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?