Another Sunday — Flint River Baptist Church III


This entry is part of my series on my on-going “church journey” that I’ll be documenting as it takes place. You can read about other visits with the “journey” tag.

The last time I saw Steve Bell, he was in handcuffs.

This is the third Sunday morning I’ve visited Flint River Baptist Church with Heather recently, but the last two were special programs. No sermons. So this week was the first time I’ve heard their regular pastor preach for about two and a half years.

The last time I saw him, he was in handcuffs, as an illustration for his sermon series about breaking free of spiritual prisons. To be honest, while I thought the sermon was good, I thought the handcuff bit was rather gimmicky.

This Sunday was about spiritual “hoarders.” There was, as with last time, a flashy introductory video, and the stage was covered with junk as an illustration for the concept. To be honest, I thought it was all a bit gimmicky.

All of which would be fine, except that the sermon dealt with wrong attitudes Christians have. They don’t prepare before coming to church, and they expect to show up and be the audience. They fail to understand that church isn’t where you come to catch up with God, and that when you come, He is the audience for your worship.

And the problem I have with that is, sure, it’s easy to say, but you can’t be surprised that people feel that way when that’s what the church trains them to do. Rather than a New Testament model where everyone comes to church to participate, today’s church turns most members into an audience, mostly watching quietly and still as the preacher and worship team perform. And here’s a preacher, on stage, complete with big screen videos and set dressing, like a concert, chiding his audience for acting like, well, an audience.

This is one of the biggest problems with the church today — you cannot create a structure based on complacency, and then be surprised when it produces complacent Christians.

In his defense, he was preaching, generally, the right things. I agreed with almost everything he said. I just wish the medium didn’t outweigh the message.

That said, this past Sunday was unusual for me for another reason — it’s the first time in almost two years that I’ve been to Life Group or Sunday School or whatever name it happens to go by. And it was good. The lesson was somewhat pro forma, but that’s OK. The real great part was the people. It was the first time I’d been to Heather’s class with her. I’d met many of the people before in other contexts, but I was still a little worried about what it was going to be like going to her class with her, how people would accept me, how they would accept the change. And everyone was wonderful. In addition to having met some of the people, Heather has talked about them a lot, and how they’ve supported her, in myriad ways, over the year. And being there, it’s easy to understand. This are good people, this is a good group.

And that, to me, more than preachers and sermons and worship leaders, is what a good church is about. (And, again, I think Steve Bell wouldnt’ completely disagree.) It was a pleasure to be among them.

Another Sunday — Flint River Baptist Church I


This entry is part of my series on my on-going “church journey” that I’ll be documenting as it takes place. You can read about other visits with the “journey” tag.

sanctuary of flint river baptist church in harvest alabama

“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” — T. S. Eliot

When I left Whitesburg Baptist Church over two years ago to begin my journey of exploration of the church, my first step was a baby step — Flint River Baptist Church. I would eventually visit different denominations, non-denominational churches, Catholic churches, a brewery, a movie theater and so forth, but my first step was to go from one Southern Baptist Church to another.

I went back then at Heather’s invitation. I had told her what I felt called to do, and she invited me to come to her church first. So I did. I went maybe one other time back then; ironically, the way it ended up, Heather’s family was never in the service when I went. I went to her church, but never went to church with her. I went back one more time earlier this year, to a Christian Passover Seder observance they hosted.

This past week, she invited me to come again, and I did.

The service was a special program — kids from “Children of the World” came and sang to raise awareness of humanitarian efforts, specifically the need for water in third-world villages. There was little procedural or doctrinal for me to evaluate, which was fine, since for me the experience was more about going to church with Heather and the boys for the first time. It was weird being back in the same place, but in a very different circumstance.

To be honest, it was nice going to church with somebody I’m in a relationship with again, it was nice that somebody being her, and it was nice other somebodies being the boys. Heather says I’m supposed to mention that I drew Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for the boys during the service, but I assure that’s utterly irrelevant and was done purely for very important doctrinal reasons that I haven’t made up yet.

I wrote last week about missing community, and about other issues I’m dealing with regarding church, and I’ve wondered what that would look like if I end up with Flint River being my new home congregation. And, yeah, Sunday, I realized it all looks very different if you have the right community you bring with you.

Another Sunday — Building Church I


This entry is part of my series on my on-going “church journey” that I’ll be documenting as it takes place. You can read about other visits with the “journey” tag.

worship team area at Building Church in Huntsville

I don’t remember what movie it was I was skipping church to go see.

This was back pretty early on in this whole process; I was still attending Whitesburg Baptist Church regularly, but had also started attending a house-based congregation in addition. This was back in the “what’s a real church” era, and was part of the transition to the idea that something other than what I was used to could still be real church. I had met with the house-based congregation the night before, and was skipping church to see the movie partially as a way of communicating to myself, “Hey, it’s OK, that last night really was church, and you’ve already been to church this weekend.” What can I say, I was young and naive and legalistic back then.

Point being, it was interesting to me that when I went to the movie theater that morning, there was a church meeting there. My thought process was probably something like, “Huh, interesting.” Given what was going on with me, I probably took it as evidence that church could be more diverse than I had thought, but that it wasn’t anything I was interested in doing personally.

It’s been a long road since then before I finally visited that church this past weekend, and this post is probably going to be unfair to the Building Church as a result, for which I’m sorry.

In fact, I’ll start by saying, they were awesome. That’ll make up a bit for what’s to come.

The church has been meeting at the Rave Theater in Jones Valley in Huntsville for years, though my timing was rather fortuitous; they’re going to be moving to the Monaco Theater at Bridge Street the first weekend in December, so I almost missed visiting where I had first seen them.

It was almost certainly the most friendly and welcoming church I’ve been to; I was met at the front door, and escorted directly to the “sanctuary” theater, being introduced to several people along the way. They were very much set up to make sure that guests felt very welcome, and welcomed, at the service. Plus, there was free coffee and hot chocolate, though I didn’t partake, so can’t speak to quality.

The music was lively and energetic, the set-up was nice, the guest sermon was interesting and accessible.

All in all, I was very impressed.

OK, there’s my nutshell review. Here’s the personal part, since this series is really more about my journey than about the churches I visit.

They’re all the same.

The first year of my journey was about learning about how very different churches can be, how much diversity there is. Now, however, it seems to be about how they’re all the same, how little diversity there is.

Once you get past the myriad superficial differences, it’s all the same. The format or volume of the music is a little different. There are differences in theology and doctrine, but not so that you would necessarily notice on a week-to-week basis. The people sitting around you are different, but if you barely interact with them, you don’t notice so much. Go to any given church long enough, and maybe the music will be a little different one week, or a guest preacher will talk about something a little different, or you’ll sit by different people. Ignore the decorations, and that’s what it’s like visiting different churches at some point.

When I visited Southside the second time, I noted that I wondered what the take-away was from the fact that my second visit was so different from the first, if it was a lesson in the fact that I should be more careful not to judge a church just based on one visit. Looking back, those two visits to that one church were as different as a lot of weeks going to entirely different churches.

It’s all the same.

I want something different. I want something more like the house church I was involved in.

I desperately want community, and that made me realize that it’s been over two years since I’ve really been to some sort of Sunday School equivalent.

I like my Wednesday night group, but I don’t necessarily believe everything they do, and at times it’s frustrating. I want people whom I can explore things with, not who want to make sure everyone understands proper doctrine. When we read and discuss scripture, or when we focus on sharing our journeys through life, I love the group. When we’re supposed to be learning about John Piper or Food Inc., not so much.

I’m tired, I’m frustrated, and I’m disheartened.

I read Revolutionby George Barna, and it really didn’t help. It’s a little more open to the idea of just walking from organized church completely than I want to be. But there are times like last week when it sounds freeing.

I want my church to be freeing, too.

Another Sunday — Mountain View I


This entry is part of my series on my on-going “church journey” that I’ll be documenting as it takes place. You can read about other visits with the “journey” tag.

And then there was the week I went all the way back, to the beginning.

I wrote last month about revisiting Southside Baptist Church, where I attended prior to my divorce, and the experience of what it was like to go back to a church I had been a member of but which I’d not been to in years. It was an interesting experience, and made me curious about going even further back.

So I went to Mountain View Baptist Church.

To the best of my knowledge, Mountain View is the first church I ever went to. Pretty much from the time I was born until I was in high school, my family and I attended Mountain View, save for a couple of years we weren’t living in Huntsville. When I was in high school, we moved to Southside because of the larger youth program. I’ve set foot in Mountain View only sporadically since then, but it’s been many years since even the most recent of those visits.

Nonetheless, the first words I heard upon walking in were “Hello, Mr. Hitt.”

I’m impressed anyone recognized me. I’ve changed quite a bit since I last regularly attended Mountain View, but there were still a few familiar faces, more than recognized me without introduction than vice versa, I should add.

These posts about churches that were once home are the hardest in some ways, because it’s easy to take for granted some of the details. What was it like? Well, in a hundred little ways, it was like Mountain View, you know? I could still find the area in the wood paneling at the front that looked to me like Sark from Tron when I was a kid. When I walked through the church, the library still had the collection of Tom Swift books that were old when I read them decades ago, sitting on the same shelves. They were evenstill using the same offering envelopes.

The music was a mix of old and new. It was the first time I’d been in Mountain View and not used a hymnal, and despite the fact that the first song projected on the new screen up front was a praise chorus, we still sang “Just As I Am” as the invitation.

The congregation was also an interesting mix — Mountain View was most likely the most integrated church I’ve ever attended, with several mixed families. I’m curious as to how the Mountain View broke the church race barrier more effectively than, perhaps, anywhere I’ve been before.

And, of course, the other thing that was different was the pastor, as tends to happen. The consensus has been that Mountain View has a tendency to drift more liberal with new pastors, though I think there has been some back and forth rather than a continuous trend. I couldn’t tell about the new pastor. I could tell preached loudly, in sort of an archetypal old-fashioned Southern Baptist manner. It distracted me from the actual content of the message, but was fascinating for a while.

Two people joined the church at the end of the service, and the church body voted then and there on whether to accept them. Also, before dismissing the congregation, the pastor asked whether anyone else had a word they felt called to share, which I thought was pretty cool.

Right now, I feel like I sort of got what I was going to out of visiting Mountain View, but can’t swear that I won’t be going back.

Another Sunday — Southside II


This entry is part of my series on my on-going “church journey” that I’ll be documenting as it takes place. You can read about other visits with the “journey” tag.

I’ll admit that my second visit to Southside Baptist Church this past weekend started on the same footing as my last visit a few weeks ago — service had already started by the time I drove tardily into the parking lot.

From there, however, the differences began immediately. As I approached the doors, there were Pam and the girls coming in late, as well. Rodney shook my hand, welcomed me and handed me a bulletin. Tammy gave me a hug as I walked into the sanctuary. To be honest, I really don’t know who the other person that spoke was as I came in, but he knew me.

Point being, these were people I knew. Last time I was there, I was very aware that I was returning for the first time in about three years to my long-time church home, but it felt like returning home in much the same sense it would be to go back to a former house and find other people living there. I think I recognized only one face — the minister of music — last time I was there. This time was very different.

The second difference — the place was packed. During my journey, I’ve only been to a couple of services this packed. It was the complete opposite of the last time I was there. To be fair, since the last time, the church had gone from having two Sunday morning services to just one, but even so. It would have taken far more than two of the crowd at the last service I went to to equal what I saw this week.

The last time I visited, it was the Southside I was afraid I would find: largely emptied after the rift going on when I left, with a sermon focused on the fear that had taken root in the church.

This week was the Southside I had hoped I would find: filled with people — a mixture of long-term members I knew and fresh faces — and a dynamic, Bible-focused new preacher.

I’m glad I came back.

I’m pretty sure there was a lesson in it for me; other than the obvious fact that I shouldn’t judge a church based on one service on one Sunday. I’m not entirely sure what it is, but suspect I may find out before too terribly long.

I’m not sure what next week holds. I’ve had a couple of suggestions (in fact, they may have been suggestions for the same place, which would give them a little more weight). After revisiting Southside, I’m also now interested in going back to the church I grew up in before going there. And, after a Creative Arts team meeting on Sunday night, I may have to start spending more time at Sojourn. So we’ll see.

Another Sunday — Southside I


This entry is part of my series on my on-going “church journey” that I’ll be documenting as it takes place. You can read about other visits with the “journey” tag.

Southside Baptist Church

“We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started… and know the place for the first time.” — T.S. Eliot

I first became involved with Southside Baptist Church as a high school student when I went on a mission trip to Cherokee, North Carolina. I began attending the church with my family after that, continuing into the time I spent home from college. When I moved back to Huntsville eight years ago, one of my brothers was still attending Southside, and extended an invitation to attend with him. He left the church not long thereafter, but not before I had settled back in. I attended Southside for another five years after that.

After my divorce, however, I felt like it was time to leave. My sense of my place in the church was very much rooted in my ex-wife, and it was uncomfortable going without her. I wanted to go somewhere that I could start fresh, that people would know me for who I am, not who I’d been. And, at that point in time, Southside was having such major problems at the church that I felt like the church was too hurt itself to be able to really minister to my hurts.

I have a vague memory of going back to Southside for something not too long after the divorce, and it feeling really weird going by myself. The memory is vague enough that it may even have just been during the time before I left to find another church.

The long-time preacher who had been at the center of the divide in the church left around the same time I did, and I’d been curious what had happened in Southside after that division had been resolved, and a new pastor had been hired. But I’d just never made it back. After my journey led me to a Baptist church last month for the first time in over a year, I decided that maybe it was time I revisited Southside.

What I learned is that I’m going to need to go again to figure out what I’d learned. Southside currently has two Sunday morning services; this past week I went to the 8 a.m. service. What I found was not encouraging, and led me to wonder how well the church had survived the divide. Attendance was sparse, and the congregation skewed older than when I had been there before. But I didn’t know if that reflected the church as a whole, or if the two services felt radically different from each other.

Supporting the former thesis were the announcements that the church would be consolidating into one Sunday morning service in two weeks. Also, the preacher was out of town Sunday, but the associate pastor who brought the message talked a lot about the number of people in the church who had talked to him recently expressing fear. Being at the service felt like being an intruder at a private family discussion.

But I’m not leaping to conclusions, so I guess the main purpose of this post is to serve as backstory for the posts I’m going to be writing when I visit again to see what the later — or consolidate — service looks like.

To be continued …