Church Experience #23 – June 12, 2011
New City Fellowship PCA – Chattanooga, TN
With or Without Generalizations
When it comes to making generalizations about how people worship and conduct church services compared to what types of cultures and subcultures make up the majority of the people in a congregation, I would say I have pretty much gotten what I have expected so far on the ChurchSurfer journey. Denomination seems to be the best foreshadow of what to expect out of a church experience, and then as you add in the demographics of the pastor and people that make up the church you can pretty easily paint the rest of the picture. For example, if you go to an Episcopal church that has a predominantly white congregation in an affluent neighborhood, you can probably bank on the fact that the service will be dressy and formal with conservative hymn-based worship led by a choir without electric instruments or drums. There are plenty of generalizations like this that will tell a story about what a certain church is like, and I would argue that (whether consciously or unconsciously) these are the tools most people use to decide which church they will attend or join…it is really just human nature. So far, I have attended twenty-two different churches in 2011 and have not really been surprised (by not knowing what to expect) yet. I am not really sure if this is a good thing or a bad thing. Should churches be that predictable? I can think of arguments for both the “yes” and “no” answers to that question, as well as for “yes and no” answer. Let me also clarify that I am speaking of the typical format and style of the worship service here, not the events that happen (or results of those events) at a church on any given Sunday, which are wholly up to the Holy Spirit (you like how I did that…wholly and Holy?). The reason I am bringing these things up (as you can probably guess) is that here I am in week twenty-three and feel like for the first time I visited a church that was not what I thought it would be. Well, to be honest, I have actually been to New City Fellowship once before, probably ten years ago or more, and that was my experience then. Now that I am married I thought it would be a great church for my wife Laura to experience as well, plus one that should definitely be included in ChurchSurfer. So here is the run-down on our experience…
The Outside and the Inside
New City Fellowship is a traditional red brick church building that sits on East 3rd Street near Missionary Ridge. From the outside it looks very typical…almost boring (not being critical, just setting up the rest of the article). It is not until you enter the building that you begin to see things you would not expect. After entering through the big white front doors, we worked our way through the small lobby and a series of smiles and polite greetings, into the large open sanctuary. The room was filled with old-style wooden church pews leading up to the pulpit, which had various instruments inserted into any available space, as the area was clearly built for a much different selection of musical equipment. The main component of the pulpit area was a piano/keyboard combo with choir seating that rose behind it, yet remained empty throughout the service, further accentuating changes in the style of worship from when this building was originally constructed. The walls were adorned with large banners with sayings such as “Praise the Lord All You Nations” sewn onto them in brown, tan, and black letters. We found seats near the front of the room and greeted people as they filled in the pews around us. We engaged in casual conversation with a few people in the row behind us, while also being entertained by a small girl in the row in front of us who was popping up and down playing peek-a-boo. A man came up to the podium and began with church announcements, competing with the low roar of conversations from the congregation, which slowly tapered out as he continued. The worship band had taken their places during this time and began playing music as the announcements ended. The music that ensued was joyful and spirited, with singing, clapping, dancing, and hands raising to the jazzy gospel-influenced praise and worship songs. I smiled and sang as I watched a tambourine lady happily groove and shake her way up and down the center aisle, creating a cheerful atmosphere of praise to the Lord. James Ward, the music leader at New City Fellowship, is an accomplished musician and songwriter, and I would argue that the praise band at New City is probably the most talented in Chattanooga. The music was as eclectic as the congregation, which consisted of the most diverse mixture of race, age, and (apparent) income level that I have seen in a church so far. We sang four songs with a prayer sandwiched in between, followed by announcements in Spanish and then the collection of tithes and offerings. At one point during this segment the visitors were asked to stand, and then during a designated greeting time the church members were directed to “especially make our visitors feel welcome”. The beginning of the service closed with the performance of a song that the children had learned during vacation bible school the previous week, complete with the funny face making, lyric forgetting, and attention wandering that always make you smile from ear to ear…one of those wonderful moments that is a blessing to everyone in the church.
The sermon for this service was given by a Pastoral Intern, Ronnie Perry, who began with Scripture from Isaiah 6. He spoke about what he called a corruption in Christianity today in which people attempt to use God as a tool to meet their own goals and desires. He delved into the deeper subject matter of how many self-willed Christians continue to focus on the short-term in this life rather that on eternity or the big picture, which causes us to blend in with everyone else rather than stand out as Jesus did…a point which he emphasized by saying “Christians today want the things of the world just as bad as the people of the world.” Pastor Perry continued by breaking down the Isaiah passage into three segments which he called a God encounter, a self encounter, and a response. He reasoned that we must first see God as a reality rather than a concept, after which we will become shaken and self-aware that there is nothing impressive about us without the God who created us. The response we should then have is to stop trying to shape God around ourselves while only believing what is convenient for us to believe, and instead follow God and live for Him as He calls us to. During the sermon, Laura and I looked at each other in one of those “a-ha” moments because this message was exactly what we had talked about on the way to church. I am talking about the same message, not a similar message. It was a “God” moment in which you get chill bumps because you realize how the Holy Spirit speaks to you and prepares you for certain situations and experiences. Wow! God is awesome!
Kenyan Coffee Time
After the service, which had ended with an altar call, we ventured back to the visitor’s reception area that had been mentioned during the service as an opportunity to learn more about the church over a cup of coffee. Of course, anytime there is coffee involved you can count me in, so we filled a cup and began sipping and struck up a conversation with two ladies, Estar and Sarah, who were attending the coffee station. Estar gave us some excellent insight into the various ministries and service that New City provides to the community, which mainly focus on serving the poor and supporting foreign missions. In fact, Estar came to the U.S. from Kenya as a result of the mission work of New City. She spoke with conviction about the church and how she liked that they hold members accountable for serving in some capacity. After about thirty minutes of great discussion, we parted ways and headed home. Laura and I felt like we had experienced a truly unique church that celebrates and embraces all the cultures that make up the extremely diverse congregation. In this church there was no sense of a forced integration or any sort of reluctance to come together. It was as if the color and culture barriers had been overcome in this church effortlessly, which tells me that the Spirit is present and the love of Christ consumes the people of New City Fellowship. If you know someone who has stopped going to church because of a bad experience where they felt out of place, unloved, or not accepted, I would encourage you to bring them to New City Fellowship. It will not only be a blessing to them, but also an example and a great experience for you as well. Even though it may look boring on the outside, I promise the experience inside will be anything but.
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