Church Experience #14 – April 10, 2011
Signal Mountain Presbyterian Church
Making the Denominational Rounds
One of my goals for the ChurchSurfer journey that I’m currently on, is to visit as many different Christian denominations as I can in the process of attending fifty different churches in 2011. I’m now 14 weeks in and there are a few major denominations that I still haven’t visited, so this week I wanted to make sure to check one of those “majors” off the list. I had been introduced by a mutual friend to Chris Ackerson recently because of his involvement in the Men’s Ministry Network. I remembered Chris mentioning that he attended Signal Mountain Presbyterian Church, and Presbyterian was one of the “must visit” denominations that I hadn’t been to yet, so I decided I would drop in on him. I looked up the Signal Mountain Presbyterian website and while browsing through Sunday School classes, I noticed that he was the leader of one of the classes. I figured that going to Sunday School as well as the regular worship service would add an extra element to this week’s article. We’ll see.
Signs of Spring
Laura and I showed up a little bit early for Sunday School so that we could snap a few pictures and explore a little bit. The Signal Mountain Presbyterian building was a beautiful sight on this Spring Sunday morning, with meticulous landscaping and all the bushes, flowers, vines, and trees in full bloom. We entered the building into the youth area, and asked someone for directions to Chris Ackerson’s class, which was called “The Experiment”…interestingly enough. We were led around the building by the Youth Pastor, who was also named Chris, and looped all the way across the lower floor, up the stairs and across the second floor, and then back down the stairs and around again. It turns out The Experiment didn’t meet in a classroom, but instead in a little lounge area in one of the breezeways. So after a great guided tour around the entire building, we landed in the right spot and were ready to catch our breath (youth pastor Chris moves pretty quickly).
A Book Other Than the Bible
We filled up a coffee cup and then made our way through introductions with the group, as Chris and all the others in attendance welcomed us very warmly. Someone came in with donuts, and as we indulged in a sugary treat, everyone settled in a circle of seats consisting of various sofas and chairs to begin the class. Laura and I had no clue what topic of study The Experiment was focused on, and it turned out that they were currently going through the book “Mere Christianity” by C. S. Lewis, which I am embarrassed to say I have never read. Each week they read a chapter of the book out loud and then discuss it. This week’s chapter was “marriage”. We were given a leading question to ponder while the chapter was being read, which was something like “Is it OK for non-Christians to be married inside a Christian church?” The chapter was read by one of the men in the class and then an excellent discussion ensued. I quickly learned that this group had a sense of humor, but also posed excellent questions and offered up some serious insights. One of the main points that we touched on was the difference of “being in love” and “loving”. Lewis rationalizes that the reason marriages fail is because they are entered into on the basis of the feeling of being in love with no concept of what it takes to actually love someone throughout the entirety of a Christian marriage. When the initial excitement and thrills have gone away, one or both of the spouses are left to believe that they have fallen out of love and that the marriage has failed. Sad but true. I’ll definitely be reading “Mere Christianity” soon…I love the way C. S. Lewis basically talks through his points of focus in what seems like an intellectual conversation that he’s having in his own mind.
After Sunday School, Laura and I parted ways with the class members and spent a little time meandering our way to the main sanctuary. It seemed like everyone we passed in the hallway had a warm smile and most offered a warm “hello” or “good morning” in passing. We definitely felt welcome, and upon entering the sanctuary, a nostalgic feeling swept over me as I took in the massive room that was masterfully constructed from a combination of brick, custom woodwork, and stained glass. There were fresh cut flowers at the altar and a large open Bible centered in the pulpit area, which was decorated with purple tapestries. Rising majestically behind the pulpit were the enormous pipes from the pipe organ, which came alive with sound as the service began. The pastor, Dr. Bill Dudley, opened the service with a Scripture reading from Hebrews, and then proceeded in a very structured procession through the announcement and recognition of new members to the instruction to pass around the “friendship pads” for a record of those in attendance. I noticed the couple sitting beside us, Don and Jane, whom we had become acquainted with before the service, scanning the filled-out pad on its way back across the row, and smiling to each other as they pointed to a couple of visitor entries. It was nice to see that they were sincerely interested in knowing who was in attendance and that they displayed excitement over the presence of visitors…I can think of way too many churches that I have attended where everyone seemed to be oblivious to anyone but their own circle of friends, and in total disregard to how visitors may feel by being ignored.
A Family Affair
Leading up to the sermon, the church leaders conducted the service through an efficient series of ceremonial practices, including a time where the pastor asked the members to greet and speak to visitors around them, an impressive celebratory procession of the choir led by a crucifer down the center aisle and up into the tiered seating behind the pulpit, announcements for the church, a personal testimony, and the tithe and offering collection accompanied by a choral performance of “Old Rugged Cross”. One other act that I found particularly intriguing was the water baptism by sprinkling of new members to the church, during which they were asked to either commit their lives to Christ or reaffirm their faith if they were already believers. The Church congregation was asked to respond with affirmation of their acceptance of the new members, which is what I really found to be a powerful sentiment. It was like the church was operating as a family, and as new members were being “married in”, the head of the family was asking for their blessing. There is definitely something to be said for these traditional practices that are all too often being cut out of newer non-denominational churches, and also from contemporary services within many denominations. I’m still not sure why churches wouldn’t want to account for who the members of their family are, and conduct their services and church functions as an inclusive family rather than as a group of spectators.
Left With A Good Feeling
Dr. Dudley delivered a challenging sermon, in which he discussed the problem of being a “crowd pleaser”, drawing from the actions of Pilate regarding the sentencing of Jesus and relating it to our lives and how we find it difficult to speak out against the majority when our stance is unpopular. He also made a hard-nosed observation that our nation is no longer a Christian nation, which will create situations where our opinions and beliefs as Christians will be contrary to the majority, who are not believers. Be prepared, my brothers and sisters, because it is almost certain that you will experience circumstances in your life where you will have to make the decision of whether to be a crowd pleaser or to speak out for what is right. It’s not always easy to make the right choice…just ask Peter. After service, Chris invited us back to their small group meeting that evening, and we decided to take them up on their offer. The small group welcomed us in and fed us dinner and treated us like we were old friends. They asked us to share our story about the ChurchSurfer journey, and listened with interest as we discussed what ChurchSurfer is about and why we are doing it. They included us in their prayer requests, which can be a very intimate time, as people talk about very personal issues. This group was very candid and open, which is what it takes to build real relationships and grow together in the faith. It’s refreshing to see people letting down their guard with friends without fear of being judged. Laura and I were blessed to have been invited to share in this personal time at Signal Mountain Presbyterian, considering that out of 14 different church visits this year, this is only the second time we’ve actually been invited to a specific gathering or group. Most churches just expect that if you are interested in a group you will actively seek it out. I personally think that it is much better for someone to take the initiative and invite you in to their personal space instead of making assumptions. Thank you “small group” at Signal Mountain Presbyterian (you know who you are)…Laura and I truly appreciate your kindness and were definitely left with a good feeling after being treated so warmly. Peace be with you.
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