Congregational Journey: Visit #10

Sometimes, business signs are tricky. How many times have you seen a sign that says “Help Wanted” only to find the position has already been filled, or a poster for a big event … that happened last week? It can be annoying when a business doesn’t take down or correct an outdated sign, so most are careful to do so, because the last thing you want to do is mess up a potential customer. Worse things could happen, of course, but it does leave kind of a weird first impression.

Believe it or not, something like this happened to me Sunday at Crosstown Community Church, the latest stop in my Congregational Journey. I chuckled about it at the time. Later on, I got to wondering if it was part of something bigger …

Crosstown Community Church is a nondenominational (or, if they are part of a denomination, they’re pretty quiet about it) evangelical congregation in east Stockton, less than a block west of Wesleyan Evangelical Church (which I visited as part of my Congregational Journey about two months ago). Their building sits on a good-sized corner lot and is fairly low-key, resembling a couple of single-family homes linked together, and painted light gray with some darker gray patches. (I suspect those were to cover up graffiti, which is endemic in Stockton.) One side has windows, and two more have plywood boards painted to look like modernist stained glass. The parking lot is mostly dirt and grass, with about fifteen parking braces in the middle; it must be rough during the rainy season.

I had driven by previously and seen the sign in front of the building, saying that their Bible study was Sunday at 9:30 a.m., with the service at 10:45. So when I pulled in at 9, I wasn’t surprised to find the lot empty except for a motorcycle. I waited to go in until 9:15, then had to take a minute to figure out which door to use, as the building has doors on three sides. I lucked out on the first try, but when I opened the door I found the sanctuary still dark. Standing just inside the door was a very surprised fellow who introduced himself as Art, and let me know that a) there was no longer any Bible study, and b) the service didn’t begin until 11. So we both got a giggle from that, and I headed home for a while to fold my laundry and pull some weeds, coming back to the building around 10:50.

(I later found out that the service times had changed from those listed outside “a couple of years ago”, and that I was the second person in a month to run into that problem. I wonder what the first one’s reaction was.)

When I returned, the parking lot was almost full, and there were about 45 people in a sanctuary that seated about 65. The sanctuary was a long, low-ceilinged room that was simply but tastefully adorned, with undecorated padded pews, ceiling fan lights and wood-paneled walls like the kind typically seen in modular buildings. A few banners hung on the walls, and Powerpoint slides with announcements and pictures from previous events were projected onto a screen in front. An upright piano was the only musical instrument visible, and there were only two speakers, mounted high on the side walls near the front. All in all, very relaxed and homey, which I like. (There were also what appeared to be Christmas decorations still up to one side of the screen, and I began to wonder if those, plus the uncorrected sign, were part of a trend.)

When I came in, an usher handed me what I first thought was a bulletin but turned out to be the order of service, right down to the lyrics of the worship songs. I found a seat in a pew in the back … and was largely ignored. Art came by and introduced me to Kevin White, the pastor, who looked to be in his early forties. He and I talked for a couple of minutes, though about half of that time was spent with him making sure I got a visitor’s card to fill out, so I could get on their mailing list (he mentioned that specifically). Due to some experiences of both myself and the Supermodel, where we spent years getting mail from congregations that we’d never visit again, I prefer to not get on mailing lists if I can avoid it, and usually write down only my name and e-mail address (so they can still contact me if they want to follow up). But I figured there was no reason to needlessly burden them with my hang-ups on the first visit. As it was, Art and Pastor White were the only people who spoke to me beforehand, though plenty of conversations were going on around me.

By the time the service began around 11:10, the congregation had grown to about 60, and some men had set up stacking chairs behind the last row of pews to relieve the crowding. The congregation was almost entirely Caucasian, about 2/3 female, and made up largely of young adults and their kids, with a few senior citizens sprinkled in. Like the atmosphere, most of the clothing was relaxed, with a lot of T-shirts, and only one older man wearing a suit; even Pastor White was dressed “business casual” with a lapel mic for amplification.

Pastor White opened the service, mentioning that they had a lot of guests that day due to a baby dedication they had planned. He welcomed the visitors, adding that if they had a home congregation of their own, he would not try to convince them to leave it (“we don’t do cattle rustling” was how he put it), but that if they didn’t have one they were quite welcome to make this one their home. He went on to talk about their Wednesday night Bible study, which included dinner (cooked on-site) beforehand and apparently a lot of discussion of the texts. This intrigued me, as it sounded rather like how some theologians believe the “house to house” meetings of the first-century church operated. Then a woman (possibly the pastor’s wife) announced that the Tuesday ladies’ Bible study would resume on April 14. That was all the announcements.

Then worship began, with praise choruses interspersed with responsive readings from the Psalms. The same woman who led the announcements also sang and played the piano, which in fact was the only instrument in use – it was nice to not have to resort to my earplugs for once. At one point near the start stopped playing so she could get the congregation to clap along with the music, but it didn’t help much; maybe half the folks in the pews were singing along (pretty typical for most congregations, alas). After three songs, two calls-and-responses and eight minutes (a bit of a surprise for me, being used to Pentecostal services where eight minutes might not get you through the second song), the music paused for the baby dedication.

I got to contrast this event with a baby dedication I witnessed two weeks ago at Shiloh Delta Valley Church, which was so brief and unmemorable that it rated three words in my account of that visit. Not so here – Pastor White not only gave a short but solid message on raising kids in the ways of the Lord, but also called on both the parents and the congregation as a whole to accept responsibility for the spiritual nurture of this particular infant. He even walked with the baby up and down the aisle to emphasize that he was now part of their lives, and gave the parents a letter to be given to the child in ten years (contents unknown). It was quite a moving experience.

This was followed by a couple more songs and an extemporaneous pastoral prayer, during which the kids in the congregation began to get antsy. It didn’t faze anyone, though, least of all Pastor White, who weaved their restlessness right into the prayer. After one more song came the offering, introduced only with a quick prayer by the usher I met at the front door – very different from the common practice of a pastoral message (often guilt-inducing) on tithing or the financial needs of the building and staff. While the offering was taken, a recorded song was played over the speakers; afterward, the kids were dismissed to their Sunday school classes.

Pastor White, it turns out, has been going through the book of Acts chapter by chapter in his sermons. This morning he gave a recap of Acts 24, then read aloud Acts 25 in its entirety (also printed in the order of service). I wondered if it would be a somewhat long expository message, but instead he used the chapter – which deals with Paul’s imprisonment in Caesarea – as a jumping-off point to talk about trials and the opportunities they give. From what he said, it seemed that most of the members of the congregation had gone through some sort of long-term crisis. His emphasis was that trials reveal a person’s character, whether it’s of God or the world. I was particularly taken with some things he had to say on how we can often get stymied by doubt when people (or Satan) say offensive things about us – a subject I’ve had to deal with lately, as I’ve had some aspersions cast about my own character by some religious leaders in the area (names withheld to protect the guilty). Very applicable.

Throughout, Pastor White was open and honest, talking about the doubts he’d experienced and how he had to deal with them. He emphasized that what we have on the inside, by the work of the Holy Spirit, is what makes the difference, rather than trying to force good habits from the outside. (For instance, he referenced the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5, stressing that it wasn’t a checklist to follow, but a mirror to look at and see what God is doing in us.) He weaved a clear evangelistic message throughout, but without the manipulation or guilt trip common in some congregations. On the contrary, he emphasized that salvation meant following God rather than paying lip service and doing what you want. I found it to be an excellent sermon, but the congregation was strangely unresponsive – I didn’t expect a big “amen corner”, mind, but I was surprised to see people not only silent but frowning, almost looking sullen. It left the initial impression (hopefully false) that Pastor White would be willing to follow God wherever He led … but that his congregation might not necessarily join him.

The service concluded with a short altar call (the bowed-head, raised-hand kind), a final song and an invitation to come forward for prayer that no one accepted. We were dismissed at 12:25, and people quickly moved to collect their kids from Sunday school or gathered into knots of conversation. I continued to be ignored completely. After several minutes, I actually gave up and began to head for the door when Perry Rhodes (the usher I’d met on the way in) came over and introduced himself; we talked for about five minutes, mostly about the congregation and its members. I’ve written previously about the practice among some congregations of what I call “church-friendly” – namely, people coming up smiling, shaking your hand, and departing at top speed without making any real effort to get to know you. I can now say that being completely overlooked is a slight improvement on “church-friendly”, in that at least it doesn’t raise one’s hopes – but it’s still no substitute for real friendliness, the kind Perry and Art showed. So, thank you, Perry and Art.

As I drove home from Crosstown Community Church, I felt like I had seen a congregation going in two directions at once. On the one hand there was the low-pressure, non-religious atmosphere; the solid sermon full of Scripture well used; and that Pastor White comes across as what I call a “true pastor” (see last Friday’s post), one who really cares about the people God has brought him and works to build them up in the faith. On the other hand, there was the pre-written service order and a congregation that didn’t seem all that interested in either the service itself or the stranger who’d dropped into their midst. Relaxed yet rigid, caring yet callous – it was a lot of contrasts to sort through.

And I came back to that sign, the one with the service times that were years out of date. With that in mind, the picture all of this creates is of a congregation that’s something of a closed circle, one that is incredibly enriching to those already inside it but isn’t really looking to minister to anyone else. (Or even tell them the correct time for when the service begins.) Nothing coming along seems to be able to throw them off their game plan, which can be good when what’s coming along is a trial or an attack of the devil … but is a problem when what comes along is a visitor who wants to join them, or maybe a new move of the Holy Spirit. I was left asking: if God wanted to do something really different from the usual during the service, would it be allowed? Or even acknowledged?

This is pertinent, as from the evidence I’m seeing, I believe God IS beginning to do new things in the church in America, things that may shake up the established order more than a bit. I’ll be praying for Pastor White that he will persevere through the changes that are coming – but not against them. I don’t know if I’ll go back to a Sunday service at Crosstown Community Church, though I think I’d like to visit that Wednesday night meeting. I hope I can find a more open door there.

But at least now I’ll know the correct time to show up.

Summary:

Is God’s Word preached? Grade: A — Scripture was used in context, extensively and with the goal of drawing people closer to Christ rather than advocating an agenda.

Is God’s Spirit working? Grade: C+; though there was little in the way of outward signs (and the rigid order of service is a concern), it was clear that God was working in people’s lives in building character and perseverance.

Do God’s people act like it? Grade: C-, and that was with Perry and Art pulling it up at least a grade level.  I’ve rarely seen a congregation that, while displaying such a commitment to fellowship, also showed so little interest in welcoming someone else into it.  Thankfully, that’s probably an easier problem to fix than that of the “church-friendly” whose fellowship is largely false.

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One Response to Congregational Journey: Visit #10

  1. wonker says:

    Interesting blog, I’ll try and spread the word.

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