Sunday, May 12, 2013

A different kind of church

Wow, it's been awhile since I've updated here! Nothing much to report, I guess...

I recently accidentally attended a very different kind of church service. I guess you could put it in the category of "non-denominational protestant mega church." It was accidental, because I had been invited to a "dedication ceremony" of a baby of a friend of mine (yeah, I know what you're thinking, "whatever that is...") which I assumed would be a 15-20 minute ceremony after their evening church service. Nope. It was part of their 1.5 hour regular weekend service!

While I have been to Protestant services before, it's been awhile, and they have always only ever been of the "communion" variety, like Lutheran and Methodist. I have never actually been to a service which to me was really just like a "prayer meeting."

Overall, it seemed like quite a nice church, and I can see the attraction of it for so many people, (enabling it to become a "mega" church.) The "sanctuary" was actually not as big as I would have expected, especially considering the massive exterior of the church. Maybe it would seat 400? Super comfy chairs, which were necessary, as you will see later. Huge, cozy gathering space with coffee and snacks, and even an "Information" desk, along with lots of meeting rooms and a large kids space which made it such a big building.

I remember hearing from a priest-friend of mine, that the mega church up the road from him consisted of 70% "ex-Catholics." I don't know where he got that statistic, but it wouldn't surprise me, and I was thinking of that while I was attending this service. Catholic churches are in general pretty terrible at spiritually "feeding" their parishioners, as well as "plugging them in." The things that enable them to do this that made this church contrast so much what I see in Catholic churches includes: the geographic layout of this church (as described above,) the invitations to get involved with groups and, for example, to take a course to become a member of the church were really that - invitations and not announcements; even the pastor genuinely invited anyone to come meet with him or any of the staff to talk about, well, just about anything!

The service began with a snazzy little countdown clock (from 3 minutes) on the screens, enabling people to settle in their seats and quiet down. Then the pastor came out and just started talking - welcoming people and I suppose giving announcements (but like I described above, they were really more "invitations,") as well as talking a little to focus on what the "message" would be for the day.

Then there was the "dedication" ceremony, which is what I was there for. The pastor was careful to explain that this was not the children being "saved," (he never used the word "baptism,") but rather was more for the parents to be promising to raise their children to come to know Christ. It sounded like they do this once a year, and there were only 4 families up there. I'm not sure if there was a similar ceremony at all 5 of their weekend services, or if this was the only one. I was curious (and will ask my friend) if this is something that the church encourages (it seemed to me that if that were the case, there should have been more families up there.) If the church doesn't necessarily "encourage" it, then I'm going to draw my own conclusion that this is something that the church decided to offer in order to "appease" the families who have ties to denominations that actually do practice infant baptism, and feel like they ought to be "doing something." ;-)

Then they had a couple praise and worship type songs. VERY loud and rock-concert-y. I didn't know any of the songs at all, but they really drew them out (I assume,) since each song was like almost 10 minutes. I was quite impressed when I noticed that no one had any music in front of them. (Keyboardist, couple guitars, and couple singers.) They definitely practiced a lot to know exactly how long to make each song (when to do the bridge, refrain, etc,) as well as simply knowing the music!

After that came the pastors "message." (Or whatever it's called.) Now is when we were grateful for the super cozy chairs... Let's just say that might be one of the reasons Catholics would never sit through a 40-minute sermon! Well, I was quite impressed. 40 minutes actually seemed to go by quite quickly. The pastor said  some really good things, inspiring to me, even mentioning the problem with abortion. In the bulletins there was a little piece of paper that had some key sentences/questions, so if you were paying attention, you could fill them in. (I thought that was a nice touch. I can see how that would help you to focus.) Overall, this church definitely gets the "Christian message" correct without watering it down (even though I obviously disagree with some of their theology.) I'm curious (and will also ask my friend) if the church has a public opinion on "gay marriage." My guess would be that officially they are opposed to it, but rarely/never preach against it (like in most Catholic churches...) for fear of alienating people or whatever.

At the beginning of the pastors message, he made a big deal about getting out a Bible (which were under the chairs,) and looking up the different passages that he talked about. But I want to point out to anyone who thinks Catholics don't read the Bible enough... at our church service, we definitely read WAY more Scripture! Their pastor read some of the "Before you formed me in my mothers womb" Psalm during the dedication, and then during his message he read about 5 verses from Genesis, and a couple other verses from (I can't remember where.) Not a ton! (Especially when you're sitting there with your Bible open on your knee, waiting for him to keep reading for 40 minutes!) At a Catholic service, we read like 5-20 verses for each of the three readings, plus another 5-10 for the Psalm! That doesn't even include the other Biblical references throughout the entire liturgy. But I definitely have to give this church credit - they did make a big deal about reading the Bible on your own, and even taking home the one in the pew if you don't have one. That was inspiring to me and a good reminder.

The service closed with a song and then the music leader being like, "Well, have a good weekend, everyone." Yup. Even he seemed to realize that's an awkward way to end the service, but you have to say something! I'm slightly surprised (but not really) that they don't use some Biblical blessing/dismissal, like "Go and preach the Good News of the Gospel!" Something a little more inspiring and like "now we're done!"

So overall, I was impressed but not really surprised with the service. I can see why it's so attractive, and why so many ex-Catholics might go there. Great music, and an inspiring sermon that actually does call you on to be a better Christian. The pastor was a great speaker, easy to listen to and very personable. I can imagine that people of all sorts of spiritual levels would enjoy a sermon like that. Contrast that to the homily we had at my parish this weekend... It was literally 3 minutes long on Saturday, and 4 today. (For reference, it was actually our deacon who gave it, and not the priest. I have never been impressed with anything theologically that the deacon said.) His whole homily was basically like "just love each other like Jesus wants us to." (Like it always is when he preaches.) No wonder Catholics who have a spiritual background would feel like they've never been "fed" would be drawn to a mega church. And of course, if you don't understand what "liturgy" is, or the purpose of the smells and bells, the music is a million times more entertaining at a mega church!