I still hate church hunting.
But today was fantastic, as far as church hunting goes. It was downright fun, even. I’m pretty sure this is because I let the Cat Daddy do the research. It’s becoming more & more apparent that in addition to hating church hunting, I’m also not very good at it. I had Googled some local churches, but everything I came up with was Baptist. Very Baptist (not that there’s anything wrong with that). And overrun by old people (again, nothing personal to the old people—I just don’t want to be one of 5 people under 30 in any given church. Oh wait--under 35). I was feeling pretty low by mid-week, and contemplating the benefit of going to all this effort for five measly months. Frankly, I’m pretty sure the benefit will be one of those things that you don’t perceive at the time. Or maybe ever.
But at this point I still think it's worthwhile, so I was describing all of this to the Cat Daddy, and he decided to take a turn online & see what he could find for church listings. And he came up with a small list of options that looked promising or, at the very least, didn’t suck.
So for this week we chose the local Nazarene church. It turns out they run the local Christian hard rock radio station, so we figured at the very least they’re open to edginess. Their website stressed that they are a Purpose Driven Church, and had key words and phrases such as “come as you are” (ie, “we won’t take your jeans as a sign of disrespect”) and the pastor was wearing a Hawaiian shirt in his photo (ie, “I love California and Rick Warren”). Personally, the clincher for me was where the site stated, “You owe it to yourself…” to give them a try. So by all means we gave them a try.
Of course we started sizing up the place as soon as we drove into the parking lot. Right off, the Cat Daddy simply said “mass appeal.” We saw quite a mix of ages and appearances. Some dressed up, some dressed down, young people, and old people, and people in the middle. It was a good-sized church, but not huge. Big enough that they referred to their property as a campus, and that we new folks didn’t stick out like a sore thumb.
First we dropped His Highness off at the nursery, where I was pleased to find that they do diapers. We then hit the welcome table to peruse the pamphlets and paraphernalia before finding our seats with time to spare. I tried to convey a general air of “I belong here,” so as to avoid any sort of greeter-onslaught.
The music was upbeat and contemporary. Not as edgy as the radio station, but still pretty darn peppy. I would say on the order of our home church in AZ (possibly one of the best churches ever). People were free to groove as the Spirit led, and there was a corporate propensity for clapping. No brass section this time, but a good-sized band, which the pastor was part of--something I know is common with a lot of pastors, but which I haven’t seen a lot of in my experiences.
And dude, they had a theme song. As soon as the music picked up to kick off the service, everyone stood and clapped in perfect timing and, even more remarkably, sang fully and in unison. You just knew that they sing this same song as the opener every week. I don’t remember the words, but it was more or less an opening prayer set to music, with the church’s name inserted at points. Just to clarify precisely where God should show up. Then a couple of upbeat worship tunes (neither of which we knew, but that's OK) before the pastor launched into the message.
They were in the middle of a series leading up to Easter Sunday, so today’s message involved the whole Palm Sunday thing. I believe the main idea was Jesus as the Son of God. Which is good, because we believe he is, so we were in good company. The pastor had a conversational tone, with bits of humor inserted throughout—very pleasant to listen to.
And let me say first that overall the message was just fine. No red flags or heresies—grace-filled, Jesus-centered; all the things that you’d want in a sermon or message.
Cynic that I am, however, I managed to make a few snide remarks along the way. At one point the pastor was emphasizing the importance of not just “having” faith, but living it out in one’s daily life. Which I get. The way he conveyed this, however, was to say “Faith is a verb,” at which point I looked quizzically at the Cat Daddy and said, “No it’s not.” We briefly debated the grammatical nature of the word “faith” (quietly, since we were aware of folks sitting in front of and behind us, and the pews were stacked fairly close together), and I made the point that you don’t say “I was out faithing today” or “I need to go faith that.” He replied “Boy, he really faithed that one up.” From there things could only go downhill, so I let it rest and tried to be less cynical and more teachable.
But honestly. ”Faith is a verb.” Not at all.
Up to this point I was relieved at how comfortable I felt. Definitely a good sign. When the pastor finished his message--this was where the unavoidably-hokey-to-outsiders took place. This week it was the special music/performance art. There were two music presentations, each including a subtle yet contemplative, almost-dramatic action of some sort by one or more of the musicians. The lady in the first presentation had such a velvety-smooth midrange voice that I could’ve sworn she was Karen Carpenter reincarnated (I do love the Carpenters). At any rate, the whole thing was very heartfelt, and the congregation seemed to enjoy it immensely.
The second presentation coincided with the offering collection, and I appreciated the fact that they had a variety of folks serving as ushers. To me, ushering is a low-risk ministry, a great way to let people plug in to a ministry without getting overwhelmed right off (and a way for the church leaders to get to know their people better--good for all). There were men, ladies, and even young punk kids wearing hooded sweatshirts.
Somewhere in there was a genuine altar call. Several people did come forward to receive Christ, and it got me to wondering about things like altar calls. Do you think that churches have ringers, to make people feel more comfortable about going up? I’m not saying I think any of these guys actually were ringers…it just occurred to me as a potentially-useful strategy. The regular members might know who were the ringers and who weren’t, but the visitors and newbies probably wouldn’t, and anyway there could be a whole ringer ministry, where volunteer ringers rotate responsibilities to minimize the chances of discovery. Anyway.
As for the offertory singer, she was very…emotive, and was given a standing ovation by a select few before the worship band returned to the stage amid the “turn and greet your neighbor” for two more worship songs which were in fact quite fun. So fun that after the second one I came dangerously close to giving the Lord a clap. Finally they had the closing theme song (Yes! Theme song! Different than the opening one!) and benediction. Then we flew out under the radar, picked up His Highness who was having oh so much fun in the ball pit (trying to eat the balls), and were on our way.
The Cat Daddy asked what I thought and I said “safe & comfortable.” He asked what on earth I meant because apparently when I say “safe,” it may or may not be a good thing. When it came down to it, I echoed his first impression—mass appeal. And I will admit I got pretty enthusiastic as the service went on (up until the special music/performance art). I felt comfortable & welcomed. Encouraged by the music and the message. People were friendly but gave us our space and were not overly forward, and didn’t seem to assume we were heathens, which I can get defensive about (No, really! I know Jesus! Listen to my buzzwords!).
We were reading in the bulletin that one of this church’s stated missions/goals is to build their local membership, and they certainly have all the right strategies in place for building numbers. I'm not a fan of building numbers for building numbers' sake, but to be fair it wasn't their only goal, but rather part of several goals within their overall mission statement. And anyway, there are good and bad points to any approach. The good part of this is what I mentioned at first—they have a mix of all ages & stages, something I appreciate more as I get older and less cool. The downfalls include the risk of having a range of fun programs with no real depth, and a tendency to gloss over the harder things of Christianity for the sake of visitor appeal. Neither of which can be gauged by one visit.
We came to the same conclusion as last week: we could come here and feel fairly comfortable (moreso, even, than with the 'Squares), but would still like to see what other options exist. We again lamented our short stay here, that it will not be long enough to really get plugged in anywhere. I had a brainstorm to make it my goal to go to a different church every week while we’re here—a fantastic potential for church stories—but we shall see what happens. Church hopping will likely get old quickly. But you never know…