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 — Sojourn VI


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.

John the Baptist baptizing Christ

Image via Wikipedia

So, Sunday, I was teaching kids at Sojourn again. I’d studied my lesson on John the Baptist and was really feeling pretty good about it. Unfortunately, when I got to church, I discovered that I had accidentally downloaded the wrong materials and that I was, in fact, actually supposed to be teaching about Gideon. Whoops.

So I quickly reviewed the materials about Gideon, and was able to successfully tell a decently engaging story about him, instead. Which was a shame, because I was really looking forward to doing the quiz provided in the materials about eating bugs.

Continuing the theme of the week, various and sundry random thoughts about the experience:

— It surprises me sometimes how much my Bible literacy has increased, or at least how much it feels like it has. I was able to switch gears so quickly in part because I was moderately comfortable with both stories, enough that I was able to brush up adequately just in looking over what points they wanted made from the story.

I’m not really sure what’s changed, but I credit it in part to a change in how I think about the Bible. I was raised with the impression that the Bible was a collection of verses that you were supposed to memorize, a task that was rather daunting and really not particular compatible with my skill set. I always felt like I didn’t “know the Bible” because there weren’t enough verses and chapter and verse citations that I could rattle off. Over the past couple of years, I’ve changed to thinking more about the Bible as an anthology of related and interconnected stories, and focus less on memorizing the verses than knowing the stories. It’s made the book as a whole make a lot more sense to me, and made it much more accessible to use.

— I was a little glad not to be teaching about John the Baptist. I commented ahead of time that I was going to have to make a real effort to behave. That’s another thing that’s changed in the past couple of years about how I access the Bible, is I’ve tried to work to have a better understanding of cultural context for the stories. And the story of John the Baptist develops some interesting ramifications when you look at it in a Jewish rabbinical yoke context. A big part of the guy’s ministry is saying, “Hey, look, you don’t have to do ‘religion’ they way you’ve been taught you have to. I’m not in the temple. You don’t have to be, either.  You don’t have to go to ordained ministers to learn about God. God’s bigger than all of that that.” But that’s probably not what they were wanting me to teach the kids.

— Gideon, on the other hand, was just fun. I’ve had the opportunity to tell stories to kids much more frequently lately, and I felt like that came through for me during the story I told Sunday morning; I felt like my actual delivery was better. I’ve talked in the last few Sojourn posts about feeling like I was struggling to keep the kids engaged and focused. Sunday, i didn’t feel that way at all. And that was nice.

— We studied John the Baptist in my Journey Group recently, so he was fresh on my mind. My most recent interaction with Gideon, on the other hand, was in fleeces. The angel appears to Gideon, who’s like the most unlikely action hero ever, and tells him he’s going to lead an army into battle against the rather daunting Midianites, and he’s going to win. And Gideon goes home, and says, “Hey, God, look, um, before we do this thing, I want to make sure that was, like, a real angel and all, so, if you wouldn’t mind, I’m going to put a wool rug out, and when I wake up tomorrow, would you be so kind as to have the ground be dry and the fleece be wet?” So he goes to sleep, and wakes up, and sure enough, dry ground, wet fleece. So that night, he says, “OK, God, thanks for the wet fleece and all, and, see, it’s not that I don’t believe, it’s just that I’m not really sure that I believe, you know? So if we could maybe make sure that last night wasn’t some sort of super-absorbant fleece abnormality, I would really appreciate it. So maybe could we do it again, only reversed? You know, wet ground, dry fleece?” So he goes to sleep, and wakes up, and, sure enough, wet ground, dry fleece. And so after some exciting stuff about God telling him his army’s too big and people drinking water the wrong way and trumpets and torches in jars and stuff, sure, enough, badda bing badda boom, Midianites are gone.

And it’s something Christians like to latch onto, this putting out our fleece bit. I did it earlier this year, and still have no clue what to make of it. I hoped I’d get some great insight from the lesson in that respect, but, really, not so much.

How about you? Any thoughts on putting out fleeces? Have you done it? How’d it turn out?

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 — Sojourn IV


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.

Jesus and the centurion in Capernaum (Matthew ...

Image via Wikipedia

Another Sunday teaching kids at Sojourn. This week, the lesson was about respect.

It was interesting timing; I came out of last week annoyed and frustrated at the lack of respect that a small number of the kids had shown to me and their peers during the lesson. Frankly, I really didn’t want to have to teach this particular lesson to that particular group; it seemed very much like a case of casting pearls before swine.

As it turned out, those kids weren’t there anyway. It was a much smaller group, and pretty much the opposite of the class from the month before — rather than being too disruptive, they were too quiet; it was hard to get answers to questions initially (though they eventually warmed up a bit).

The lesson was out of Matthew 8. A Roman centurion comes up to Jesus and tells him his servant is sick. Jesus says, “No problem, I’ll go heal him.” And the centurion says, “Dude, you don’t have to do that. I know you can just give the word, and he’ll be better.” The centurion explains that, being an officer over large group of soldiers, he gets the idea of authority. All he has to do is give the order, and what he orders will be done. He gets that Jesus has an even greater version of that sort of authority. “You give the order, Jesus, and it’s done.” Jesus is all impressed, saying that in all of Israel He’s never met anybody with faith like that. He tells the centurion he can go home, that He’s healed the servant like he asked.

It’s a cool story. I like the stories were somebody gets it. The stories where Jesus is happy, the ones where, without it being written, you know He’s grinning. I’ve written before that I think there are a lot more of these than we acknowledge; tone of voice can completely change the meaning of the same words. I think people tend to read Jesus as dour when there was actually a grin on His face or a sparkle in His eyes. I think Jesus had a huge smile when Peter fell in the water and Jesus called him “ye of little faith.” But all of that’s beside the point. There’s no question Jesus was proud of this guy for getting it.

The lesson was about respect, and we talked about that. For the centurion, life was about authority. If he had a problem, he gave the order for it to be resolved. If he couldn’t, he went up the ladder to someone who could. If he lacked the authority, he would go to someone with more authority. He expected respect from those with less authority; he gave it to people with more authority. Jesus had authority to do something he couldn’t, so he respected Him. The kids and I talked about ways they could show respect to God.

But the authority part of it is fascinating, too. The centurion had authority over life or death. At his word, he could cause someone to die. Conversely, he could allow someone to continue to live. He got that as Proverbs 18:21 says, “the tongue has the power of life and death.” He had no reason not to believe that Jesus could order healing for the servant. We fail with that sometimes. We believe in the theory of an omnipotent God, but we have trouble with the reality of it. We have trouble with the fact that a God who could do everything could do anything.

What can your God do?

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 …

Another Sunday — Sojourn 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 Reconciliation of Jacob and Esau, as in Ge...

Image via Wikipedia

I guess there are a couple of different directions I could go with this post about this past Sunday. I could talk about the lesson that I taught the kids at Sojourn. Or I could talk about the experience of teaching the kids.

The lesson was about forgiveness, and was rooted in the story of Jacob and Esau. It started much later in the story than people often do, not with Esau selling Jacob his birthright for a bowl of stew, or with Jacob tricking Isaac to receive his blessing, but with Jacob deciding to return home after fleeing his brother’s wrath. The story was about Esau’s willingness to forgive Jacob, and encouraged kids to have the same attitude of forgiveness.

But I was more intrigued by the part we didn’t talk about. Esau’s apparently short-sightedness, to sell his birthright, to sell his future fortune for a bowl of stew. The curriculum used the term “birthright and blessing.” And as easy as it is to criticize Esau for that, I wonder how often we do that ourselves; how often we exchange a blessing that God has planned for us down the right for something much less in value but much more immediate.

And how many times do we not even have to sell our blessings? How many times do we not even get the benefit of trading them for something of lesser value, because we are afraid to claim them? Because we don’t trust that what God has planned for us is really worth having, and don’t pursue it? Or because we let fear prevent us from accepting his gifts?

That said, throwing a complete monkey wrench in that thought process is this — When Jacob was returning home, he was afraid that Esau was still mad at him, possibly still murderously so. So he sent peace offerings, animals from his herds, in hopes of winning Esau’s favor and forgiveness. When Jacob finally arrived, however, Esau returned the gifts.

Because he didn’t need them.

Esau was doing just fine. Even having sold his birthright and blessing, he had amassed enough on his own that he had no need for his brother’s gifts. Maybe he didn’t have as much as he would have, or maybe he did. But either way, he had enough. And he got the stew. I would love for someone wiser than I to tell me the message we’re supposed to learn from that.

OK, that’s the content part of it. The presentation part? This Sunday was one of the hardest I’ve had in months. The kids had no interest in paying attention. And I don’t entirely know why. I don’t know what I did differently, or what I should have done differently. I know that there was one kid in particular who was so disruptive that he disrupted it for everybody. But I have no idea what I should have done about it. Sigh.

Next week — I think I’m going to be at Southside Baptist. Barring anything changing between now and Sunday. Which is entirely possible.