terms of "optimistic expectation" (of things turning out the way we "hope" they will) and "radical acceptance" (of the world being in God's control despite appearances to the contrary).

After the service there was an informal "social hour" in the house next door (used by the church for fellowship, Bible study classes, offices, etc.).

All in all, it was a pleasant experience; not boring, not impersonal, not contrived - it was interesting, vibrant, real.

Church visit # 7 took place on 10 September 2006.

I want to maintain the standard of referring to our activities on any given Sunday morning as a “church visit” even when we are not specifically in a church building. This is mostly because I want to keep an accurate count of the number of weeks we have been undertaking this assignment. It is also because I believe even our “non-church” activities are part of who we are in Christ and are therefore just as relevant as what we might experience within the walls of any church building.

With that in mind, this “visit” was perhaps more like “church” than visit # 5, because we actually did pray, sing, share, read scripture. Although, I think the only one of those we did not do at church visit # 5 was sing.

Anyway, we enjoyed a family gathering the weekend of 9-10 September, and on that Sunday morning, we went out to the beach and "had church." We gathered together on a small bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. We prayed, we sang a song, and I shared a bit of scripture (John 4:10; 7:38) and a few words of exhortation about the need and effects of Living Water in and through our lives. Solicited comment from the gathering; a few responded. Sang a few more songs. Prayed again. Explored the beach.

That was our (verywonderful) church experience on 10 September.

A quick word here. I believe that some of the fear that I have witnessed among fellow followers of Jesus with regard to the concept of Unity has to do with a tendency on our part to interpret Unity as synonymous with Uniformity.

Believe it or not, one of the cornerstones of Mikhail Gorbachev's Perestroika was the truth that unity does not necessitate uniformity. While there may be uniformity within some segments of a society, unity itself does not require all of society to conform to a particular standard of sociocultural behavior and interaction.

Likewise, within the Church, UNITY does not require us to be UNIFORM in all points of doctrine and belief.

I think many of us fear that we WILL have to conform to someone else's interpretations of scripture if we want to be serious about unity.

But unity simply requires us to join our hearts and hands in celebration of the common gift of salvation through the blood of Jesus. Beyond that it is a matter of submission to the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit to guide us into all truth.

If I think someone else is wrong about how they are interpreting scripture, it is not really my job to criticize, correct, shun, slander or otherwise think of myself as better than them. It could be that I need to study and pray about the matter at hand.

Sinful behavior is another matter of course. And unfortunately some of us consider non-conforming interpretations of scripture to be sinful. In some cases, we may be right about that. But we better be sure as sure as sure can be that we have heard from the Lord about such things before we label our brethren heretics.

Unity is about loving one another; not about cloning one another.

Church visit # 6 took place on 3 September 2006.

Excellent, worshipful experience. Honestly, I was going to type “surprisingly worshipful,” but that would have revealed more about my own prejudices than anything in particular about the church we visited or the nature of their worship. I mean, the fact that the worshipful atmosphere of the service was a bit surprising to me is about me and my expectations, not about their ability to worship.

A couple of aspects of this experience were “new” in the sense that they were executed in ways I’d not witnessed previously. For example, this church has a Praise Team session that begins at 10:30am. It is done by 10:55am, and at 11:00am they begin their “traditional” service. Most places I have been to or heard about either have two separate services to accommodate the two “styles” of music, or they present a “blended” approach, or they have totally discarded anything they consider to be “traditional” and used only what they have decided is “contemporary.”

Although I hesitate to use the word “compromise,” I think their approach is an excellent means of reaching out toward these contending desires in a congregation. It (potentially) exposes the traditionalists to newer songs without forcing it upon them. They can simply arrive at 11:00am if they wish to avoid the Praise Team. At the same time, it retains much of what is good and right about traditional methods and content for those who cherish that context, while also presenting those ways to the “modernists.”

This ubiquitous tension between “traditional” and “contemporary” is something I should discuss in more depth in a separate entry.

We were there in time to chat with the pastor before the Praise Team began. She was young and bright and devoted; a delight to engage in conversation. The Praise Team was a cheerful band of amateurs who did just fine leading us in several songs of praise and worship. A few of their choices were VERY new songs – like released within the past year or so (part of the "surprise" factor).

There was not particularly a “flow” from song to song. They ended each song completely, stopped, verbally introduced the next song, then began playing the next song. There was not any attempt to lead the people “into the Presence.” They did not even pray before, during or after the singing. It was just a group of songs. Well chosen, well played; and for any who came with the knowledge and expectation of “entering in,” the songs could take you there. But there was no really intentional “leadership” in that direction.

Most of the traditional portion of the service was predictable – hymns, offering, children’s story, the Lord’s prayer. But some of the methodology was unexpected.

During their “Peoples’ Prayer” time, a lay leader guided the congregation through an unrushed series of spontaneous prayers for specific requests. She asked if anyone had a prayer request. Someone would speak up and offer a request. She led us in silent prayer for each request as it was mentioned. The congregation responded, “Hear our prayer, O Lord.” Then she would ask if there was another request, and so on.

This was a very special method of giving attention to each request. I had the sense that everyone present would take as long on this segment of the service as was necessary to address each request in turn. I like that.

The Lord’s Supper, which was included because it was the first Sunday of the month, was conducted in a slightly unusual way. The pastor had us all stand up and form lines facing each other in the aisles. Then she and a lay helper served the elements. Then she read scripture, and we all partook of the elements together. It was a meaningful way to ensure that we recognized that we were taking communion as a body, not just as individuals.

The sermon. I do not want to go into any discussion regarding the fact that the pastor of this church is a woman. I acknowledge and understand the scriptural “arguments” regarding whether a woman should or should not be a pastor. However, all I can say, at least in this case, is that this pastor seemed sure of her calling, well-qualified, well-studied, well-spoken and confident. The sermon she presented was an excellent meditation and application of James’ discussion of the dynamic relationship between faith and works.

The organ. Let me iterate my previous confession that I have not been a huge fan of “the organ” in “church music.” I realize that for many churches the idea of church music in the absence of an organ is inconceivable; in fact, for many "church music" and "organ" are practically synonymous. In this case, the organ was so well played and the selections and timing and placement in the order of service were so well conceived and achieved, it was a delight to listen and, yes, worship to the sound of the organ.

Sometimes this “assignment” is amazing me beyond words. Liturgical calls and responses; organ music; woman pastor – parts of what I have described as "excellent worship."

In the immortal words of my (at the time) 16-year old daughter: "Dude, man. Whoa."

Monday, September 11, 2006


Church visit # 5 took place on 27 August 2006.

I have decided to take a rather liberal approach to numbering our church visits.

Church visit # 5 did not involve attendance at a regular church service at an established church building. In fact, the emphasis in this case was on "service."

Two weeks ago, dear friends called us early on Sunday morning. They were in distress because two close relatives of theirs had passed away within two hours of each other earlier that morning. We set aside our plans to attend a local church, and we got over to their house as soon as we could. We stayed with them, prayed with them, listened to them, cried with them.

I have chosen to include this as a "church visit" because I believe the action we took was certainly service. It was at that moment MUCH more important and meaningful to minister to the hearts of our loved ones than to insist on getting to a church service.

I believe too often we are enslaved to our notions of what we "should" be doing at a given time on a given day of the week.

"He whom the Son sets free is free indeed." (John 8:36)
"Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty." (2 Corinthians 3:17)
"The law of the Spirit of Life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death." (Romans 8:2)
"It is for freedom that Christ has set us free." (Galatians 5:1)

The jury is still out, and there is SO MUCH to consider regarding this topic. I really cannot even begin to do it justice in a single blog entry. However, I am going to toss out a few of the things I tend to wonder about when I think of "Megachurch" because I want to keep thinking about it, and I want anyone who is reading this blog to know that I am thinking about it.

Big enough to have plenty of resources and "committed" workers to support many terrific programs.

So big it is easy for folks to attend without being committed.

Usually have charismatic leadership - part of the reason so many people attend - so people will listen to the message OR idolize the messenger.

Too big to foster true discipleship.

Usually founded and sustained upon Cell Group / House Church activities, which are the best way for discipleship to thrive.

Often such big churches are "seeker sensitive" which means the gospel is clothed in "less offensive" language and imagery to woo the "unchurched."

Each of these statements, and many more like them, has virtual reams of debate pulsating within it. I have thought, prayed, pondered, researched, discussed, debated, wondered, questioned, interviewed, experienced, witnessed, participated, avoided, recommended for and against until my face is purple.

BOTTOM LINE: It is all about Jesus. God is big enough to eclipse any doubts I may have about the wisdom of certain aspects of "Megachurchianity." I am content to leave it in His capable hands. He knows where each of us is in our journey. He knows what we need and He knows where He wants to use us. It is up to us to follow hard after Him and be obedient. I do not have to be convinced that all big churches are necessarily good or bad.

Grace and freedom are sweet.

We have noticed that some of the churches we have visited do not have an "invitation" at the end of the service. We notice such things because we have long been part of denominations for whom an invitation at the end of the service is de rigeur. So, not having one is not only noticeable to us, it is also borderline sacreligious.

See, we have always been taught to see Sunday morning services, indeed almost every service conducted within the walls of our traditional church buildings, as the epitome of evangelistic opportunity. We never know when someone who has attended the service might need to get saved! So it is always best to provide an invitation to walk the aisle and pray the prayer of salvation.

Lately, a lot of invitations have been satisfied with "you can pray where you are to receive Christ" or "you can come see the pastor or one of the deacons after the service." And generally we also remind attendees that they can come forward to request baptism or to join the church or to "rededicate their lives" or "just to receive prayer for a need."

Anyway, we had become convinced that "The Invitation" was absolutely a required element of any given church service; just as crucial as The Offering, The Sermon, The Singing and The Special Music.

The first church where we experienced the absence of an invitation (visit # 3, I think) we noticed it, but we thought maybe it was an oversight or something. After all, that church is still a "church plant" - brand new - still learning. But at church visit # 4, the lack of a formal invitation was clearly part of their plan! We had to really think about this!

It dawned on me that I had been considering a particular notion for a few years now. We tend to be all about inviting friends and neighbors to "come to church" - but we seldom invite our friends and neighbors to "come to Jesus." Once again, we are leaving ministry up to the professionals. We figure if we can just get them to come to church, then the pastor will INVITE them to meet Jesus. It is his job, after all.

As I thought about the purpose of our gatherings - it is really intended for followers of Jesus to come together for fellowship, worship and discipleship. Evangelism CAN happen at church, but really, the best place for evangelism to take place is outside of the church. How much better would it be for folks to come to know Jesus, then come to church and learn to love His people, Him, His Word, etc.

THE INVITATION should be happening in our everyday lives.

In fact, we should be THE INVITATION.

Saturday, August 26, 2006


Last Sunday (20 Aug 06) we attended what we think is probably the largest church in our area. It is in the vein of the so-called "megachurch" model, although it is not technically a megachurch (less than 2,000 regular attenders). They have two services each Sunday that are probably around 300-350 each. Big church for our neighborhood, but not a bona fide "megachurch." I suspect they may be just as happy not to be "tarred" with that brush (aha! another entry I need to make - the megachurch phenomenon).

They are meeting in a semi-permanent "big top" tent. The seating is white plastic yard chairs with arms. Comfy! We were greeted on the way into the parking lot by attendants who showed us where to park and where to go after we park. There were several "ministry" tents in the common area outside the main tent. I went to the "Sunday morning" tent to get bulletins, introduced myself to the "Head Usher" who directed me to the "Welcome" tent for a packet of information about the church and its ministries. While I was at the "Welcome" tent, the "Head Greeter" came and introduced himself to me, calling me by name because the Head Usher had told him about me. "Bill" introduced me to several other people, including the Discipleship Pastor, all of whom welcomed me very warmly.

We truly enjoyed the service. It was basically 45 minutes of music and 45 minutes of preaching. All of it was excellent, worshipful, biblical, challenging. Informal, modern, but not the full-on "seeker sensitive" model. In other words, they did not mess with the language of the gospel to try to "appeal to the unchurched." The lead worshiper took us through a series of songs, interjecting scripture, prayer and exhortation, that took us to the throne of God to lay ourselves before Him in surrender (even including the chorus of the hymn "I Surrender All"). Then the preacher spoke unequivocally about true, daily discipleship. Yes, he used language that was clear, enjoyable, modern, accessible; he included humor and creative visual aids; and there was a helpful outline in the bulletin. But the gospel came through loud and clear; and the challenge to live a fully surrendered life empowered moment by moment by the Holy Spirit was the bottom line.

There was no invitation, but we have done some pondering about that, and I am going to address that issue in a separate entry.

I look forward to going back to this church for another visit, possibly eventually to attend and serve. As of now, I would put it at the top of our list of potential "home churches."

As a bit of a side note, their "welcome letter" arrived Wednesday; faster than any of the previous churches letters have arrived at our home.

Friday, August 25, 2006


A couple of interesting notes that I neglected to include in previous posts regarding our church visits.

Disclaimer: These are just observations; not really "random" but still not big, scary showstoppers in terms of gaffes, either.

At church visit # 1, all of the advertising for the church indicated a Sunday a.m. start time of 10:45, including the recorded message one gets when calling the church contact number, which we did on Saturday to try to make sure we knew when the service would begin. We arrived at the church at 10:40 a.m. and the service was already in full swing. A sign out front indicated a "new" start time of 10:30 a.m. Ok, perhaps we would have known this if we had driven by the church some time during the previous week (or month? who knows how long the sign had been out there?). However, as visitors we were relying on other media - especially the recorded message - to be accurate. Also, a large part of our "plan" is to see how we are greeted at each church. We missed that opportunity because all of the ushers and greeters were already inside the auditorium. We had to find our own way in and find our own seats.

At church visit # 3, we were offered a Bible when we arrived, but we were allowed to decline the offer because we had brought our own Bibles. That is all well and good. However, during the service the pastor referred us to Scripture passages by giving us a PAGE NUMBER - only. He never told us book, chapter and verse. Now, don't get me wrong. The message was truly wonderful, and we figured out where he was by the context, but it seems like it would have been a good idea to tell everyone the actual Scripture "address."

Also at church visit # 3, we noted that there was not an invitation at the end of the service. That little "omission" caused us to ponder... and we were pretty sure we would like for any evangelical service to end with an invitation. However, at church visit # 4 (about which I have not yet reported!) there was also no invitation. We pondered some more. I am going to write an entry of its own for the subject of "The Invitation."

I also intend to write a separate entry about Denominationalism (and "post-denominationalism").

One more item that relates to all of the church visits we have made so far: "Welcome" letters. We have received a welcome letter from each of the four churches we have visited. You know, those post-visit form letters that basically say how glad they are that you visited their church, signed by the pastor. These are fine. They accomplish everything they are designed to accomplish; namely, hey, we noticed you, our visitor card in the offering plate notification system is functioning as normal, and we hope this warm note is a nice reminder of a pleasant experience and that you will happily choose to become a part of our "fellowship."

I don't mean to sound quite so cynical about this, but it IS a form letter. I know I would notice it for sure if the church did not send us one. In fact, church visit # 1 took almost two weeks to send theirs and we thought they had overlooked something we apparently consider to be at the very least a matter of good manners - like sending "thank you's" to people from whom you recieve a gift. Nevertheless, it also seems a bit like an empty formality. I'm wondering if there is a better way...

This is a tough call because churches have been "warned" by pollsters and pundits that we do not want visitors to feel hounded, singled out or spotlighted. But still, in this day of mega-spam and daily junk mail, that letter from the church pretty much feels like just another hunk of flotsam awash in a sea of postal debris.

I don't know what the answer is. A more personal sounding letter might be a good start; one with an actual "wet" signature from the pastor instead of a xerox copy. It's a fine line. We also don't want to go to cheesy-freebie land, either.

We had an experience in Virginia in which we received "The Letter" on Tuesday, got a phone call on Thursday to see if we got the letter and to ask if it would be okay to come visit us. We said, "Sure!" So, three people (two men and a woman) visited us the next Monday evening for about twenty minutes. That was actually kind of nice. And we did not feel hounded.

Once in Texas we received a full-blown welcome package. Besides the obligatory letter, if contained, among other things (I don't think I remember it all) , a refrigerator magnet with church contact information, a sampler CD of worship music and a VHS videotape of one of the pastor's sermons.

Anyway, turns out maybe I should have made this item a separate entry, too. I did not think I had quite so much to say about it!

Needless to say, all of these "expectations" of ours, some of which we did not even know we had, are getting quite a workout!

Til next time,

Monday, August 14, 2006


Church visit # 3 took place on 13 August 2006.

Yesterday we had a delightful, modern worship experience. We really enjoyed our time among this group of people who are just beginning their congregational history. The church we visited yesterday is a church plant that has been meeting for about 3 months. They began meeting at a local hotel, but yesterday was their second week in the theatre of a local private school.

We had received a direct mail postcard from this church a few weeks before their inaugural meeting at the hotel, and we had been thinking about and excited about visiting them ever since. Thankfully, we knew about the venue change because in our efforts to determine when their service would begin, we went to their website, which had been carefully updated with clear announcements and directions regarding the location change. By the way, their website is excellent; clear, clean, fresh, informative without being tedious, easy to navigate.

The signage on the way was ample and easy to follow. Parking was not a problem. We were warmly welcomed by several people, including one "official" greeter complete with nametag and the young pastor himself. They had a very nice "refreshment" table with coffee, hot water, bagels and sweet rolls. As we entered we were offered a Bible, offering envelope, bulletin and pen - all in one tidy bundle. We had brought our own Bibles, so we just accepted the bulletin and offering envelope.

The service was informal but very uplifting. All of the music was presented via DVD - audio and video with lyrics; no "live" musicians. But it was excellent! They did a total of three songs, divided by the offering and a corporate reading of the Nicene Creed. (My personal preference is to have a longer section of music with 3-5 songs "in a row" - but that is just my preference. I prob'ly need to get over it.)

The sermon was good - informal, clear, organized, Bible-centered. There was no invitation. However, the pastor did show one more video - of a missions team that had gone to Zambia. It fit the sermon topic of being "Jesus' Hands and Feet." It was a beautiful, touching, inspirational video.

We enjoyed this church a lot. There did not seem to be any denominational affiliation. The pastor talked in terms of the Universal Body of Christ. So his philosophy seemed to fit our transdenominational vision pretty well.

I would like to have a personal chat with the pastor some time. I suspect this church plant will grow quickly.

Thursday, August 10, 2006


In the previous post, I referred to the music we experienced at Church Visit #2 as "phenomenal." Let me explain a few things.

I am a lifelong musician. I love all kinds of music. I know the differences among excellent, good, fair, bad and bodaciously horrible "music."

I had just blissfully enjoyed three full days of great live music at Spirit West Coast - Thursday thru Saturday - before I participated at this church on Sunday. Saturday night had been a stupendous night with Matt Redman, David Crowder and the Newsboys. So - for me to characterize the music at that church as "phenomenal" has to mean something, no?

Here's the deal.

1. They had an outstanding organist. OK, wow. Let me just say that I have been a party to wholesale efforts to get the organs out of our churches! But of course that was because in the churches of which I have been a part, the organ is no way, no how used in any way even closely resembling what I saw, heard and felt last Sunday. Whoa.

2. They had a drummer and a guitarist. A simple rhythm section, but they added more than you'd think. No orchestra. No strings. No horns. Two unassuming guys keeping the beat and bringing their best to Jesus.

3. They had a choir consisting of six women and two men. The Brooklyn Tabernacle Singers should sound so good. No, really; they were technically "okay" but their SPIRIT was through the roof.

4. They sang HYMNS! Gasp! That's right. The closest they came to singing a "praise song" was "Because He Lives." (I am NOT a fan of making a distinction between "hymns" and "choruses" and I am SOOO tired of hearing about "contemporary praise and worship.") In a few cases, they sang their hymns ("Amazing Grace" and "I Need Thee Every Hour") more slowly than I have heard them sung IN MY LIFE EVER! but it was purposeful and glorious and beautiful and indescribably sweet.

5. The congregation were not a bunch of logbumps. They were totally INTO IT! The music was not a performance, it was an offering of praise and adoration.

So. The point: Although the music at church this past Sunday was not as spectacular as what I had been listening to (dancing to, singing along with, applauding, worshipping during) at Spirit West Coast, it managed to outclass it by the simple act of being utterly heartdriven.


Church visit # 2 took place on 6 August 2006.

This past Sunday we had the distinct pleasure to participate at a local church that was truly worshipful, inspiring, delightful, extraordinary. As I begin to describe the service, I am certain that most readers will have no trouble identifying the general type of congregation with whom we met. But this is a very special story.

(Let me just mention that a reader of Church Visit #1 asked if I could say what "type" of church it was. My full answer to that question is in the second comment under the original post; but just let me say here that I am trying to protect the identity of the churches we visit, and I am trying to maintain as much objectivity as possible - I know I am prone to apply stereotypical filters to my evaluations based on such factors as denomination, size, location, ethnicity. So I want to keep my comments here as "generic" as possible and focus on the experience itself without turning my comments into judgements about particular denominations)

OK. It happens that I was jointly officiating at a funeral a couple of weeks ago, and the man who was supposed to sing a solo at the end of the service did not show up (he had reasons, but I won't go into that here); at the time all I knew was that someone needed to sing that song because the grieving wife had specifically requested it. So I sang it. The pastor who brought the main message at the funeral rode with me to the cemetery. We talked and got to know each other. He asked me if I would be available to come to his church and sing. Hence, there we were at his church last Sunday. I spoke for a few minutes and sang a couple of songs.

The opportunity to participate in that service was a miracle. I am not sure how soon I would have gotten to this church to visit. This was only the second Sunday of our "visiting ministry"!! I believe God sovereignly arranged for us to go there now, early in our assignment. See, we were the only ones of our particular ethnic heritage present at the service (plus one other couple and their two small children who came to hear me).

I honestly have never attended a service like this. I have heard about it. I have seen it made fun of in the movies and on TV. I have never been particularly anxious to actually be physically present at such a service. As of now, I am praying that all churches everywhere will be as filled with the Holy Spirit, as unihibited, as inspirational, as free, honest, pure, excited as this group of people.

The service lasted more than three hours. If I had not seen the evidence of that on the clock myself I would not believe it. It did not seem anywhere near that long because it was a constant flow of giving our attention to God. It was amazing. The music was phenomenal. The preaching was anointed. Their methods for offering, prayer, ministry, communion - fresh (to me, anyway) and meaningful. It seemed to me that the congregation was finding great meaning in what they did, too. It did not seem like empty ritual at all.

I plan to go back to this church some time. If I were not on a mission to visit every church in the area, I would seriously consider attending this church every Sunday. WooHOO! It rocked.

As far as any indication of their impact on their neighborhood or any inclination toward true Unity of the Body of Christ, I have to say there did not seem to be much of that. They had a wonderful time together worshipping God - and their worship was true and passionate - but at the same time they did seem to be happy to "keep their own counsel" so to speak.

Now, don't get me wrong. I was humbled by their abundant graciousness and openness toward me, my family and friends. They truly embraced and welcomed us. What I guess I mean is that they seemed to accept the notion that "their way" would not likely be the "preferred" way of many of their neighbors. So, they just let that be what it is. For now, that is no doubt fine.

We all know that eventually "every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Christ is Lord." How sweet would it be for His Body to be TOGETHER - now?

The Jester's comments about how much it would "cost" us to get serious about unity are really on the mark. I confess that I had not really thought about the price to be paid for unity. I guess I sort of just thought that since Unity is so clearly a scriptural ideal - injunction - actually a mandate - that whatever we might perceive to be lost, sacrificed or forfeited in the process of achieving unity would be well worth the price. So, it did not even strike me as being "cost."

I am still convinced - more than ever really - that unity is so much more desirable than anything we might find it necessary to "pay" for unity. Let's see - what is it that we would need to sacrifice to pursue unity? Our peculiar (I don't mean "odd." I mean specific or distinctive) traditions, rituals, doctrines; our preferred methods, habits, calendars, vocabularies; our intricate systems of masquerade, pretense, deception; our insistence on our own superiority, rightness, purity.

Hmmmm. Not to put too fine a point on it, but if we are choosing to hold on to ANY of that instead of passionately seeking after "the full measure of the fullness of Christ" it sounds like idolatry to me.

I know that we cherish our denominational context because we have decided that "our" chosen brand of Christianity represents the purest, most correct interpretation of Scripture ever. If we do not convince ourselves of that how can we continue to attend and support our church?

Do we have the courage and conviction to face our beliefs and ask ourselves what it is we want to see happen with the Kingdom of God? Are we ready to forsake all that we have held dear for the sake of being a part of the unified Body of Christ?

Monday, July 31, 2006

"Unity among the churches"

That certainly sounds like a right, proper and good goal. But hearing it phrased that way really made me ponder.

I've been praying about and desiring to pursue "the unity of the Body of Christ." That is something quite different from "unity among the churches." I am envisioning a unity that transcends our local congregational affiliations. See, I don't really care to see a unification effort that keeps tabs on which churches and which denominations are represented and which ones are not. I want to see a unity among individual believers that goes beyond our church walls and definitions. I would like to see us come together without even thinking about who goes to which church!

This is not to say that a unity effort would, should or even could supersede, replace or take precedence over local congregations. I am not advocating an overthrow or disposal of local denominational representation. I think there will probably always be various reasons for "local churches" to exist - e.g., doctrine, culture, personality, "liturgical preferences," etc etc etc.

However, I will also hasten to state unequivocally that I believe IDEALLY the Body of Christ in any given location ought to be aware of who else in their local area are followers of Jesus. I believe strongly that there ought to be frequent PUBLIC DISPLAYS of UNITY among a local area's followers of Jesus.

Jesus said, "By this shall the whole world know that you are my disciples; if you have love one for another." (John 13:35) He was not just talking about having love for (and showing love to) our own preferred set of believers.

The unity of the Body of Christ is paramount. The most profound effect on our communities will come when the world can see that we love each other. Right now most communities see multiple small groups of exclusive practitioners of religion ("churchgoers") meeting for a few minutes (OK, an hour or two, but in the context of a whole week of living, it may as well be just a few minutes) once or maybe twice a week.

Wow. There is just so much to say, to think about, to pray about, to act upon regarding the subject of the unity of the Body of Christ.

Let me repeat the key verse upon which this blog is based, Ephesians 4:13:

"...until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ."

The fullness of Christ is what I long for. How 'bout you?

Church visit # 1 took place on 30 July 2006.

For lack of a better term, at least for the time being, I am going to call what we are doing on Sunday mornings "church visits." It is an accurate enough term, after all. We are visiting churches. I guess I wish I could think of some other, more exciting term for it... like, oh, I don't know... "congregational observation episode" or "local Christian gathering assessment" or "diagnostic body life immersion." See what I mean? "Church visit" sounds simple and non-threatening; sweetly unpretentious.

So, yesterday we had our first foray into this new endeavour. It was a good visit. A special musical guest was bringing a "worship concert," so we actually did not witness this congregation in its "normal" behaviour. Nevertheless, I think we got a pretty clear picture of the overall personality of the congregation and its leadership.

I'd say the atmosphere was warm, but not vibrant or inspirational. The folks were not really UNfriendly, but only the intern pastor and his mother (who happened to be an acquaintance of mine who I did not know attended this church) spoke to us.

If we were "looking for a church," we would not put this one high on our list of candidates for a repeat visit, let's put it that way.

Now, it may seem like I am being very clinical about this assessment. I am just trying to be honest.

In terms of discovering how this church "fits" into its neighborhood and into any kind of "external" mission endeavours, we noted a finely appointed bulletin board that seems to be kept up to date showing pictures and maps of missionaries who are directly sponsored by this church. That is a good thing. Also, the church runs a school or day-care facility, and their building hosts several "ethnic" worship services; e.g., Tongan, Arab, Messianic Jewish.

When I brought up the subject of unity, someone said they knew of some other local churches that were interested in unity among the churches. This caused me to think about that phrase......

Friday, July 28, 2006


Opening this blog to serve as a repository and discussion board (of sorts) for our observations and reports and thoughts and ideas and discoveries as we conduct a "survey" of local congregations by visiting each of them, then writing a "report" of what we experienced.

The blog title "UNITY413" is based on Ephesians 4:13.

More to come, I just want to activate the blog address by entering a post.