During Advent, I am visiting churches in Northwest Arkansas prior to beginning my call at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Fayetteville. Today I visited the "big" church in the area, Fellowship Church, which has as its vision "to change the heart and soul of Northwest Arkansas and the world." It's a large campus church on the outskirts of Rogers, near the interstate, and includes a main building for worship, outbuildings for various children and student ministries, and I believe even houses a training school for missionaries and apartments or condos for students in residence there.
I don't know the precise size of the church, as in how many attend worship there each week, but I do already know it has a big footprint in NWA. One of the more recent times we were down here closing on our house, I was in an Eddie Bauer getting jeans, and ended up talking with one of the clerks who attends Fellowship. The young man was passionate about his faith, loved his church and its small group ministries, and I came away impressed by that conversation and wanted to visit.
Many people I have met here are aware of Fellowship because of its large size and impact on the community. Fellowship does a lot of social service and care in NWA, and they also are very energetic about global missions. In fact, when we entered the gathering hall of the church today, one of the first kiosks featured missions books for sale, and an invitation to attend a missions training school in the area called Perspectives. It's a training ministry of the U.S. Center for World Mission, and the national offices are in Fayetteville. They have a special course for clergy that seemed particularly interesting.
As you enter the gathering area, it's milling with activity. The longest lines were for the coffee bar, of course, but there were staffed kiosks for a wide range of ministries, for women, Boy Scouts, a central information kiosk, and a special kiosk to help families get their children routed to the nursery or classroom.
These are the kinds of things that impress me about evangelical and large churches. They know how to organize, and they give a huge amount of energy to interpreting their ministries to their members and involving them. The mission statement of Fellowship is, "To produce and release spiritual leaders who know and express the authentic Christ to Northwest Arkansas and the world." They definitely seem to be taking a fair stab at doing just that. In ten minutes I had met at least four people who were genuinely interested in us and inquisitive, and helped show us around.
Up until this point in the visit, attending Fellowship hadn't seemed that overwhelming or strange. It was a bit odd to have so many people trained to greet us, given that in most smaller and Lutheran congregations that I visit, almost no one tries to greet you at all, but again, this is something I appreciate about these churches. They don't take anything for granted, nothing is assumed, and they train their people to be helpful and provide information and direction.
We went to the children's kiosk to find the nursery. We found out they don't have a traditional nursery, but instead start tracking children into age specific groups at age 1. For today, they agreed to let our kids go together because we were visitors, so they sent us to a separate building to check them in. At that building, they entered my name, the names of our children, and their ages, into their computer system. This computer system printed name tags for them both, then a sticker for me that included an assigned number (that would flash on the screens in the main worship space if we needed to come back for an emergency) plus a bar code that I would need to bring back with me to print "receipts" for the kids to pick them up.
Again, this was a huge surprise given what I'm used to, but it also showed they take security and safety of children seriously.
Now, back to the worship center. We had already sung a few songs in the darkened worship space, all unfamiliar to me (with the exception of "Here I am to Worship"), and when I got back, they were doing another Christmas-y song led by an excellent musical ensemble. If you're curious what they sound like, they provide audio here. Pretty laid back, easy listening music. Meditative rather than raucous.
Then, for today, they had a visiting preacher, the president of Dallas Theological Seminary. I'm not totally clued in to things in the evangelical world, but I think Dallas is one of the biggest evangelical seminaries (connected to Chuck Swindoll somehow?), very influential, and popularized dispensational theology, among other things.
He was a fine speaker, but this was where I realized I simply couldn't be an expository preacher in his tradition. He had something like "four truths" to bring out of the text, from John 14. Although he made an attempt at talking about Advent at the beginning of the sermon, pretty soon he was into his four points, things you need to know to get to heaven, essentially. Each point was kind of doctrine-y and John Piper-esque, then peppered with an anecdote, before moving on to the next point.
Why do people like this kind of preaching? I just don't get it. I kept sitting there thinking, "I'd love to have a preach off with this guy." Can we do that? Have a preach off? Seriously, like put me in a big room with one of these preachers and see how we compare! :)
The disconcerting part was when he tried to prove to us, using a chart on the big screen (everything is more true if you use a chart), that John 14"1-3 matches almost verbatim the language of 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. In other words, he was trying to prove to us that John 14 is actually about the Rapture. Yes, you heard me correctly. In case you are curious, look up these two chapters and read them. Go ahead and set them side by side. See what I mean? Just for kicks, I googled this topic, and found that there are a good number of pre-tribulationist and Tim LaHaye style web pages making this comparison, so apparently it is a widespread interpretive move. Just not one I share.
This was the exact point where I jumped ship, and posted on Facebook, "I am so NOT a megachurch evangelical." It's not because I think Fellowship and its ministry are unchristian, or that they're doing a horrible job of ministry. I want to honor them in their walk with Christ, and respect the diversity of the Christian tradition represented by our diversity. But wow. I just can't do expository lists like that, and I don't think the whole bible is finally about the rapture.
Once the sermon was done the service was done. A guitarist came out and sang a twangy hymn, also nice and meditative. But this is where I really felt a lack, and wished I was back at a liturgical service of worship. Where was communion? I'm a weekly communion nerd. I need to receive Christ in his body and blood every week together with others. There was no liturgy, no Lord's Prayer, no creed. Even though I sometimes tire of the liturgy and think it becomes somewhat rote, today reminded me why I love the liturgy, and why it has power. I felt like I attended a concert and lecture today rather than worship, and that says something less about who Fellowship is, and more about how I am shaped and formed as a Lutheran Christian.
We went out and got the kids using the bar code, then drove our cars on the long drive through the church campus back to the highway. I felt a few of those twinges of jealousy I feel when I see a church obviously engaged in such a large enterprise. Since then, I've been trying to think about how to reflect on my experience of being there in a way that is non-judgmental but also honest. This blog has been the best I can do. Forgive me, and I covet other reflections.