Church Experience #15 – April 17, 2011
First-Centenary United Methodist Church, Chattanooga
Desires, Hopes, and Goals
My desire for ChurchSurfer is to go in to each church that I visit and get blown away by God’s power and love, uniquely displayed by another group of Christians, and write about all the great things that I experienced. My hope is that by being the person who goes to fifty different churches in a year, I might break down some of the barriers that exist between people of different denominations and open their eyes to the fact that there are true Christians engaging in true worship in every church. I think this is a great tool to allow people who are happy in a church home to get a glimpse of what other churches in the area are doing, without having to physically go there and miss out on their own service. My possibly naive goal is that somehow through this process I can begin a work in Chattanooga to bring churches and Christians together to focus on the many things that we have in common, the most important of which is serving our Lord Jesus, and inspire a culture of unity in the local Christian community. It’s a big task, but I know all things are possible through Christ who strengthens me, and how would I ever live with myself knowing that God put this on my heart and I did nothing to accomplish it? So here I am…going about it the best way I know how at the moment. The prerequisite and challenge to this goal (that I mentioned in my opening sentence), is that at each church I attend I must be diligent in attempting to meet people, engage in conversation, and hopefully have a moving experience of God’s power and love.
To Be or Not To Be the Critic
This week was the week I knew I would eventually have, but dreaded experiencing. You see, my goal with the ChurchSurfer project was never to be a “church critic”. I do think that a potentially great benefit of this blog is for churches to reflect on what a visitor experiences at their church and make changes that may help them become more welcoming to strangers. That’s why I try to include positive comments about some of the things churches are doing that I liked, such as the small group signup sheets at Metro Tab, the “hug friendly” congregation at New Covenant Fellowship, or the personal invitation to attend a small group at Signal Mountain Presbyterian. I think those are simple things that other churches can emulate to help become more visitor-friendly. I’ve been to many churches before where I have come in, sat through the service, and then exited the building without ever being spoken to. I knew it would probably happen eventually during the ChurchSurfer project, and I was dreading it because I didn’t know what I should write. Should I be honest and forthcoming about it when it happens, or not write about it and instead just pull from only the positives of my experience that week? It’s a tough position to be in, because churches really struggle with this issue, and it can be a really hard for them to build an open environment that makes outsiders feel welcome. The problem is that it’s not totally in control of the church leaders, and even though they may want to create a welcoming environment, it’s really in the hands of the congregation. The individuals who make up the congregation are the ones who are going to come into contact with visitors each week, and if they aren’t aware of the people around them and prepared to react when they see someone who may be new, they will probably miss the opportunity to make a strong impression of love on someone who really needs it. I’m sad to say that during my visit to First-Centenary United Methodist Church, I was the visitor who was overlooked by the congregation.
The Silent Service
I showed up at First-Centenary UMC about 20 minutes early for the 10:45 AM contemporary worship service, The Vine, that is held in the Oak Street Center, just across from the main building. My wife was on an Emmaus Walk this weekend, so I was by myself, and looking forward to visiting a United Methodist church, which was the denomination in which my dad, Mark Davis, served as a pastor for many years. I stopped on my way up to the building to take a couple of pictures, and stood in silence for a moment, enjoying the warm Spring air and morning sunshine. As I entered the pale-colored building, I noticed lots of young people…college aged, high school and junior high, and small children accompanied by young parents. I walked over to the coffee area and began to fill up a cup, and a gray haired gentleman said hello to me as he finished stirring in his sugar and then moved along. That short “hello” would prove to be the only time I was spoken to outside of the worship service. After filling my cup, I took a couple of sips and then approached some ladies who were sitting at a tall cafe-style table, having a conversation. I smiled as I walked up, and I was hoping to meet a few people who could tell me about First-Centenary and their college ministry, but after standing awkwardly next to them for a moment without being greeted, I decided to explore a little. I walked across the room, passing by some young men seated on a sofa, again failing to engage in eye contact or receive a greeting, so I kept moving along and went up the stairs that led to the elevated breezeway that crosses Oak Street to the main building. As I meandered across the breezeway, I admired some very cool paintings and photographs on the walls, and then walked down the stairs on the other side into the main building. In the lobby outside of the main sanctuary, I saw a bulletin board full of photographs of new members with printouts of their names, and thought that was a great idea for letting existing church members know who the new members are. Time was approaching for the service to start, so I walked back across the Oak Street breezeway, finished my coffee, and then went in to the second sanctuary where they hold The Vine contemporary service.
I was handed a bulletin with a smile as I entered the room, and I walked across to the right side of the stage and took a seat on the third row back. People continued to fill in the room and take seats, but unfortunately no one sat down within three seats of me on my row or in the row in front of me, again hindering my ability to engage in conversation. After sitting and surveying the room for a few minutes, the praise band took the stage that was decorated with palms and peace lilies, and started playing a bubbly beat that turned out to be “I Can See Clearly Now”. The band included acoustic guitar, keyboard, bass guitar, drums, and hand drums, and after a couple of praise songs, we sang “Hosanna in the Highest” as little children filed into the room and circled up and down the walkways waving palm branches. It was definitely a joyful sight to watch these kids, many of them accompanied by parents, having a fun time while also blessing the service with their participation. After the palm ceremony, pastor Brian Davis took the stage to deliver his sermon, based on the central idea that people tend to be bandwagon fans, wanting to be part of something big and associated with a winner. This is why Jesus was cheered by the crowds as He entered Jerusalem on a donkey. The people laid down their cloaks and tree branches in the road, a customary signal of their anticipation that He would become their King. The problem was that the Jews were mostly bandwagon fans, cheering Jesus simply because He was their next great hope to free them from Rome, not because they desired to follow Him because of His message that He was the Christ, and the one way to be reconciled to God. Pastor Brian also pointed out that Jesus was never recorded as teaching that Rome was the problem, but rather that their own hearts were. His intention was not to free them from Rome, but from their own bondage, because as history had already proved, freedom from a situation is temporary, but the freedom that Christ offered was eternal. I sincerely hope that if you are a bandwagon Christian, jumping in to be a part of something big with the shortsighted goal of becoming free from a single situation, that you will realize that you are missing the big picture. Christ came to free your heart from the bondage that leads to destruction. Even as a Christian you will still experience tough situations. You will still have to deal with the “Romes” of the world…their laws, oppression, and cultures of greed and corruption. The difference is, you will never again be subject to the consequences that the world is trying chain you to. You will still be in the world, but you will never again be of the world. It is when you understand the true freedom you have in Christ, that you’ll no longer have to look for the next bandwagon to jump on.
Although it was a difficult week for me, not making any connections or new friends during my visit to First-Centenary UMC, and wrestling with whether to write about it or not, I did receive a follow-up call from pastor Brian Davis and had a wonderful conversation. I was glad to hear about the many outreach ministries and services that they are providing for Chattanooga, including after-school care and summer programs for inner city children and an awesome college ministry. Even while writing this article, I began to realize the messages that God allowed me to receive at First-Centenary and the joy of seeing all the adorable little children taking part in the Palm Sunday celebration. It will be my prayer that the members of First-Centenary begin to look outward from their established friendships, for opportunities to share their love with visitors and to make them feel welcome into their church. I know God has and will continue to bless them for their service to the community and will increase their blessings that much more as they begin to look for opportunities to serve Him within their own walls on Sunday mornings.
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