Category Archives: Church Experiences

ChurchSurfer @ Hamilton Community Church: My First Adventist Experience

Church visit # 26 – Saturday, June 25, 2011

Hamilton Community Church (Seventh-Day Adventist) – Chattanooga, TN

Denominationalized

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…

Cafe Time

Hamilton Community Church, Seventh-Day Adventist
Hamilton Community Church

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

Hamilton Community Church sanctuary
Hamilton Community Church sanctuary

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)

Hamilton Community Church member photos
Hamilton Community Church member photos

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.

Please share the ChurchSurfer blog with anyone who may be interested and make sure to “like” it on Facebook.  I truly hope you enjoy reading about the ChurchSurfer journey!

Josh Davis

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ChurchSurfer @ Scott Memorial Church of God: In Need of Fathers

Church Visit #25 – June 19, 2011

Scott Memorial Church of God – East Ridge, TN

Added Pressure

In the week leading up to this week’s church visit, I received an interesting phone call.  Clint  Cooper from the Chattanooga Times Free Press called me to inquire about doing a newspaper profile on the ChurchSurfer project.  Clint and I had met a few months earlier at a weekend event called the Walk to Emmaus, at which he had heard me mention the ChurchSurfer blog, and since then he had read it and apparently felt like it would be a good story to share in the “Life” section of the Times Free Press.  I was all for it, of course…my thought all along has been that the stories from these churches would be a valuable resource for people in Chattanooga…and hopefully uplifting and entertaining as well.  After making arrangements for a photographer to come out and meet me at the church I was visiting (but still had not chosen) I realized that having a photographer taking pictures of me may complicate the “average-Joe-first-time-visitor” experience that I’m always looking to write about.  I immediately began deliberating about the various churches I had been considering, and questioning to myself whether they would feel intruded upon or exposed, or maybe feel like I was reporting or investigating their church rather than just writing an experiential blog article about it.  I became somewhat troubled about this decision and thought about calling the pastor of a church beforehand to alert them to what would be going on, but then I reasoned that I would be making a bigger deal out of this thing than it really was.  On the morning that I was supposed to call Clint back to let him know which church I would be attending, I still had not made a decision.  I was looking at the calendar and it suddenly dawned upon me that this Sunday was Father’s Day.  My dad, Mark Davis, recently became the Interim Pastor at Scott Memorial Church of God in East Ridge.  How could I possibly choose any other church in the city of Chattanooga to attend on Father’s Day over my dad’s church?  Problem solved!  Not to mention that if having a photographer around caused a stir I probably wouldn’t get kicked out of a church where my dad is preaching, haha!  Thank you Lord!  So here we go…

A Father’s Day Surprise

Scott Memorial Church of God
Scott Memorial Church of God

Laura and I pulled into the gravel parking lot outside of Scott Memorial Church of God (of the Church of God Anderson, Indiana denomination, notChurch of God Cleveland, Tennessee), gathered our Bibles and journals, and exited our vehicle.  We immediately saw a shaggy-haired man with a smile approach us, introducing himself as John Rawlston from the Times Free Press.  We chatted a few moments about the ChurchSurfer blog and he then snapped some photos of us in the church parking lot and then a few more of us walking up to the entrance.  At first I had been a little unsure about having John come inside the church with us, but after meeting him, I was put at ease about that decision and invited him to come inside.  As we headed toward the entrance, we were greeted enthusiastically by an older gentleman who opened the door for us and handed us a bulletin with an eager smile and a firm handshake.  We were stopped a couple of times on our way down the hallway by people who recognized we were visitors and wanted to welcome us, and after a few quick introductions we proceeded on down to the lobby outside of the sanctuary where we saw my step-mom Jean and our good friend Rhonda seated on a bench.  Just like any other week we did not reveal our church visit intentions, and we especially wanted this week’s visit to be a Father’s Day surprise for my dad anyway, so we just showed up completely unannounced.  Jean and Rhonda hopped up from their seats with excitement and hugged us both and began introducing us to the people around them.  After a few minutes of conversation we headed on in to the sanctuary where I saw my dad (I’ll refer to him as pastor Mark through the rest of the article) seated in a pew making some last minute sermon notes.  We gave him hugs and wished him a happy Father’s Day and then all stood around fellowshipping for a few more minutes until the piano music that had started in the background reminded us that church service was ready to begin.  All the while John Rawlston had perched himself at various vantage points, snapping photos unobtrusively in between introductions and explanations about who he was and what he was doing.  As service was about to begin he came up and thanked me, letting me know that he was finished and was making his exit.

The Church Experience

Scott Memorial COG sanctuary
Scott Memorial COG sanctuary

The Scott Memorial COG sanctuary was mostly off-white with pastel stained glass windows and traditional wooden church pews.  The pulpit was decorated with ferns and there was an altar table with two burning candles and a vase of fresh flowers positioned in front of a clear plexiglass podium at the front of the stage and a recessed baptismal in the wall behind the stage with a wooden cross above it.  There was a screen projection on the wall just to the right of the baptismal with an animated “Happy Father’s Day” screen saver soon giving way to a humorous montage of video clips, after which the congregation sang Happy Father’s Day to the tune of the happy birthday song.  All the men in the congregation were then given “Man of God” ink pens with an eagle on them as a gift (very thoughtful) and the church members with visitors in attendance were then asked to introduce their guests (Laura and I were introduced by Jean).  After the guest introductions, we all stood for the worship time and proceeded through a series of classic hymns, including “I Love to Tell the Story” and “Because He Lives”, that were accompanied by a lady on the keyboard, a backing audio track played over the sound system, and a praise group of six women who sang from the stage.  In between worship songs the collection plates were passed around while we were treated to a beautiful piano solo, and as worship time finished, pastor Mark led the congregation in a prayer followed by the Lord’s Prayer which was recited by all.  This made me wonder why all churches do not recite the Lord’s Prayer each week.  It is very obvious that these are powerful words which were used as an example by Jesus Himself when asked by the disciples to teach them how to pray.  I know we all have individual and church prayer requests, and I don’t think churches should discontinue the personal prayer time, but why not add the Lord’s Prayer on to the end so that everyone can participate?  It just seems to me that if we are given specific instruction on how to do a few things such as prayer and communion, it is probably a good idea to do them…just sayin’.

The Plight of Fatherlessness

Laura, Jean, and Rhonda
Laura, Jean, and Rhonda

After praying, pastor Mark began his sermon by referring to a long list of alarming statistics from the First Things First website in a subsection called “the plight of fatherlessness”.  I highly recommend reading through these statistics, because the more awareness we all have about the problem of fatherlessness that is crippling our country right now, the better chance we have of changing it.  Pastor Mark transitioned the mood from troubling to lighthearted by going into his weekly top ten list, which this week was a list of first-grader’s responses to well know proverbs.  This provided some much needed laughter after such depressing statistics, and he then referenced the Scripture of Ephesians 6: 1-4 to begin his message.  He outlined four things that dads need to give their children, which he explained were unconditional love, focused attention, discipline, and the blessing.  As he went into detail and used examples from real life and from Scripture to explain each one, he appeared to be emotionally invested as he delivered the sermon with passion.  Pastor Mark never set foot on the stage to address the congregation from the podium, but instead started at the altar table in front of the first row of pews, and paced up and down the center aisle and back and forth in the front row.  He carried an open Bible with notes stuck in it in his left hand and used his right hand to wave around and motion, adding emphasis to the various points of his sermon.  At the end he explained that the blessing that fathers are supposed to give their children is the moment in which they look them in eyes and verbally recognize their adulthood…for sons that they are now their “own man” and for daughters their “own woman”.  Pastor Mark closed the service by inviting anyone who had never received the blessing from their own parents to come to the front and receive it now…a moving gesture.

Being a “PK”

Mark Davis, Interim Pastor at Scott Memorial COG
Mark Davis, Interim Pastor at Scott Memorial COG

After service ended, Laura and I spent another thirty minutes talking and parting ways with all the new friends we had made.  It was a warm and friendly experience with the people of Scott Memorial Church of God, and although much of that had to do with the fact that I am the son of the pastor, I felt like I still would have received a loving welcome had that not been the case.  As for the service and the sermon, I always consider it a blessing to hear my dad preach, and unless you are a preacher’s kid (PK for short) it is hard to explain what it is like to see your parent preaching the Word of God to a congregation of believers.  I’m not sure if other PK’s feel this way, but for me no matter how good a sermon is, if it is not delivered by my dad it always feels like a little something is missing.  Maybe that is because I have seen the time, energy, and effort that he has put into his ministry.  Maybe it is because I feel his love for me as father and son, rather than just on a separate level of a regular pastor and church member.  And on this Sunday maybe it was because I had been able to look back through my life and see how my dad had done his best to give me unconditional love, focused attention, discipline, and the blessing.  Was he perfect at it?  No.  Only our heavenly Father is the perfect father.  But he always did what he thought was best and that is all any of us can ask for.  I will end this week’s article with a call to action for the men who are reading this.  If you are aware of children in your church or somewhere else in your life who you know do not have a father who provides these four important gifts, why not be that person for them?  Why not become a father figure to a fatherless child.  It might just change their life…and maybe yours as well.

If you would like to read the article by Clint Cooper in the Chattanooga Times Free Pressclick here.

Josh & Laura weekly self-portrait
Josh & Laura weekly self-portrait

Please share the ChurchSurfer blog with anyone who may be interested and make sure to “like” it on Facebook.  I truly hope you enjoy reading about the ChurchSurfer journey!

Josh Davis

 

 

 

 

Times Free Press article
ChurchSurfer in Chattanooga Times Free Press

 


ChurchSurfer @ New City Fellowship: A Culture of Accepting Cultures

Church Experience #23 – June 12, 2011

New City Fellowship PCA – Chattanooga, TN

With or Without Generalizations

When it comes to making generalizations about how people worship and conduct church services compared to what types of cultures and subcultures make up the majority of the people in a congregation, I would say I have pretty much gotten what I have expected so far on the ChurchSurfer journey.  Denomination seems to be the best foreshadow of what to expect out of a church experience, and then as you add in the demographics of the pastor and people that make up the church you can pretty easily paint the rest of the picture.  For example, if you go to an Episcopal church that has a predominantly white congregation in an affluent neighborhood, you can probably bank on the fact that the service will be dressy and formal with conservative hymn-based worship led by a choir without electric instruments or drums.  There are plenty of generalizations like this that will tell a story about what a certain church is like, and I would argue that (whether consciously or unconsciously) these are the tools most people use to decide which church they will attend or join…it is really just human nature.  So far, I  have attended twenty-two different churches in 2011 and have not really been surprised (by not knowing what to expect) yet.  I am not really sure if this is a good thing or a bad thing.  Should churches be that predictable?  I can think of arguments for both the “yes” and “no” answers to that question, as well as for “yes and no” answer.  Let me also clarify that I am speaking of the typical format and style of the worship service here, not the events that happen (or results of those events) at a church on any given Sunday, which are wholly up to the Holy Spirit (you like how I did that…wholly and Holy?).  The reason I am bringing these things up (as you can probably guess) is that here I am in week twenty-three and feel like for the first time I visited a church that was not what I thought it would be.  Well, to be honest, I have actually been to New City Fellowship once before, probably ten years ago or more, and that was my experience then.  Now that I am married I thought it would be a great church for my wife Laura to experience as well, plus one that should definitely be included in ChurchSurfer.  So here is the run-down on our experience…

The Outside and the Inside

New City Fellowship Chattanooga
New City Fellowship Chattanooga

New City Fellowship is a traditional red brick church building that sits on East 3rd Street near Missionary Ridge.  From the outside it looks very typical…almost boring (not being critical, just setting up the rest of the article).  It is not until you enter the building that you begin to see things you would not expect.  After entering through the big white front doors, we worked our way through the small lobby and a series of smiles and polite greetings, into the large open sanctuary.  The room was filled with old-style wooden church pews leading up to the pulpit, which had various instruments inserted into any available space, as the area was clearly built for a much different selection of musical equipment.  The main component of the pulpit area was a piano/keyboard combo with choir seating that rose behind it, yet remained empty throughout the service, further accentuating changes in the style of worship from when this building was originally constructed.  The walls were adorned with large banners with sayings such as “Praise the Lord All You Nations” sewn onto them in brown, tan, and black letters.  We found seats near the front of the room and greeted people as they filled in the pews around us.  We engaged in casual conversation with a few people in the row behind us, while also being entertained by a small girl in the row in front of us who was popping up and down playing peek-a-boo.  A man came up to the podium and began with church announcements, competing with the low roar of conversations from the congregation, which slowly tapered out as he continued.  The worship band had taken their places during this time and began playing music as the announcements ended.  The music that ensued was joyful and spirited, with singing, clapping, dancing, and hands raising to the jazzy gospel-influenced praise and worship songs.  I smiled and sang as I watched a tambourine lady happily groove and shake her way up and down the center aisle, creating a cheerful atmosphere of praise to the Lord.  James Ward, the music leader at New City Fellowship, is an accomplished musician and songwriter, and I would argue that the praise band at New City is probably the most talented in Chattanooga.  The music was as eclectic as the congregation, which consisted of the most diverse mixture of race, age, and (apparent) income level that I have seen in a church so far.  We sang four songs with a prayer sandwiched in between, followed by announcements in Spanish and then the collection of tithes and offerings.  At one point during this segment the visitors were asked to stand, and then during a designated greeting time the church members were directed to “especially make our visitors feel welcome”.  The beginning of the service closed with the performance of a song that the children had learned during vacation bible school the previous week, complete with the funny face making, lyric forgetting, and attention wandering that always make you smile from ear to ear…one of those wonderful moments that is a blessing to everyone in the church.

New City Fellowship sanctuary
New City Fellowship sanctuary

A-ha Moments

The sermon for this service was given by a Pastoral Intern, Ronnie Perry, who began with Scripture from Isaiah 6.  He spoke about what he called a corruption in Christianity today in which people attempt to use God as a tool to meet their own goals and desires.  He delved into the deeper subject matter of how many self-willed Christians continue to focus on the short-term in this life rather that on eternity or the big picture, which causes us to blend in with everyone else rather than stand out as Jesus did…a point which he emphasized by saying “Christians today want the things of the world just as bad as the people of the world.” Pastor Perry continued by breaking down the Isaiah passage into three segments which he called a God encounter, a self encounter, and a response.  He reasoned that we must first see God as a reality rather than a concept, after which we will become shaken and self-aware that there is nothing impressive about us without the God who created us.  The response we should then have is to stop trying to shape God around ourselves while only believing what is convenient for us to believe, and instead follow God and live for Him as He calls us to.  During the sermon, Laura and I looked at each other in one of those “a-ha” moments because this message was exactly what we had talked about on the way to church.  I am talking about the same message, not a similar message.  It was a “God” moment in which you get chill bumps because you realize how the Holy Spirit speaks to you and prepares you for certain situations and experiences.  Wow!  God is awesome!

Kenyan Coffee Time

New City Fellowship wall banners
New City Fellowship wall banners

After the service, which had ended with an altar call, we ventured back to the visitor’s reception area that had been mentioned during the service as an opportunity to learn more about the church over a cup of coffee.  Of course, anytime there is coffee involved you can count me in, so we filled a cup and began sipping and struck up a conversation with two ladies, Estar and Sarah, who were attending the coffee station.  Estar gave us some excellent insight into the various ministries and service that New City provides to the community, which mainly focus on serving the poor and supporting foreign missions.  In fact, Estar came to the U.S. from Kenya as a result of the mission work of New City.  She spoke with conviction about the church and how she liked that they hold members accountable for serving in some capacity.  After about thirty minutes of great discussion, we parted ways and headed home.  Laura and I felt like we had experienced a truly unique church that celebrates and embraces all the cultures that make up the extremely diverse congregation.  In this church there was no sense of a forced integration or any sort of reluctance to come together.  It was as if the color and culture barriers had been overcome in this church effortlessly, which tells me that the Spirit is present and the love of Christ consumes the people of New City Fellowship.  If you know someone who has stopped going to church because of a bad experience where they felt out of place, unloved, or not accepted, I would encourage you to bring them to New City Fellowship.  It will not only be a blessing to them, but also an example and a great experience for you as well.  Even though it may look boring on the outside, I promise the experience inside will be anything but.

New City Fellowship street sign
New City Fellowship street sign

Please share the ChurchSurfer blog with anyone who may be interested and make sure to “like” it on Facebook.  I truly hope you enjoy reading about the ChurchSurfer journey!

Josh Davis



ChurchSurfer @ Little Brown Church: Sustained by the Love of a Community

Church Experience #22 – June 5, 2011

Little Brown Church (Union Chapel) – Summertown, TN

A Church with a History

Little Brown Church front entrance
Little Brown Church front entrance

I will start this week with an interesting fact that many Chattanoogans may not be aware of:  Signal Mountain is not a mountain at all…it is a town that exists on Walden’s Ridge.  So when someone says “I live on Signal” or “I’m going up the mountain”, what they really should be saying is “I live in Signal” or “I’m going up the ridge”.  Walden’s Ridge extends much further past the town of Signal Mountain with other communities and towns tucked away on winding side streets that most of the time get lumped into the catch-all phrase of “Signal Mountain” that everyone recognizes.  One of these communities on Walden’s Ridge is Summertown, which has a very interesting history and a very unique and famous building called Little Brown Church (officially, Union Chapel).  For the sake of space, I will not get into the full history of Little Brown Church (there is an entire book on it) other than to say it is over one-hundred years old and was started by Chattanooga families that made Summertown their escape from the summertime heat in the valley and the Yellow Fever that showed up with the mosquitoes.    They built this little chapel as a gathering place, but rather than hire a pastor, they decided to save the money and do all the teaching and preaching themselves.  Little Brown Church operates from Memorial Day through Labor Day each summer, and to this day is a community-run entity, with no paid staff and a different person serving as the Director each year.  The Director organizes and oversees the efforts of the community to maintain the building and property, schedule the speakers, and facilitate the Sunday church service.  Each week there is a guest speaker who is either a member of the local community or a pastor from another church around the Chattanooga area.  The Little Brown Church has become such a cherished local phenomenon that even people without a connection to Walden’s Ridge or Signal Mountain know about it.  It has become locally famous and for all the right reasons, serving as a shining example of the power of community, and earning such a special place in the lives of all who attended as a child and have continued to return throughout all the seasons of their lives.  Little Brown Church was such a special place to one man who I recently met, Jim Frierson, that when he learned that I was writing about local churches for the ChurchSurfer project, he insisted that it be included and followed up by sending me an invitation for the opening day service for 2011.  Here is my experience…

Church in the Wildwood

Little Brown Church lady at piano
Lady Playing Piano

Laura and I parked along the side of the street just down from the Little Brown Church and walked toward the small group of people who were gathering on the stone patio in front of the building.  The patio was lined with benches and walled-in by plants and trees that fed into a lush green forest which served as the backdrop for the quaint little chapel building.  We were warmly greeted by several people as we explored the outside and inside of the building, taking a few pictures along the way.  The structure was exactly what you would expect from something called Little Brown Church in the wildwood…it was all wood from floor to ceiling, with the only signs of modern technology  being two black speakers mounted to the rafters, two black microphones on stands at the front, and three black ceiling fans spinning above our heads.  The church was open-air with the front doors standing wide and open windows (no screens) running down the length of the side walls.  There was a simple wooden podium at the front of the room with a blue and white flower arrangement sitting on a wooden stool beside it and a piano in the front corner, which was occupied by a little white-haired lady who was already playing to welcome everyone in with music.  There was a mixture of fold-out chairs and park benches split between the inside of the sanctuary and also on a full length balcony that ran down one whole side of the chapel (which filled up faster than the interior seating).  Laura and I went ahead and sat down near the front and watched as more and more people showed up (on transportation that ranged from horses to bicycles to golf carts) to an environment that was much like a family reunion or homecoming, with hugs and handshakes and a crowd that was visibly excited to be returning for another year at their beloved little church.  I had expected the people to be a little bit more dressed-down than they actually were, but then I reasoned that Sunday casual to many of these people (who I would assume most of which are fairly wealthy) is still pretty dressed-up for other folks.  I held a short conversation with an older couple seated behind us that ended as the service began with this year’s Director, Jim Campbell, announcing the first hymn.

A Splash of Diversity

Little Brown Church sanctuary
Little Brown Church sanctuary

I looked around the packed-out building as the congregation stood to sing “What a Friend” in its traditional style with piano accompaniment (by the little white-haired lady).  After the hymn, a young pre-teen boy led a responsive reading, followed by a prayer from the Director and an introduction to the Johnson brothers, who were the music leaders at Church of the First Born down in Chattanooga, and whose father, Alfred Johnson, was the guest speaker this week.  The Johnsons were a black family who had been participating with the Little Brown Church for several years now, bringing what I am sure is a much needed one-week splash of diversity to what might otherwise be an all (or mostly) white church congregation.  Although the Little Brown Church lacked in ethnic diversity, it still could be seen as a melting pot of cultural or spiritual diversity, being established by families who worshipped in different denominations during the rest of the year but who had agreed to piece together a worship service that they could all agree on.  All of these thoughts floated around in my mind while listening to the Johnson brothers sing stripped-down, raw versions of “How Great Is Our God” and “How Great Thou Art”, making up for the lack of instrumentation with their powerful and soulful vocal abilities.  After an offering collection the little white-haired lady returned to the piano to lead the hymn “Savior like a Shepherd Lead Us”.  During each hymn, the first two rows of people were directed to turn around and face the rest of the congregation, serving as a make-shift choir.  At the end of the song, Pastor Alfred Johnson from Church of the Firstborn, came up to the podium, brought his sons back up to the front and kicked off a high energy, hand-clapping gospel song “On the Battlefield” that provided what might be the only glimpse of a typical black gospel church sing along that many of the people in this congregation may ever experience in person (not meaning to be judgmental here, just based on the observation that people are rarely motivated to venture outside their own bubble).

Labeling a Generation

Little Brown Church balcony
Little Brown Church balcony

After some deeply passionate gospel singing, Pastor Johnson engaged the congregation in an equally fiery sermon, reading from Judges 2:10 (stop now and read it) and related that passage to the current generation of youth that are among us.  He noted that over the course of history, generations come to be labeled according to an overall mindset that they are known by, such as the one applied to the generation spoken about in Judges 2:10 that followed Joshua and his generation of Israelites.  Pastor Johnson pointed out that the current generation of youth in our country is becoming known for their unwillingness to get to know God and their lack of respect for or desire to learn about history and traditions.  The current generation of youth are stricken with a plague of violence that stems from the complete absence of appreciation for life, for freedom, and for the well being of a community and its’ people.  These issues become manifest with the constant display of anger and outward criticism that consumes many people’s lives today.  Pastor Johnson’s voice became increasingly gravelly from the volume at which he delivered his sermon, and his necktie seemed to cinch down tighter and tighter as the temperature rose and the sweat on his forehead beaded up and dripped to the floor.  “Why do we have this problem?” he asked rhetorically.  Pastor Johnson pointed his index finger at the air as he answered himself…stating that what has become a self-willed society has stopped teaching about God, removed Him from schools, and excluded Him from sermons.  People today are trying to promote and get people to know this person or that person, or anyone it seems except Jesus Christ.  There is an extreme problem of not living a subdued lifestyle…people get so hyped up all the time that it requires prescription medication to be calm.  He argued that when people are so focused on themselves, everyone else around them suffers the consequences.  He concluded his sermon with a frenzy of requirements for us to have true reconciliation with God that included the necessity for self-willed people to deny themselves and submit to God, to remain under control, to do away with self-centeredness.  “Reconciliation”, he said with a pause, “is not about what is right, but aboutdoing what is right”.  Pastor Johnson’s sermon was ferocious, with peaks and valleys and points of emphasis that were expertly crafted and delivered with sincerity and humility.  I overheard a lady behind me quip to the lady seated next to her “he sure has enthusiasm, doesn’t he?”  I looked at Laura, who had heard the comment as well, and we shared a chuckle as we were both reminded again about the splash of diversity that Pastor Johnson and his sons had brought from the inner-city up the mountain (or ridge) with them.

Lessons to be Learned

Karen Stone - Little Brown Church historian
Karen Stone – Little Brown Church historian

After Pastor Johnson returned to his seat, the church Director came back up to announce that the attendance was counted at two-hundred twenty-one people and the collection amount was $1595.00, all of which is donated to local Christian charities since there are no salaries to pay and the church expenses are completely covered by fees from weddings held at the Little Brown Church.  As the congregation was dismissed, the children rushed to the front to help ring the church bell…a tradition I’m sure most of the congregation has taken part in at some point during the church’s long history.  Laura and I walked back out to the patio, where people lingered in conversation and fellowship.  We talked to Jim Frierson and a very sweet lady named Karen Stone, the church historian, about the history of the Little Brown Church and about life in general, and I could have easily seen myself standing in that exact spot during any decade of the last century doing the same thing.  It was at that point that I began reflecting on some deep thoughts that I hope you will contemplate as well.  If this little church that people love so dearly can be operated by the community, why have our church budgets become so convoluted?  Why are churches so focused on maintaining dozens of paid staff members, fancy equipment, huge buildings, and all the creature comforts we can cram inside them?  Are those things really a distraction considering that the minimalistic environment of the Little Brown Church seemed to actually emphasize and support the powerful sermon, the sincere worship, and the real sense of community on display?  I know what my heart tells me, and I believe that while so many denominations and churches flounder in their misguided attempts to operate according to the example of the New Testament churches, they could learn some valuable lessons from a simple little church in the wildwood on Walden’s Ridge that is what it is because of the love and service of the community that maintains it.  It’s just too bad the Little Brown Church isn’t available year round.

Little Brown Church front walk and patio
Little Brown Church front walk and patio

Please share the ChurchSurfer blog with anyone who may be interested and make sure to “like” it on Facebook.  I truly hope you enjoy reading about the ChurchSurfer journey!

Josh Davis



ChurchSurfer @ Bethel Temple Assembly of God: Which End of the Pentecostal Spectrum?

Church Experience #21 – May 29, 2011

Bethel Temple Assembly of God – Hixson, TN

Call Me Crazy

Once again on my ChurchSurfer journey I was venturing out to my weekly “first-time” church visit without my wife Laura, who was traveling to Florida to help a long-time friend of ours move to Chattanooga.  For you analytical folks out there, one of the things I have found to be very interesting along the ChurchSurfer journey, has been to compare the way different church experiences have gone (sociologically, I suppose) based on various environmental factors…such as whether I’m alone or with Laura, whether we are dressed up or casual, how different we are from the majority demographic, etc.  Of course, none of these analyses can be scientific or definitive, but I often find myself thinking about them anyway…what might have made the experience go differently, either for the better or worse, and why does any single experience turn out the way it did in the first place?  Let me take a moment and speculate on what God’s perspective may be on these issues (an ignorant undertaking, of course, but I’m OK with that).  I would be inclined (or, not be declined…inside joke for my wife) to think that one area in which God would especially want all the individual local churches to be of the same accord, would be on how they receive guests or visitors.  I’m not taking the time to search for any Scripture references to back me up here (dangerous, I know), but shouldn’t every single church be looking for the opportunity to “wow” their guests and visitors?  I do not say this meaning that churches should put up some kind of superficial exterior that is not a true representation of the hearts and attitudes of the individual members.  What I mean is, shouldn’t having a guest or visitor in a church be one of the easiest and well-timed opportunities for us to share Christ’s love with someone?  I would think that Christ Himself would want us to welcome people with hugs and brotherly kisses, with visible excitement over their presence, with sincere interest in getting to know another fellow heir to the Kingdom, and with the desire to serve them, esteem them, and honor them.  Whoa!  How completely awesome would that be?  Some of you are probably thinking I am crazy right now, but that’s OK with me too.  Now, let me tell you a quick story about a church called Bethel Temple Assembly of God that came closer to that word-picture I just painted about how visitors should be treated than any other ChurchSurfer experience I have had on my journey thus far.

Nice to Meet You

Bethel Temple Assembly of God
Bethel Temple Assembly of God

I pulled in to Bethel Temple not really knowing what to expect.  I know that Assembly of God churches are cut from the Pentecostal cloth, but that can mean quite a few different things these days.  You could get anything from the “we believe in the gifts of the Spirit” end of the charismatic spectrum, all the way to the “we don’t consider it church until everyone in the room has spoken in tongues and hit the floor” at the opposite end of the spectrum.  I’m joking of course, but you get the point.  Ready for anything, I crossed the parking lot and came to the front door, where I was greeted by a sweet lady named Pat, who asked my name and whether this was my first visit to Bethel Temple before I had even set foot inside the building.  I confirmed to her that it was my first visit and she lit up like a firecracker, welcomed me, and walked me over to the guest reception desk which was positioned only a few steps inside the entrance, front and center like the host(ess) station at a restaurant.  At the guest reception desk I met Arlene, who handed me a visitor information card and an ink pen, and then began blistering me with questions as I attempted to fill out the card and answer her questions simultaneously.  Arlene was dressed in a flower-print frock, with a vibrant and youthful countenance, and is one of those indescribably sweet old ladies that you could sit with in rocking chairs on the front porch and just talk all day long without realizing any time had passed.  In fact, we did stand there at the guest reception booth and talk for about twenty minutes as she asked about my family, my job, and my life history…all while introducing me to various other church members as they came to say hi and give her a hug and then move along.  After finishing my guest card and conversation with Arlene, I headed toward the sanctuary, receiving a greeting and handshake from basically every person I passed along the way.  I met a couple of more ladies, Nancy and Sheila, who were extremely sweet as well, and they introduced me to more people who were all just as nice.  I can’t even remember the names of all the people I met (and it was way too many to write down), but each one wanted to know my name and find out a little bit about me.  Needless to say, I was blown away by the warm weclome I received from these kind-hearted people.

On the Lord’s Time

The sanctuary at Bethel Temple was spacious and simple, colored with neutral tones and lined with padded chairs.  The building was modern and clean, with more focus on function than on any kind of ornate aesthetic.  The praise band took the stage and launched into contemporary worship music with guitars, drums, keyboard, and bass as the congregation joined in singing “Open the Eyes of My Heart”.  There was clapping, dancing (subdued, not crazy), and many hands raised among the congregation and I joined in like manner, truly engaging in a meaningful worship experience.  After two songs we were lead in a prayer for all service men and women (for Memorial Day weekend), and then listened to the church announcements followed by the personal testimony of one of the women from the congregation who had recently had an answered prayer in the form of a financial breakthrough during a bad situation.  During the collection of tithes and offerings, an older couple sang a duet to the hymn, “Master of the Sea“, with a good old-fashioned country-gospel twang that we don’t get enough of anymore (in my opinion) in modern worship services.  The praise band then jumped back into action as we sang an additional four or five songs, getting right back into the same spirit of worship, lifting hands and swaying to the music.  At about forty-five minutes into the service, the worship music wrapped up and we were invited to take about five minutes of fellowship time to greet those around us.  During this time I met and was greeted by basically everyone that I hadn’t met before the service.  There may be one or two people in the congregation that I didn’t meet, but I would be surprised (and it took longer than five minutes).  One of the Pentecostal stereotypes that was confirmed at least on this church visit, was that they have no concept of time when it comes to church…we started at 10:15 am and finished at about 12:45 pm (not that I have a problem with spending two and half hours at church, but I’m just making note of the fact because it is out of the ordinary for most churches).

Giving = Sacrifice?

After the first half of the service, Senior Pastor Terry Evans took to the stage to give his sermon.  He began by teaching on Luke 19:45-46 and referencing Isaiah 56:1-7, but also ventured out into the subject of giving, sharing a sentiment from David, who basically said that if it’s not a sacrifice to him, he’s not going to offer it to God.  Think about that for a second…if David’s offering was not a sacrifice to himself, then he did not want to offer it to God.  This sparked a thought in my mind about my own giving and whether I offer my first and my best to God, or whether I offer the left-overs.  This sermon seemed to also reinforce a portion of the C.S. Lewis book “Mere Christianity” that I had read recently in which Lewis makes the argument that if you are able to live according to the same standard of living as other people at your income level, then you are not giving enough.  Wow…that hits home, doesn’t it?  His thought, much like David’s, is that there is no sacrifice in giving out of your excess.  Sure, Old Testament offerings and modern day offerings are way, way different, but I would argue that giving out of excess is sort of like saying to God:  “Here you go God.  Thanks for the abundance you have blessed me with.  Since I’ve got more than I need, why don’t you take a little as well?”  Seems pretty silly, huh?  If the abundance came from God in the first place, don’t you think He deserves the most of it?  The best of it?  The first of it?  Don’t you think God will judge us according to how we were stewards of what he gave us in this life?

A Lasting Impression

Pastor Terry continued to teach some tough truths accompanied by his opinion that “fluffy butterfly messages” and prosperity doctrines that many churches are teaching are simply not true.  He then segued into a Memorial Day tribute video, and with two microphones placed at the front of the sanctuary, asked for members of the congregation to come forward and offer prayers for the military, their families, and our government, and also victims of recent natural disasters.  Several people came forward and offered heartfelt and sometimes tearful prayers, which reflected the sweet spirit that I saw in so many of the people I met at Bethel Temple.  Pastor Terry urged the congregation to continue praying for these specific issues in our world right now, adding that “prayer is where the battles are won”.  I spoke to Arlene, Pastor Terry, and a few other people after the service and left feeling like I had just been to a family reunion where I was a long lost family member that had just been discovered and everyone wanted to meet.  I was humbled and honored to have been welcomed with such love and enthusiasm, and will thank God in my prayers for Bethel Temple’s example of how to treat a visitor.  As for the “Pentecostal” experience that I was unsure of…the worship was spirited, but pretty much like many other contemporary church services I have attended that have an open atmosphere where people feel free to raise hands, sway and dance, and clap to the music.  I did hear chanting in tongues during some of the worship and prayer time (which was a little distracting when I was trying to listen to the pastor’s words), but only by a few women, not by the entire congregation (which can be overwhelming for a visitor), and the pastor’s message was a Bible lesson, not a Holy Ghost shouting spectacle.  So all in all, my experience at Bethel Temple Assembly of God was on the conservative end of the “Pentecostal Spectrum” and I would say most Christians would feel quite comfortable visiting there…especially if they get to meet Arlene.

Please share the ChurchSurfer blog with anyone who may be interested and make sure to “like” it on Facebook.  I truly hope you enjoy reading about the ChurchSurfer journey!

Josh Davis


ChurchSurfer @ Red Bank Baptist Church: Searching for a Baptist Baptist Church

Church Experience #20 – May 22, 2011

Red Bank Baptist Church

Strike One, Strike Two…

So far this year I have attended two Baptist (Southern Baptist, that is) churches and have yet to have what I would consider to be a “typical” Baptist church experience…if there is such a thing.  The first one I went to, Central Baptist Church a.k.a. Abba’s House (read my article here), somehow forgot they were Baptist and started worshiping like free-wheeling charismatics.  The second Baptist church I went to, Lookout Valley Baptist (read about them here), held a prayer and healing service and abandoned Sunday night church in favor of small groups and community service…what gives???  Maybe it’s just that the small town Baptist church I grew up in was part of a different era than the Baptist churches of today.  Can anything qualify as a Baptist church these days, or what?  Maybe today’s Baptist churches are encouraged to break out of the mold and take on organic and dynamic (and any other “-ic” words you can think of) characteristics and grow into something unique…a reflection not of the SBC (Southern Baptist Convention), but instead of the congregation and church leadership.  But, then again, maybe not…so I thought I would give the good old SBC one more chance to show me that all-too-well-known reputation of delivering fiery sermons, tug-at-your-heart altar calls, and those traditional organ/piano driven hymns that seem so down-home simple compared to the rockin’ contemporary worship that has now become all the rage (and which I also prefer, >wink<).  With that being said, I took a new friend of mine, Keith Rocha, up on his offer to visit Red Bank Baptist Church.  Alright SBC, three strikes and you’re out, so here we go…

A Promising Start

Red Bank Baptist Church
Red Bank Baptist Church

Laura and I met Keith out on the front steps of the massive traditional red-brick church building that sits on the corner of Dayton Boulevard and Ashland Terrace in Red Bank (try to say “red brick red bank” five times fast).  We walked in the front lobby, were greeted cheerfully by men handing out bulletins, and then proceeded into the sanctuary.  Keith noted that he and his wife, Becca, were “back-pew” people (they have a toddler), so we found seats at the rear, with easy-exit capability and settled in.  The sanctuary was all white, with red carpet and red pew cushions, and I wondered if that color scheme was chosen to symbolize Jesus as the Lamb, and His Blood.  The service began with a full-submersion water baptism (boom…already on track to be a “real” Baptist service) of a six-year-old boy named Griffin, who professed Jesus as his Lord, acknowledged the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, all as the one God, and then got dunked.  I love water baptisms…they bring joy to my heart.  If you ever want to really experience (or have someone else experience) a water baptism, have my dad, Mark Davis, do it.  He believes in “holding you under there for a minute so that you get the full experience”, which usually ends in a big *gasp* of breath on the way out of the water.  Wow, I just realized while typing that this is payback for all the years I served as “sermon illustrations” for my dad…he can now be “blog material” for me.  OK, I’m seriously sidetracked.  I had better end this paragraph and start a new one and refocus.

Marrying The World

Red Bank Baptist sanctuary
Red Bank Baptist sanctuary

After the baptism, the choir filled into their seats in the pulpit, and the worship music began.  We sang two songs, both contemporary praise songs rather than traditional hymns, but they were definitely toned down and sang in a hymn style, accompanied by organ, piano, percussion, and a small orchestra with various string and wind instruments.  So although it wasn’t exactly the old-time hymn music that I remember from the Baptist church, it was definitely still in the same vein.  The songs were peppy but not rockin’, and the congregation sang as if they were still holding a hymnal…in other words, no raising hands, jumping, or swaying to the music.  The congregation was diverse in age, with a heavy dose of elderly people, but still a good amount of middle-aged and also young people.  The worship leader announced that it was time to greet those around you, and we reached across pews and around people to shake as many hands and greet as many people as we could while the choir provided the accompaniment of “Standing on the Promises of God”.  That old hymn caused me to drift off in thought, bringing all sorts of old memories of my childhood church, First Baptist Church of Damascus, Virginia.  I spent a few minutes reminiscing about Sunday school classes, potluck dinners, revivals, lock-ins, and gospel concerts, while the Red Bank Baptist choir sang another song during the collection of tithes and offerings.  I was brought back to the present as Interim Pastor, Dr. Richard Land, greeted the congregation and began his sermon.  Dr. Land taught from Revelation and tied in several instances from the Old Testament about the perils of the Church and believers marrying the world.  He noted that when Rome adopted Christianity as the “state church” under Constantine, it was one of the worst things that could have happened to the Christian church.  It was a prime example of the Church marrying the world.  Out of that marriage came a church that worshiped idols, gave priests the power to forgive sins, required money to buy your dead relatives into heaven, and allowed a man to preside over all the church as a god.  Dr. Land pointed out 2 Cor 6:14 where believers are instructed not to be “unequally yoked” with unbelievers, as well as many other Scripture passages that point to the same concept.  This was definitely one of those blunt and divisive sermons that I would expect at a Baptist church.  They have never seemed to fall victim to the fear of having to become too “politically correct”, which is exactly what this sermon topic was about not doing…marrying the world.

The Christian Race

When comparing the church services of different denominations and churches, I have noticed that some churches are sometimes focused or driven by one function more than others.  What I mean is, some churches/denominations seem to be very worship-driven and spend more time on music and prayer, and others can be very sermon-driven and spend more time on teaching and preaching.  I would say the (SBC) Baptist church would land on the sermon-driven side of the coin.  There is not anything inherently wrong with one or the other, in my opinion, but I do believe there can be an overall imbalance that creates a gap in the spiritual race of believers if they do not get enough of one or the other.  I personally think that all Christians have a need for equal parts worship, teaching, and fellowship, and as long as they receive all three, they will grow and mature in their faith.  If one of these pieces is absent or lacking, then spiritual growth will be slow or not happen at all.  I would recommend for everyone reading this to think about what church functions you attend that provide the opportunity for you to connect to God in each of these areas.  If you are getting teaching and worship from Sunday morning service, but you aren’t getting adequate fellowship time…seek out a small group, service committee, or outreach program where you can have fellowship with other believers.  If you are getting worship from Sunday service and fellowship from your small group, but you are lacking the real Bible teaching/study time…find a Sunday school class or local ministry organization where you can receive instruction from wise and knowledgeable teachers.  The point is, as a Christian, it is not OK to remain stagnant in your spiritual race (1 Cor 9:24-25).  We are called to excel, to become excellent, to be sanctified by God in the image of Christ.  This cannot be accomplished on your own, but only through obedience and service to the Lord.  He deserves our worship, He provides understanding of the Word through teaching and study, and He shows us love through our relationships with other believers.  All of these things contribute to a life of spiritual growth and fullness of the Spirit, and create the ability for you to serve, love, and disciple other believers in return.  I thank God for giving me the opportunity here in Chattanooga to become more balanced so that I can continue to grow and become a better servant.  Amen.

Please share the ChurchSurfer blog with anyone who may be interested and make sure to “like” it on Facebook.  I truly hope you enjoy reading about the ChurchSurfer journey!

Josh & Laura Weekly Self-Portrait
Josh & Laura Weekly Self-Portrait

Josh Davis



ChurchSurfer @ The Mission Chattanooga: The Increase And The Decrease

Church Experience #19 – May 15, 2011

The Mission Chattanooga

Traditional vs. Contemporary

Recently during a small group meeting we were discussing all of my various church visits this year, and specifically, what type of service my wife Laura and I liked the most out of all the ones we had visited.  This discussion was, of course, drilling down into the traditional worship versus contemporary worship debate, with a layer of complexity added by spreading the topic across denominational lines rather than just examining it from the perspective of one church or one denomination (yes, our small group goes there).  I have noticed during the ChurchSurfer project, that there is not much shared space between the traditional service and contemporary service camps.  What I mean is, the traditional services I have attended are very traditional, and the contemporary services are very contemporary.  There is very little resemblance of one to the other.  While we were on this topic, I expressed the desire to find a church whose service had pieces of both, because I believe there is an ideal blend in there somewhere that would produce an awesome result (for me at least, but hopefully for others also).  That is when The Mission came up.  One of the group members recommended that I visit this church, believing that it might be just what I was describing.  So I looked up their website to find out more, and did not get a single answer to any of my questions.  But what I did get was a mysterious and intriguing gobbledy-gook of descriptions and information that left me even more interested in visiting the church in person (which had to be on purpose).  For example, under the “Essential Beliefs and Values” page it states:

“Like trees planted at the waters edge, our Anglican roots are nourished by three streams: the Scripture, the Sacred and the Spirit.”

Sounds like a bunch of artistic new-age hippy jargon to me…so of course I went there immediately.  Here is my experience.

Downtown Coolness

The Mission / The CAMP House
The Mission / The CAMP House

The Mission Chattanooga meets in a downtown industrial brick coffee house called The CAMP House, in the re-purposed and urban-cool Southside District.  We parked on the street and approached the rather unassuming and almost invisible entrance, which luckily I knew the whereabouts of because I have had coffee there before with friends.  Paired with their overly-vague website, I began wondering if the almost-invisible-entrance was part of a scheme to remain the cool underground church that only the hip downtown Christians know about, but then I rationalized that artist-types are just like that without really meaning to be (they always defer to cool and low-key over blatant).  Anyway, can you imagine one of those change-a-letter signs in front of a really cool church/coffee house?  Me neither.  We ventured inside, and were greeted by some smiling faces as we passed the coffee bar and headed toward the center of the room.  All church activities take place in one big room with brick walls, concrete floors, and exposed steel structural beams and air ducts.  There is a large stage in the front corner, a full size coffee shop counter down the opposite side, and a few long rows of fold-out and stackable lightweight chairs for the congregation.  There are a couple of lounge areas with sofas and chairs in the back of the room that are not used during the church service (unless the pastor gets really long-winded), but are permanent fixtures of the coffee shop.  At the front of the stage was a small altar/table with two burning candles and two silver communion chalices with white napkins draped over them.  The strong smell of incense and coffee permeated the room, and we helped ourselves to a cup of hot java as we glanced around at the various Celtic-style crosses and decorations.  This was definitely a very different and unique church atmosphere, and I was beginning to anticipate what I hoped would be a similarly unique worship experience.  I took a sip of coffee, which is hands down the best cup of church coffee I’ve ever had, and began surveying the faces around the room.

Connected Worship

The Mission street view

The Mission street view

I recognized a new acquaintance I had recently made, Micki Ann Harris, who serves at the Chattanooga House of Prayer, (a place I’ve been going lately during my lunch hour to pray) and went up to greet her.  She introduced us to her husband, Chuck, and the pastor, Chris Sorensen.  Pastor Chris had a bald head and a bushy white goatee, and was wearing jeans, an untucked black button-down shirt, and flip-flops.  He greeted us with enthusiasm and we made our way around to be seated, as it was time for service to begin.  The service opened with call-and-response prayers recited by a worship leader with each segment ending in “Lord have mercy on us”, to which the congregation would reply “Hear our prayers”.  After the prayers and a Scripture reading, the worship music began from the stage with instruments you would expect from a contemporary service…drums, keyboard, electric guitar, and bass guitar.  Two young female singers led the worship with beautiful and soulful voices, and I instantly connected to the music in a true spirit of worship.  The room was not very crowded…I learned afterward that the morning service, called Morningsong, has only been offered for a few weeks, and their Sunday evening service, Evensong, is the more heavily attended service.  Despite the small group, those in attendance were visibly worshiping, with expressions of intense focus on many faces, some with hands raised toward the heavens, and plenty of swaying to the mood of the music.  I enjoyed the opportunity to worship the Lord and felt like the music experience had been heartfelt and intense, without being over-produced or showy.

We Are God’s Messengers

After worship had concluded, pastor Chris began his sermon by clarifying that the sermon message was the collective idea of the preaching team, not just his own, which I thought was a great idea and an excellent way to keep the sermons in harmony with the congregation as a whole.  He began in the Gospel of John (chapter 1) speaking about John the Baptist, examining his ancestry as a Levite (the priesthood lineage) from both his father, Zacharias, and his mother, Elizabeth, and confirmed by the archangel Gabriel (Luke chapter 1).  Pastor Chris then compounded the story of John the Baptist with Romans 10:14 and made the point that throughout all of history God has used humanity to point to Him.  He didn’t write His own name in the starts, or send Jesus down on a lightning bolt.  His chosen way of speaking to us is through us…through those like John the Baptist, who live to serve Him, who seek to obey Him, and who desire to become like Him.  But rather than receive glory and honor according to their own fame, God’s true servants seek to deflect the glory to God, who deserves it.  Pastor Chris pointed to John 3:28-30, and to the fact the John the Baptist acknowledges that he must decrease and Jesus must increase.  John did not desire fame, recognition, or honor, but only to use anything he had gained to take the spotlight off himself and point it to Jesus, who he rightly identified as the Son of God.  Pastor Chris then launched into what seemed like a discussion with himself as much as a sermon to a congregation, weighing out the importance our society places on creating heroes and celebrities with the way Christian leaders and evangelists are placed in those positions.  Think about some of the most famous Christian musicians, pastors, evangelists…do they deflect the spotlight or welcome it?  Do they retreat from the glory and honor or revel in it?  Do they decrease so that God may increase?  Tough questions, and honestly the answers should be blatantly obvious, but unfortunately I don’t always feel that way from today’s Christian superstars.  The exception and best example would be Billy Graham.  He’s not a millionaire.  He only accepted a modest salary from his ministry.  He always pointed to Christ.  He decreased so that God would increase.  It was during this discussion that Pastor Chris opened up to one of the most honest and introspective moments I have seen a pastor admit to in front of an audience, as he talked about his band working with a PR firm through a record label to “accentuate the positives and hide the less attractive attributes”.  Should a musician’s appearance affect how many albums they sell, or a pastor’s appearance affect how quickly the church membership grows?  I don’t know if John the Baptist was attractive or not, but I know he wore less than fashionable clothes and did not work with a PR firm to accentuate or hide any of his attributes.  I guess that was a pretty good sign that he was not interested in glorifying himself, but only preparing the way for He who was greater.  Praise God.

Closing

After the sermon, all Christians were invited to take communion.  I gladly took part and gave thanks to God for giving me life…life with meaning, life with purpose, and life with no end.  We sang two more songs and closed the service with a blessing from the pastor.  The Mission was indeed a very unique blend of traditional and contemporary.  I had never been to an Anglican church service before, but I knew I would probably like it, being that it was the church that C.S. Lewis was a member of during his life.  I’m currently reading the book “Mere Christianity”, which I have found to be an amazing resource of Christian philosophy and I would highly recommend it.  I would also highly recommend visiting my new friends at The Mission Chattanooga, so that you may also be blessed through the worship and preaching that is happening there…not to mention you will get a great cup of coffee.

Please share the ChurchSurfer blog with anyone who may be interested and make sure to “like” it on Facebook.  I truly hope you enjoy reading about the ChurchSurfer journey!

Josh Davis


ChurchSurfer @ Living Faith Church: Baseball and BBQ Sauce

Church Experience #18 – May 8, 2011

Living Faith Church, Hixson TN

It’s Gotta Be The Clues

For the fourth time this year I was left alone on a Sunday, deserted by my wife (to be with a friend who was recovering from surgery in Atlanta), and left to venture out to a church service all by myself.  So far my solo church visits have been interesting…a gospel-fest at New Philadelphia Missionary Baptist with two of the kindest and most talented women I’ve ever met, my sister’s crazy California New Year’s Eve wedding, and a fly-under-the-radar Sunday at First-Centenary United Methodist.  This week’s visit was to Living Faith Churchin Hixson, a church I knew very little about except for what I had read on their website on Saturday night before the next morning’s church service.  I had been told about the church by a friend, who had never attended there either, but had somehow heard about it through word of mouth.  I don’t even really remember what it was that my friend said about the church, but what was important to me was that it was mentioned at all.  This stood out to me because I drive by this church a lot and had thought about attending there (or at least researching it), but for some reason I had written it off, maybe assuming that it was a Church of God, and since I had already been to a church in that denomination (Joyful Sound COG), I was more interested in attending other denominations first.  But I’m always listening for “clues” as to where God is leading me next, and anytime a few clues point to the same place, I take that to mean I should go there…so here I am.

Human Contact

I pulled up to the cream-colored church building and parked, enjoying the warm sunshine as I walked around the corner and up to the entrance.  There were smiling faces in the parking lot, and as I headed inside, I noticed that pretty much everyone I saw seemed to have a bubbly countenance about them.  The inside of the building appeared to be either newly remodeled or very well kept, and like the outside of the building it was very clean and simple, lacking the grandeur of the more extravagant churches, but instead communicating the message that fancy is not necessary to worship and serve God.  I exchanged some smiles and greetings as I headed down the hallway, and upon entering the sanctuary was immediately approached by two men, Duane and Gary, who welcomed me and asked if I was a visitor.  I told them that it was my first time attending their church and they handed me a visitor’s card, encouraging me to fill it out and drop it in the bucket during the collection of tithes and offerings.  I took a seat and scanned the room, noticing a very balanced mix of young, middle-aged, and elderly people.  There were various greeters stationed around the room, I assume to make sure nobody would be overlooked, and even though Duane and Gary had done a fine job welcoming and engaging me in conversation, a gentleman named Claude also came around to do the same.  I’ve seen several techniques for greeters at all the churches I’ve attended…parking lot greeters, door greeters at the church entrances, bulletin passer-outers at the sanctuary entrances, inside-the-sanctuary floaters, and more, but I think the main point here is that this is an important position and service provided by the church.  Why would you not want to have a greeter program at your church?  It gives church members a way to serve, it makes visitors feel welcome, and it encourages (or forces) human-to-human interaction (which surprisingly doesn’t always happen if it is not specifically made to be a priority).  If your church does not have a greeter program, or has a very limited one…why not volunteer to coordinate the effort yourself?  I guarantee that you will increase the ratio of smiles per person, and you could potentially win repeat attendance from visitors who actually felt welcome and want to come back for more…not to mention it’s really easy!

Give Honor Where Honor Is Due

The sanctuary was spacious, with rows of individual cushioned chairs rather than traditional pews, and a large stage lined with all the instruments you would expect from a contemporary worship service…keyboard, electric and acoustic guitars, bass, and drums, plus a trumpet which added a unique element to the worship music.  We sang two songs (taking a total of about 15 minutes), with the main chorus sections being repeated numerous times, building with emphasis each time through.  I enjoyed the worship experience and felt free to lose myself in the moment, lifting my hands, clapping, and swaying around to the different segments, seeking a truly focused and connected worship time with God.  At the close of the second song, pastor Michael Lindon led the congregation in a prayer, and then transitioned into some announcements.  He asked all first-time visitors to raise their hands, and then welcomed them to Living Faith Church as “honored guests” (which really made a strong impression on me).  Pastor Michael also recognized the recent high school and college graduates, as well as all the mothers (it was Mother’s Day), and asked for applause from the congregation, encouraging them to “give honor where honor is due”.  How often do you think we, as Christians, miss the opportunity to make someone feel special by honoring them in front of others?  Jesus taught us to not seek or expect the place of honor, because then you may be embarrassed when others are honored above you and you are “bumped down” a notch, but how awesome is it to see someone receive honor and recognition when they totally did not expect it.  What a great chance for us to share God’s love with the people who quietly serve and expect nothing in return.

Not a Lovey-Dovey Mother’s Day Message

Pastor Michael, who is young, clean cut (military style), and energetic, began his sermon by stating that it was part six of the current series with the objective to “Scripturally introduce the child of God to who they are in Christ” (which he repeated three times).   Despite oozing with positivity and somehow never losing an enormous smile, pastor Michael methodically proceeded point by point through Luke chapter 15 using Scripture cross-references and real life illustrations (parables) to teach about being made righteous through Christ.  The sanctuary became like a classroom, as pastor Michael taught masterfully from the Spirit, speaking calmly and plainly, making sure not to leave anyone behind by moving too fast or by trying to cram in too many points or too much information.  I was impressed not only by the excellent teaching, but by what this service wasn’t…it wasn’t a pep rally, it wasn’t a manipulation of emotion, it wasn’t a stage production, it was just plain and simple teaching of the Word like a shepherd feeding the flock to sustain growth and life.  He made references to baseball, BBQ sauce, shoes, and a speeding ticket he had received that very morning (you’ll have to ask him about all that), to effectively engage and relate to the congregation as one of them, not as someone who wished to exalt or lord himself over everyone else.  He closed the sermon by encouraging the people to be aware of who we are in Christ, because without this awareness we lose the authority, tools, and resources we have available to us to go about God’s business in this world.  Yet, if we are aware of who we are in Christ, we have all of heaven backing us.  We are ambassadors going out into a foreign land by the authority of the King of heaven, with the Great Commission of inviting those who do not know our King to accept His gift of salvation and join us as heirs to His Kingdom.  Praise God from Whom all blessings flow!

Final Thoughts

On the way out of church, I met the Associate and Youth Pastor, Allen Lindon (pastor Michael’s older brother), and we scheduled a lunch meeting for Thursday of that week.  We met up and talked about the beginnings of Living Faith Fellowship, their growth, their move from the original location to the current building, and their ongoing goal throughout their existence, which is to get out into the community and reach the unreached.  Like his brother, Allen is clean-cut, positive, constantly smiling, and passionate about serving God.  We talked about the ChurchSurfer blog, and he was visibly excited to get detailed feedback about what my experience was like at Living Faith Church.  He asked questions about their church as well as experiences I’d had at other churches, obviously looking for anything I could offer that may help them improve or make changes.  How refreshing is it to know that the pastors of this church value that type of feedback and upon learning that I had been to so many churches, earnestly sought any information that they might use to help them make a difference in their church.  I’m sure many churches don’t care, or worse yet, think they don’t need it.  Once again, God sent me to the right place at the right time, and I was blessed by Him through Living Faith Church and the Lindon brothers.  They have a heart and desire to serve the Lord and I have a feeling they will be a big part of the coming revival in Chattanooga that many (including myself) are feeling.  May His kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.

Please share the ChurchSurfer blog with anyone who may be interested and make sure to “like” it on Facebook.  I truly hope you enjoy reading about the ChurchSurfer journey!

Josh Davis

P.S.  Sorry for the lack of pictures this week…taking photos is something I’m obviously not good at without my wife around 🙂



ChurchSurfer @ Trinity Lutheran Church: Seeking The Next Generation

Church Experience #17 – May 1, 2011

Trinity Lutheran Church, Hixson, TN

Unnecessary Reminder

Laura and I had planned on visiting a different church this week, but due to the loss of power at that church from the storms that passed through the area, we had to find an alternative.  I live in Hixson, and drive by the intersection of Hixson Pike and Highway 153 pretty much on a daily basis.  Elevated just above this intersection sits Trinity Lutheran Church, calmly peering down on the flurry of activity that consumes the surrounding roads, restaurants, and stores.  I had never attended a Lutheran service before, so I thought this would be an ideal time to experience a new denomination without having to wander too far from home.  We pulled up the church driveway and parked, noticing a large tree laying on its side with its massive root ball facing the parking lot…as if we needed another reminder of the recent weather related devastation that had hit our area in the previous days.  Walking by the downed tree, I squeezed Laura’s hand and refused the urge to go over and get a closer look, doing my best to  refocus my attention to this week’s church experience. (I have included some additional post-storm thoughts after the end of this blog article)

The Coffee Room Incident

Trinity Lutheran Church

Trinity Lutheran Church

As we approached the entrance, the door was pushed open from the inside by a spunky old man who welcomed us in with a handshake and a warm greeting.  We walked down the hallway and were greeted by several people, including a man who I recognized from some Chamber of Commerce meetings we had both attended, and were asked for our first and last names several times.  We passed through the hallway into the lobby area outside the sanctuary, where we saw a small room off to the side with a coffee sign above it.  Laura and I had been running late this morning and did not have the chance to get our morning coffee, which is a very big deal, so we headed straight for the small coffee room to grab a quick cup before the service.  On the way through the door, I noticed that all the people inside the small room had on long white and gold robes and were seated in chairs around the perimeter of the room.  I quickly got the feeling that this domain might only be intended for people in the choir or ministry, but rather than turning back for fear of interrupting something, the desire to drink coffee drove us onward to our destination.  As we filled our cups, I awkwardly asked if it was OK for us to be in there, to which one of the robed men replied that we would now be required to sing in the choir.  We exchanged a few jokes about how they really did not want me or Laura singing in their choir, and even though we were obviously out of place, the robed people simply made light of it and welcomed us in.  They even went so far as asking Laura and I to join hands with them as they prayed for the service that was about to take place, that God’s message would be spoken through the pastor, and that the Holy Spirit would fill the place with His presence.  I was thoroughly impressed that they did not just ask us to step out while they prepared for the service (and I would not have been offended at all had they gone that route), but the fact that they included us without making us feel embarrassed was pretty cool.  These Lutherans are alright.

A Unique Sanctuary

Trinity Lutheran sanctuary
Trinity Lutheran sanctuary

We only managed a few quick sips of coffee before we hurried on into the sanctuary, doing our best not to be late.  We slid into a front row wooden pew to the left side of the pulpit area, and settled in while glancing over the bulletin.  Upon first glance I did not really grasp the functional layout of the sanctuary.  It was an octagonal room with a stained glass ceiling trimmed in wood.  A large white cross descended from the ceiling in the center and hung just above a smaller octagonal platform enclosed by wooden rails with kneeling pads around the outside.  The pews wrapped around three sides of the middle platform, with the back of the room containing the choir area, an altar with an open Bible and smaller cross suspended above it, and the large pipes from the pipe organ off to the side.  In the middle of the center platform was a wooden stand with a glass bowl full of water and large white candle with gold caps adorning it.  The pipe organ trumpeted to life with a processional as the choir somberly walked in and took their seats.  The pastor, Gary Schimmer, whom we had met in the hallway (and who did not introduce himself as the pastor, but only by name), walked into the center platform area to begin the service, and it wasn’t until this moment that I realized it was the pulpit, which surprisingly did not have a podium for the speaker.  Instead, pastor Schimmer just strolled around freely as he addressed the congregation, facing different angles to engage everyone directly at least some of the time.  Pastor Schimmer held up a tattered piece of paper that he had found on his property while cleaning up from the storm, which he explained was a cancelled check from someone in Alabama.  He took a moment to greet everyone who had been affected by the storm, and offered the church for shelter, hot showers, or laundry facilities for all who were without power or had severe damage to their homes…a gesture I’m sure many churches have been making during these tragic circumstances.

An Aging Congregation

Trinity Lutheran stained glass ceiling and cross
Trinity Lutheran stained glass ceiling and cross

I craned around to survey the congregation from my front row seat, and noticed that the room was only sparsely dotted with attendees and was way below capacity.  The majority of the congregation was made up of the elderly, with far fewer middle-aged people, even less (only a couple of other people) who were in my age bracket (mid-30’s) or young adults, and a handful of young children.  I took all of this in while a church member, after being invited up by the pastor, entered the pulpit area to share his “vision speech”.  Apparently various members of the congregation had been coming up each Sunday to share their vision for Trinity Lutheran Church.  This week it was Mike, a beefy middle-aged man who spoke with nervous conviction about how much of an impact he felt the church could make on people, but openly acknowledged the lack of attendance they were currently experiencing, even calling it a problem.  This thought about an aging congregation struggling to attract new and younger church-goers held my attention for the rest of the service.  All throughout the hymns and responsive readings, the children’s church segment, and even during pastor Schimmer’s moving sermon about the breath of God giving life in Genesis and the resurrected Christ breathing the new life on His disciples, I could not help but examine this experience as it was happening, wondering how or why the format of their service might contribute to the attendance problem.  Pastor Schimmer began to talk about how the first business of the Church is forgiveness, and the second business of the Church is to give life as we were given life.  We sang the hymn “Breathe On Me Breath of God”, and then all baptized Christians were invited to come up and kneel at the pulpit to receive communion.  Laura and I quietly went up and knelt and received the communion wafer representing Christ’s body that was broken to pay for our sins, and dipped it in the wine representing Christ’s blood that washes our spirit clean.

Final Thoughts

After the service, a couple of the women, Eleanor and Shiel (sp?), came up to us to thank us for attending and invited us to come back the next Sunday.  We explained that we went to a different church service each week for the ChurchSurfer blog (which I don’t think they completely understood), but we thanked them numerous times for their hospitality and then stuck around for a little while just enjoying the conversation.  As we were leaving I began contemplating scenarios in the different churches that I have attended this year, comparing the number of people in attendance with the type of welcome we received.  Is it possible that the churches that are experiencing growth do not feel the same sense of urgency to identify and reach out to visitors?  Would it make sense that churches that have long maintained strong attendance levels somehow become more concerned with creating new programs to offer to their existing members rather than programs designed to welcome in potential new members?  Do these same churches assume that visitors will see the crowds of people in attendance and automatically want to join in also, thinking that if so many other people like it here so will I?  What if every church actively sought out visitors to honor them as esteemed guests and desired to make them feel welcome and special out of love rather than a sense of obligation?  The people of Trinity Lutheran Church were focused on doing these things for us, but I wonder if they got to that point after poor attendance had become a problem, only realizing their mistakes when it was too late, or if they’ve always been this way and younger Christians are just looking for a more contemporary service.  I’m not sure of the answer, but I’m glad to have experienced their kindness and pray that God provides the increase in attendance they seek.

Please share the ChurchSurfer blog with anyone who may be interested and make sure to “like” it on Facebook.  I truly hope you enjoy reading about the ChurchSurfer journey!

Josh Davis

Thoughts After the Storm

Trinity Lutheran outside
Trinity Lutheran outside

If you ever need a reminder of just how little of what happens in this life is under our control, just ask someone who has been through a tornado, hurricane, tsunami, or other natural disaster what their experience was like.  Everything changes in the blink of an eye, and there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it.  Plans, commitments, activities, possessions, and responsibilities get ripped from our lives like a 200-year-old oak tree in a 175-mile-per-hour vortex of wind, and all that is left is pure devastation that washes over you along with a tidal wave of emotional responses.  Fear, the will to survive, pain, sorrow, grief, thanksgiving, love, shock, compassion, charity…depending on your circumstance, you may experience one or all of these emotions within yourself and from others.  For those of us in the Chattanooga area and around much of the Southeastern United States, April 27, 2011 is a day that will not soon be forgotten, specifically for those reasons.  As some of the worst tornados in the recorded history of the U.S. swept through our lives, we were all either directly or indirectly affected and forced to deal with the realization from my opening statement…we are in control of very little in this life.  But along with that realization comes a very important addendum.  We are in total control of what happens after this life.  With all the various forces at work in the world that have the potential to create endless scenarios and situations in our lives that could produce limitless numbers of outcomes based on how we respond, it can be simply mind boggling.  How great is our God, however, that He gave us one single choice to make about where we want to spend eternity after this life, and the complete free will to do so.


ChurchSurfer @ St. Jude Catholic Church: The Experience Was The Experience

Church Experience #16 – April 24, 2011 – Easter Sunday

St. Jude Catholic Church

A Personal Challenge

First of all, let me take a moment and acknowledge and thank my Lord God for how much He has blessed me this year.  I’m amazed at how much increase God gives to your faith, wisdom, and love, when you find new ways to serve Him and dedicate more of your time and focus to His Word.  The ChurchSurfer project has already brought major blessings to my spiritual walk, and whether or not people read or like this blog, the benefits of holding myself to the commitment of visiting 50 different churches this year are mind-blowing.  God is good, all the time, amen.  So for Easter this year I decided to challenge myself a little bit by skipping (or should I say hopping?) the Easter church service that is so meaningful to us as (Protestant) Christians, and instead opt for a Catholic church service.  Why is this challenging?  Because going into the experience, I already know that as a non-Catholic I am not welcome to take Holy Communion at a Catholic church, nor do I agree with most of their doctrinal beliefs, which makes it particularly hard on such a significant day as Easter.  So why even go to a Catholic church?  Because I also know that like all Christian sects and denominations, there are true believers with a heart for Jesus inside the Catholic faith.  What will be the big challenge?  Trying to remain focused on the point of my blog, which is “Experiencing God through People”, and not falling into a rant session on the differences in doctrinal beliefs, which is so tempting with a subject matter that is at the core of your very being.  What will be the outcome?  Let’s find out (and I’m more than a little nervous)…

The Atmosphere

St Jude Catholic Church Chattanooga
St Jude Catholic Church Chattanooga

Laura and I pulled in to St. Jude Catholic Church about 30 minutes before the scheduled start time of the 10:30 AM mass service.  We knew it would be crowded on Easter, so we wanted to make sure we could get a seat close enough to the front where we could easily see all that was going on.  I snapped a couple of photos on the walk up to the building, which was a little longer than normal, considering I strategically parked close to the exit lane so that we could hopefully avoid the traffic leaving the service.  As we approached the entrance, we were enthusiastically greeted by an eccentric grey-haired man who was doing his best to say “hello’s” and “good morning’s” to each one of the increasing volume of people headed in to the building.  Upon entering the lobby area, we passed by the holy water bowl without taking part in whatever ritual it is used for, and headed on down the aisle of the sanctuary and into a pew, again without taking part in the Catholic ritual of bowing toward the altar (or crucifix?).  I scanned the ornate room, taking in all the various decorations and symbols.  There was a large crucifix on the front wall facing the congregation, bordered by floor-to-ceiling stained glass depictions of Jesus.  There were candles burning all around the room, fresh flowers all about the altar and stage area, and off to the left of the pulpit was a statue of Mary with the baby Jesus in her arms.  There were various tapestries and murals adorning the walls of the sanctuary, some appearing to be quite old, and most in the European Renaissance style.  My mind wandered in and out of focus on various internal tug-of-war issues I was having about bringing my wife to a Catholic Easter service rather than one where we could actually partake in the communion.

Easter Mass 

Josh & Laura weekly self-portrait

The low hum of all the muted conversations around the room lulled me into deeper contemplations, which were then interrupted by the sight of kids in white robes passing by in the aisle on their way to the front to light more candles.  They circled back to the rear of the room and joined a procession to the altar with the priests, who were holding a crucifer and a large gold-bound Bible.  The musicians, which surprisingly (probably just because of my ignorance of Catholic services) included a 12 string guitar player, bass player, and two keyboard players, started the worship music, which had to be one of the oddest (using what I would consider “normal” contemporary praise or traditional hymns as the basis for comparison) and most unique sounding church music I’ve ever heard.  We sang two songs, which I can only describe as “medieval synthpop hymn music” (you’d have to hear it to understand), and the priest then led the congregation in an opening prayer.  The service continued through a series of Scripture readings, responsive readings, and songs, and then on to a baptism ceremony for some young children, which consisted of the priest gesturing the sign of the cross on the foreheads of the children and their parents, and then pouring holy water from a glass pitcher over the heads of the children and into a small baptismal reservoir.  The children also received white bibs and candles as part of the ritual.  Later in the service, the priests circled up and down the aisles with pitchers of holy water, flinging it onto the congregation with wooden utensils.  As the water landed on each person they would quickly bow and motion the cross with their hand, starting from their forehead, down to their belly, and then side to side across their chest.  The priests seemed visibly delighted to take part in this portion of the ceremony, and many in the congregation grinned as the water splashed them in random points around the head and shoulders.  The service culminated with communion, with the priests either placing on the tongue or handing each member of the congregation a small wafer and then a sip from the chalice containing wine, after which the priest would methodically wipe the rim clean with a white cloth.  After a closing blessing from the priest, the congregation was dismissed and people quickly filed out of the room with some gathering in small groups of conversation.

Final Thoughts

 This church experience makes for a very difficult article to write.  I’m not interested in using this platform to delve into the differences between Catholic and Protestant doctrine, even though I stared some of these issues directly in the eyes this week.  From the standpoint of attempting to stay true to the purpose of this blog, which as stated above, is to write about experiencing God through people…I’m completely at a loss and unable to successfully accomplish that this week.  At no point during this experience (other than being greeted by the man at the front entrance) did I really come into any kind of personal or meaningful contact with another human being (oh, I forgot about the segment of the service where you shake hands with people around you and say “peace be with you”, but that hardly qualifies as personal or meaningful contact in my mind).  So I realized, in the process of writing this article, that this week’s experience was exactly that…an experience.  It was a religious ceremony that simply served as a spectacle for me.  Since I am not Catholic, I was not allowed to partake in communion, the holy water that splashed on me really held no significance, nor did the baptism ceremony, which was obviously a baptism into the Catholic faith, not a baptism of death to self and life to Christ (these children were too young to make that decision with a complete understanding of its impact and requirements).  For the ChurchSurfer project and for my personal spiritual walk, this week served as a reminder to me (by absence, rather than presence) of what church is all about.  Along with all the traditions, rituals, symbols, songs, and atmospherics, I need real worship and fellowship with other believers.  My soul craves the kind of let-it-all-hang-out worship where you lose yourself in that place where nothing else around you enters your conscious thought because you are only focused on the presence of the Lord and offering your praise to Him.  But one thing I know is that people are all absolutely unique and different, and what quenches my spiritual thirst may be foreign and uncomfortable for many others.  To God be the glory.  He created us this way and therefore my only conclusion can be that He is satisfied with the result.  But as I read His Word and see examples of worship, such as the description of the various creatures and angels who worship him in heaven in the book of Revelation, I grow in my desire to worship with more passion and intent.  So although I know that I have brothers and sisters in Christ inside the Catholic church, I yearn for more of a full-contact Christian life that is less defined by rules and exclusivity and more open to freedom and acceptance.  I can’t imagine Jesus ever refusing someone the opportunity to partake of His body and blood, can you?  Everyone is welcome at His table, and if you have not experienced His total acceptance, which is the free gift of salvation and unimaginable love, I invite you to ask Him in to your life right now.  Simply kneel down and verbalize your desire to live for Him and I promise you that your life will never be the same.  Oh and by the way, Laura and I went home and had a communion of our own…

Easter communion 2011

Please share the ChurchSurfer blog with anyone who may be interested and make sure to “like” it on Facebook.  I truly hope you enjoy reading about the ChurchSurfer journey!

Josh Davis



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