Sunday, August 26, 2012

"'s in a metal shed."

One of the aspects to this church-search that I am enjoying the most is the different locations that people find for their congregations. In planning out my Sundays, I have been looking all around town at every type of church and the many different places God calls home.

This last week, one of my dearest and oldest friends was in town, and I invited her along on my journey. "What type of church are you used to attending?" After a little bit of back-and-forth, I found a Calvary Chapel location nearby and off we went.

The idea behind Calvary Chapel is that they work their way through the Bible, Genesis-Revelations, learning each chapter and verse and gaining a better understanding of God through His word. That's in a nutshell, of course. I had visited one of their services before, when we lived elsewhere, and I remember the upbeat music and the in-depth learning. I was excited to go! Plus, time with one of my best friends-- it would be a blessed day.

As usual when I think I "know" where a place is, I turned right instead of left and had to resort to GPS. I'm kind of glad that I did, or I most likely would have driven right past the actual building for the church. The area looked vaguely industrial, with many of the type of businesses that provide service without requiring an inviting storefront.  Lots of metal outbuildings. At least two of those structures housed the church we sought (main chapel and children's building).

When I parked, my friend looked a little skeptical. "It's in a metal shed." Well, not quite, it was actually in a very nice and new (metal) building...but I giggled anyway. How would she have reacted to the church I attended in Kansas, where 50 or so met in a defunct video store? Where I suspect the nursery was housed in the "back room" for adults only? Or the church where I attend Bible study, in a (very nice) double-wide?   Matthew 18:20 says, "For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them." I would have to say this is one of the most important parts to this journey, and one that I am embracing.  

This week, Calvary Fellowship was deep in the book of Luke. Specifically, Luke 15:11-32, the story of the prodigal son.

Now, I grew up attending Baptist churches, and I've heard this story many times. The father has two sons, one older and one younger. The older one is responsible, does the right thing, and works hard for his father. He obeys. The younger son is wasteful and self-centered, and leaves his family after getting his portion of the inheritance. The younger son uses up all of his inheritance, is forced to care for the pigs (which were unclean to him!), and finally hits rock bottom, coming home to his father.

The father, oh, the father-- he rejoices. He does not berate the younger son for his past, and does not turn him away. He falls on his son with joy, and demands that only the best be brought out for his beloved son.

The older son, who had been working in the field, came home to find a celebration. He asked why no party had ever been thrown for him, who had done only the right things and had not betrayed his father.  

Until last Sunday, I will admit I had always kind of been on the side of the older son. Why wouldn't he be upset? Here he was, doing the right thing, being respectful, working hard...and his ungrateful, prodigal (wasteful) brother comes home to all glory.

I knew the story was about God and his forgiveness. That, no matter what, when we turn back to Him, He is there for us. I understood the role of the father in the story, and that the prodigal son was, in fact, us.

But I didn't understand the older son. Why was he wrong to be upset? Well, now I get it. If the "father" is our Father, and the younger son is us, then the older son represents the Philistines among us. The do-gooders who have hardened hearts towards others, or a proud manner, or who cannot forgive. The older son represents those of us who think we can somehow do enough good to earn that which our Father gives us, freely.  

Little by little, through this journey, I am learning. I am re-learning stories I thought I knew, and I am surprised each visit by something new. Little things, such as location not mattering one whit, or what makes a church feel welcoming or holy-- I am so excited to keep going in this journey!

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Loneliest Church

Two weeks ago, I visited a fairly prominent church that I had watched during its construction.  It was a denomination I am really familiar with, and I looked forward to visiting services there for the first time.

I decided, after much thought, NOT to post the name of the church.  When I began this blog, I went back and forth in my mind about when and whether to link directly to church names and congregations.  Sometimes, most of the time, I will.  If the church is absolutely amazing, I will post it.  If the church seems to me to be far off the mark, biblically or otherwise, I will post it then as well.  I have received a little bit of interest in my project, and some teasing as well-- if I visit a church with live sacrifices or other practices that seem startling, I will let people know!

But this...  I think this is a case of personal perception.  And because the feeling was based more on my experience and not on something that the church actively does (or does not do), I will not post which church it was.

The building was amazing, a truly beautiful chapel and the hard-wood pews were gleaming.  The music, sung by a small praise group (though there was space for a full choir), was lively and moving.

The pastor shared a sermon that his father had written, and was based on several bits of scripture.  I took notes, but in the craziness of the current week (new job, getting ready for school, etc) I have misplaced them.  I couldn't tell you what the primary message was, and I resolve to take better notes and keep them close by.

It doesn't really matter.

I didn't leave the church with the thought of the sermon in my head.

I was not humming.

I didn't have any sort of glow from interpersonal contact.

What I left with, what has echoed in my head for a little while and caused me the greatest part of my reluctance to write about this visit, was loneliness.

The usher at the door, a sweet gentleman who later came forward to pray over the offering, was my only welcome or acknowledgement in an hour and a half.

There was no call to fill out a welcome card (though a card was enclosed in the still-missing order of worship).  There was no stand-and-greet moment in the service.  There were people just a few feet down from me in the wooden pew, and they barely made eye contact.

People were visiting, people were chatting, and many different types of service and group worship opportunities were mentioned and shown in the pre-service slide show.  I have absolutely no doubt that this is a focused, vital, and engaged congregation.

They just forgot.

"Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, For thy sake we are killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter. Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerers through him that loved us. For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord."
(Romans 8:35-39)

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Familiarity and Comfort

This last week, I attended a church I had briefly attended when we first moved here, that is very close to our home.  I'll get into my reasons for not making it my church home (yet?) a little later, but there are many positives about the church, too.

Lifeway Fellowship is a non-denominational church with both classic and contemporary services.  Even the contemporary service included songs like "Amazing Grace" and the song my church in Tucson played for every invitation, "I Have Decided".  The congregation is a mix of older and younger families, and Pastor Jimmy Towers was celebrating 14 years of service that very Sunday.

People knew each other, visiting before the service and briefly during the meet-and-greet moments.  Visitors were asked to remain seated during the meet, so that we could be greeted by others.  I received a little folder with information about the church and a visitors' card.  I was asked to place the card in an urn that was at the back of the church, used for the Offering.

The message this Sunday was based on Genesis 25:1-3, according to the notes.  Even the  pastor said that if we read that verse, we would wonder how he came up with a sermon based on that reading.  There was a lot to the sermon, though I'm also not sure where he got it in that verse, but the part that stuck with me was that we need to return to the time when we first believed.  Whether we were children, meeting with a Sunday School teacher or talking with a parent, or adults and finding hope, the pastor wanted us to remember that time and that moment.  If we could go there physically, he suggested we try to do that, but more importantly he wanted us to remember God's protection and His presence.  Genesis 28:15 was the verse I wrote down and that gave me great comfort.

Each church I've attended has had some comment, some place, about it "not being an accident" that we were in that church on that day.  I'm beginning to sense a theme.  After this Sunday, I am also figuring out what I'm looking for in a church, and why I have been so restless since we moved here. Part of what I am seeking is a place where people will recognize my face, and greet me, and even ask me to sit with them. Even when I've visited a church multiple times in the past, and had friends attending the same church, I haven't usually felt like the church remembers me. I haven't felt like I belonged.  I don't think the issue lies with the churches I've attended, necessarily-- I can only speak to the end result. The congregation of this church knows each other, likes each other, remembers each other, and in that sense of community it has found strength.

PS If you like what you've read, you can follow along via my Facebook page for this blog (, via email (see the right-hand side of the blog), or as a Google follower.  Let me know your thoughts and thanks for reading!

Friday, August 3, 2012

Virtually at Church

This week, after being sick last week, I was loathe to miss.  I had something really (really) big to look forward to, and I knew the phone could ring any moment.  After bouncing up and down on the couch, checking my cell over and over, I knew I would be irritating any churchgoers who were so unlucky as to be next to me.

So, I started thinking about the first church I visited, and how they said they recorded every sermon and streamed them online.  I thought about some of the megachurches I've heard about, and figured they probably streamed too.

Of course, I had heard about Joel Osteen and seen his books, with his ever-present smile and his beautiful wife.  I'd seen interviews with him and I'd even seen photos of the (huge, holy cow, omigoodness) big church where he holds services.

I thought it seemed like a good place to get a live-streamed church visit.

Lakewood Church, in Houston, Texas, is beyond big.  Said to be the largest congregation in the US, it can seat more than 16,000 people.  I would imagine they would have to have the most organized staff in existence, just to keep track of giving, groups, Bible studies and the like.

Just watching it on my little 14-inch laptop screen, I will admit to feeling overwhelmed.

Nicely, though, the website told me that there was a live service on RIGHT NOW.  So I clicked, got a quick little ad/intro to the church, and then an up-front view of Joel Osteen's pearly whites and well-known smile.

Sometimes, in services, we hear a message that is not meant for us-- it is meant for a friend or family member who really needs the verse or the words for that day.  This week's message (#546, God Will Bring You Justice) is an example of one of those messages.  Based, perhaps loosely, on Isaiah 61:7, his sermon referred to God being a just God, returning to the faithful what the devil had taken.  I have a friend who has lost much over the last three years, and is in a battle to regain hope.  I have another friend who is fighting to keep her child safe from a monster-- I have to believe this verse refers to them both.

The streamed service did not have any music, which I missed.  I don't know if Lakewood has no music at all or if it's just not streamed as part of the service.  In order to watch the past messages, people are encouraged to create an account on the site.  I did see requests for donations, but I am not sure if this is required in order to have an account.

I found the service uplifting and hopeful.  If I really needed to be cheered and hear some positive bits of God's word, I could imagine tuning in to this church broadcast again, but I don't feel like I'd be comfortable in the stadium-like setting.

The only thing that I wondered afterwards, after jotting down a few notes, was whether other sermons actually asked something of the congregation.  God gives much, but I believe and was taught that He also asks much.  There was none of that in the service at all.

Horribly, I found myself imagining Sunday traffic...