Church Experience #37 – September 25, 2011
Chattanooga Church – Chattanooga, TN
A Building That Beckons
Some time earlier this year I was Googling and browsing the websites of various churches in Chattanooga and came across Chattanooga Church. It just so happened that as I clicked through the pages on their website I noticed a blog post from their pastor, Morty Lloyd, that referenced the ChurchSurfer blog. He had read the newspaper article about ChurchSurfer that appeared in the Chattanooga Times Free Press and used it as an opportunity to challenge his congregation to look at their own church introspectively and think about how they may be perceived by visitors. I made a mental note about this church (which doesn’t always work so well) and then kept noticing it as I would pass by on Bonnie Oaks Drive. The Chattanooga Church building is one of those intriguing structures that you just want to go look at because of its unique charm. It is a small grey stone structure that looks like it belongs among the rolling hills of the Irish countryside or in some quaint little village in rural England. Instead, Chattanooga Church is paradoxically perched on the left side of the circle driveway that leads into Bonnie Oaks Business Park. Despite the out-of-place location, the building still invites you to come inside for a closer look, as does the name of the church, which without any denominational tags or descriptive adjectives in the title, leaves you wondering what it is all about. Full of questions and curiosity, my wife Laura and I decided to give Chattanooga Church a try, and here is how it went…
It was a hazy Sunday morning and as we strolled lazily up to the church I stopped to snap a couple of photos from a few different angles. We rounded the corner from the parking lot and noticed a pointed-arch doorway standing open with a few people greeting each person as they entered. We were first greeted by Cathy, who asked if we were visiting and when we acknowledged that we were, she retrieved a welcome packet for us and thanked us for being there. The outside door lead directly into the sanctuary, so after we passed by Cathy we headed immediately down the center aisle and into a pew just a few rows down. We sat down and surveyed the room and were immediately greeted by a lady named Sharon in the pew in front of us, and then by Steve, Carman, and a few other people who were making their way from the front of the room to the back, shaking hands and greeting everyone that was in attendance. The sanctuary had a medieval feel to it, with black iron faux-candle light fixtures which hung by thick black chains from the wood beams in the ceiling. The arched windows had a yellow tint to them and were adorned with ivy. The pulpit area had a small stained glass window containing a portrayal of Jesus with a small child, and there was a projection screen in the center above a small stage set up with musical instruments which spilled out onto the floor in front of the stage with a drum kit and then guitars lining the wall up to the first pew. As the room filled in with about sixty people of various ages and races, the praise band took their places and started the worship service with contemporary praise music. The sound was full and joyful, and we lifted our voices to the Lord in praise with several familiar songs as well as a few that were new to me. In between songs there was a break for prayer which was lead by a lady from the congregation, the collection of tithes and offerings (which included an encouragement from the writings of Martin Luther in which he says there are three conversions that take place in Christianity: the heart, the mind, and the purse), and a prayer request pad which was passed around the room. At the end of the service we discovered that all the prayer requests were read aloud to the congregation and then prayed for right there on the spot (and I later found out about a super-cool smartphone app that Chattanooga Church developed which allows all the members to access these prayer requests and other important church updates from anywhere).
Young and Wise
After the worship service ended, a young man introduced himself as Carman Lastoria, the Youth Pastor of the church, and stated that he would be speaking that day in place of the Pastor, Morty Lloyd, who was out of town. Pastor Carman was clean cut and well dressed, looked to be in his early to mid twenties, and spoke with a voice made for radio (take note J103). He began his sermon on Romans 9 with the encouragement that through faith we are God’s offspring and as the Church (capital “C”) we are called to be a family. It did not take long for me to realize that Pastor Carman was wise and mature beyond his years, and he spoke confidently without hesitation, which was surprising given his age (and obviously fruit of the Spirit). He continued by explaining the difference from Romans 9:1-9 of Jews who believed they were heirs by bloodline (“children of the flesh”) and Jews who accepted Christ by faith (“children of the promise”) with the passage, “For they are not all Israel who are of Israel…”. He expounded on the subject by contrasting Ishmael, who was born of a young and fertile maid-servant, with Isaac, who was born by the grace and power of God according to His promise establishing the lineage of Christ. Pastor Carman ventured further into Romans 9 and did not back away from verses 16-21, which can be challenging and therefore off-limits in many of today’s white-washed sermons full of fluffy messages and humanistic doctrine. Instead of avoiding this section he embraced the chance to compare free will with God’s sovereignty, resting on the point that God is always in control. He emphasized that faith is the ability to trust that we are secure in the Potter’s hand, and then ended his sermon with a bit of alliteration (pastors love alliteration) by offering the exhortation to Recognize who you are, Rely on God’s sovereignty, and Rest in His hand.
In the days following our visit to Chattanooga Church, Laura and I received several greeting cards from church members thanking us for our visit, extending blessings to us, and inviting us to come back, which was both thoughtful and impressive. Later in the week I was able to connect with Pastor Morty Lloyd and we met up for coffee and had some great discussion. He seemed to be just as intrigued about ChurchSurfer as I was about Chattanooga Church. We talked about the beginnings of Chattanooga Church and their focus, which is Jesus Christ (isn’t it sad that a church actually has to come out and say that their focus is on Jesus Christ?). Pastor Morty shared the three-fold vision of his church to connect the unchurched with God, reconnect others who may have fallen away from the church with God, and equip all to live for God. It was on that third piece of their vision that we really found common ground, and we spent a good while discussing how churches today continue to cater to the epidemic of consumerism in our society. When did the major switch happen from qualitative Christianity to quantitative Christianity? When did Christian pastors abandon the concept of equipping believers to become ministry leaders and servants within the church in favor of allowing them to defer most of the responsibilities to full-time church employees (an interesting note here, the pastors of Chattanooga Church all have regular jobs to support themselves, including Pastor Morty, who referred to them as “tent-makers”)? When did our churches give up on impacting a community and instead seclude themselves in bigger and bigger buildings with built-in amenities? When did the weekly attendance number and church budget become more important than the spiritual maturity level of the people sitting in the pews? I know these are not problems in all churches, but how could we let them become a problem in any church? Brothers and sisters in Christ, we are called to be a faith family that loves, supports, serves, protects, prays for, listens to, and holds all things in common with one another. Until we are all willing to take responsibility for upholding our part and for holding others accountable to theirs, we will continue to be a disjointed and dysfunctional family. I praise God that there are disciples out there actively sharing the Gospel of our Lord and by His strength raising up and equipping others in the ministry of faith, but this is not something only a few of us are called to do…it is something we are all called to do. I pray that we all recognize who we are, rely on God’s sovereignty, and rest in His hand. Amen brother Carman!
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Grace and peace in Christ,