Church Experience #19 – May 15, 2011
The Mission Chattanooga
Traditional vs. Contemporary
Recently during a small group meeting we were discussing all of my various church visits this year, and specifically, what type of service my wife Laura and I liked the most out of all the ones we had visited. This discussion was, of course, drilling down into the traditional worship versus contemporary worship debate, with a layer of complexity added by spreading the topic across denominational lines rather than just examining it from the perspective of one church or one denomination (yes, our small group goes there). I have noticed during the ChurchSurfer project, that there is not much shared space between the traditional service and contemporary service camps. What I mean is, the traditional services I have attended are very traditional, and the contemporary services are very contemporary. There is very little resemblance of one to the other. While we were on this topic, I expressed the desire to find a church whose service had pieces of both, because I believe there is an ideal blend in there somewhere that would produce an awesome result (for me at least, but hopefully for others also). That is when The Mission came up. One of the group members recommended that I visit this church, believing that it might be just what I was describing. So I looked up their website to find out more, and did not get a single answer to any of my questions. But what I did get was a mysterious and intriguing gobbledy-gook of descriptions and information that left me even more interested in visiting the church in person (which had to be on purpose). For example, under the “Essential Beliefs and Values” page it states:
“Like trees planted at the waters edge, our Anglican roots are nourished by three streams: the Scripture, the Sacred and the Spirit.”
Sounds like a bunch of artistic new-age hippy jargon to me…so of course I went there immediately. Here is my experience.
The Mission Chattanooga meets in a downtown industrial brick coffee house called The CAMP House, in the re-purposed and urban-cool Southside District. We parked on the street and approached the rather unassuming and almost invisible entrance, which luckily I knew the whereabouts of because I have had coffee there before with friends. Paired with their overly-vague website, I began wondering if the almost-invisible-entrance was part of a scheme to remain the cool underground church that only the hip downtown Christians know about, but then I rationalized that artist-types are just like that without really meaning to be (they always defer to cool and low-key over blatant). Anyway, can you imagine one of those change-a-letter signs in front of a really cool church/coffee house? Me neither. We ventured inside, and were greeted by some smiling faces as we passed the coffee bar and headed toward the center of the room. All church activities take place in one big room with brick walls, concrete floors, and exposed steel structural beams and air ducts. There is a large stage in the front corner, a full size coffee shop counter down the opposite side, and a few long rows of fold-out and stackable lightweight chairs for the congregation. There are a couple of lounge areas with sofas and chairs in the back of the room that are not used during the church service (unless the pastor gets really long-winded), but are permanent fixtures of the coffee shop. At the front of the stage was a small altar/table with two burning candles and two silver communion chalices with white napkins draped over them. The strong smell of incense and coffee permeated the room, and we helped ourselves to a cup of hot java as we glanced around at the various Celtic-style crosses and decorations. This was definitely a very different and unique church atmosphere, and I was beginning to anticipate what I hoped would be a similarly unique worship experience. I took a sip of coffee, which is hands down the best cup of church coffee I’ve ever had, and began surveying the faces around the room.
I recognized a new acquaintance I had recently made, Micki Ann Harris, who serves at the Chattanooga House of Prayer, (a place I’ve been going lately during my lunch hour to pray) and went up to greet her. She introduced us to her husband, Chuck, and the pastor, Chris Sorensen. Pastor Chris had a bald head and a bushy white goatee, and was wearing jeans, an untucked black button-down shirt, and flip-flops. He greeted us with enthusiasm and we made our way around to be seated, as it was time for service to begin. The service opened with call-and-response prayers recited by a worship leader with each segment ending in “Lord have mercy on us”, to which the congregation would reply “Hear our prayers”. After the prayers and a Scripture reading, the worship music began from the stage with instruments you would expect from a contemporary service…drums, keyboard, electric guitar, and bass guitar. Two young female singers led the worship with beautiful and soulful voices, and I instantly connected to the music in a true spirit of worship. The room was not very crowded…I learned afterward that the morning service, called Morningsong, has only been offered for a few weeks, and their Sunday evening service, Evensong, is the more heavily attended service. Despite the small group, those in attendance were visibly worshiping, with expressions of intense focus on many faces, some with hands raised toward the heavens, and plenty of swaying to the mood of the music. I enjoyed the opportunity to worship the Lord and felt like the music experience had been heartfelt and intense, without being over-produced or showy.
We Are God’s Messengers
After worship had concluded, pastor Chris began his sermon by clarifying that the sermon message was the collective idea of the preaching team, not just his own, which I thought was a great idea and an excellent way to keep the sermons in harmony with the congregation as a whole. He began in the Gospel of John (chapter 1) speaking about John the Baptist, examining his ancestry as a Levite (the priesthood lineage) from both his father, Zacharias, and his mother, Elizabeth, and confirmed by the archangel Gabriel (Luke chapter 1). Pastor Chris then compounded the story of John the Baptist with Romans 10:14 and made the point that throughout all of history God has used humanity to point to Him. He didn’t write His own name in the starts, or send Jesus down on a lightning bolt. His chosen way of speaking to us is through us…through those like John the Baptist, who live to serve Him, who seek to obey Him, and who desire to become like Him. But rather than receive glory and honor according to their own fame, God’s true servants seek to deflect the glory to God, who deserves it. Pastor Chris pointed to John 3:28-30, and to the fact the John the Baptist acknowledges that he must decrease and Jesus must increase. John did not desire fame, recognition, or honor, but only to use anything he had gained to take the spotlight off himself and point it to Jesus, who he rightly identified as the Son of God. Pastor Chris then launched into what seemed like a discussion with himself as much as a sermon to a congregation, weighing out the importance our society places on creating heroes and celebrities with the way Christian leaders and evangelists are placed in those positions. Think about some of the most famous Christian musicians, pastors, evangelists…do they deflect the spotlight or welcome it? Do they retreat from the glory and honor or revel in it? Do they decrease so that God may increase? Tough questions, and honestly the answers should be blatantly obvious, but unfortunately I don’t always feel that way from today’s Christian superstars. The exception and best example would be Billy Graham. He’s not a millionaire. He only accepted a modest salary from his ministry. He always pointed to Christ. He decreased so that God would increase. It was during this discussion that Pastor Chris opened up to one of the most honest and introspective moments I have seen a pastor admit to in front of an audience, as he talked about his band working with a PR firm through a record label to “accentuate the positives and hide the less attractive attributes”. Should a musician’s appearance affect how many albums they sell, or a pastor’s appearance affect how quickly the church membership grows? I don’t know if John the Baptist was attractive or not, but I know he wore less than fashionable clothes and did not work with a PR firm to accentuate or hide any of his attributes. I guess that was a pretty good sign that he was not interested in glorifying himself, but only preparing the way for He who was greater. Praise God.
After the sermon, all Christians were invited to take communion. I gladly took part and gave thanks to God for giving me life…life with meaning, life with purpose, and life with no end. We sang two more songs and closed the service with a blessing from the pastor. The Mission was indeed a very unique blend of traditional and contemporary. I had never been to an Anglican church service before, but I knew I would probably like it, being that it was the church that C.S. Lewis was a member of during his life. I’m currently reading the book “Mere Christianity”, which I have found to be an amazing resource of Christian philosophy and I would highly recommend it. I would also highly recommend visiting my new friends at The Mission Chattanooga, so that you may also be blessed through the worship and preaching that is happening there…not to mention you will get a great cup of coffee.
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