It was the best of congregations, it was the worst of congregations …
Okay, sorry for the tortured Dickens reference, but as I looked forward to the second half of my Congregational Journey beginning today, I couldn’t help but ponder the things I’d seen in the first half. I visited three congregations where people were varying degrees of friendly, and three where if I’d died right in the pew, their primary concern would have been who was going to clean up the mess. I saw four places where God’s Word was preached in power, and two where it was treated very cavalierly, as if it was here to serve our purposes rather than vice-versa. At three, the Holy Spirit seemed to be clearly moving in God’s people; at three others He might have been, but the congregation couldn’t have cared less. In short, about half the congregations I’ve visited seem to at least have some clue about seeking God, putting Him first and presenting Him clearly, and half didn’t.
And then today I saw both — in the same congregation.
Fresh Water Christian Ministries is a storefront congregation, but an unusually stable one — it’s been in the same location, a former bank office on El Dorado Street in downtown Stockton, since 2000, and was founded a couple of years before that under a different name. They’re a sort-of-non-denominational congregation, part of a small (less than ten) group of congregations based out of El Centro, and thoroughly Pentecostal in doctrine and practice.
I arrived at 10:10 for their 10:30 service and was greeted warmly within five seconds of entering the front door. People there asked my name, was offered coffee (about eight times — I don’t think I’d get that many promptings at Starbucks!) and got to talk to several members, including Brian Meier, the associate pastor. Brian (and yes, that’s how he prefers to be addressed — as “Brian”) was very inquisitive, asking me everything from how I’d heard about the place to which college I went to — but in an interested, not investigative fashion. He also stressed (twice) that theirs was “a really laid-back congregation” and mentioned that the service probably wouldn’t start on time, as people had a tendency to straggle in late. (I didn’t have the heart to tell him that this was the case with almost every congregation — heck, two weeks ago I went to a place where the preacher barely got there on time!)
The sanctuary itself had a sort of temporary feel — almost completely unrenovated from its banking days — with olive-drab walls, a small stage in one corner and about fifty stacking chairs in a quarter-circle as far back from the stage as the room allows. The stage held a large wooden pulpit, an overhead projector and screen, the ubiquitous trap drums and two sets of congas; a synthesizer and a clutch of mics for the singers sit just offstage. By 10:35 about 25 people were in attendance, half of them kids, and I’d had a chance to meet at least a third of them, including Bob Coursey, the senior pastor (who, yes, prefers “Bob”). The combination of low-key atmosphere and friendly people had me thinking that I might really have found a hidden jewel here.
And then the service started. And everything changed.
I won’t spend a lot of time describing the service, because I’ve described it here at least a couple of times in the last two months. I refer to it as The System — a Pentecostal liturgy that has spread through the American church like rhino virus and is as rigid a style of worship service as the most hidebound, legalistic Roman Catholic could dream of. Not only does it allow little room for the Holy Spirit to operate except in a few very limited areas, but it allows little room for God’s people to do anything that isn’t already a scheduled part of that Sunday’s — and every Sunday’s — events.
The second the music began (way too loud — my earplugs had to go in within 30 seconds), the entire congregation entered The System and didn’t come out. Three fast songs were followed by one slow song, interrupted only by a minute or two where the “worship team” spoke in tongues rather loudly and another where Bob told all the people to stand (a “posture of praise”, he called it) and most of the adults and half the kids did. At no point were more than a few people in the congregation (now up to 40, still half adults) singing, clapping or doing anything but looking bored.
The rest of the service went according to the usual script: announcements, offering, a proscribed “greeting time”, prayer time (where everyone prayed independently, making it impossible to tell what anyone was praying about, let alone agree with them), sermon and an agonizingly long altar call (complete with bowed heads and “raise your hand”, which no one did). At no time once the music began was I related to personally except during that “greeting time” where several of the people who’d actually had conversations with me before the service came up and gave me “church-friendly” hi-howyadoin-walk-away handshakes as if they’d never met me before. It was like “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” with Scripture citations.
Once the altar call began in earnest and the pastors’ eyes were elsewhere, I took an opportunity to sneak out of the sanctuary to look more closely at something I’d seen before the service began. On the wall just to the left of the entrance, there was a large bulletin board covered with picture of and testimonies from the congregation’s members. God has clearly delivered many of them powerfully from drugs, alcohol, infidelity, violence, and numerous other problems — and not only did God do that, but they aren’t scared of giving him the credit.
But it begged the question: if God has given these people such powerful testimonies, if He has done such great things in their lives and given them such great gifts, why aren’t they allowed the chance to share those gifts in the Sunday service? Why are they instead shoehorned into a System that prevents the building of community and, incidentally, doesn’t hold much interest for them. The sermon Bob preached, furthermore, was on family and being committed to and in relationship with one’s brothers and sisters in Christ — stuffed into a service where there was no opportunity for people to relate with each other! Am I the only one for whom this makes no sense?
Within ten minutes of coming through their door, the people of Fresh Water Christian Ministries struck me as being people who could — and would — minister to each other, who would never need the artificial universe of The System or any other system to reach out to each other and the world with the love of Christ. Instead, there they were, enduring The System and having their gifts stifled by a hierarchical, rigid liturgy that essentially forces God to work through only a few, in only a few ways. It was like they were a little kid, trying to dress up and be like the “gr’ups” — only it was a young congregation trying to do all the things that older congregations do, even though those things have clearly failed to reach the lost or disciple the found.
It’s been said that if you build a better mousetrap, the world will beat a path to your door. But there’s a corollary — if you build the same ineffective mousetrap, the world will figure it out and keep walking. That’s how you keep from reaching a world that needs the gospel. That’s how you labor for over a decade, with people who have been mightily saved from death, hell and the grave, and end up with only twenty adults in your Sunday service. And when I asked God how I should pray for Bob and Brian, I believe He indicated that I should pray for them to see the trap they’ve fallen in and break out of it, that they would release themselves from the American church’s expectations, stop doing church and just be the church. Because that’s what the world needs to see — not people pretending to be responsible corporate adults, but people living out “the glorious freedom of the children of God.”
Whether that will happen, I don’t know. As I was standing reading the testimonies, the same fellow who first greeted me when I arrived came up and we had this conversation:
Him: You gonna stay around for fellowship?
Me: No … I don’t think so today. [Note: I had promised to make my family lunch when I got home.]
Him: Did you enjoy the service?
Me (after a long pause): That’s … not an easy one to answer.
Him (slapping me on the shoulder): It’s all good.
Me: No … it isn’t. It really isn’t.
Him (slapping my shoulder again): Well, God bless you. (Walks away.)
I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised that he didn’t want to talk with me about it. After all, the service was technically still going on — The System hadn’t shut off yet. If I come back, I’m going to have to remember this, be sure to show up very early to relate with people … and leave once the first song begins.
Is God’s Word preached? Grade: C — though several verses were referenced in the sermon, there was no real attempt to teach the Bible; the Bible was only used to support the sermon’s premise.
Is God’s Spirit working? Grade: B-; it’s clear that He’s working in individual lives there, but doesn’t seem to be allowed to work in them together.
Do God’s people act like it? Grade: A+ before the service … and D+ during it.