Church Experience #33 – August 28, 2011
North Shore Fellowship – Chattanooga, TN
Certain churches create a buzz around town and just by living in Chattanooga and being active in the local Christian community you tend to hear about them in various conversations. You usually can’t remember what or where you heard about them, but just that you heard about them (at least that is how it happens to me). I have visited a few of these buzz-worthy churches…Calvary Chapel, The Net Church, ChristWay Community Church, etc…and have found some very distinct similarities, which may explain why people take notice and talk about them. They are all growing (which is probably a result of the buzz), they are all full of young people (teens, twenties, and thirties), and they all seem to be making a commitment to teach their congregations that Sunday morning church service should not be the focus or extent of Christianity in your life (the odd thing is that by pushing that paradigm, attendance at their Sunday morning services is exploding). This week I decided to visit another one of those buzz-worthy churches that I have heard something about from someone somewhere…North Shore Fellowship. Anyone in Chattanooga knows that the North Shore is one of the most buzz-worthy locations in town right now, so it only makes sense that a church in that area would be making a surge in attendance (sort of like St. Elmo/Calvary Chapel). So Laura and I decided to see what the buzz was all about.
In the Wrong Place at the Right Time
We cruised down the main North Shore strip of Frazier Avenue and turned onto Woodland, pulling just past the North Shore Fellowship church building on the right and parked on the street. There were only a few cars in the parking lot and a small huddle of people standing and talking, but it seemed like the crowd we expected was missing. We strolled down the sidewalk to the building and saw a sign on the door that said that the 10:30 am church service was held at the North location. Luckily (or maybe not luck at all, we were in the wrong place at the right time) there was a group of twenty-somethings who had made the same mistake we did and told us that they knew how to get to the other location and invited us to follow them over. We followed them over to the Mississippi Avenue location and immediately knew that we were now in the correct location as we passed car after car parallel parked down every single side street surrounding the church. We parked and joined the mass migration of people into the large brick church building (which is also home to Northside Community Church) and as we entered first the lobby and then the sanctuary we were surprised with the size of the crowd. An usher had to help us find a space to sit in one of the rows of old-fashioned wood pews, and as more and more people poured into the sanctuary the congregation was asked to scoot down each pew if possible to create more space for additional people. A few minutes later after every pew had reached capacity, a request was made for anyone willing to sit in the floor up front to do so in order to accommodate additional people standing in the back of the church and overflowing into the lobby. It was really a scene I have rarely witnessed in a church these days. In a time when we are so used to under-utilized church buildings and scarcely populated sanctuaries on Sundays, this church had to ask people to sit in the floor to make room for everyone trying to come worship God. What a great problem to have!
Appearances Can Be Deceiving
As the worship music began, I glanced around the sanctuary and was more than a little awestruck at the juxtaposition of the mostly young, beautiful, and affluent congregation seated in this traditional old church structure. I would expect a congregation with this appearance (in the worldly sense) to be seated in a megachurch in the suburbs with new construction and all the latest musical equipment and electronics. Instead, the worship music that flowed from the front of the well-worn room was a stripped down and unplugged accompaniment by a lone acoustic guitar, mandolin, piano, and minimalistic drum set. No fancy stage lights and sound system. No hard rocking worship band. No big production and rehearsed stage show. Just a few acoustic instruments that effectively emphasized the lyrics of the mostly vocal-driven worship. It was refreshing. I sang along to the well-known hymns and praise songs, hanging on every accentuating note from the mandolin (my favorite instrument). This was one of those instances when the old adage “less is more” could not have been more applicable. After worship we recited the Apostles’ Creed, listened to announcements, and then were treated with a solo song performed by a female vocalist while wooden bowls were passed around the room for the collection of tithes and offerings. Without hesitation, as soon as the song concluded, a small wooden podium and stool were pulled to the front of the pulpit and Lead Pastor Gary Purdy leaned back onto the stool and began his sermon. Pastor Gary was well dressed in what I would call a semi-casual outfit and spoke plainly and calmly about the exact subject matter that I would have expected to hear, and which I mentioned in the intro paragraph above. As soon as I heard the catchphrase “do life together” (which I have also recently heard at some of the other buzz churches mentioned above), I knew that the sermon to follow would be an admonition to this jam-packed house of worship that what we were all a part of at that exact moment…Sunday morning church…is not and can never be the fulfillment of your Christian “life-journey”. I wasn’t disappointed.
How To Begin Your Life
Pastor Gary’s first attention-grabbing words were about what Facebook, the TV show “The Bachelorette”, and pornography all have in common…they are all cheap substitutes for intimacy. He then moved closer toward the real meat of his sermon and threw the thought out there that in order to receive true intimacy from church, it must transform from “a place you go to” into “people you do life with”…and you can’t be at the center of it all. Pastor Gary referenced Ezekiel 36:33-38 and noted that Christianity seems hard-edged until you see and truly understand Jesus as the foundation of it all (which is the thing my unbelieving friends cannot grasp). The rest of his sermon seemed like instructions on how to “begin” a Christian life, with a “help us help you” invitation from the North Shore Fellowship staff to all who would accept the offer. He pointed to Colossians 3:12-17 and spoke of unity and a life together in Christ. He used short phrases such as “lose to win” and “dive under” to express how Christians are called to lift up others while humbling themselves. Pastor Gary ended with examples of how we should seek the renewing of the Gospel in our lives first across rows or pews, then in circles or small groups, then across tables with meals and fellowship, and finally in the trenches as missionaries to the lost. After the sermon the congregation was asked to spend a few minutes greeting people in the seats around them and Laura and I met a nice couple in front of us and then awkwardly shook hands with a few other people who did not seem very comfortable with the social aspect of church. The service ended with an infant baptism by sprinkling and the parents publicly acknowledged the baby’s need for Christ and made a commitment to raise the child properly.
After the service concluded, Laura and I filed out of the sanctuary where the masses webbed out in all directions along the side streets full of parked cars. I mentally filed North Shore Fellowship under the “pushing-to-break-their-members-out-of-the-doldrums-of-being-a-Sunday-only-Christian” church category, which is important for me to remember because these are the churches that I feel comfortable referring people to. There are many doctrinal differences between denominations (none of which are the focus of this blog) and many different political and social stances that are taken, but my main concern when referring someone to a church (because none of them are perfect) is that there must be an environment that fosters growth, accountability, and action, rather than enabling or encouraging staleness and/or consumerism. I feel like at least in the right environment, new believers or truth seekers will be more likely to work out their salvation and successfully search out foundational and doctrinal truths from the Source rather than passively taking someone else’s word for it, or even worse, not caring one way or the other. I hope you take a moment to evaluate your own life-journey. If you are seeking fulfillment that you still have not found, it is probably because you are at the center of your Christian life. Your life should no longer be about you, but about the One who created you. If you have not been saved then there is no better time than right now. You will never find fulfillment, purpose, intimacy, or salvation in any other place or person…Jesus Christ is the only way. The amazing thing is, when you ask Him to save you from the death we all inherited as a result of sin, a miracle happens. It is the most wonderful experience you will ever have. A work will begin in you that will continue throughout the rest of your life and you will be able to look back on that moment when you spoke those words as the beginning of your Life. His blessings await you.
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