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."