Church Experience #44 – November 20, 2011
Christ United Methodist Church – Chattanooga, TN
Shame On Who?
I drive by Christ United Methodist Church fairly often these days when I am visiting my parents who live nearby in East Brainerd. I paid particular attention to a major addition that went on this year (which of course included the union protesters holding the “Shame On You” sign…now a Chattanooga staple) because it brought back memories of when Christ United Methodist was first constructed on the current property at the corner of Morris Hill and East Brainerd. I was a kid at the time and have some great memories of playing with some of the other boys in the church when it was first launched. Since then it has grown into a megachurch approaching 4,000 members. The last time I attended there, the sanctuary served double duty as a gymnasium with retractable basketball goals and stackable chairs that could be cleared out of the way for recreation. I was pretty sure that would no longer be the case, and the outside of the building (especially the new addition) looked to be more for appearance than functionality like the original design. I was curious to see all of the renovations and to find out what the church had grown into over the years, so I decided to drop in for one of my ChurchSurfer visits. Here’s how it went…
Alternative Gift Giving
I pulled into the packed parking lot but found a space quickly and headed directly for the new addition to the building. I walked in and was immediately immersed into a crowded hallway that was bustling with activity. I saw a coffee station and decided to grab a quick cup to sip on while waiting for service to start. I noticed a long hallway leading from the new part of the building to the main part, which was lined with display tables for various non-profits and other charitable organizations. I later learned that this was an “alternative gift market” which was encouraging people to donate or serve for Christmas rather than spend excessively on typical Christmas gifts. I cannot help but think that if people truly got in touch with the real purpose of the Christmas season that making these type of sacrifices would become more important than spending large sums of money on what our consumeristic culture has turned such a sacred spiritual holiday into. I finished my cup of coffee while browsing the alternative gift market and then decided to go ahead and get ready for worship. I had two choices for worship services…traditional worship took place in the main sanctuary, but I opted for contemporary worship inside “The Commons”, which was the new part of the building. I was handed a bulletin on my way in the room, which was sparsely populated compared to the crowded hallway and lobby just outside. The room was darker than I would have expected, and I noticed that everyone was seated near the back of the room, so I also stayed close to back also, hoping to engage some people in conversation as I waited for the service to begin.
To Be or Not To Be (Contemporary)
I did not have my wife, Laura, with me this week, so I was forced to sit alone and I was not able to engage anyone in conversation. Most of the people either seemed preoccupied on a destination or task at hand, or disinterested in socializing. The people who were socializing were already engaged in groups and it would have been awkward for me to try to break in to the conversations. I was pretty disappointed that nobody approached or greeted me on the way in and that nobody seemed to be on the lookout for visitors. Since I did not have anyone to talk to, I changed my focus from people to worshiping the Lord, and stood up to praise him as the band took the stage and began to play. The praise band consisted of two electric guitars, an acoustic guitar, bass, drums, and a keyboard, and they produced a loud rock-inspired sound as they blasted through three worship songs with time for prayers and contemplation to absorb the message. I do not want to sound critical here (and I know I will probably fail) but during this time I was consumed by a troubling thought about churches in our current society. It seems like contemporary worship has been adopted as an “imitation” by churches who don’t really “get it” but feel like they have to offer it or suffer the consequences of not connecting with the younger generations. I say this because I feel like the difference between “getting it” and “not getting it” is the act of worship. At some churches, contemporary worship is expressive and connected. You can feel it. The Spirit is at work and compelling people to sing out with enthusiasm and emotion, people are usually moved to either dance or sway to the music and maybe raise their hands, and almost always you can see it in the facial expressions around the room. At other churches, contemporary worship just seems like singing songs in a different style. It is just music without worship. This probably sounds judgmental, and to a certain extent it probably is…but my intent here is to just provide some commentary on what my experiences are like. I am sure other people feel very differently than me and I would argue that neither of us are right or wrong. I thought the praise band at Christ United Methodist displayed excellent talent and sincere effort, and I used the time to focus internally and open my heart to God in worship rather than do it externally with expressive worship (which is just a personal preference, not a knock on how they do things at Christ United Methodist).
After worship was over a large projection screen descended and was used to pipe in the sermon from the main sanctuary. This explained why everyone was seated toward the back of the room and also why it was so dark. Senior Minister Mark Flynn, a young, hip, well-dressed, plainly spoken man who seemed to be able to connect with multiple generations and cultures, began his sermon with a Scripture reading from 1 Corinthians 12:12-30. He talked about “holes in the Gospel”, which did not infer that it is lacking anything, but that there are places where we are called to “plug in”. He used this passage and analogy to convey the message that Jesus Christ began a worldwide conspiracy in which we are also called to be part of something greater than ourselves. Pastor Mark referenced verses 4-11 to reiterate that every Christian has spiritual gifts, which often go unused, many times because people do not even realize that they are special gifts. He made a point that was groundbreaking in my mind, because I had never really thought of it this way…that because our spiritual gifts feel so natural and come so easily to us, we often think they are not important and that everyone has the same abilities. This is obviously not the case though, as he pointed out several types of gifts that are often mistaken in this way. He then hit the congregation with a few tough, self-reflecting questions that involved considering what happens when 25% or even 50% of a church body does not effectively use their spiritual gifts in service (and conversely, what would it look like if everyone did use them?). After the service closed I slowly exited the building, hoping that I might be able to enjoy some fellowship and make some new acquaintances. I was disappointed that it did not happen, but at the same time I was encouraged by the thought that I am not at a place spiritually where I need to feel welcomed and accepted by people to know that I am loved and accepted by my Savior. I also know that there are others out there who are desperately seeking God’s love and affection and it is our duty as His children to make sure we are examples of His love to them. I pray that we can look outwardly for opportunities to express His love so that we do not let any of those people down.
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Grace and peace in Christ,