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Visiting Churches

Church #59: Big, Yet Compelling 

One of the area’s megachurches has intrigued me for years. At one time I was a regular podcast consumer of their weekly messages, which usually featured their founding pastor. A gifted communicator, he conveyed truth with a fresh voice and looked at spirituality from new vantage points.

His perspectives moved me toward the spiritual more that I sought and helped satiate the angst in my soul. At the same time, he opened the door to more questions, good questions. Questions that pointed me to a more holistic pursuit of the God revealed in the Bible.

I longed to attend this church and experience him in person. Our first opportunity to visit came several years ago—long before the original 52 Churches project.

Arriving For Our First Visit

We were out of town and planned our return trip to put us in the right place, at the right time for their second Sunday service. We got up early, grabbed a fast food breakfast, and hopped on the highway.

The balmy spring day, coupled with expectation for what awaited, bolstered my anticipation as the miles ticked off. As we neared our destination, my exuberance, however, yielded to worry.

The drive was taking too long. We’re going to be late! Unexpected Sunday morning traffic didn’t help.

After pushing the speed limit for the last forty-five minutes, we pulled into their parking lot five minutes early. I sighed, relieved it would all work out. But the packed parking lot didn’t have a single open slot.

Frustration mounted as I drove around, praying to find a spot as precious seconds ticked away. At last I saw someone head to their car, departing late from the first service. I drove to their spot, slipping into it as they left.

Relief replaced frustration.

Still, we had a long walk to the building. We strode with purpose to the nearest entrance. The parking lot overwhelmed me, but inside the building my understanding of overwhelmed was redefined. The throng of people pulsated in all directions, providing a maze I could barely navigate.

The church occupied an old mall, with our entrance far from our intended destination. I pushed onward—with my bride in tow—weaving my way between the press of people. Some flowed with me, but most had other intents. 

Eventually the passageway opened, providing three options, with none more obvious than the others. The service should be starting now. My heart thumped. Which direction should we head? I spotted an information booth and knew my answer was nearby.

“Where’s the sanctuary?” Panting and in a rush, I surely wasn’t the friendliest of people.

The woman smiled and gave me a calm, reassuring look. “Is this your first time here?” She wanted to engage me in conversation, something I’d have welcomed if there had been more time.

I nodded, gasping for air. “Where’s the sanctuary?” I knew I was being rude and that the young lady had valuable information to share, but right then I had a different goal.

I think she now understood my time crunch. “That way.” She pointed to her right.

Still trying to catch my breath, I nodded again, able to squeeze out a whispery “thank you” as I spun around and hurried off.

“Feel free to stop by after the service.” Her words chased me as I sped off. I nodded again, fully intending to, but I never did.

The Service

The sanctuary, occupying the former space of the mall’s anchor store, opened before us. I gasped at the enormity of the room, overwhelmed for the third time since our arrival.

I remember no details about the service, only that the music and message were even more than I hoped they would be.

The History

Since that time, the founding pastor left. From what I can piece together, his departure was a combination of controversy, dissention, burnout, and disillusionment.

Thankfully, there was no misconduct or impropriety on his part. It was just people being the flawed vessels that we are, which caused him to leave.

I persisted in listening to the weekly podcasts, learning to embrace the teaching pastor who replaced him. The new pastor was good, too, but in a different way. I enjoyed his messages and learned directly applicable insight.

This, however, was a short-term arrangement, for the new pastor resigned after the board revised his job description. Unwilling to follow this church through another transition, I stopped listening to the podcasts, even though the newest guy was quite good.

Now we have a chance to visit again. This time, we plan to arrive extra early.

The allure this church once had on me is now gone, but I’m still excited to make a return trip. Contrary to what I once thought, however, I now doubt this could become our church home. The pull is gone, the congregation is too large, and it’s not that close to our house.

The rumor is that attendance dropped significantly since our last visit, while other sources claim that’s an exaggeration. Soon we’ll find out.

Our Second Visit

As we drive, I pray for our time there, what we will learn, and what God wants to teach us. I know where they’re located and drive to the spot. Even so, alarm surges through me when I don’t see their sign. My impulse is to flee, but Candy would never stand for that. I must press on. 

There is plenty of room in the parking lot, supporting the claim of lost members. However, this time we approached the building from the other direction. The other side of the parking lot could be fuller. From what I can see, it is.

The building boasts signs for the other tenants but not one for the church. Which entrance do we try? Then I spot their logo over one set of doors—no name, just a logo. People flow in that direction. We join them.

Last time I picked the farthest entrance and worst place to park. This time I found the best entrance and a convenient place to park. This time our approach is quite different. My anticipation builds. 

Inside, people from the first service mingle, some sharing coffee and bagels, others enjoying prolonged conversations. This corridor is wide and easy to navigate. Ahead unfolds the sanctuary, and I don’t even need to look for the information booth.

What overwhelmed me last time, now unfolds with ease. Am I that different now or has the church changed that much? I suspect the answer lies within me. My perception has changed the most.

At the doors to the sanctuary, a man hands me a paper. I don’t remember anyone passing out bulletins last time. This doesn’t seem like an usher-and-bulletin type of church. “You’ll need this for the service,” the guy says with a smile. I wonder why and glance at it.

It’s labeled “Advent Liturgy.” Now I’m really confused. This certainly doesn’t seem like a liturgical church that follows a printed liturgy.

We move into the sanctuary, a large square room. With in-the-round seating, chairs aligned in sections, 360 degrees around the center stage, there is no apparent front. The few times I’ve experienced this configuration, the result was satisfying, though not ideal.

Sometimes the speaker faces you and other times you see their back. I look around for cameras, suspecting to be able to watch a front-on view on screens. I see no cameras, but there are four screens, configured as a box and suspended over the stage.

The room capacity is too massive to even try to estimate, so I’ll simply say it seats thousands. Attendance is sparse when we arrive early. It’s about 95 percent full when the service starts.

Sixteen pillars support the beams that in turn support the roof. Each of the pillars is wrapped in evergreen-like garland and strings of white Christmas lights. It gives a festive feel in a smartly understated way. The only other holiday accessory is a display with the five Christmas candles.

There is no gaudy glitz or overproduced Christmas display here to assault us. This conforms nicely to the minimalist feel of the entire room: open ceiling painted black, block walls painted beige, and the sixteen pillars. A stained-glass display on one wall is the only artwork.

The tables and stations around the stage suggest we’ll have Communion. The peace of God fills me.

A worship team of seven gathers on the stage, hinting that the service is about to start. As they scatter to their positions, I’m dismayed that most will have their backs to me, though I will have a side view of the worship leader. He also plays guitar.

Rounding out the ensemble is another guitarist, a bass guitarist, a drummer (who’s sequestered out of view on the opposite side of the stage), a keyboardist (who breaks out an accordion for one song), and two backup vocalists.

Liturgy

We open with part one of the liturgy, “Gathering God’s People,” followed by the opening song. Their subdued playing lacks the excitement I anticipated. Then they teach us a song, complete with Latin words. Candy knows it, having learned it in Elementary School.

It’s a simple song, but the timing befuddles me, and the words perplex me. This reminds me of criticism once levied against the Catholic Church for conducting Mass in Latin. The people learned to participate but had no idea what they were saying. So it is with me and this irritating little ditty. 

I assume the song, along with the restrained playing and liturgy, is something different they’re doing for Advent: changing what is familiar into something with a mystical aura to highlight the significance of the season.

I appreciate the intent of the liturgy, but for me it falls short of what I expected and leaves me wanting.

Next is part two of the liturgy, “Responding to God’s Presence,” with a canticle (responsive reading), lighting the next Advent candle, more singing, and a liturgical prayer, which employs much repetition, apparently for emphasis.

Then we recite the Lord’s Prayer in unison, followed by a time of greeting. We have brief interactions with those sitting around us and then, unable to move from our seats, we stand there writhing in awkward isolation.

Following this is “Encountering God’s Word,” part three of the liturgy. I suspect that for each Sunday in Advent they examine a different gospel account of Jesus’s birth. Today we read part of Matthew 1. After reciting a prayer for understanding, we listen to the message.

Sermon

The teaching is a real treat. The speaker communicates like few others. With an easy-to-listen-to style, he offers a fresh perspective in a most engaging manner. Enthralling is the best word to describe the experience.

Though I occasionally hear ministers whose message I really appreciate, this one takes things to a higher level. He artfully draws parallels between the birth of Jesus and the birth of Moses. I’m engaged, inspired, and encouraged.

As he expounds on the text and details the striking parallels between Moses and Jesus, he also throws in some notable one-liners:

  • “Religious people like rules. Jesus was most critical with religious people,”
  • “The Bible is more like a family album than a rule book,” and
  • “Denominations are involved in verse wars.” For a final parallel between Moses and Jesus, he connects the Passover celebration with Communion:
  • “Come to the table, and eat what is free.”

Communion

People flow forward to partake in communion, using the intinction method: dipping the bread into the juice.

With multiple stations to choose from, which present options, some gather in groups around self-serve tables and others approach solitary stands for a private encounter, while the rest go to pairs of people who offer the elements in a more personal manner. 

Without intent or discussion, Candy and I veer toward a couple who reverently hold the elements. “The body of Christ, broken for you,” smiles the lady as I take the unleavened cracker.

“And for you,” I nod.

Moving to her partner, he says, “This is the blood of Christ, shed for you.” I nod in silence as I wait for Candy to join me. 

We dip our crackers together. “Jesus died for you,” I tell her. Then we eat the symbolic meal as we gaze into each other’s eyes, mindful of Jesus’s awesome love for us. As we do this, music plays and people sing along, with the words displayed overhead.

The music is soft and calm, with a holy reverence permeating the place. 

More Liturgy

The liturgy calls for lighting candles as we sing, but they’ll skip this step today. The minister quips something about fire codes and problems last Sunday. People laugh with understanding. I wish I’d been there to witness what happened.

The final part of the liturgy is “Sending God’s People.” We recite a written prayer and the minister dismisses us.

Heading Out

Candy and I gather our things slowly, hoping for a chance to interact with someone, anyone. To my dismay, all those around us focus on other things. I can’t catch anyone’s attention. We are invisible. We put on our coats with deliberate slowness and drift toward an exit.

Then the woman who served us communion approaches Candy. She introduces herself. Now Candy recognizes her. Their paths occasionally crossed years ago in the city where we used to live and where she still does.

She gladly makes an hour-plus drive every Sunday to attend this church. She’s done so for years because of the sermons. If today’s message is any indication, I understand.

Concluding Discussion

I suspect this Sunday’s teaching was typical and the rest of the service—full of liturgy—was not.

While appreciative for the words I heard, I’m dismayed that we didn’t experience one of their normal services. Somber music pulls me down, while liturgy pushes me away, both things I need to work on overcoming. It took the message to fully engage me.

On the drive home we share our thoughts. “I loved the teaching,” I tell Candy, “but I don’t have the energy to try to plug into a large church.”

“That’s what small groups are for,” she says, reminding me what we’ve discussed before.

“I don’t think I even have the energy for that.” I pause as I try to process the disconnect of my emotions. “But the message was really, really great.”

[See the discussion questions for Church 59, read about Church 58, Church 60, or start at the beginning of our journey.]

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Peter DeHaan writes about biblical Christianity to confront status quo religion and live a life that matters. He seeks a fresh approach to following Jesus through the lens of Scripture, without the baggage of made-up traditions and meaningless practices. Read more in his books, blog, and weekly email updates.