Churchsurfer @ Word of Life Fellowship: Big state, small town, sunny California

Church experience #1 – Dec 31, 2010 / Jan 1, 2011

Can you really call this church?

OK, so my first church experience of 2011 for the churchsurfer blog wasn’t really a typical church service…it was a wedding/worship/New Year’s celebration.  There’s only one church that I’ve ever been to that would not classify an event of this nature as “out of the ordinary” and that happens to be the church that it took place at – Word of Life Fellowship in Mi-Wuk Village, California.  If you’re wondering why someone from Tennessee spent their New Year’s in a church in a tiny mountain town in the Sierra-Nevada’s, it was to see his sister get married (congratulations Simon & Julia).  Even though this event was a wedding and a New Year’s celebration rolled into one, it was still most definitely church.  The Word of Life congregation doesn’t really do anything without “churching things up” (I’ll get into that later), so for the purposes of the churchsurfer blog, I think this will be a relevant starting point.

New school meet old school

One of the more surprising realizations that I have had in my many traverses around the country is how similar places really are.  The communities of Sonora, Twain Harte, and Mi-Wuk Village, California, are eerily similar to the small towns of Abingdon and Damascus, Virginia where I grew up.  What I would (stereotypically)  imagine most churches in California to be – casual, laid back congregations of surfer dudes and chicks – is most definitely not the case at Word of Life.  It has more similarities with 1st Baptist Church of Damascus circa 1985…men always wearing suits and ties, cleanly shaved, well groomed, polite, and the women wearing skirts or dresses, modest and friendly.  The people of Word of Life seem reserved at first introduction, yet their worship is anything but.  I guess this is a great lesson in how outwardly appearance can cause you to completely misjudge things in so many facets of life.  Had I drawn an initial conclusion about Word of Life Fellowship based on appearance I would have been way off base.

Worship wedding worship = wedding sandwich

So now to describe the “wedding sandwich” that took place on New Year’s Eve 2010.  The services were taking place in the fellowship hall as opposed to the church sanctuary (I’m assuming because this was as private event, not a church function, but not sure).  I escorted the mother of the bride (my mom also) in to our front row seat and from that point on I was simply a spectator as there were no groomsmen or bridesmaids or any further reasons/opportunities for me to participate.  One of the church worship leaders announced that it was the wedding couple’s wish that we begin the night with singing and worship, which seems like a good idea to me.  I wonder why Christian events don’t always include worship.  It seems like prayer is always included in events/gatherings, but unless it’s an actual church service there is rarely any worship.  Note to self – worship more.  I believe God deserves worship more than he requires prayer…hmmm that comment may get me in trouble.  Remind me to think things through before writing them down (and then refusing to delete them out of principal).

We began worship with a contemporary style praise song accompanied by a band (electric guitar, bass, drums, piano) and 5 mic’d singers.  When this congregation praises they really, really get into it.  With the majority of people lifting both hands in the air, waving and extending their arms toward the heavens to add emphasis to the lyrics along with the crescendos of the music, it’s like they are both worshiping as a whole yet also in complete disregard to everyone around them at the same time.  They truly seem connected during this time, praising God with all of their spirit channeled through their voice and bodies, projecting their energy out and up where it collects and gets lifted to God as a lively and celebratory praise song.  Off to the side were a few adults and young children waving banners of various design and bright colors.  I noticed one of the banners had two conjoined rings, and I’m certain this and the other banners have specific meanings and are chosen to add blessings to the couple on behalf of the church.  When the verses had all been sung, the band continued to jam as everyone broke off into a sort of free-form singing/chanting/praying time where everyone praised God in their own melodic way.

After the music ended, the bride entered through a decorative arch-way and stood across from her soon-to-be husband in front of the three pastors who were conducting the wedding ceremony.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen a wedding officiated by more than one pastor, but it only makes sense that it would happen for the first time at this particular wedding.  Two of the pastors, Pat and Celine McDonald, serve as full time pastors of Word of Life and the third was Mark Davis, who is also the father of the bride.  Each pastor offered words of encouragement for the couple’s future together, commanding them to stay true to the principles of Christian marriage by providing for the needs of their spouse according to the details outlined in the Bible.  There were no pre-canned wedding vows, just straight from the heart, led by the Spirit truths flowing no doubt from God Himself through the mouths of these three very capable messengers.  Everyone in attendance was visibly touched by the message and blessings offered to the wedding couple, which culminated in the exchanging of the rings and a kiss.  After the new couple had been announced there was a time for prophecy, during which 3 or 4 of the church elders spoke various messages about the couple’s past, present, and future.  The prophecies seemed to have a very “King James-ian” feel to them and the prophets’ mannerisms and speech patterns suggested they were not in control of their messages, but were merely instruments used for the delivery.

Post-ceremony, food, cake, and some toasts were offered up from various friends and family members of the bride and groom.  Without being prepared to make a toast (since there weren’t groomsmen and I didn’t know what to expect out of this whole wedding experience) I was, of course, asked to make one.  I’m not sure what I said, except that I am sure that it included something about how I had always been the quality consultant for my sister’s romantic interests and that I really felt like I wouldn’t have to try to beat up the groom for treating my sister badly.  And yes, I’m pretty certain that it sounded as idiotic when I spoke it as it does now that I’m writing it.  I also mentioned something about her naked balloon dance that she performed as a toddler for some of my parent’s dinner guests one time, and she’ll probably be just as mad that I included that information in my blog as she was that I announced it to the members of her church.  Oh well, that’s what little brothers are for.  The evening concluded after the wedding sandwich had been topped with another slice of spirited worship, straight into the New Year (which was announced at 10 minutes after midnight…no countdown).  Lots of hugs and well wishes took place, as with any gathering of closely connected friends and family, and we eventually called it a night and headed out to catch a red-eye out of San Francisco.


After attending the worship/wedding/New Year’s celebration at Word of Life Fellowship, I can’t help but wonder why most popular denominational and non-denominational churches don’t engage in truly spirited worship.  I’m not saying that there is a right or wrong way or that one church does things better or worse, but I do believe it’s my obligation to contemplate the reasons why things are the way they are.  My guess is that if I went to a Rolling Stones concert I’d see people dance, clap, wave their arms, pump their fists, and belt out their favorite lyrics at the top of their lungs.  So is Mick Jagger more important to a Stones fan than Jesus is to most Christians?  Are Christians inherently shy or embarrassed to show real passion?  Or is it that Christians are overly concerned about their image and how they will be perceived by others?  Most of the worship I’ve participated in throughout my life has consisted of singing, but not too loudly…swaying, but definitely not dancing with energy…maybe raising my hands, but there’s no way it would be OK to grab a banner and run around the church waving it with enthusiasm.  Why?  I’m not even sure.  That’s just the way things are at most churches, and I’m sure most people aren’t interested in taking a chance by doing something different and potentially drawing attention to themselves.  But aren’t things more fun and exciting when there’s an element of danger?  Don’t you get a bigger reward when there is a little more risk involved?  My goal with Churchsurfer is to experience the churches I go to the way they do, and I’m sure I’ll get insight into all styles of worship, but my recommendation to you is to get out of your comfort zone and truly worship with energy, passion, and complete disregard to everyone else’s opinions…at least once.  You might find out you like it.

Pictures of this event are available at the Churchsurfer Facebook page.

Josh Davis

5 thoughts on “Churchsurfer @ Word of Life Fellowship: Big state, small town, sunny California”

  1. Josh: Learned about your blog from Sunday’s paper and it really caught my eye because years ago I published a paper called ; Feedback. I too reported on my impressions and experiences of the churches that I had visited and occasionally irritated folks who were touchy.
    While I was converted in a Pentecostal church, I slowly got away from the outward demonstrations and sought a more reflective king of spiritual experience. In recent years I have visited several churches, where praise and worship was emphasized but usually leave with more questions than answers.
    Keep up the good work.

  2. I go to Word Of Life in Honolulu Hi.Are you one of our church branches.I visit twain hart once a year,my cousin owns a cabin there.I visited last year and I was telling my family in Calif. about my church and they were very interested and excited and wished they could find a church like mine in Calif. My cousin was visiting her cabin and driving through you town and seen your church she called me very excited,I know we have a lot of branches in Calif. I was just wondering if your church wad one of them.

    1. Allison, I’m not sure if it is related or not. My sister lives in California and goes to Word of Life Fellowship, but I live in Tennessee. I would recommend reaching out to them next time you are visiting Twain Harte…they love meeting new people whether it’s long distance or not!

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