Church Experience #32 – August 21, 2011
Hephzibah Ministries – Chattanooga, TN
Starting with a Sermon
In the midst of attending fifty different churches in 2011, I have also gone through daily and weekly personal reflection in an attempt to evaluate my walk in faith to live for my Savior, Jesus Christ. I have been intentional this year, more so than I ever have before, to focus on the eternal rather than the here and now. That is not to say that my present circumstances and actions are not important, but my hope is that I can think eternally in order to act immediately (wow, I like that…that may be my new catch phrase, “think eternally in order to act immediately”). I want to spend as much of my time, energy, and resources as I can investing in things that will enrich the lives of those around me rather than doing things that we, as Americans, often end up consumed by such as entertaining ourselves, trying to gain wealth, buying new toys, and chasing notoriety. I have faith that I will share in the inheritance of eternal life in the Kingdom of God, so earthly pursuits of luxury and comfort serve only as a distraction to what is to come next. I have recently read two books that have helped me along in my personal reflections and eternal focus – “The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven“, by Kevin and Alex Malarkey, and “Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream“, by David Platt. These books have helped me to pay more attention to the reality of unseen forces at work in the world around us and how the forces of darkness are intertwined with the urges that drive us toward the pursuits of luxury and comfort. I have always had a sense of how American churches have fallen so easily into the snare of these fleshly pursuits and have never felt fully comfortable connecting my spiritual life to one of them for fear that I would also begin feeding into the problem. The truth of the matter is that we are the Church. An amazing and humbling realization is that as the Church, we are the bride of Christ. We are united with Christ as one, and with this blessing comes responsibility. We are called to represent Christ to this world in order to bring glory and honor to Him as Head of the Church and to invite all who will believe in Jesus to come into the same covenant that we have entered into. So the question is…how well are we representing our Lord? Can the world see that we are different? Can they see Christ in us or do we look just like them? Let me get away from this mini-sermon and move on to the church visit I had this week and you might be able to make some connections.
Freedom of Worship
I had heard through my dad, Mark Davis, about a friend of his named Bob Sanders who was the pastor of a small church called Hephzibah Ministries. According to my dad, pastor Bob is very in tune with the spiritual realm and the unseen entities that exist around us. This sounded very intriguing since one of the books I had just read was all about a boy who could see angels and demons, so Laura and I decided to visit Hephzibah and worship with Bob and his congregation. The Hephzibah Ministries building is a former office building just off of Amnicola Highway in Chattanooga near the Police Services Center. The building is basically a plain looking concrete structure that simply serves as “space” where this church can gather together. We entered in the front door and headed down a short hallway and straight into the sanctuary, which was probably a break room in its former life. On our way in the sanctuary we were handed Hawaiian leis, and saw that many of the people inside were wearing Hawaiian shirts and shorts with leis, and so we put ours on and found some seats. We were ten or fifteen minutes early for service and expected to have time to meet some people before the service began, but the worship music was already going and the thirty or so people who were inside were already engaged in the music. There were banners covering most of the walls and a projection screen at the front of the room with speaker stands on either side. The music that was playing was not coming from a live performance, but was actually recorded versions of worship songs with the words projected on the screen along with scenic images of mountains, oceans, and clouds. There was a table below the projection screen that was covered with a white table cloth, and I anticipated a communion service that would probably be a part of the day’s worship. The atmosphere of worship was open and joyful, with some people standing around the side walls and at the back of the room, some people seated or standing at their seats, and other people waving various flags, shaking a tambourine, trumpeting a ram’s horn, or dancing at the front of the room. It was comforting to know that these people could express themselves in worship without fear of being judged or ridiculed for doing things a little differently. Laura and I stood at our seats and joined in singing and worshiping the Lord. I didn’t mind that there wasn’t a full live band or choir, I was just happy singing praises to God.
A Simple Sermon
After the worship time ended, pastor Bob and his wife made several announcements about how Hephzibah was going through a time of positive changes and they encouraged the congregation to seek their calling for how they can support and be a part of it. He encouraged the people with the statement that “everyone fits in” and laid out three basic concepts, that every ministry has somebody praying for it, somebody paying for it, and somebody doing the work. He noted that working within a ministry comes from spiritual prosperity and paying to support a ministry comes from material prosperity. He continued on, explaining that the two main goals that Hephzibah’s ministries should address are evangelism to the lost and edification, which is the building up of the saints. It was pretty obvious that pastor Bob’s goal for the church members at Hephzibah was not to enable them to be passive Christians but to encourage and empower them to be active servants. Following the announcements, the congregation read the list of fifty or so names on their church prayer list which were categorized into groups such as “healing”, “military”, “missionaries”, and so on. After the names were all read out loud pastor Bob led a prayer and then passed the microphone around the room for individual praises (which most of the congregation participated in). Pastor Bob transitioned into his sermon, reading from 1 Kings 3: 7-15, and then preached about praying the right prayers. He touched on aspects of prayer such as “conditional prayers” where people tell God they will be obedient if He answers their request (which he stated could never be the right way to pray) and prayers for circumstances to “go away” instead of asking Him to see us through or equipping us to overcome those circumstances (in which case you could grow from it). He concluded by answering the question “how do you find out what to pray?”, with the simple response of “ask the Holy Spirit”. Pastor Bob did not deliver a polished sermon that sounded as if he had spent thirty hours of his week perfecting each segment with a humorous life story or clever allegory and creating bullet points or fill-in-the-blanks to keep people engaged. Instead it just seemed as if he got up and spoke from the heart, trusting in the wisdom he has been given by the Holy Spirit to guide his congregation along toward spiritual maturity. I’m sure it is exactly what they needed to hear at that moment.
We ended the service with communion and were then invited to attend the Hawaiian-luau-themed potluck lunch they were having, which we gladly accepted, understanding then why we had been handed leis on the way in the door. We ate and enjoyed fellowship time with many kind people and we definitely appreciated the hospitality. After several conversations, Laura and I left and headed home, unsure if we had just attended church or a family picnic. On the drive home I had already drifted off into thought, comparing Hephzibah Ministries to many of the other churches I have visited in the context of what I had been reading in the book, “Radical”. I can tell you that it doesn’t take a multi-million dollar church building to hold church. It doesn’t take a band with expensive electronics and lighting rigs to worship God effectively. It doesn’t take a state-of-the-art kitchen and dining facility to prepare a meal and fellowship together. It doesn’t take anything material to do any of these things at all. We could gather together in the middle of a field and sing praises a cappella and sit on the grass listening to Bible readings. Jesus taught from hillsides, or boats, or riverbanks, and probably shouted His sermons so that the crowds could hear them. People in other countries sneak out and meet in the middle of the night in dark basements that they carefully walk long distances to for fear of being caught and arrested for their beliefs. The fact that we can actually hold church and worship freely in this country should be luxury enough for us, but the enemy has ways to distract us in either environment. The dark forces attempt to oppress and punish believers in some countries, and get them to adopt the materialistic ways of the world in others. I personally don’t believe Hephzibah Ministries will make that mistake and change their focus to expensive buildings and sound equipment. But what else would I expect from a church whose pastor is in tune with the spiritual entities around us?
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Peace and blessings in Christ,