Independent (10+ years)

Holden Fellowship

325 Bullard Street, Holden, MA

Visited Sunday, January 29, 2012

For three years I drove by Holden Fellowship on my way to my son’s elementary school.  One year my son and I brought his bow and arrows out to the lot adjacent the church building to see if we could land a few in their volleyball sandpit.  I assumed all of that land was part of some grand plan of expansion that had never materialized.  The picture shows what looks like a 1970’s house that has grown some kind of prefab-warehouse appendage.   Seemed like the plan was to build something other than the volleyball court on all of that land, but it never happened.  So, what happened?

Years later a home health aid worked with my extended family and revealed that she was a member of Holden Fellowship Church.  Unlike three other home health aids that rotated through our house during that season, the one who praised her church as “fun and full of families” seemed compassionate and mature.  So a year later I had the opportunity to give the church a chance to compensate for a lackluster exterior.  I checked the website which featured a slide “Going Viral” which I presumed was the topic of the month.  I also read the statement of beliefs and had the same reaction I have with all churches that list these same fundamentals, “They must only want people who already believe all of this stuff to attend…but I’ll go anyway.”

Sunday, January 29, 2012    Service at 10:30

WINDOWS:  What helped me experience God?

Likeable Ministers.  I entered the church through the front door of the house and found myself in “KidTown”, a sort of playroom for kindergartners.  I doubted this was how a visitor was expected to enter, but I liked walking into an energy-filled space.  I saw a sort of café in the next room and walked directly (instinctively?) toward chocolate biscotti and tea—seven kinds of tea…including DECAF!  Yes!  I am caffeine free and they thought of me!  The woman behind the counter easily discerned I was a visitor and happily answered my questions including a favorite response, “Yes, you can bring your food into the sanctuary.”  Shortly after that, the pastor, whom I had heard talking with another newcomer, found me and asked where I live and then “What is your religious background?”  He seemed genuinely interested.  When he asked my name a second time I thought “Oh crap, he’s going to announce to the congregation ‘Hey everybody, guess who is visiting this morning?”  Didn’t happen.  Thanks.  After the service ended, the guy I recognized as another staff person greeted me by name.  Nice.  This third minister was as engaging and authentic as the first two.  I was most impressed that this guy offered to pay $100 of his own money for anyone who was willing to participate in a “Financial Peace” class.  Great generosity.  Great leadership.

The sermon was also “likeable”.  I assumed I would have to endure either a benign self-help message or a painfully dogmatic reflection of the church’s statement of belief.   But his message short-circuited my pessimism.  The message that came to me was that people who follow Jesus faithfully balance grace (“Neither do I condemn you” –Jesus, in Gospel of John 8) and truth (“Go and sin no more.”).  I’ve heard lots of people discuss this “woman caught in adultery” passage without ever mentioning the irony that the man was not held accountable by those who sought to stone the woman, but this preacher mentioned the irony!  I’ve heard plenty of condemnation of premarital sex and pregnancy, but this pastor admitted that doors should only be opened to such people.  Finally, he encouraged people to read the Bible “Not just literally…listen for the story…the general truth.”  His sermon appears online.  Listen for yourself.   http://youtu.be/iofPg4ZRxNc

Memorable Ministry Priorities.  I found a brochure near an attractive, well-staffed nursery.  The brochure was color, but it was brown and hard to read with only a few tiny pictures. Yet I really liked the content listed there.  The brochure claims three ways toward a growing relationship with Jesus Christ:

Watch—they suggest a kind of apprentice approach to discipleship.  Come to non-worship events and watch how we (Christians) behave in public.  That seemed like a novel expression which claimed essentially, “Yeah, we know many people these days think Christians are hypocritical, so see for yourself.”

Connect—“participate in a culture of loving God and people.”  I love the way that sounds. He brochure suggests I use time before, during and after service to check-in with people, but of course that is only the start, and they know it.

Grow—“Staying the same isn’t healthy for anyone.”  This is where they advocate LifeGroups which look like the church’s bread and butter.

Core values for these LifeGroups?

Authenticity, Transformation, Outward Reaching, Multiplication

The kid programs also looked great.  The church was full of families, so clearly the program meets real needs/desires!

Most non-denominational churches that I visit focus on cutting-edge media, rock-driven, simplified worship, café hospitality, full-service children’s program and, finally, small groups.  The recipe was the same at  Holden Fellowship.  But I liked the rationale that I read in the brochure and could see myself growing a family of faith here, at least for a while.

Free T-Shirt!  Turn in a “connection card” and you get a Holden Fellowship T-Shirt.  Okay, this didn’t help me feel closer to God…but I felt appreciated by the church.  And that is where it starts, right?


WALLS:  What interfered with my experience of God?

Techno-Drums.  The band was a patchwork of personalities.  The two young men (teenagers?) on guitars seemed awkwardly aware of their friends in the front row watching them.  The main song leader with his acoustic guitar sported this strange indie knit hat and squeezed his eyes together like he was straining to lift a particularly heavy stanza.  The guy playing the Casio keyboard seemed to be playing and singing, but I couldn’t hear either.  A beautifully voiced young woman looked dressed for more traditional worship.  And then there was this thirty or forty-something  guy playing the same drums I am willing to bet Rick Astley used in the 1987 hit “Never Gonna Give You Up”.   The band looked like a volunteer band that would never actually hang-out anywhere but in church.  The music wasn’t bad.  The sound was mostly balanced and the song-leaders voice, though it lacked much authentic passion, was pleasant enough.  But the band didn’t seem to be in the same genre/family and it just felt awkward.  It might help if they looked at each other every once in a while.  It might also help if they dressed similarly.  I don’t know.  One thing I do know is that the electronic drums sounded just plain weird.  If they do nothing else, I hope they can lay their hands on some acoustic drums.  And then maybe lose the hipster knit cap.  He seems like he’d be cool enough without it.

Haunted House Aesthetic.  The lobby was essentially a smart, small café crowded with people and energy.  That bright, cheerful welcome was a shocking contrast with the extremely dark, spooky auditorium.  Serious-faced staff people lurked in the back around a media center on one side and a table on the other.  The front of the auditorium was painted black.  The old-fashioned light sconces on the wall emitted blue-green light.   A screen in the front was counting down:  2:00, 1:59, 1:58.  I honestly felt like I was in one of those community haunted houses at Halloween.  Even the plain wooden cross pressed against all of that blackness offered little comfort and in fact deepened a sense of foreboding.  The only things that helped me relax were really comfortable, new chairs and a cup of tea that the nice people in the lobby allowed me to carry into these dark woods perhaps to ward-of werewolves and vampires.  Werewolves hate herbal tea.

Preachy-Prayer.  I struggle with public prayers because they seem manipulative of God and of parishioners.  “Lord, help us to be more generous,” offers the preacher who relies on our generosity for his financial well-being.  I know that Jesus spoke harshly of public pray-ers and that this prohibition is largely ignored in most worshipping communities.  So I don’t fault this church for following suit.  But the pastor shifted awkwardly between ostensibly talking with God and talking about God.  He started the prayer intimately with “Father…”  (I used to do that too, but although Jesus referred to God as “Daddy,” I don’t think he meant for us to actually say “Daddy” every time anymore than he meant for us to say the actual words he said when disciples asked him how to pray.  The Lord’s Prayer is not mandatory language.  God is not a dude.  God is love.)   But shortly after that familial opening, the pastor talked about God in the third person and I had the sense that perhaps the prayer was over and I could open my eyes for another sermon about God.

INTERVIEW—19-year-old White female.

I usually ask a long-time member seated near me in worship four questions:  What kind of message came through worship for you today?  Why do you need Jesus?  Why do you need the Church—the larger family of Christianity?  Why do you need this particular church?

Of over a hundred worshippers there were only two black-skinned people present and they were seated in front of me.  I asked if they were regular participants and they said they were not.  So I turned to the young, white woman on my right.  She was a first-time visitor as well.  Instead of asking her the typical questions I wanted to find out why she visited.

She is a freshman, double-majored at WPI.  She found out about this church from a WPI friend who attends and invited her.  That friend was not present which frustrated the visitor who is not the type to explore churches alone.  Once I learned she was shopping for churches I asked what other churches she had visited and she named Bethlehem Bible Church, Heritage Bible Church and the Woo.  The Woo was not a good fit for her.  I learned that she came from a Reformed Presbyterian church in Philadelphia but that her beliefs have changed from what she was offered there.  I asked her what she now needs from a church, she paused, and then said “I don’t really know.”  I asked–Was this close to what you need?  She said, “Not really…I don’t know.”

It is interesting to me that WPI students live in the midst of five or six big, old-line denominational churches, yet people like this woman drive miles outside of town for a different experience.  http://www.wpi.edu/Images/CMS/Diversity/religiousservices.pdf

I learned that although there is a Campus Religious Center staffed by clergy from the mainline, there is also the WPI Christian Bible Fellowship which offers rides to the churches named by the young woman I met and not to any mainline, Protestant, churches around Worcester.  Why haven’t mainline churches made their list?  And why aren’t Hope Chapel, Holden Fellowship represented in the leadership of the Campus Religious Center?

National Community Church:  One Church; Seven Locations!

http://theaterchurch.com/

201 F Street, Washington, D.C.

December 10, 2012

Only a few steps from Washington D.C.’s Union Station I found Ebenezer’s Coffeehouse in the Capitol Hill neighborhood.   Stairs near the counter led up to a closed door with a sign:  Theaterchurch.com, Saturday night at 5pm.   The church gathers in the basement on Saturday, however on Friday night it was reserved for Open Mic Night.  The sound engineer who works both the open mic night and the worship service explained the church concept to me.  The sermon is given by Pastor Mark Batterson (the sound tech guy raves about Mark) in the basement of Ebenezer’s Coffeehouse where it is recorded and then broadcast to six movie theater locations across D.C..  Ah ha, that’s why they call it theater church and not coffee church. I resolved to return the next night for the service.

I was told that if I wanted to sit in the upstairs coffeehouse before the service I should probably arrive an hour before the service.  I was glad I did.  The chairs filled quickly.  At the counter this time I found a stack of red books entitled The Circle Maker by Mark Batterson.  Mark is the senior pastor.  The book reminded me of The Prayer of Jabez with its insistence that all we must do for God to honor our dreams/prayers is to circle the object of our desire the way Joshua circled Jericho.  That is how this church arrived at this location, according to the book.  Church leaders circled the neighborhood they intended to reach (F through M Streets along 8th Ave.) and then laid hands on the building they wanted to rehab (201 F Street).  Done.  Poof—it’s yours.

5 PM Worship

WINDOWS:  Where I Sensed God.

Church Didn’t Feel Weird.  For a change I didn’t feel like a nerd for attending worship.  It was Saturday night and this was what the cool people were doing—they were going to church.  I saw one family with children and a handful of people who did not look young and Caucasian.  Otherwise the crowd of young professionals looked a lot like me, though most were younger than 40.  Like me, most of the congregation did not raise their hands (in what author of Stuff Christians Like, John Acuff, calls the “YMCA” move) as some in the front chose to.  Like me, most were wearing casual clothes  which would be as suitable for the coffeehouse upstairs as for the service downstairs.  My brain tells me “People who look like me will probably like me,” so I easily settled into my clan assuming my acceptance there was given.  I like feeling accepted in worship because I like to imagine God accepts me too.

Yet, especially as I write this during the week commemorating the birth of Martin Luther King Jr., I recognize the problems of homogeneous worship.   MLK, speaking in 1963 at West Michigan University, responded to this question by WMU President Miller:

  Miller: Don’t you feel that integration can only be started and realized in the Christian church, not in schools or by other means? This would be a means of seeing just who are true Christians.

King: As a preacher, I would certainly have to agree with this. I must admit that I have gone through those moments when I was greatly disappointed with the church and what it has done in this period of social change. We must face the fact that in America, the church is still the most segregated major institution in America. At 11:00 on Sunday morning when we stand and sing and Christ has no east or west, we stand at the most segregated hour in this nation. This is tragic. Nobody of honesty can overlook this. Now, I’m sure that if the church had taken a stronger stand all along, we wouldn’t have many of the problems that we have. The first way that the church can repent, the first way that it can move out into the arena of social reform is to remove the yoke of segregation from its own body. Now, I’m not saying that society must sit down and wait on a spiritual and moribund church as we’ve so often seen. I think it should have started in the church, but since it didn’t start in the church, our society needed to move on. The church, itself, will stand under the judgment of God. Now that the mistake of the past has been made, I think that the opportunity of the future is to really go out and to transform American society, and where else is there a better place than in the institution that should serve as the moral guardian of the community. The institution that should preach brotherhood and make it a reality within its own body.

Theater Church.  According to the website, this church started in 1996 in a school but was soon forced to move into the Washington D.C.  Union Station movie theater (back when there was such a thing).  Where I suppose some might have preferred to graduate from plain, shared, theater space to something more easily identified as “church”, National Community Church remained at Union Station and opened a second location in another theater.  On and on it went until the church had six theater congregations.

I like the idea of projecting a quality sermon to numerous congregations who might not have the resources to pay for an effective preacher.  Imagine if Martin Luther King Jr.’s sermons could have been heard in Michigan or Mississippi in place of the moribund messages preached in both traditionally black and white churches in those days.  I would miss hearing examples from my local community and I would certainly miss “live preaching” the way I miss “live bands” when I hear a group lip-sync on a broadcast, yet what I gain is powerful persuasion that I often miss in the local churches.

Blended Music.  The Ebenezer’s Coffeehouse worship space offered four plasma screens for 120 people in the square-shaped room.  The high-tech electronics with the warehouse-chic decor led me to believe we were in for completely modern songs, but that was not the case.  It was Christmas time and we sang Christmas hymns!  A modern band played modern arrangements of the two traditional songs, but everyone in the room seemed to know and sing the songs.  People didn’t sing as loudly to the newer songs.  Maybe the traditional songs were welcome because many of these worshipers had left traditional churches to be part of National Community Church?  If that is the case, then I am glad there is some church these people CAN relate to instead of remaining spiritual nomads.

WALLS

Shotgun Bible.  The guest preacher cited at least eight scripture passages on his way to reminding us that Christmas means “God is with us.”  We covered the books of Matthew, 1 John, Psalms, Romans, Jeremiah, Genesis and Isaiah.  He also quoted Charles Spurgeon, Augustine and John Wesley.   I think preachers who use so many quotations like these believe they are bolstering the truth the way the presence of numerous witnesses in court bolsters a lawyer’s case.  This particular church is the child of the Willow Creek Church movement which is known for one of its pastors, a former attorney Lee Strobels, who wrote The Case for Christ.   These kinds of shotgun citations are meant to overwhelm our ducking defenses.  Reasonable people will have to conclude “Yes, indeed, God is with us.”  But how many people WANT to spend time on a jury hearing such a case?  Most people I know would rather duck-out of jury duty in order to hear a good story from a friend at Starbucks.

You want to use my money to do what?   Before attending worship I grabbed an eight-page brochure highlighting National Community Church’s plan to purchase a Post Office in Berlin, Germany for conversion to a church.  A coffeehouse church like this one on Capitol Hill.  How do I know it will be a coffeehouse church?  The highly polished brochure with outstanding graphic design illustrated exactly where the $15,000 espresso machine will go in that renovated Post Office.  Initially I felt bemused disbelief, but then I felt outrage.

The NCC brochure entitled “reaching the berliner soul” explains that the Evangelical Free Church of America was interested in “catalyzing a marketplace ministry in Berlin as an experimental project to reach into a secular, post-Christian culture.”  The leader of that initiative liked the “social business” model of National Community Church and asked to for a partnership.

First I have a problem with the way these churches define “lost.”  According to the EFCA “Berlin Team” website,

Berlin’s controversial history… forms a society of vast diversity, open tolerance, alternate lifestyles, and an edginess that is uniquely Berlin.

The team seems to use the terms “open tolerance,” “alternative lifestyles,” and “edginess” pejoratively.  Alternate lifestyle compared to whom?  Adult nudity garners an “R” rating in the U.S., while violence does not.  The inverse is true in Germany as nudity, full frontal nudity, is celebrated openly.  Which “open” society is lost and in need of saving?  Compare poverty in the U.S. and Germany.  Compare the number of deaths by firearms.  Ask a German how they spend Sundays (at home, far away from the marketplace, generally) and then ask an American where they will go after church on Sunday.

Second, I am sad that it takes an espresso machine to lead people to Christ.  These colonial churches assume we have to do whatever it takes to reach the lost soul.   NCC is described in the brochure as a “Market-place ministry,”  a “Third place, social business model that is economically self-sufficient.”   What I like about a “market-place-ministry” is the way it meets people where they are.  Many churches have stopped meeting people in culture and prefer to remain out in little ideological barns in the country.  NCC reflects Paul’s strategy:  “To the Jews I became like a Jew.  To those under the law I became like one under the law…I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some” (1 Corinthians 9:20-22).  This verse is the justification senior pastor Mark Batterson uses for the campaign.

However, what have I found when I step from the secular streets of materialism which have led me to feel like I am the center of the universe into your coffeehouse?  The claim “Jesus loves you” on the side of your foam coffee cup is not greater than the “Life Runs on Dunkin’s” claim on your competitor’s cup.  I am still the center of the universe.  The woman at the counter just said so with a smile.

In the worship service, when it came time to ask for our offering, the pastor alleged “When we give money to the church, the Devil can’t touch it.”  That may not be true.

INTERVIEW:  Two Caucasian women, early twenties.

What kind of message came through for you this evening?

What I love about this church is the way messages come straight from the Bible.  I heard that God is with us. [The other woman simply nodded her head in agreement.]

Why do you need Jesus?

All of us are fallen creatures and cannot access God.  Jesus is our bridge.  [The quiet one nods affirmation when I turn to her, so I ask how she experiences that “bridge” in her daily life.  She shrugs her shoulders and her friend fills-in the blanks with “It’s just an assurance you have.”  The quiet one nods.]

Why do you need the Church, a Christian community.

It says in the Bible “Where two or three are gathered, Jesus is with them.”   Your faith runs dry if you don’t have people to help you.  [The quiet one agrees and tells me her friend got her to attend this National Community Church.]

Why do you need this particular church?

A friend told me about this church and I like how innovative it sounded.  I actually attend a different church on Sundays because I like the community I feel there.  Both of my churches are prayer and gospel centered and that is important to me.

The New Community Church at 614 S Street

Church of the Savior in Washington D.C.

December 11, 2011

Paul Wilkes’ 2001 book Excellent Protestant Congregations:  The Guide to Best Places and Practices directed me to Church of the Savior, one of nine congregations profiled in a Lily Foundation funded study.

 

We were looking for what Flannery O’Connor called a “Habit of being:” Congregations with a soul.  We were looking for congregations that impacted the lives of their people and were making a difference in their local communities, local churches that were beacons of hope and examples of what it really means to be a practicing Christian today. (p. xi)

 

Church of the Savior organized in 1947 as a reaction to pastor Gordon Cosby’s experiences in World War II.  Soldiers on the front lines had not been prepared by their home churches for the ultimate issues they faced.  Cosby’s new church would require deep theological study and a challenging commitment to membership and service.  This dedicated core membership eventually purchased a home on 19th Street in D.C. for meetings, a farm in rural Maryland which they called “Dayspring” which they used for retreats, a bookstore/Diner called “Potter’s House”, and a community building they called “Renewal Center.”  In the 1970’s the still relatively small membership church agreed to move from one worshiping community into several separate but connected worshiping faith communities.  Each of these “churches” was challenged to fully embrace new callings, and the church profiled in Paul Wilkes’ Excellent Protestant Congregations was one of these nine expressions.  They called themselves “Seekers Church”.

I was captivated by the idea of a church intentionally splintering in order to fulfill diverse roles within a region.  There are churches which move through their entire cycle of life from birth through death without ever really sowing wild oats.  There is little recognizable metamorphosis. Other churches do sow new faith communities.  Consider how the Willow Creek Association based in northern Illinois has “seeded” 10,000 faith communities across the globe since 1992.    These “franchise” churches surely play a meaningful role in the spread of a new kind of Christian witness, but Church of the Savior seemed different.  The closest thing to Church of the Savior that I had heard of was New Path in Tipp City, Ohio, which grew from dedicated members of Ginghamsburg United Methodist Church.  For example New Path developed an automobile ministry called C.A.R. which rehabs donated cars and gives them to low-income families.

I did not want to go to Tipp City, Ohio in December.  But I did want to visit Washington D.C.!  I had planned to visit Seekers Church in D.C., but after I spent time in the Potter’s House Bookstore and watched a video featuring the New Community Church, I knew I had to go there instead.

New Community Church, 614 S Street

11AM Worship

WINDOWS

Coming Home.  After Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in April,1968, mourning D.C. community members gathered in the Shaw neighborhood and insisted store owners close out of respect for MLK.  The crowd ultimately rioted and destroyed numerous businesses.  Prior to my visit I learned from a video of New Community Church that the pastor and core members intentionally planted this new church in the midst of a Shaw neighborhood that was still in recovery from that chaos fifteen years later.   They wanted to work for racial reconciliation.   They wanted to work for neighborhood renewal.  After purchasing a residential home to convert to a home base for ministry, the church gradually developed the neighborhood one home at a time through a program which is now called Manna.

I walked S street toward worship and I could see the ongoing transformation of the neighborhood, not just by the church but also by Howard University Hospital, which is erecting a large parking garage near New Community Church.

I entered the front door and found myself in a living room.  About fifty chairs were arranged in a semi-circle angled toward a fireplace and baby grand piano.  As soon as I recognized the living room as a sanctuary for worship I noticed a middle-age man seated near the entrance.  I knew from the video that this was the pastor.  I sat beside him and he drew me into a conversation by asking “So, what’s your story?”  From that moment on the stories came easily.  I felt like I had come home.

 

Best offertory prayer, ever.  Children were involved lighting Advent Candles and collecting the offering.  When the third or fourth grade boy returned the basket of offering to the front he was encouraged by the leader to say a prayer.  I don’t remember the exact words he used in his brief prayer, but I remember his sincerity.  It wasn’t some rote prayer and it wasn’t offered under some “please-the-parents” kind of duress.  His honesty was a window into the kind of faith formation I suspect the boys finds in this church (and at home).

Sermon that made me want to shout.  The pastor that I met at the back door was wearing casual Friday attire, however the pastor that entered worship to preach was wearing a yellow t-shirt embossed with the sentiment “Housing for All.”  No poofy academic gown or shiny liturgical stole; this shirt was his mantle.  In the video above, the speaker had just explained that he spent Saturday at the MLK public library speaking to homeless men and women.  He told them they were getting “screwed by this city!”  Did he say that to them?  Did he just say that to us?  “Screwed?”  Really?

I loved that he used Paul Simon’s newest album to make his point about “Getting ready for Christmas”.  I loved how we were encouraged to separate the hype of consumer-driven Christmas from the prophet Isaiah’s “stimulus package”.  I loved the audacity of asking us if any participant had $10 million to contribute toward a social investment fund he and the leaders of the church were initiating.

WALLS

Awkward hymn.  When we hear Christmas carols in the market place, many of us would like to sing Christmas carols in our churches.  But the churches are singing Advent songs!  We have to wait.  That’s the point of Advent—waiting.  Carols come after Christmas Day.  The problem is there are scarce few good, sing-able, Advent songs.  The song chosen for this day was an example of good poetry matched with an awkward melody.  I can’t say the music was bad; I wouldn’t mind listening to a soloist sing it.  But the group struggled to find the melody, so I missed the magic of the song.  I was happy to see that my own United Methodist tradition posted examples of good Advent poetry mated to popular Christmas tunes. http://www.gbod.org/site/pp.aspx?quicksearch=true&searchkeywords=Advent%20Hymns%20Set%20To%20Christmas%20Tunes&c=nhLRJ2PMKsG&b=3891263#

One man band.  The pastor of New Community Church sang louder than everyone else combined.  That energy felt good initially, because it helped to build some momentum.  But I could hear his voice in every song and every response to every prayer.  I didn’t like being so aware of him.  I sometimes feel this way at sporting events where cheerleaders shout “Y-E…L-L, Yell it out, Go team” offering words and emotions we don’t really need; the game is right in front of us!

INTERVIEW

Young adult, Caucasian woman.

What kind of message came through for you today?

God loves justice, so get involved in what God is doing right here, now.  Spiritual disciplines help to ground us in God’s neighborhood.  [I ask about her personal disciplines and she tells me she has covenanted with her small group to do a walking meditation for thirty minutes each day.]

Why do you need Jesus?

He’s an example for me of love for the poor, challenging the powers and taking risks.

Why do you need the Church?

I don’t really even think of the larger church.  This is the church; it’s local.  I can say that when I was in Palestine it was good to connect with the larger Christian family that I met there.

Why do you need this particular church?

I am part of a mission group which helped me to be involved in Manna [an affordable housing non-profit].  It keeps me accountable for my discipleship which I know sounds heavy-handed, but it’s good.  Also, when I wasn’t quite ready to commit to membership, I was mentored by Jim [pastor] over the course of two years.  This church values individual spiritual growth.

Holden Chapel, 279 Reservoir Road, Holden, MA  

August 14, 2011

A man came home and found his children on the front steps and asked what they were doing.  “We’re playing church,” they answered.  The father asked for an explanation.  “Well, we already sang, prayed and preached and now we’re outside on the steps smoking.”

There is an identifiable order of worship used by many “contemporary worship” churches such as the Holden Chapel and it will inevitably include singing, praying and preaching.  (Smoking is optional.) If the church is going to limit the service to these three “channels” of grace, I’d like for those channels to be deep.  Does Holden Chapel deliver on all three?

9:30 Prayer Service   10 Worship

Windows

  • PRAYER.   I arrive in time for the prayer service.  I can see from the outside on this overcast Sunday that chandeliers inside are dimmed.  A banner in the entrance proclaims “Expect Miracles”.  The sanctuary is an embryonic, warm embrace of curvaceous architecture with pleasant, though prerecorded, John Tesh-style piano music.  A group of men sit in a circle down front , heads tilted together, praying.  I can feel the power of that kind of devotion.  Prayer is clearly glue for this church.  I read that the church will be participating in an upcoming town fair offering a prayer tent.
  • MUSIC.  The band consisting of acoustic guitar player/song leader, bass, drum-set in Plexiglas enclosure, keyboard and assistant singer offers well-rehearsed, seemingly familiar, early nineties, praise tunes for  a congregation of around 41.  That number swells closer to 100 after twenty minutes of opening song interspersed with prayer.   I could not take my eyes off of the back-up singer whose wide smile and closed eyes helped me to understand why someone once said that she who sings prays twice.  Here is one of the songs, “(Hallelujah, Your Love is Amazing).
  • DIVERSE LEADERSHIP.   I didn’t have any idea who the pastor was until he preached, and then I just assumed he was the pastor.  (I would have appreciated folks introducing themselves) At one point a long-haired layman assumed this wonderful role of wise elder for a college-bound tribe of young adults.  “They will be tempted,” he intoned in prayer, “but I know You will support them.”  It’s awkward to be called-out from the seated masses like these young adults were, but it seemed natural in this place.  Everyone here seems “called-out” to something–singing, praying, teaching (even in the summer time there was religious education!) lifting hands in prayer, supporting numerous missionaries.  No less than six people contributed to leadership of the service!  It is nice to see leadership shared among a variety of people.

Walls

  • RIGIDITY.   The first sign I encounter tells me “One Way 8:30 – 10:30”.  The second sign tells me “No skate-boarding, biking, etc.”  What kind of etc. might also be prohibited?  From the website it was clear that there are doctrinal norms such as biblical inerrancy and  the total depravity of humanity telling me that there are likely thousands of human impulses and activities that might be included in that “No…etc.” sign in the parking lot.  Churches like Holden Chapel may never stray from  TULIP Calvinism’s low opinion of humanity, but I wonder if there is room for optimism that teens will do the right thing in the Holden Chapel parking lot even without a written code of conduct.
  • ISOLATION.  A woman with a “greeter” name tag opened the door for me, which I liked.  But then she was done with me.  Not another word beyond “Hi”.  I floated into the lobby and gawked at a few pamphlets (tracts simplistically reminding me that I am not yet saved if I am engaging in “etc.”), but no-one talked to me.  Not even the three folks gathered at the reception counter only twenty feet from me.  I sit down and one woman gets out of her seat and says “hello” then returns to her seat.  I have the entire pew to myself.  Later, a woman sits in front of me–also a loner–and my greeter not only greets this person she knows, she sits with her.  The visitor sits alone.  Why do our churches leave visitors alone this way?  Again, on my way out, there was no connection even though I stayed after worship (admittedly looking for food–what, NO doughnuts?  Is this a church or not?).
  • A REAL ARMOR SUIT.   We heard 1 Peter 5:8.   The message I heard from the pastor was that the Devil is looking for opportunities to trick and hurt us but that we can repel such attacks in two ways:  First we must learn to be humble (v.6) and second, we must actively resist the Devil.  I resist devil-talk, which the speaker suggested I might.  I did not leave the service convinced that I would actually encounter the Devil (I didn’t hear any example of this happening to modern people) or, if I did, that I would be equipped to resist him.  But that wasn’t the main barrier to something of God really getting through to me.  The speaker spent almost ten minutes at the start of the sermon reviewing what he talked about last week, and that sermon did not seem to relate to this one, so I felt like I was hearing TWO distinct sermons in the 45 minute spot.  Then he concluded message two by previewing the upcoming series featuring the Whole Armor of God metaphor from Ephesians 6 (Message three?).    At the 45 minute mark he rather abruptly remarks “Hey, what’s that in the corner.”  It looks to be some statue covered by a white sheet.  He yanks the sheet to reveal a suit of armor which he positions in front of the pulpit.  There is some laughter–more when he alludes to the Wizard of Oz by squeaking “Oil!  I need oil?”   Whatever hope I had of remembering advice to confront the devil I lost with a new image in my head of the Christian as Warrior.
    Heavy metal at Holden Chapel.
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