Church visit # 26 – Saturday, June 25, 2011
Hamilton Community Church (Seventh-Day Adventist) – Chattanooga, TN
One of the things that has been amazing about the ChurchSurfer journey so far has been the overwhelming response from the people I have talked to who have told me that after reading one ChurchSurfer article (usually about their own church) they continued to keep up with the blog week after week. The majority of these people have told me that the reason they like to keep up with it is because it gives them insight into what is going on in other churches in the community. It gives them a sense of “having been there” without actually being there. You could argue that it is good for Christians to venture out of their home church on occasion to visit another congregation, but many people simply do not have the desire to do that. They are understandably connected to their own church and do not want to miss out on their “family” time. This is especially true of church leaders…elders, deacons, teachers, preachers, pastors, etc. The church leaders are potentially the ones who would get the most out of experiencing other congregations, but are obviously the ones who would have the hardest time sacrificing a Sunday (or Saturday for the Adventists) at their own church. The result of never venturing outside of your own church is that people tend to become “denominationalized” (OK, I just made that word up), meaning that they become intensely loyal to their own church denomination, adopting it as their identity in some instances, which can lead to forming negative stereotypes and attitudes toward other churches and denominations. This is where it becomes a problem. If we harbor these ill feelings toward other churches, how in the world are we supposed to work together to advance the Kingdom of God? Of course I know that there actually are substantial differences in doctrine and practice from denomination to denomination, and I agree with C.S. Lewis who writes in his book “Mere Christianity” (a HIGHLY recommended read) that Christians cannot even agree on what is acceptable to disagree about (what are salvation vs. non-salvation issues?). But the more we disagree, the less we work together, and the less we work together, the less we will accomplish for God, plain and simple. So it was my intent with ChurchSurfer…both for myself and for those who read the blog…to experience as many different denominations as possible and hopefully come away with a better understanding of who we all are and a more open and positive outlook on how we can work together. It was this desire that led me this week to visit a denomination I had absolutely zero knowledge and experience with, aside from reading “The Great Controversy” by Ellen G. White about ten years ago (which was donated to me by a missionary). The denomination I am referring to is Seventh-Day Adventist (or just Adventist). So Laura and I got up on Saturday morning and here is what happened…
I have to say, after a lifetime of attending Sunday worship it was a very odd feeling to get up on a Saturday morning and head for church. But to visit a Seventh-Day Adventist (SDA) church, that is exactly what we had to do. Saturday worship is easily the most obvious difference between SDA and most other Christian denominations, but after reading their fundamental beliefs I was curious to see if there were other major differences in doctrine or practice, or if SDA was “just another” denomination that happens to worship on a different day of the week. I’m not sure why, but it seems to me like the SDA church is classified (by people of most denom’s) alongside the Mormon church and Jehovah’s Witness church as having departed from the mainstream Christian tradition and basically becoming a separate religion unto themselves. I am not sure where that thought came from for me, but that is why I had to go see for myself…why would I just accept a stereotype of which I could not even identify the origin or basis? These were the thoughts that floated around in my head as Laura and I approached Hamilton Community Church, which has a nice, modern looking building on Shallowford Road in East Brainerd. I glanced across the parking lot to see what other people were wearing (something I always pay attention to at churches), and concluded that I was appropriately dressed in church-y casual (as opposed to slacker casual) and felt comfortable that at least I would not be immediately pegged as an outsider according to the way I was dressed. On the way in the door, we were handed a bulletin by a fifty-something gentleman with a smile, and we headed on down the hallway to do a little exploring. We showed up early to see what the “Cafe” time from 11:00 – 11:30 AM that was listed on the website was all about. We saw a Cafe sign above a door and were delighted to find that inside was a table spread full of breads, fruit, bagels, cookies, and a beverage area with juice, coffee, and tea. I appreciated the hospitality of this church to provide refreshments for everyone, but more than that I know that food creates a social atmosphere, and I hoped that hanging out in the cafe area would facilitate some conversations with people. We filled up a plate and a cup-a-joe and headed out to a table in the hallway to eat and socialize. The fruit and bread hit the spot, but unfortunately the socializing did not happen. Everyone around seemed to be generally cheerful and we were smiled at a lot but never spoken to, which was quite a let-down considering this was one church where I really would have appreciated it if someone would have reached out to us. I do want to note here that the environment was very “homey” and my wife and I both thought it was extremely cool that the main hallway was lined with all sorts of framed photos of church members, families, and functions.
A (Not-So-Brief) Description
After finishing our snacks, we entered the sanctuary and were instantly impressed with the beautiful atmospherics. The room was dimly lit, with colored up-lighting that accentuated the ferns, palms, crosses, draperies, and candles that decorated the walls and stage. There was a clear podium at the front of the stage with two large video screens directly overhead pointing out at opposite angles to the seating area. We went up to the front and grabbed a couple of seats and after a few minutes a man named Kevin came up and introduced himself as a church elder and welcomed us. After a quick (but satisfying due to the quiet morning so far) conversation with Kevin, the praise band, consisting of acoustic guitar, bass, drums, and two female singers, came up and started an instrumental intro as the congregation settled into place. All the members of the worship team were very young (surprising since older church members sometimes dictate the music style), appearing to be fresh out of high school, or maybe still in it. After announcements, the worship music kicked off and was mostly peppy, up-tempo, acoustic-driven contemporary worship. The congregation was pretty deeply immersed into the worship experience, with lots of clapping and some raised hands. Worship lasted a full thirty minutes, briefly interrupted by the “Lamb’s offering” that was taken up by the small children of the congregation, which of course provided plenty of cute moments and chuckles from the adults, and a fellowship time in which people walked all around the room shaking hands and greeting one another. After worship ended, everyone was invited to come up to the front to kneel and join in personal prayer time, which was referred to as “prayer garden” or to kneel at their seat, which Laura and I did. There was a group prayer followed by a silent time for personal prayer and then a closing group prayer. I enjoyed kneeling during this segment, and I have often wondered (and have mentioned before in a previous blog) why kneeling during prayer has (sadly) been largely removed from many churches and denominations today. The worship and prayer time did not strike me as any different from other denominations I have attended, and as the pastor came up to deliver the sermon I was curious what type of message it would include. The pastor, Dave Ketelsen, introduced his sermon topic as two-part discussion on “how to know God’s will in your life”, and credited part of his research on the matter to George Mueller. During his sermon, pastor Dave cited the first four of eight principles on knowing God’s will, but what really stuck out to me was a quote he mentioned, saying “never let those who say it can’t be done interrupt those who are doing it”. Now if that is not a quote to take to heart, I don’t know what is. Sometimes what we perceive as God’s will for us may seem improbable or even impossible, but if it is indeed His will then we have to know that He will provide a way for us to accomplish it. All too often there are nay-sayers all around us pressing their negativity toward us…”you can’t do it”, “you shouldn’t try it”, “it’s not your responsibility”, “you must be crazy”…but we cannot let those who are not in touch with God be allowed to dissuade us from God’s lofty expectations for us. Others are doing great works for the Kingdom and bearing the fruit of the Holy Spirit, and you can too! Do not let those who say it can’t be done interrupt those who are doing it! Amen!
A Brief Summary (After a Long Description)
To summarize my first Seventh-Day Adventist experience, I would have to say that nothing was terribly different from most other denominations I am used to…Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Non-denominational…there are always minor differences, but nothing Earth-shattering (or faith-shattering). I am sure there are some fundamental differences (and I have been told since my visit that Hamilton Community is a fairly liberal SDA congregation), but it is my guess that it will take a visit to another (maybe more traditional) SDA church on down the road sometime, and hopefully some meaningful conversation with church members and leaders, to explore them. I enjoyed the worship, the prayer, the message, and the food, but severely missed any real connection to the people inside the church, where I felt like I really would have fulfilled my goal of experiencing and understanding the Adventists.
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