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.