Sunday, June 7, 2015

When Pastors Go Visiting Churches

One of the more interesting activities for me on vacation is to go to a church I've never been to, and try NOT to be a critic. It is actually quite difficult, I'm ashamed to say, because I've been so involved in strategizing, planning, executing, and then critiquing services for years that my mind's first thoughts are what is going on, what do I think is great, what do I not like, etc. I have to purposely pray (and I did this morning), "God, I am here to worship you with people who love you. Help me stay focused on you and what you have to say to us in the music and the preaching, to your glory."

I went online and surveyed some options. Our church is a member of one particular ministry association, so I looked at its directory and found three options nearby. I checked each one's website, tried to gauge what I could (churches can be great at websites but not so great in person), and settled on an option that looked promising.

So we drove up to a church this morning that had clearly marked directions to its parking lot next to the building they rent on Sundays. A sign said to turn on your flashers if you are a visitor, so I did, and was personally guided to a parking space near the front. As we walked in we were greeted by three or four greeters as we waited for the first service to end and ours to begin. We went in to the gymnasium that had been set up, and to say it felt "different" was an understatement. Very large speakers less than 30 feet from the back row let you feel as well as hear the music--especially the bass resonating in my chest. Black curtains partitioned off the space and the stage well, and as we started, the lights went down, the fog rolled in, and the strobe lights kept pace with the bass, scanning the crowd. We were asked to stand, and put our hands together, and we did. As we were clapping and the solo began, I was thinking that I knew the song, but wasn't sure we'd used it in worship. A few seconds later I was sure we hadn't. It was the music team's dead on rendition of "Shake it Off," only it was someone who sounded just like Taylor Swift, at least to my ear. I wondered to myself, "what is coming next?" Had my research failed me? Was it going to be a lost hour for us?

As it turns out, I was in a very contemporary but gospel-centered Sunday service (aside from that first song, which they used to get people in the room and smiling). As you might guess, this music team was definitely "professional grade"--we are vacationing in a town where there are more professional stage musicians than you could count, which probably means most the churches here could do that. Even though there were less than 200 people in this particular service, the ambient features (lights, sound, fog) were what you would see in much larger churches like this. The pastor was in his contemporary "clerical robes" (untucked dress shirt and jeans--if you hear a bit of jealousy it's only because I'm too old to carry off that look) but neither he nor the worship pastor (white t-shirt, jeans, and white high tops) had a soul patch--which may be "so 2013," I don't know. The church applauds when they take the offering to remind themselves that this is a privilege to show that you serve God and not money. And then the message began--a video from a series two years ago, as the church is doing a "Greatest Hits" theme for three weeks before moving into a new series and a new home. "It's just like summer reruns," I thought, and realizing we've have my last eight years of sermons on video, I'm tucking that idea away in the back of my head.

The text was Matthew 7:1-5, but it was the title and main idea that kind of threw me at first: "How to Hug A Vampire." I try to do catchy titles that help people remember them, but this was beyond my range. It was a creative and, for me, very different way to approach the passage, but it was also very sound in its practical exposition of the main points of the text, and I wrote them down and remember them. Here's my summary:
We didn't get one of these
  1. While we think that others "suck the life out of us," be careful, because we do the same to others--and however we may judge them, others will judge us in that same way and with the same criteria.
  2. We need to stop concentrating on others's faults (a diversion), because we have pretty big ones of our own. "We need to put down the magnifying glass and pick up the mirror." 
  3. The problem? Vampires can't see themselves in a mirror (what a great pick up from vampire lore)! Left to ourselves, we will never see what needs to change about us. This is where we need divine intervention to see what we cannot. And as we come to see we need grace, we become those who extend it to others. Others are a challenge most often because we are so self-centered!
There was more, but that's what I wrote down. There was a final song, and then we left. On our way out, one of those who greeted us on the way in (but had no notes) greeted us by name again as we were headed toward the car, and engaged us in a little more conversation--which was especially impressive to us because remembering visitors' names is important but hard to do!

As you see, I couldn't help but notice lots of differences from what I was used to. We have a regular church auditorium, and while we use different styles and instruments, no one is going to mistake us for "cutting edge" at any level. I'm not one who likes lighting so low I can't see my Bible. The volume was high to the point where other than the musicians, I couldn't hear anyone but me singing, and I could hear me because it was in my own head. I don't need fog and strobe lights to move my heart toward worshiping God. 

BUT, I sang worship songs with people who were clearly singing with gusto (from what I could see).
The message was a call to repentance and God's grace. The way the pastor spoke and instructed it was clear that this church (six years old) was aimed for those who are not "church-born-and-bred" and was reaching them. There membership in the same group as our church means they affirm that same key truths and the same high view of Scripture we do. The congregation was mainly people significantly younger than us. And they've grown to the point where they have multiple services and are moving into a new facility--a hard thing to accomplish in such a relatively short a period of time with a younger congregation. My prayer was answered and I was able to worship my God, and come away challenged.

And what about the stuff I didn't like? Well, to quote Taylor Swift, I just needed to decide to "shake it off!"