Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Church of the Incarnation, Santa Rosa

The Sunday after Christmas Day is traditionally a morning of sparse attendance in churches, but when we entered the sanctuary at 9:10 a.m. for the 9:15 a.m. service and no one was there...Well, we thought something might be amiss. Another person entered the building and said to us, "Did you see the 9:15 time on the internet as well?" Fortunately, someone else came and told us that the 9:15 and 11:15 had been combined into a 10 a.m. service for that morning, but we were welcome to join others for coffee. We instead took the time to run home to change the laundry.

Back at ten, there were pews open to choose from, but the sanctuary was inhabited, mostly with older folks, but also a couple of families with kids. The priest began the service with greetings and informed us that it would be a special service of Lessons and Carols. "Usually," he said, "the Carols and Lessons don't include Communion, but we're patching it on. Or rather, I should say, we're patching Carols and Lessons on to Communion."

I should say something about the church architecture, which is gorgeous. A flyer included in a bag of welcoming materials (with mini Snickers - score!) gives information about the art in the church and the church building itself. The congregation began in 1861, but building was begun on the present location in 1872. Though Ripley's Believe It Or Not immortalized the Church of One Tree in Santa Rosa, Incarnation's original structure was built with two redwood trees. In 1885 the church was quartered, drawn apart and enlarged, and then survived the 1906 earthquake. The church building is the oldest church structure in continuous use in Santa Rosa. One of those uses is ministry and meals to the homeless, including breakfast every Sunday morning before the first worship service.

It goes without saying (but apparently not, because here I am saying it), that it was appropriate and cool that we were celebrating the Incarnation at the church so named.

I was familiar with the choice of Scriptures, since they were pretty much the ones used at the Christmas Eve services I attended at First Presbyterian growing up. Something I've noticed about the reading from Genesis is that people always seem to chuckle appreciatively when Adam blames Eve and Eve blames the Serpent for the Fall. Everyone relates to the rebellion that made the Incarnation necessary.

I was struck by how many of the Carols we sang were of the variety that set Jesus' birth in the setting of a snowy European village (such as "In the Bleak Midwinter" and "The Snow Lay on the Ground") but another Carol was quite obviously set in Canada. "Twas in the Moon of Wintertime" includes such lyrics as "Within a lodge of broken bark the tender babe was found, a ragged robe of rabbit skin enwrapped his beauty round" and "The Chiefs from far before him knelt with gifts of fox and beaver pelt". Fortunately, the theology of these Carols is far better than the seasonal and geographic details.

All the Carols were sung from the Hymnal accompanied by the organ. (Except "O Come All Ye Faithful." It was played on the organ during communion and people began to hum and then spontaneously sing.) I enjoyed most all the Carols, but a note for what it's worth, "Go Tell It on the Mountain" is not at its best accompanied only by organ sung primarily by Caucasians.

This was the second Sunday in a row without a sermon, which was okay by Mindy. I'll share her dark secret -- which readers of this blog should probably be aware of -- she doesn't like sermons. Her father preaches, and her husband preaches, and she claims to enjoy and profit from both of our sermons (it seems best for family comity to believe this and not dig too deeply into the matter). But she often gets restless during the sermons of others, even other pastors she loves. But Scripture reading and singing bring her unending delight.

I'm always torn when churches have "the Passing of the Peace". Only saying "Peace be with you" to those around you seems rather impersonal at times. But as church pilgrims, knowing we won't return the next week, impersonal sometimes suits us best.
  
Service Length:                       1 hour 5 minutes
Sermon Length:                      No sermon
Visitor Treatment:                   During announcements near the end of the service, the rector came into the body of the sanctuary, asked first-time visitors to raise hands and gave each a bag with candy and information about the church
Our Rough Count:                  60
Probable Ushers' Count:         70
Snacks:                                    Coffee, tea, cookies, pie, yogurt pretzels, crackers with hummus, whole loaves of bread (seemingly available to take home)
Songs:
"Angels from the Realms of Glory"
"In the Bleak Midwinter"
"Comfort, Comfort Ye My People"
"Lo, How a Rose e'er Blooming"
"Twas in the Moon of Wintertime"
"The Snow Lay on the Ground"
"Of the Father's Love Begotten"
"Go Tell It on the Mountain"

-- Dean

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Healdsburg Seventh Day Adventist Church

Mindy and I have gone to church the vast majority of Sundays in our lives; so much so that it throws off our mental calendars for the week when we don't go. Prior to last weekend, we had a different challenge to the aforementioned mental calendars: remembering to go to church on Saturday morning.

The Seventh Day Adventist denomination has been meeting on Saturdays for a year plus a century and a half. It's one of their founding beliefs, that Christians should meet on the Sabbath as dictated by one of the Ten Commandments and Jesus' practice on earth. Traditionally, most other Christians meet for worship on Sunday in honor of the Resurrection.

There's something to be said for placing a Scriptural basis over a traditional basis for a practice. Upon entering the church, we were greeted by several people with a handshake and "Happy Sabbath."
We knew before we came (the church's website calendar told us) that this would not be their standard service, but instead was the Christmas program. The sanctuary was quite full and the service opened with the Healdsburg Brass. (When we attended Healdsburg Community Church the Healdsburg Brass often opened Easter services.)

We sang a number of Christmas Carols from the hymnal. I was very happy that among the carols was "Now is Born the Divine Christ Child," a song that I usually hear sung in French. (Really, how many songs refer to an oboe, let alone the musette?)

 The program had "Praise Songs / Holy Land Band" but instead there was piano or guitar accompaniment to carols from the Adventist Hymnal. My guess would be that the Holy Land Band usually leads choruses, but things change at Christmas. Many churches we've attended no longer keep their hymnals out, if they even have them. I shared a hymnal with a couple of little girls whose mother had a seat behind us. We were surrounded by a number of small children which made Mindy and me happy, and Mindy noticed a ziploc bag of activities one family had picked up at the back of the church.

There was a dedication of a baby that apparently came all the way from Australia for the event (accompanied by his parents). His mother had grown up in the church and a large contingent of the family came forward, a number of them also having come from Australia.

A number of children came forward for the "Children's Story" which advocated the virtues of being nice over being naughty. After the main offering, children were sent off to collect dollar bills for the local Adventist schools.

There was no sermon for the morning (which made me a little sad because I was looking forward to hearing my friend and the church's pastor, Dan Martella), the message coming through the Christmas Program performed by the Cloverdale Adventist School, "A Christmas to Believe In." The kids did a great job, pulling off the humor and the music, including several solos. The Church Choir and the Men's Chorus provided some of the music in the program as well. From something the woman sitting next to Mindy mentioned, we got the impression that this group performs a Christmas program at the church each year.

After the program, there were a couple of other special musical numbers, a string quartet and a solo. Much happy socializing took place at the service's conclusion. (Apparently, again according to the church website, on the first Sunday of the month there is a 9 am breakfast, followed by 9:45 Bible Study, worship at 11:00 am and then lunch. So fellowship opportunities would seem plentiful.)

It was a good time of worship and worth the challenge to our daily equilibrium.

Statistics:
Service Length: 1 hour 25 minutes
Christmas program time: 35 minutes
Visitor Treatment: Greeted at the door; no "friendship pad" or other way to register attendance (that we noticed)
Our Rough Count: 200
Probable Ushers' Count: 225
Snacks: none
Songs: What Child is This?
            Now is Born the Divine Christ Child
            Silent Night (five verses)
           --Dean

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Movie Church Review: While You Were Sleeping and Home Alone

(A review of movies in churches, not the movies themselves)

There are Christmas films set in churches and featuring clergy. The couple of films we're looking at today aren't among those. Churches play cameo roles in both of these films. But they are interesting cameos.
           
You don't usually see "While You Were Sleeping" on lists of Christmas films. It is one, of course. Sure, it's a rom-com, but it's all set in the Christmas season. The story's activating incident happens on Christmas day. The man (Peter) that Sandra Bullock (Lucy) has been the secretly longing for is pushed onto the tracks of a Chicago L train. He falls into a coma (the 'sleeping' of the title) and while he is there, through a series of rom-com misunderstanding, Lucy is mistaken for Peter's fiance. Zaniness and an eventually happy ending ensue.
  
There are three churches in the film. Her father would take Lucy to the church where he married Lucy's mother, who died when Lucy was young. It's a pilgrimage. In Europe, christenings, marriages and funerals are often the only reasons for going to a church. This is sad, but it's interesting that the some of the most important events and memories are still found there.

The next church we see is the Catholic Church that Peter's family regularly attends.  The priest, as part of the prayer for the people, prays for Peter (still in a coma.) Peter's father and brother discuss business during the prayer, but it's still important for them to be there. Peter's grandmother says, "I like the Mass in Latin better. It's nicer when you don't understand it." Peter's family doesn't seem to fully understand why going to church is important, except for the tradition of it. But that is a reason.

And finally we see Lucy and Peter (after he awakens from his coma and is convinced he forgot about his engagement) in the hospital chapel for their wedding. I'm not too impressed with the pastor performing the ceremony who apparently hasn't even taken the time to ask the couple he's marrying how long they've known each other.

A single church plays a significant role in "Home Alone."  (Actually, that one church is two churches: Trinity United Methodist of Wilmette, IL provides the exterior while Grace Episcopal Church of Oak Park, IL provides the interior. I guess it's a Federated Church.)

Young Kevin McCallister is accidently abandoned by his family in their home in a Chicago suburb when they leave for a Christmas vacation in France. He finds himself pursued by criminals in his neighborhood, and he runs toward a nearby church. He hides in Nativity Scene. The crooks will not go near the church. It's a sanctuary.

On Christmas Eve, Kevin is lonely and afraid. He goes back to the church, inside this time. He takes off his hat and studies the statues and stained glass. He then sees an old man, his neighbor. His older brother told him the neighbor was a mass murderer. But since they're in church, Kevin allows the man to sit next to him.

Kevin admits he's feeling rotten. The neighbor tells him "This is the place to be if you're feeling bad about yourself." He also assures Kevin that "You're always welcome at church." Outside of his own home, church seems to be the one place in the film that Kevin seems to feel most secure.

So of these churches, I'd probably go the one in "Home Alone". They have a pretty decent music program.

--Dean

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Hope Chapel Santa Rosa


  Mindy and I started visiting churches a year ago August, but only starting blogging about them a few weeks ago. One bum thing about that is not writing about some churches we really enjoyed when we visited them before we started blogging, churches that really impressed us. On the flip side, there are churches that had borderline heresy or off key worship teams and it's just as well to not have to mention them by name.

Three of the congregations we most enjoyed worshiping with were Foursquare Gospel Churches. It would have been fun to write about the Sanctuary in Windsor or the Lighthouse in Santa Rosa or Hope Chapel in Healdsburg (pastored by our friend, Mark Williams). But we get to do the next best thing, write about Hope Chapel in Santa Rosa. Not only does it share a name with the Healdsburg church, it's the mother church of the Sanctuary and the Lighthouse.

I don't mean to be snide about this, but a sure sign of God's grace and provision is the good health of the Foursquare Church, considering its almost soap-operaish origins. The denomination was founded by Aimee Semple McPherson, arguably the most popular evangelist of the 1920's. She was also at the heart of a number of scandals, including a disputed kidnapping and multiple marriages. (Henry VIII and the start of the Anglican Church gives McPherson a run for the money, but...) Today, though, it's a healthy denomination with 8 million members in 60,000 churches in 144 countries -- including Fiji.

Hope Chapel, Santa Rosa meets in what looks a bit like a barn in a beautiful east county setting. The interior is small but comfy. Through an internet mishap (I could swear I read 9:30 am, but no, everything online actually says 9:00 am) we arrived late. I thought they had started the service five minutes early, which would have been quite a first for a church. I thought we walked in during the opening prayer, but it was a mid-service pastoral prayer. We were surprised that there were announcements and then a sermon, without music. A look at the bulletin revealed our mistake.

So after the sermon and closing song, we waited for the second service. It's kind of like when you miss the first part of a movie and you wait for the feature to start again so you can see what you missed. Being there for two services was a good reminder for us of how haphazard a one service critique can be. I believe the order of service was the same for both services, but since there were about fifty people in the first service and more than twice as many people in the second service, they felt very different.

With fewer people a service often feels more intimate, sometimes more contemplative. With more people a service often feels more energetic and exciting. And the number of people is the only change. There are so many variables that can change Sunday to Sunday, so our finger to the calendar means our experience isn't exactly authoritative. Doesn’t mean it’s not interesting, though.

The worship team was solid with a good use of harmony. At least one of the songs was, I believe, written by the worship leaders. We sang only one Christmas carol (“Angels We Have Heard on High”). We also sang the Lincoln Brewster baptized, Christianized version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” (which give one an idea of what people must have felt like when they heard a Lutheran hymn with a tune they recognized from the tavern).
The sermon focused on how we should live as we await the Pre-tribulation Rapture. There were many Scripture references (with which the overhead outline had a hard time keeping up with, but most were listed in the sermon notes in the bulletin). The sermon concluded with prayer that included an invitation to salvation.

I very much enjoyed the announcements: one introducing new leadership, with an emphasis on the qualifications in I Timothy 3, followed by voting for ratification of the nominated leaders. Another announcement included a video of the pastor's recent trip to Fiji for a church conference.
For those keeping track at home, the Foursquare Gospel churches in Sonoma County receive an impressive 4 for 4 in our visits for encouraging worship experiences.

Service Length:            1 hour 15 minutes
Sermon Length:            25 minutes
Visitor Treatment:        Chocolate bars with church information and visitor card (we felt very welcomed), general greeting to visitors during service, greeted by pastor between services
Our Rough Count:        First service -- 50 people
                                      Second service -- 110 people (definitely skewed younger, with more kids in children's program)
Probable Ushers' Count: First service -- 65 people
                                        Second service -- 85 people (same worship team, ushers, greeters)
Snacks:                            Coffee and tea outside before, after and between services
Songs:                              Spirit Baptize Me
                                         Angels We Have Heard on High
                                         After All (Holy)
                                         We Believe
                                         Another Hallelujah
--Dean

  

Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Churches in "The Bishop's Wife" (1947) and "The Preacher's Wife" (1996)


This is, of course, a review of the churches in these films, not the films themselves; which is probably for the best as the original film and its remake share a frankly bizarre plot. A clergyman and his wife are having marital difficulties, so God sends an angel to have a platonic affair with the wife. You know, like the Creator of the Universe does.

Fortunately, I don't have to explain why the title character of "The Bishop's Wife," Loretta Young, seems oblivious to the fact that people will gossip if she goes dining and ice skating alone with Dudley the Angel (Cary Grant). We don't have to puzzle over why the title character of "The Preacher's Wife," Whitney Houston, thinks it's okay to "window shop" for a man other than her husband, mistaking angel Denzel Washington for a man.

No, thankfully, we just have to look at the churches. "The Bishop's Wife" has two Episcopal churches: St. Timothy's, the church Bishop David Niven used pastor, and the other church he currently pastors in the film. I didn't catch the name of that church, so for our purposes we'll call it St. David's. The church in "The Preacher's Wife" is Saint Matthew's, an unusual name for what seems to be a Baptist church. We'll look at different aspects of ministry in each of these churches.


FOCUS AND VISION: The leadership of both St. David's and St. Matthew's seems primarily concerned about the Building Program and Fundraising. For some reason, most churches in Hollywood films (from "Going My Way" to "Sister Act") seem primarily concerned with building programs and fundraising. I've attended enough congregational and leadership meetings to attest to the fact these are among the more dull functions of a church. St. Timothy's, on the other hand, seems to be primarily concerned with its music program, their boys' choir.

MUSIC PROGRAM: As just mentioned, St. Timothy's has a quite wonderful boys' choir. The highlight of the film for me was their performance of Charles Gounod's "Noel". The choir does have a rather odd rehearsal schedule.  The boys come together for one song and then depart. But it seems to work. There's not much to say about St. David's music program. As for the music at St. Matthew's, with Whitney Houston as choir director and soloist and Lionel Richie playing the piano, there certainly is a degree of excellence.

PASTORAL LEADERSHIP: The current pastor at St. Tim's seems to be a good guy, but is rather obsequious toward the Bishop. Bishop Henry used to be fun and compassionate but has become weary and burdened. Preacher Henry seems incapable of delegating, taking on every ministry of the church -- from visitation to youth ministry to preaching to legal representation -- on his own.

TEACHING AND PREACHING: We don't really learn much about the teaching at St. Timothy's but the theology of the one song we hear sung there is sound.  The final sermon we hear at the end of "The Bishop's Wife" isn't too bad. It's about not leaving Christ out of Christmas. Of course, it's written by Dudley the Angel, but the Bishop takes the credit. The teaching at St. Matthew's is pretty awful. The preacher's final sermon is sort of a new age "we just have to believe in ourselves and we can do anything if we just believe" kind of thing.

PRAYER: Again, nothing about prayer from St. Timothy's. The Bishop does pray for the problems of the church and learns to accept God's will rather than his own in answer to his prayers. Preacher Henry on the other hand presents one of the worst analogies I've ever heard about prayer. Talking to a young man facing trial he says, "Do you play basketball? Prayer is like when you take a shot and the time between the shot and the basket, you hope. And that is what prayer is like." So I guess in that analogy: Shooter = Person Praying, Shot = Prayer, Basket = God. As someone who is a horrible shot in basketball, I must say I really hate that analogy. If I had to have a sports analogy for prayer, I'd rather compare it to a son having a catch with his father like in "Field of Dreams".


So if I had to choose one church to go to, it would be St. Timothy's. Because they really do have a good boys' choir.
--Dean

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Refuge Christian Fellowship, Santa Rosa

Two things made me happy upon entering the fellowship room just before the worship service at the Refuge Church in downtown Santa Rosa: donuts and feeling old. My positive feeling toward free donuts probably needs no more explanation, yet I will add that I got a jelly.

Why did I feel glad to feel old? Mindy and I have been to enough churches this year where being in our fifties, we were the young people. At the Refuge the average age was somewhere in the low thirties, which was a cool thing.

The Refuge is a true storefront church, with one door from the street leading to the worship center and another leading to the children's ministry (Refuge Kids). There's definitely a warehouse feel to the worship space with high dark ceilings and blank walls, but there is a large cross in the back of the space and candles in the front. The information area is easy to find (it's on the way to the donuts and coffee) and leads directly to a shelf with books (I noticed Tim Keller) for sale. In the fellowship room there's a library book shelf, adding to an academic feel to the place. The church is affiliated with the Gospel Coalition.


Most people were chatting before the service, with some gathered in the fellowship room on couches, but the only person who introduced himself to me was one gentleman in our row, when we asked if seats were free. Mindy met a woman when she asked about coffee mugs (ceramic mugs are stored beneath the snack table...pick the one you like). 

Worship songs began without much preamble. There was a good worship band but singing along with the choruses posed a bit of a challenge. The lyrics on the wall were quite slow coming up; usually the new verse wouldn't come up until a couple of lines in. I've learned through the years that when there is this kind of challenge, the blame rarely is on the tech person alone. Often the worship leader hasn't properly prepped the tech crew or isn't being observant of the challenges the congregation is having singing along. (Projecting lyrics on the back wall can often be a big help.) Mindy looked around and noticed that few people were actually singing on the first couple songs.


The woman who delivered announcements was quite personable and it was good to hear about their Christmas giving in the community. There was going to be a gift wrapping party the next week before gifts were given to the people who had asked for special help.

The sermon was the first in an Advent series on the names of the Messiah ("And His Name Shall be Called") from Isaiah 9. Today's name: Wonderful Counselor. Good content in the sermon with practical illustrations and quotes from C.S. Lewis, N.T. Wright and other intelligent folks with initials.

Christmas carols were sung after the sermon (they seemed to take the day as the first Sunday of Advent while most liturgical churches would consider it the second). During the songs people went forward to receive communion, the grape juice and crackers on unattended tables with a modern candelabra that could have been a simple menorah. No instructions were given about communion, but we figured it out during the second song.

We agreed after the service that our grown kids might well like the church. We sure did.


Statistics:
Service Length: 1 hour 40 minutes
Sermon Length: 55 minutes
Visitor Treatment: No one greeted us, but people we talked to were friendly. Mindy found a prayer request card to leave our contact information. No acknowledgement of visitors was made during the service.
Our Rough Count: 105
Probable Ushers' Count: 125 (there weren't any ushers, actually, but the folks passing the offering may have counted)
Snacks: coffee, water, hot water, donuts, muffins, maybe fruit? We mostly noticed the donuts, which were yummy
Songs:
"Grace Alone"
"In the Shadow of the Glorious Cross"
"This Is My Father's World"
"O Come, O Come Emmanuel"
"What Child is This?"
"Joy to the World"

 --Dean

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Reviewing Movie Churches: "The Best Christmas Pageant Ever" (1983)

Since this is the first movie post, I want to make it clear what this is about, so you’ll be in the know. Those poor folks who start reading after this week will be baffled but not you. These movie posts will review not movies, but rather the churches portrayed in movies.

For instance, I recently saw the film “John Wick.” The film features Keanu Reeves in a mindless but stylish retread of 1980’s Chuck Norris, Sly Stallone type action films, if you like that kind of thing (and I do). But in this column, we wouldn’t be analyzing the direction of Chad Stahelski or the plotting of screenwriter Derek Kolstad. We just jump ahead to the church portrayed in the film. The church is some sort of Orthodox denomination with a massive building in NYC. But apparently that  just serves as a front for an Eastern European mob. So I’m giving the church in the film a big thumbs down. Call me old fashioned, but I don’t like churches with clergy on the take with syndicate drug money, where sitting in a pew could get you shot in a spectacular gun battle. 

But this December, I’ll be reviewing churches found in Christmas films, starting with The Church with No Name in “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” a cheesy made for TV version of a pretty wonderful children’s book.

As I’ve indicated, I never did catch the name of the church from watching the film, but let’s go through some of the church’s pros and cons before we decide on whether to give it a thumbs up or a thumbs down.

Pro  Thriving Children’s Ministry
Every kid in town seems to go to the Church with No Name’s Sunday School class and participate in the annual Christmas program. Every kid except for those in the Herdman family, youngster thugs who are devoted to extorting from other children and blowing stuff up real good. The story is about when even the Herdmans decide to become involved with the Christmas program.
Con   A Network of Gossips
When the Herdmans become a part of the Christmas program, every woman in the church seems to be on the telephone talking with every other woman in the church about how awful it is that these young reprobates are befouling their sacred building. (Jesus, on the other hand, was pretty positive about when sinners came to see Him.)
Pro   A Minor Celebrity
Attending the church and directing the Christmas program is none other than Loretta Swit, television celebrity. Didn’t recognize anyone else in the church, but it would be cool to say, “You know Hot Lips from the show M*A*S*H? She goes to our church.”
Con  Cowardly, Mealy-mouthed Clergy
The pastor wants to buckle under the pressure of the gossiping women and plans to cancel the Christmas program because the Herdman children are involved. Skittish pastors are not a pretty sight.
Pro  Grape Juice Served for Communion
Now I know many of you may prefer wine for communion. But in the film, the Herdman kids get into the grape juice stash. I used to sometimes get a hold of the leftover communion grape juice and drink it until I was sick. And I can tell you both situations would have been a lot worse if wine had been served.
Con  Little Support for Volunteers
Ms. Swit seems to be on her own directing the Christmas program (with the exception of her reluctant daughter).

But I have two pros left:
Pro   Christmas Program Goes Well
The Herdman kids manage to inject some earthy reality into the show, and it touches people.

Finally, one more Pro:
Early in the story, one of the Herdman kids, after a church service asks, “What it the Christmas program about?” and someone responds, “It’s about Jesus.” And the Herdman kid says, “Everything in this church is about Jesus.”

Now if that was true about a church, “everything… is about Jesus”, then it definitely would get a thumbs up and I’d want to go to there.


-Dean


Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Redeemer Presbyterian Church, Santa Rosa

It’s not uncommon these days for churches to downplay -- I’d go as far to say hide -- their denominational affiliation. Especially here in the greatly unchurched northwestern part of the United States, a denominational tag seems like more of a burden than a blessing for some churches. People around here often seem to be just trying to get a handle on the definition of what it means to be a “Christian."

Nonetheless, when Mindy googled Redeemer Presbyterian Santa Rosa and found the church's website she was rather surprised that the word “Presbyterian” was as scarce as Waldo at the site. We wondered whether this was one of those churches seeking the comfort of the generic.

It didn’t take long in our visit to discover that wasn’t the case.

First of all, their sign out front does say “Redeemer Presbyterian Church” right under the sign for “Scottish Rite Center.”  (The two organizations share a building, which makes some historic sense as the Presbyterian Church roots are in the Scotland of a little over three centuries ago.  Apparently, the first Scottish Rite Lodge was founded in a bar in London a little less than three centuries ago, but let's not argue about history and geography when we've found an interesting circumstantial connection.)
And it wasn’t long into the sermon on First Peter 1: 13 - 16 (“Be holy, because I am holy”) that there were several references to how “we” (the congregation) respond to things as Presbyterians. I was glad to hear the familiar joking about how though Presbyterians do things “decently and in order” there was room to be excited about God. Presbyterians like to chuckle quietly about such things.

There were also references in the sermon to “Reformed Theology,” and after the service, I talked to no less than three people who mentioned how they appreciate the teaching about Reformed Ttheology in the church. As a seminary grad I’m always happy to discuss theology, but it’s not something most people mention by name. So it’s fun when it happens. (It’s kind of like when a Dr. Who fan happens to run into another fan off-line. “I can’t believe you want to talk about Gallifrey!”)*

I can’t think of one time in my life when I’ve visited a Baptist church and heard someone say, “I appreciate how Dispensational Theology is taught in the church.”  Nor have I been at an Assembly of God church and heard anyone say, “I sure do love the Pentecostal Theology proclaimed around here.” I think interest in theology says something good about the depth of teaching in the church.

We have visited other churches over the last year that exclusively sang hymns, but this was the first such church we’ve visited with people younger than us in the congregation. (Not just younger than us, but actual young people, teens and such, singing enthusiastically.) 

If we had come one week later, we would have been present for the 20th anniversary of the church. We do hope (if the Lord tarries), this good church will have many more decade celebrations.


Statistics
Service length: 1 hour 10 minutes
Sermon length: 40 minutes
Visitor greeting: We were greeted warmly by many people. Some of those greeting us were old friends, but we were greeted by strangers as well. No particular attention was given to visitors in the service itself.
Our rough count: 75
Probable usher's count: 100
Snacks: We were told coffee and cookies were served in the refreshment area, but we were having too good a time talking to folks in the auditorium worship area, so we never made it there.
Songs:**
“We Come O Christ to You”
“O for a Thousand Tongues”
“There is a Fountain Filled with Blood”
“O Church Arise”
*One more preaching bonus point from me for a sermon illustration from “Tombstone,” the Kurt Russell Western. An appropriate movie illustration gets a half bonus point, but if it’s from a Western it gets the full point. Five bonus points would be awarded for appropriate illustration from an Akira Kurosawa samurai film, but I have yet to come across this.

**Those who read my post about Advent from last Saturday might note that no Christmas carols were sung. There were announcements for upcoming Christmas events, but they did not acknowledge the first Sunday of Advent. Fortunately, we live in a world with Youtube, and I could still hear my favorites.
 Dean
(Post Script: I got a message from a friend who attends Redeemer and he said that usually more contemporary songs are sung, but the musicians that were available that particular morning are more comfortable with hymns. That's the peril of these one visit reviews, but I still believe there is some value in snapshots.)



Saturday, November 29, 2014

A Pilgrim Can’t Expect the Expected

“We’ve always done it this way before!” is one of the most easily mocked phrases in the modern Christian church. When someone’s come up with a new way to worship more vibrantly, reach people, or even just save money, and people object just because it’s not traditional, you almost have to laugh.

But not at this time of year.

Tomorrow is the first Sunday of Advent, and so much of the emotion of Christmas is tied to tradition. This is as true in the church as it is in most households. In both places, it seems important that this particular song is sung and this particular ornament is hung. Frankly, for most of the last three decades, I’ve had enough influence in the churches I’ve been a part of to make sure that many of my favorite traditions are upheld.

I’ve written Christmas programs with songs I want to hear. I’ve been able to pick favorite Scripture for advent readings. And even when I haven’t been able to choose, when I’ve been in a church for years, I could take comfort in expecting things to go as they had before.

But not now.

For this next month, Mindy and I are choosing churches rather randomly. We’ve chosen (been called?) to be church pilgrims for the next couple of years. We don’t know if “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” will be sung tomorrow (a hymn that should always be sung early in the advent season). We don’t know if the churches we’ll go to will have an advent wreath with candles lit by small children very excited about fire. We don’t know if there will be a Christmas tree (that wonderful theft from paganism). We don’t know if the churches we’ll go to even celebrate Advent in four Sundays or save all their Yuletide cheer for one end of the year blow-out event.

Early in our marriage, we moved to a new area and began to worship at a wonderful church that did celebrate Advent. They sang all the right songs. They had caroling activities, and I believe the Sunday School class had a Christmas party. But the pastor came up with absolutely the worst name for an Advent sermon series I’ve ever heard. Taken from Psalm 2:12, the series was entitled, “Kiss the Son Lest.” It’s a small comfort as we encounter different Advent traditions in the weeks to come, traditions perhaps different from our history and preferences: we will not have to deal with a sermon series with a title that awkward for four weeks in a row.


--Dean




Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Santa Rosa Nazarene Church

The Santa Rosa Nazarene Church was ready for Thanksgiving. Instead of pews or chairs in rows there were chairs around tables, ready to serve dinner after the morning service. They'd also prepared for Thanksgiving in another way. They'd moved their cross to the center of the stage to make it the focus of thanksgiving for God's goodness.



 It was our first visit to a Nazarene church this year; neither of us recalls ever attending a Nazarene Church before. But when I went to college in San Diego, I had friends at Point Loma Nazarene College (one of 53 Nazarene colleges in the world) and went to concerts at the school (Noel Paul Stookey sans Mary and Peter). The Nazarene denomination was founded in 1908 in Texas with roots in the Holiness movement. Now there are 29,000 Nazarene churches throughout the world with over 2 million members.

The service started a couple of minutes after 11:00 am (though it seems to be growing more common in churches, there was no countdown clock to worship). The two screens on either side of the front of the sanctuary scrolled announcements and a scripture quiz, though we missed seeing either the question or the answer. During the fellowship time before the service we'd been greeted by several members (once with, "I hope I'm not greeting you for the first time after you've been visiting here for a month."). We were certainly made to feel welcome with several invitations to stay for the Thanksgiving dinner after the service.

The pastor led worship playing the piano and his wife played the violin along with other singers in the worship team. A video was played during the announcement time illustrating the denomination's ministries for the homeless, disaster relief and foreign missions. The pastor talked about a local ministry to the homeless, through which the church had hosted dinner and an overnight stay for a group of homeless people during the previous week.



The sermon was about thanksgiving, about God's call to thankfulness and the spiritual and emotional benefits of being thankful. It was encouraging, though we were a little concerned about the lack of acknowledgement of some people's very real challenges with depression. After the sermon, sharing around the table ("What is one thing you're thankful for?") was encouraged, but our table only made it about halfway through before time was up.

The majority of the people in the congregation were older, but there were families with children and teens, and the church does have a youth pastor. There was table full of Operation Christmas child shoe boxes at the back of the church. And there was a very nice playground which I'm sure is used for the church's preschool and daycare ministries.



Were we not on this Visiting Pilgrimage Adventure, this certainly is a place we'd consider coming back to visit again.



Statistics:

Service Length: 60 minutes
Sermon Length: 25 minutes
Visitor Treatment: greeted several times on the way into worship, including by the pastor and his wife, greeting time during the service. No particular effort to show us where coffee or restrooms were, but many invitations to stay for the Thanksgiving meal after the service.
Our Rough Count: 110
Probable Ushers' Count: 130
Snacks: coffee, tea and hot chocolate along with a table full of goodies (fairly depleted by the time we got there, but still abundant) including peanut butter filled celery, bagel halves with cream cheese, muffins, and brownies in a side room set up like a cafe or the breakfast area of a hotel (a nice hotel).
Songs:
Lord I Lift Your Name On High
Praise is Rising
Ten Thousand Reasons
Jesus Paid It All
Old Rugged Cross
That's the Power of the Cross



Tuesday, November 18, 2014

St. Luke Lutheran Church, Santa Rosa


Sure, the Roman Catholic Church is the oldest, and various Orthodox churches can vie for second, but at nearing a half a millennia (if you mark the birth of the church with the Edict of Worms from 1521), Lutheranism is no new kid on the block. There are, as one would expect from the Protestant love of division, several branches of Lutheranism. This Sunday we attended St. Luke Lutheran in Santa Rosa, which is part of the Missouri Synod (a more conservative branch of the denomination).



Entering the sanctuary, I was handed a quite large bulletin. Opening it, I saw it was big print for the visually impaired, so I traded it in for the small version. Both versions were 12 pages thick with all the hymns (music and lyrics), liturgical readings, Scripture and prayers. No overhead screens here (which might hide the beautiful stained glass windows).



The majority of the congregation was elderly (but not exclusively so). Before the service began and during the time of greeting there was much noise and enthusiasm (but no musical prelude), and it took a bit of effort on the pastor's part to get people quiet and back to their seats.Even though this delayed the service a minute or two each time, we thought it was lovely that the congregation was so enjoying being together.

Two children came forward for a children's sermon. There were no visual aids or parables but rather a fairly straight forward catechism of the Gospel. (And attentive listeners would also learn the proper use of the pronoun "whom".)

The Sacrament of the Lord's Supper was served and the bulletin had a helpful list of questions to prepare for it. Though most of the questions I could answer in the affirmative ("Am I a baptized child of God?"), there was also this question: "Do I believe that Jesus' Body and Blood are really present in the bread and wine?" There is a subtle distinction between the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation and Lutheran teaching on the matter (consubstantiation), but not a large enough distinction to allow me to feel comfortable partaking. The congregation filed forward to receive communion at the front, and after all who could come forward had partaken, the pastor brought the bread and the cup to a few who were unable to come to the front. 
  
Evangelicals and fundamentalists often assume all mainline denominations have a rather namby-pamby approach to the Gospel, shying away from the more difficult issues. That certainly wasn't the case in this service, which focused on the theme of our eternal destiny as the opening of a ten part series entitled "Believe". The hymn "The Day is Surely Drawing Near" features such lyrics as 'Then fright shall banish idle mirth, And flames on flames shall ravage earth" and "With shame and trembling they will stand, And at the judge's stern command, To Satan be delivered."

The sermon was a clear presentation of the options of heaven and hell and the need to put faith in the forgiveness found in Jesus Christ for salvation. There was certainly a spirit of compassion in the pastor's call to reach out others with the good news of the Gospel.





After the service, we very much enjoyed talking with Pastor Fred (a retired pastor originally from Wisconsin "don'cha know"). He told a little about St. Luke's 125 year history. The stained glass window in the front of the sanctuary was donated by the family of a retired pastor, but the stained glass window in the back of the church was donated by a Jewish family that had lived across the street and apparently wanted a beautiful view (which they certainly received, though this picture doesn't do it justice).




Statistics:
Service length: 1 hour and 15 minutes
Sermon length: 20 minutes
Visitor Treatment: Invited in bulletin to sign guest card
Our Rough Count: 110 people

Estimated Usher Count: 125 people

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Salvation Army Santa Rosa, California



The title "Saved by the Bell" was really wasted on a sitcom about high school. It should have been used for a Salvation Army story. A lot of us only know about the Army through the Christmas bell ringers. Some know the Army because of the thrift stores. But there's more, of course, to the organization than money pots and bargains. It's a charity, a business and a church. We went to church there Sunday.

No problem finding the address and service time on line. But once we were there we had a little bit of difficulty finding the chapel. We arrived about 15 minutes early and a sign at the door assured we were at the right place. Apparently everyone was still in Sunday school.
But eventually, a Salvation Army officer came out and directed us with a left, a right and a left to the chapel. Once people emerged from the Sunday school class, we were greeted with warmth.

Early in its history (founded in 1856), the Army earned a reputation for rousing musicianship, famous for its brass bands. Rousing isn't the term I'd use music at this Sunday's service. Though most everyone joined in singing the choruses, it was far from rousing. And when we sang an old Salvation hymn, the piano intros made it as difficult to find the melody as it had been to find the chapel.

But there were some wonderful things about worshiping with the congregation this Sunday morning.  The Salvation Army does good work in recovery ministry, working with those who struggle with alcohol and drug addictions. About half of the congregation Sunday was composed of participants in the Recovery program in Lytton Springs. One of the gentlemen from the program shared his testimony God's work in his life, and another read scripture.

Introducing the offering time, an elderly woman named Yvonne said that she'd heard that it's been said that you can tell where someone's heart is by looking at their checkbook. So she wrote a Scripture verse to read in her check book. Loved her fairly immediately.

The prayer time was open for sharing. There was a small group of teenagers in our row, and one of them said, "We were bored yesterday. So we called the Lieutenants and they asked us over and we had a great time." That's the kind of thing anyone in youth ministry loves to hear.
The sermon from one of the Salvation Army officers from I John 3 (and a variety of other texts) was sound if a bit scattered. The service closed with "Amazing Grace" which was a little livelier than music that came before.

As the service closed, I turned to see the nursery through large windows that opened into the chapel. A nice young woman sat, holding her baby girl. God's children gathered in this chapel, obviously loving and encouraging one another. May the Christian soldiers continue to move onward.



Service length: 90 minutes
Sermon length: 30 minutes
Visitor treatment: greeted several times before service started, each first-time visitor received a blue ribbon, a handshake, and an introduction by name to the rest of the congregation. Because a large part of the group were visitors, this wasn't particularly embarrassing or awkward, but welcoming.
Our rough count: 30-40 people
Probable usher count: 50 people
Snacks: cookies after, possibly coffee in a recreation room, but none in evidence in the worship service


Monday, September 29, 2014

What's Happening in 2015

Mindy and I (Dean writes) will be starting an adventure in the year 2015. We will be visiting churches throughout California on a thematic basis (megachurches/home churches, urban churches/rural churches) and we would like you to join us. Just for fun, we'll also be writing about our visits to churches in films, churches in history (real and imagined) and will be writing about church trends, quirks and peeves.

All this is in preparation for an even bigger adventure in 2016 when we plan to visit a church in every state. Bookmark or follow this site now and join our church pilgrimage.