Today I went to visit a large church about a half – hour drive from my home. I arrived about 12 minutes before the stated service start time. I got to a seat on the high end of one side of the worship space via the balcony access before an usher had taken his station. The worship space is designed in a ‘theatre’ style, with a flat floor area, and then two wings and a balcony rising over that. The wing I was not sitting in was predominantly filled with young people in their teens and twenties. Anyway, even though I had read the bulletin online the night before so I wasn’t too worried about getting one, once the usher got in place I went and got one from him.
There was a very very casual and friendly feel to the place. But it was hard to identify why that was. There was some recorded music softly playing but that alone wasn’t it. There were people moving around on the stage area casually making last setup changes. The stage was not bare, but somewhat decorated in a manner that I assumed was supposed to look like a public park, with some (artificial) plants and some rocks in kind of a simulated garden in front of the piano, and a park bench off to one side. But that wasn’t what made it feel warm by itself. I decided, while sitting there watching people arrive, that it was the ‘ordinary’ clothing many were wearing, moving towards casual and relaxed. There were both men in shorts and bold Hawaiian shirts and sandals and men in dress pants and summer dress shirts with shoes, there were women in modest summer-wear, and women in more recent summer fashion modes. Yet none of this was either flashy or trashy. Besides that, what contributed to the friendly feel was people kindly and warmly greeting one another, not in the exaggerated, overstated “California Girl” style but just a friendly “hello” or a reaching out with a handshake or a pat on the shoulder as they went by. Another notable part of this was that it was happening cross-generationally. That casualness and camraderie was key to setting a mood. As I write I wonder why I did not have a feeling of ‘exclusion’ that I was not greeted that way. It never occured to me, maybe because I was already seated. Later, when the service was done and I went for a coffee and walked around a bit, there were a number of people who said ‘hello.’ There was a ‘meet and greet’ time within the service and this is one where people wander freely for a few minutes saying hello. At this point I discovered that some guys sitting behind me had the look and behaviours of ‘people in recovery’ and the interesting thing was that none of them were caucasian, in fact none of these guys were the same race as each other. Later, after the service, I saw them standing with a larger group of ‘guys’ on their own. I was curious what kind of agroup they were (to know if I had read them right or something else was going on). I noticed when I wandered by with my coffee that only one person who looked like a ‘church’ person was engaging any of them in conversation.
This church has a box of flags or banners at the side of the stage that people can come up and wave during the singing if so moved. Only one person did so in this service for a while, but another time I was there the children were lining up to contribute to worship with that kind of action. In that other service people were worshipping with their full bodies – or praise ‘dancing’ – in an open space in front of the stage as well. That did not happen this time. I noted that in one of the prayer times some people went to their knees. I appreciate that openness to individual types of expression of praise, where there is not a huge ‘conformity’ expectation.
Musically I found the service awesome. There was a grand piano (with an elecronic keyboard on top of it that the keyboardist alternated with), a bass guitar and an electric, with the bass guitarist leading singing along with a female vocalist, and there was a very enthusiastic young man on what seemed to me a quite sophisticated drum set. The sound system and the acoustics together delivered the bass guitar very well to where I was sitting. I like ‘feeling’ these instruments in my gut when they are played. The keyboard and regular electric guitar were also easily heard. I found the vocal sound seemed somewhat murky or burried from where I was sitting, which made it a challenge to listen and pick up on the few new-to-me songs. The musicians did some very interesting transitions from one song to the next, where a note was held from the last completed song, or one instrument would keep playing, and somehow they would all end up in another song. I would also give kudo’s to the team or person who chose the songs and compiled the service. I listen and watch for the service to have a consistent theme, for it not to be all “light and happy,” and for images and phrases or ideas to recur. This team did a very very good job, either by thought and prayer or by the Spirit’s accident. The musicians, like the congregation, were mainly casually attired, mostly barefoot or barefoot in sandals but were clearly intensly focused on ‘feeling’ God and focusing on ‘presence’ rather than on how well they were performing. That was refreshing and enhanced the worship experience for me.
It became apparent that someone key in the congregation had died and been burried in the past week, I think it may have been the spouse of a staff person, and one of the things the worship team did that I found very good was they addressed that, they took time to acknowledge the struggle and hardship of such a loss. In fact after the opening songs they took time to minister to the congregation, to sing a song to us instead of having us need to participate, and it was a song that acknowledged the storms of life and reminded us that God is our foundation, our hope, our anchor. It was at this point I started noting a nautical theme was recurring. (That theme came back when, during the taking up of the offering, a video was shown about how “When Peace Like A River” was written, a story that has to do with ‘act of God’ calmity and a man losing his children at sea and passing the point where they died and having that song come to him.)
The person whose spouse had died had been scheduled to preach and so the person who preached was a last minute fill-in. Clearly he had not had a chance to communicate what he planned with the other worship leaders (he said as much himself, and the message he delivered was changed from what had been in the bulletin), but here I found it evidence of the Holy Spirit having stiched things together, and his message on one of the Psalms touched on the same themes we had been singing, emphasizing God’s love, compassion and mercy on us struggling sinners.
The service closed with a version of “Our Hope is in You Alone” a powerfull song to take out of worship into life. It was good to have been with that group of God’s people this morning.
Tonight I preach at the same church as last week again, but I don’t think I write about it unless something unusual happens.