Monthly Archives: July 2007

Visiting a church July 29

Today’s report will be a little different. I did visit a church, but as a guest preacher. I will write a similar report to my other ones, but I will not get to writing/completing it until Monday, since the church has an evening service as well.

I had never previously attended the church I visited. It has a reputation somehow in the region for being very conservative in the context of our congregations of our denomination. What that means is there is room to expect older songs to be sung from a previous edition of the hymnal, to expect an organ to be the main instrument of accompaniment, possibly supplemented with a piano. It means reserved and even stoic singing with minimal body movement, though vocal gusto is allowed. It means as a pastor one should be prepared to see a lot of older faces, leaning to’rd dour in their facade. It means expect these faces to sour even more if certain mandatory elements of a service do not occur, such as the reading of the 10 commandments and/or the Apostles Creed. It means women will certainly not be Elders and possibly even not Deacons. Clothing will be plain, not excessive in cost, in fashion statement making, but not rags either. That’s what conservative in our context means.

Well for the most part, it was not that. At all. Songs were projected on an overhead screen, with one on the back wall so that I and the worship leaders could see it. The worship leading team consisted of drums, an electric guitar, piano and four vocalists. For the closing song some clapping erupted! There were female Deacons. There were a lot of older folks, and the dress code was on track with what I expected. But there were clear breakouts from the norm as well, showing a congregation in transition out of tradition into today, or at least yesterday. Hey, it’s progress, celebrate it!

I preached my “Dirty Cups” illustrated sermon on Luke 11:37-41 titled “Cleaning the Inside” and of course I can’t give my opinion on that, because I’m completely biased. In the evening I preached on the Lost Sons parable in Luke 15, a sermon titled “Celebration of Being Found.” What I can say is that I was thrilled that two different people came up to me after the evening service to specifically tell me how they had appreciated the messages. One man told of how they had helped him see things in a new way (He said I could probably get a job teaching Bible or teaching my style of preaching! I smiled and thanked him.) Both of these thanker/complementers came across to me as genuine, which is an experience for any pastor that increases the sense of privilege they have to bring God’s word into a congregation in that way.

From my perspective the morning service was a good worship experience for me but also for many attending, gauging by how attentive and responsive most seemed to be, especially since the service was fairly long because we had communion as well, and it was served out into the seats, which took time. The worship team had selected excellently relevant songs to the theme, and they were lively and upbeat, though it seemed clear that they were not very familiar to some in the congregation, meaning some of these changes and songs were not made too long ago. In the evening the piano alone accompanied the singing. There were more people there for the evening service than I was used to preaching to in the morning. I was much more relaxed in the evening, mainly because now the congregation was ‘known’ to me a little bit. They are working on a prayer request time in the evening, which I was quite familiar with doing.

The church seems to not be used to accommodating visitors. There are some specially designated “Visitor only” parking spots near the main door, but there seemed to be no one at the door trying to spot those who might be new and might need assistance. Because I was arriving with a task to do, I did not pay as much attention to details that might strike a visitor as in other reports.

Next Sunday night I’m preaching there again. Allinall it was a good Sunday. I believe God was glorified in the worship in that context.


What happens when you pay someone to go evaluate church?

I came across this interesting report on a Christianity Today blog today. It is related to my church visiting and to many issues I’m interested in. Take a read:

I’ve created a category tag to go with this called “Remorphation,” which is the title of a sermon I have preached on Reformation Sunday. The theme of it is how I believe the shape of how we form as church must radically change today to catch up to cultural change, and how it must be always remorphing.

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Posted by on July 26, 2007 in Remorphation, Worship


Visiting a Church in a Movie theater – memory

Today, a cluster of small reasons converged in the decision not to visit a church this morning. But I will write about a visit I made some time ago.

I had heard several times of a church that met in a local movie theater. Since I’m interested in innovations, and in using movies/stories as both illustrations and even as texts alongside scripture or even as narrative pointing to scripture, and since the more I considered it, having church using such a pre-existing space (no new buildings to put up) that is pretty well designed for the purpose made sense, etc. etc. well, I wanted to go have a look. So I did. Now these movie complexes are intimidating enough when you step in on a Friday night and wade or waddle through or with the crowd in all the noise and lights, but it is equally intimidating to step into complete silence in the chasmic space and see only one person in the distance. I arrived 15 minutes before the time the service was to begin and once inside I did not know where to go. So I began to wander and figured out which hall of the two led to the unit in which the service was to happen. Halfway down, I met the person who was to become what I consider my ‘personal’ usher. I checked with him if I was going the right way to find the service, and he affirmed that, and led me right into the seating area and saw me to a seat of my choice. There was nearly no one in there, just a smattering of people, and very few had been visible in the hall either. I wondered if there would be some kind of last minute rush. My personal usher had noticed I had enough of a trickling nose that I was sniffling a bit, and he presented me with one of those small packages of tissues. He didn’t press for a lot of information from me, which I liked. So I sat and waited, and watched the handful of folks who were there conversing with each other quietly. There was a full set of band equipment set up on the stage area, with a drum set down and off to the side. The stages are not very large in movie theaters. There were several microphones and a few artificial plants. There were some words of welcome projected on the screen. But they were static, they did not change.

Well, just past the time the service was supposed to begin, people began flooding in. I gathered later that they have class time for an hour first, and them come directly to the worship space. So eventually certainly the front section was filled and there were a similar number of people in the second section. Then the worship team started. A lady spoke some words of upbeat welcome, and away we went. The musicians and vocalists were what I believe is called ‘tight’ in musical jargon, meaning they were working well together and clearly well rehearsed and everyone seemed to know exactly what to do when. Only after a while did I figure out that the lady at the keyboard would indicate things by small gestures, giving leadership and direction. They were good to listen to. With four harmonious vocalists who blended in a sound reminscent of ABBA it was a pleasure to hear. I did not know more than half the songs, and I became out of synch with the intenstity level of the musicians after a time. They were ‘immersing’ themselves in the music with great passion and enthusiasm, and that developed so quickly, I got lost. When I do these visits I try to take the perspective of a total newcomer, and I thought “If I as a person who has experienced a lot of different worship settings I am finding this a bit much, what would someone who was totally unfamiliar think?” Now it is entirely possible that they might find it neat and not far from a concert experience or something, but I was left behind by how quickly the worship transitioned to vigourous enthusiasm.

Since the visit was a while ago I do not remember much about the rest of the service itself. There were a few reports on missions work, there were a few announcements, and then the guest speaker came up. When he announced the text he was going to speak on, my personal usher appeared behind me and gave me his own bible, so I could read. I remember the message as engaging, personable, consistent with what I believed, practical, with a few challenge points that were good for me to consider.

As the service ended, I returned the bible to it’s owner, warmly thanked him, and was not spoken to by anyone as I left.

I had appreciated worshipping with this group, particularly appreciating the personal attention of the usher, the quality of the music and the style and content of the message, but I was surprised and disappointed that no use was made of the fact that there was all this projection equipment not being used. But that was my issue.


As I started writing the above reflection I did a search of “Live church service webcast” hoping to find a service to have on while I typed. The results led me to a site that had numerous services you can follow. The first one on the list had just finished, so after watching the organist play the postlude I went to the second one and followed (it was sound only) a very traditional Reformed service of the North European strain of the tradition. The church was located about an hour’s drive from where I live. It had organ only accompaniment, all in the plodding style of the songs I remember being sung in church as a child (most of the ones they sang were not familiar to me), the reading of the law, speaking of God as “far above us, looking upon us sinners” and so forth. There was a strong distinction between “the world” and “us” in the words used as well.

The pastor preached on a chapter in Jonah, and as the service progressed, I got a strong sense that I was hearing a student pastor who had not yet learned to speak the words he was reading in a way that would have you wondering if he was reading at all. It could even have been a reading service, the fact that the message was being read was that clear. It was an interesting message about the need for the church not to be asleep in the boat but actively explaining the spiritual reasons for the problems that are happening. It carried a consistent undertone of reprimand (which is not unusual in that tradition) and a way of challenging to greater gratitude that became grating after a while. I was puzzled that I did not hear the scripture read at all. I did not hear an explanation of that either. This was particularly striking because it was such a traditional church service. The message was 35 minutes or so long as well. I was about to switch it off and look for another when he suddenly finished. Then the pastor’s tone of voice was suddenly so human or normal again when he prayed afterward. Hearing this throwback was an interesting excercise. I wish I’d had video too. It all made me shudder, and not with pleasure or nostalgia or the Spirit but with fear and trembling that the gospel can be presented in such a heavy way.


Visiting a church July 15th

Last week someone I know through an internet group wrote of an experience visiting a particular church in our area. So I decided to visit that church this week to see if my experience would be similar.

This is a large church that is currently without a lead pastor. It is in a generally conservative area and seems to have built some (or all) it’s success on being a progressive alternative to the others in the area. As I approached the building about 10 minutes before the service’s start, others were arriving, and I thought I was in for an ‘ignored visitor’ experience when a lady who was converging with me in heading towards the main door looked my way then raised her hand and waved at and greeted someone behind me. Right after that a pillar was between us, but when we both emerged on the other side she said hello to me as well.

There were two young ladies who were standing as greeters just inside the doorway, and they shook my hand and said hello. I got a sense that they had been assigned to stand there and greet, but that they did not understand the task’s purpose. But it was still good to have someone there right as you enter, saying hello.

This church facility has a large lobby area that bridges the worship space and the classroom areas of the building. I have been in it before, so I knew my way around. Knowing my way, I did not pay too much attention to whether there were indicators as to where things were. Stepping beyond the greeters I did experience some confusion that is quite common when new to a building or situation. When you are that new person, it seems to you everyone knows everyone already and everyone knows where to go and what to do. I saw someone with a coffee, and had a desire to have one as well, but the table with the coffee urn on it was not operational. I realized that partly what letting you get a coffee (or even any refreshment) does is give you an opportunity to have something in your hand so you are ‘doing’ something, and then ‘case the place’ without empty hands. When coffee was not an option I purposively went to the washroom (again, with nothing to hold or look occupied with there is a sense that one must keep moving with some look of purpose) and then went and chose a seat near the rear of the worship space. There were young guys handing out bulletins as one entered the worship space. This space was quite large, and it surprised me that it was flat and that the stage area was really not raised well enough for me to have a good view of the musicians and speakers at the front. The stage area had a huge window behind it which afforded a nice view of the mountains in the distance. Even though it was a semi-overcast morning, that back-lighting also made it hard to see the worship leaders clearly. At one point in the service some blinds were closed over that window.

The bulletin had some basic information in it, a very general outline of the service, and it had the passage under consideration on this morning printed in it. There were also inserts that dealt with other ministries, such as the VBS program that had been run that week.

At the appointed time the worship leaders appeared and one of them welcomed us briefly but warmly, focusing on visitors with his words He asked those who had helped with VBS to raise there hands, then encouraged the rest to thank them with applause.

We were led into worship after that by a contemporary narration of Psalm 100 that had a music track playing while pictures from VBS where shown. The gestures or actions of the children shown were clearly related to the words being said. This struck me as a wonderful way of tying things together. If I had been there as a community parent who’s child had attended, I would have known that VBS was important in the fabric of this church.

Some new members were introduced. There was also a time given in which we were encouraged to say hello to those around us. A little later, during the taking up of the offering, a folder was passed down the seats for us to put our names into and to indicate if we were members or not. As the worship leader gave these instructions, he encouraged members to check for names they were not familiar with and to consider getting to know these people later.

I was only familiar with the first and the last songs we sang in the opening portion of worship. They seemed to have a consistent theme of unity. In the bulletin this was referred to as Unity Sunday. I don’t recall reading an explanation for it but that theme was clearly in the service. The songs we sang were God mentioning and God honouring.

The message was engagingly presented, launched from and touching down in the text that was read, and it was brought to us with several good story illustrations and a good bit of demonstration that the pastor had personally grappled with the issues and the message . It basically came down to a teaching, based in Colossians, that God puts difficult people in our lives as community in order to grow us spiritually and ended with four steps we could take so that we could grow in that way. If I recall right (I don’t take notes) these were: bear with them; serve them, pray for them, and “really see them.” The message ended with a pointing to the Cross in speaking of Jesus having died to serve all, and the service then moved to communion, which was set on tables at the front. After a few brief instructions as to who might participate and how it was going to run logistically, we filed forward and were able to serve ourselves the bread and the cup. When all had finished we were encouraged to join hands and sang one verse of “Blest be the tie that binds.”

After that we were dismissed. A lady sitting to the right of me approached me and said she didn’t think she had met me before. I misunderstood and thought she was saying she HAD met me before, so I asked her where. After we got that confusion cleared up (The family usually attended the early service of the two held most of the year, and as this was a Sunday with a single morning service she thought I was someone who usually came to the later one) I explained a bit of what I was about in being there, and we had a sort of conversation as we moved out into the lobby. I complimented her on having the courage to approach me. When our conversation ended, I grabbed a coffee and left.

The demographic of this congregation was predominantly white, though there were a few people of colour present. The attendance was in the multiple hundreds. The largest demographic group it seemed to me was 60 year olds of Dutch heritage (this may be a few generations old, but it is still recognizable). There were a lot of people with young families and a significant number of families with teens.

Overall I had a sense that this is a congregation looking for a vision, an identity. It’s roots (some 30 years old) might have been in being an alternative contemporary church, or it may have been a seeker church, but it had a feel of a church looking for who it is going to really be. There was one song in which eager rhythmic clapping broke out and it had a feel of wanting to reach for something more exuberant than was normal for this situation, it had a sense of an eagerness to break out into a prolonged time of singing and enjoying God’s presence, but the feeling did not carry the day, a certain kind of reservedness and orderliness did. I know that struggle, it lives in me.

Overall, it was a good worship experience, with it’s primary benefit having been a decent time of instruction.


Vancouver’s Down Town Eastside (DTE)

For quite some time I’ve had the desire to spend a day hanging out in the DTE of Vancouver. Besides driving through now and then I’ve been to Union Gospel Mission in the neighbourhood a few times, and went along to an eye-opening Christian 12-step meeting at Mission Possible once. But I never felt I got a true ‘feel’ for the area.

Today was the day to do that, I decided. I went down there at about 9am and started walking around, covering the whole area like a grid. I only lasted 3 hours, and found myself needing to get away from the weird, foreign and broken world down there. I thought I was tougher than that, but I wasn’t.

At that time of the morning many are still asleep on the sidewalks, so there is not a whole lot of activity. The first thing you notice that you miss driving through is the smells coming out of the alleys. We’ve just had our hottest days of the summer so far, and so the smell of urine, feces, garbage and whatever else had a certain ‘baked’ quality to it that concentrated it even more. There was more activity in the alleys than on the sidewalks. The ambitious were combing through the overnight garbage for things they valued.  That process left garbage that had no value to them strewn around the alleys.

There are many social agencies in the neighbourhood I walked. I have been told that if you know where to go in the area at the right time, you can get 7 free meals a day, 2 showers, and any clothes you need. That may partly have contributed to the number of coats and jackets that were left lying on the sidewalk, as the overnight need for them was gone. I was struck by the fortresses the social agencies had become, as well as any shops in the area. All had heavy iron fences and gates.

I came to a park and decided to sit there for a while. There was a current newspaper with a Starbucks sticker on it on a bench, so I sat and read between looking around. The park was full of people, some with tents, others had household easychairs. It was around 10:30am, but there were quite a number of sleeping bodies around still. A young native girl came and sweetly and politely asked from a distance if I had smokes to sell. A guy came to the next bench beside me and lay down to sleep. At this point I saw the most positive thing of the morning. There was a native fellow riding his two wheeled stallion around the park. He had tan pants on and no shirt. What drew my attention first was his hair, which was buzz cut along the side, but the rest was in a long pony tail. I then noticed that he wore a white flap of cloth tucked into the back of his pants. This immediately suggested what we normally think of traditional native attire. He wore black leather gloves. He stopped near me shortly after I settled onto the bench and for about 45 minutes did his own intensive ‘work-out’ routine with various excercises using a tree as his gym equipment. It was like a cross between Tai Chi, Rocky, and Richard Simmons. It was interesting, and I found it a very positive thing somehow.

Over the course of the morning I began to realise that most of the people I was encoutering or seeing were more like cartoon figures, or even caricatures, than what we would call normal human beings. That thought made me immediately wonder what I looked like in that neighbourhood. I got a clue when a little later a tender-voiced woman who looked about half a century over 20 propositioned me for a date, and when I said that is not what I was there for, proposed I give her a toony ($2) anyway, and when I said I had no change, told me there was an ATM nearby and we could go get some cash. I also got clues from the double furtive ‘casing me out’ looks of some of the rougher-looking people. So it must have been somewhat clear at times that I did not belong there, which made me either a cop or a customer or a contributor. Many people had a strange way of walking that set them apart right away. The best explanation I can give is that they walked as if they were never sure if the next step there was not going to be anything under their feet. I saw one fellow walking like that who seemed to have no neck, so his head sat right on his arms. I saw lots of worn and torn faces.

Another oddity was to see many older Chinese people walking around the same area. ChinaTown begins across East Hastings from the area I was in. When ChinaTown started waking up for business and it’s smells started mingling with those I’ve mentioned earlier it got pretty unpleasant. Negative aromatherapy it was. I found myself getting discouraged, disgusted and depressed, and decided to leave. If I go again, I will have arranged visits to ministries, so I can find out what they do to help. That might help it feel better.

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Posted by on July 13, 2007 in Learnings, report on event


Visiting a Big Tent church for a week

We’re back from our week at the JH Ranch in Northern California. I was there on a Father/Daughter adventure week with our oldest daugther Katrina. A friend whose family has benefited from the ministry of the Ranch encouraged me to try this and helped us go.

There is much to say, and I’ve begun writing my reflections, but for today I thought I’d report on the worship there to keep to my thread of reports on visits to churches.

Each night at the camp, right after supper, we had worship time in the Big Top Tent. It would open with a set of three or four worship songs, after which there would be a ‘talk’ which was followed by a form of altar call, after which a musician would often come back out and play some more. But that is a very simple and brief explanation.

Here’s the longer one:

The Big Top Tent is a huge white circus-style tent, with three peaks and flags on it, with side walls that it was possible to completely open up for air circulation. When you walked in you noticed two things right away: strong pleasant smells, and the sight of a western town’s downtown storefronts along the back of the stage area. The smells were of the best of hay on a hot summer day, with all of it’s sweetness, and the smell of fresh sawdust. Examining more closely you noticed the entire outside perimeter of the space and the front of the stage were lined with dry green hay bales and that the floor was covered with woodchips. The colourful facade of storefronts began at the far right with a barn and moved along through various stores with wares in the windows to the JH Lodge in the center, and beside that another store, the bank, and then the jail. Way over on the left the facade became a wall on which some farm tools were displayed and in front of that was a range of instruments such as drums, guitars and keyboards. Centerstage was a tall wrought-iron barstool with a backrest and there was a matching table that was about three feet across. No pulpit or stand, just the table.

The audience had multiple rows of very low to the ground blue lawnchairs set out for it. Dads had a hard time getting in and out of these. That may have been a part of the intent of the arrangement, where the Dads had to be helpless at times. I don’t know.

When we came to events in the Big Top, we would sit until the musicians started us off. The first night, Sunday, the first two songs touched me deeply. This was partly through the words and their message which was so relevant to my life, and partly just because of the atmosphere in the place, or most likely because of the Spirit’s touch through the songs — the sense I had of God speaking or singing these words right into my soul.

One song was a version of the words of Isaiah about how we will wait upon the Lord and he will renew us, and the other was “Blessed be the name of the Lord.” Both had clear themes of God standing by his people in times of trouble and struggle, turning hardship to praise, and lifting us on wings like Eagles despite it all. That notion is what both clutched at my throat and squeezed tears of appreciation out of my eyes. I let them run, though at that point I did still sorta hide the trickling torrent from my daughter. I did do my best to not be self-conscious about them. I was surprised to be so affected so early, but there was power there in that place, and there is something about seeing people from a wide variety of Christian experiences coming together to worship One God, each within or just beyond their own comfort level of exuberant expression. And so many young people! And so pumped up for God in a real way, a way that proved lasting, as it did not fade or crack at any point in the whole week.

This was one thing Katrina remarked on several times — how steadfastly positive and ‘up’ the staff were. The staff were all college-aged, and seemed to be primarily people who had come through one of JH’s programs before and came back for a summer to be staff. Each of them had a ‘back-story’ that was not always so sweet, and each of them were hired partly on the basis of evidence of the fruit of the Spirit in their lives, testfied to by people around them. There were about 100 of them, taking care of all the needs of about an equal number of ‘guests.’ And these kids were working for no pay as we regularly count pay. They were volunteering their 6 week stint and some their entire summer!

So I hope now you can imagine the effect of that pumped-ness despite heat, long days, and many many needs from the guests. The Up-on-God-ness flowed over into the worship.

After the songs we would be seated and hear a talk, mainly following a theme of “G” for a life of Gratitude; “O” for a heart of obedience; and “D” for… (I’ll have to look it up later). These talks included a lot of personal story, and were very well presented and done. By well presented I don’t mean that they were polished and professional and slick. Though the contents were clearly well known to the speakers, and were often about the raw parts of life and growing up, these things were spoken of in a sensitive way. The talks were given by Bruce Johnson, his wife Heather, and a guy everyone called Mack. A couple of them were quite compelling. Katrina’s favourite was the one about God’s love, given by Heather. What I liked was that they were not “Christianese” fluff. In fact within them there were some clear warnings about being a nominal Christian, or a churchy person. Each talk contained numerous truisms, such as the exhortation to the daughters “Don’t marry a Christian, marry a godly man!” with clear illustrations of the pitfalls. I wholeheartedly and wholemindedly liked that portion and the truth of it. Beyond that, I will not illustrate because it will give away much of the teaching, teaching which is best heard in context. I also will be writing critique reflections of what I heard and saw in a separate place and time. You do need to know there were things I had trouble with, but there is no denying the presentations contained good scriptural and godly truth and wisdom, all couched and seasoned nicely in grace. In fact, the vast majority of my cautious fears about the experience (described elsewhere) turned out to exist in vain, they were not realized.

Each talk would end in some form of invitation/call to some new level of commitment, generally delivered without excessive coercion or ‘milking’ the sentiment of the moment. There were exceptions. After a closing prayer or two we would be generally dismissed, with an inviation for anyone who wanted to to come kneel at the front bales, where someone would come and pray with you.

At that time one or two musicians would come back out and play meditatively while people were given as long as they needed to ‘be’ there.

These seven worship services — closing with the finale on Friday night, a finale that peaked the week with it’s powerful, compelling, moving, laughter-and-praise inducing personal testimonies from daughters and fathers about what God had done in them in the week — have left a lasting after-glow that had me feeling no need to attend a local service today. Writing this reflection is my worship for today.

God is good.

For more stories follow this link: JH Ranch stories and reports