Church Experience #3 – Jan 16, 2011
New Covenant Fellowship Church
A Place for Every Race
With Martin Luther King, Jr. Day being celebrated the day after this week’s Sunday worship, I decided to choose a church based on the potential for insight into ethnicity and race in American Christianity. A few weeks ago while browsing different churches online, I ran across New Covenant Fellowship, a Chattanooga church that actually brands itself as a “multi-ethnic” church. The banner on their website proclaims “A Place 4 Every Race” with multi-color letters of blue, green, yellow, red, and purple. I found it very interesting that a church would go out of its way to place a label on itself, and knew right then that I needed to go there at some point. It seems that so many churches these days try to avoid any labels for fear of scaring away potential visitors, and by announcing up front that they are a multi-racial congregation, New Covenant Fellowship definitely risks exactly that. There are probably still individuals who are very uncomfortable around large groups of people of a different ethnicity, and if you’ve never been to this church before, you have no way of knowing how balanced the representation of each race will be. I personally could care less about a person’s race. Other than contributing to your personality, I think race/color/ethnicity has very little consequence elsewhere in our lives. Racism still exists in today’s world, but my experience has been that it comes from all races, not just one. I’ve been the victim of racism…I’ve been threatened and called “cracker”, but I know that was the voice of the enemy, not of that race. I also have lifelong friends from many different races…black, hispanic, asian, european. People are people…period. The only people I discriminate against are those who are filled with hate, and even though I choose to love all people, I certainly won’t call racist people my friends.
Dr. King Would Be Proud
My wife, Laura, and I showed up to New Covenant Fellowship about 30 minutes before worship. I like to get to the churches I visit early so that I have the opportunity to talk to people. If you really want to find out about a church, you don’t read the brochures (which I think every church in America seems to have), you talk to people…the members, the pastor, the elders, other visitors. What these people show you and tell you will allow you to really see inside the church…brochures will tell you how the church sees itself. The greeters at the front door opened the door for us, shook our hands, and welcomed us in with a smile. After taking two steps into the building we were again greeted by more people with handshakes, smiles, and hugs. A few more steps in and a man named Joe asked if we were visiting, which I guess was pretty obvious (more on that later), and after we told him yes he gave us a brochure <insert irony here> and showed us into the sanctuary, with more greetings, smiles, handshakes, and hugs on the way. We made our way around to some seats, and after taking off our coats and sitting down, we both kind of looked at each other in awe as we reflected on the love fest we had just walked through. I think my first remark was something like “Wow, they’re friendly here” and my wife commented that she had never received that many hugs in such a small amount of time, but now I know that friendly is an understatement. I left my wife sitting (she’s a little shy) and walked around to see if I could find a couple of people to ask about their thoughts on this particular church. I took a few steps and immediately met Ron and Howard, who were more than happy to offer their opinions with me. They gave some basic answers like “they don’t brow beat you for money here” and “everyone makes you feel welcome”, which were both very true, but Ron said something that hit me like a tazer gun to the chest. When I told him that as a visitor at their church I was impressed with the outpouring of love, he simply said “there are no visitors in God’s House“. Whoa! His statement summed up exactly what my experience had been during the first 15 minutes at New Covenant Fellowship…I hadn’t been in their building before, but I wasn’t a stranger. I wasn’t a visitor. It isn’t their building. It’s God’s House and everyone is at home there and equally welcome. It was obvious that the people of New Covenant Fellowship were color blind, because although I was by far a minority according to my race, it was like race didn’t exist in this building. Dr. King would be proud.
From the Heart
After such a positive first impression from the members of New Covenant Fellowship I was definitely anticipating the worship and teaching. The praise team on the stage consisted of six or more singers, and a full band that included keys, drums, guitar, bass, and saxophone (awesome!). I think I tabbed the music style as “gospel funk” in a whisper to my wife, as we both swayed and bopped to the rhythm as we sang out the verses. Most of the songs were a “call and response” style of singing with a song leader taking the lead with the calls and the rest of the praise singers and the congregation singing the backing response. There was a nice mix of a few high energy gospel praise songs and slow ballads with beautiful harmonies. I was also more than excited that a few of my favorite “new” classics, “Awesome God” and “How Great Is Our God”, were included. The worship felt true and powerful, and then the Pastor, Dr. Bernie Miller, asked the congregation for an altar call for people who were struggling with forgiving others, and he prayed over the group. Before launching into his sermon, all of the members who had anniversaries or birthdays were recognized and the congregation sang “Happy Birthday”. A video clip about Abram’s departure from his homeland to journey to the land of Canaan along with his nephew Lot was shown and then Dr. Miller launched into his sermon. He took the passages that speak of Abram’s journey in Genesis 12, and used them and some related New Testament passages to teach about covenants, legalism, and grace. I appreciated that Dr. Miller used multiple scripture references to back up the points he was making, which shows he really wants his congregation to grasp the connections between Old Testament events/prophecies and New Testament teachings/fulfillments. I particularly took to heart one quote from Dr. Miller on the topic of covenants…that God doesn’t want a commitment, he desires our surrender.
Another Display of Love
After having such a great experience on Sunday morning, I was excited to go back to New Covenant for the Wednesday night Bible study. I came alone this time, and was curious if I would feel as welcome without my wife there with me. On the way in the door, I introduced myself to Anitra, who was probably my parents’ age and sadly suffers from M.S. (although you’d never know this from her demeanor) and she greeted me with a warm smile and handshake. Anitra then proceeded to introduce me to basically everyone who attended that night, beginning with her son Jameel and his four kids, and then the people who sat at the table with me…Marina, Russell, and Bro’ Bill (which he asked to be called). She made a point of making sure I felt right at home, which reverberated the same experience I had on Sunday. We ate a light supper together and then watched the video clip from the Sunday sermon and went into further study about Abram’s victory to rescue Lot and his gift of 10% of the spoils of war (which had been taken from Sodom) to Melchizidek, before returning the rest to the King of Sodom and to Lot. He began to relate this story and the fact that the majority of Jesus’ teachings dealt with the topic of money and possessions to present day struggles over the same issues. Dr. Miller then spent considerable time outlining to the group the churches plan to get the entire congregation out of debt over the next seven years by using pooled resources. It’s such a tragedy in today’s world that people who have more wealth than they could ever need worship right along side people who are at rock bottom, without ever offering help. New Covenant Fellowship obviously understands that this is not acceptable and has decided to take matters into their own hands. If we as Christians aren’t willing to help our own, who else do we have to turn to? If most aren’t even willing to give out of their excess, how will those who go without ever expect to receive even the basic necessities? I would love to be a part of this process at New Covenant Fellowship and pray that I may be able to remain involved in some way even as I go through the rest of my Churchsurfer journey this year.
For anyone who has made it this far into this article, I hope that you have been as touched as I was by the kindness, love, and acceptance that I received from the people at New Covenant Fellowship. I hope that you take into consideration how you interact with people who are new to your church. Do you actively seek them out to make sure they feel welcomed? Do you ask them to join your small group, come to your Sunday school class, or (God forbid) invite them over to your house for dinner? When you see people in your congregation who you know are struggling to make ends meet, do you convene with others who are wealthy to devise a plan to help them out? Could your church start a program to use pooled resources to help those members who are drowning in debt? If you are interested in such a program I would highly recommend contacting myself or Dr. Miller at New Covenant Fellowship to explore how you could use their system at your own church.
Praise God! What a great blessing I received this week! Now the surfing must continue…more to come!