Tuesday, December 29, 2015

God showing up in 2016

Mindy and I didn't go to a new church this past Sunday. Instead, we went back to Healdsburg Community Church, which we attended from 2001 to 2013, and where I served as a part time staff member. (We wrote about the church in September, during Old Home Month.) In lieu of a church post this week, here's a summary of the sermon I preached Sunday -- which doubles in the program as a mission statement for our travels to a church in every state in 2016. (I've changed the sermon a bit to include it as a post; the original, complete with Mindy's coughing fit, is posted on the church website.)

Have you ever been stood up? I'm not just thinking of romantic situations, though that has certainly happened to me. I'm  thinking of those times when you think you have a set time and place to meet someone, and they don't come. You start questioning: Were we were supposed to meet today? Is this the right place? Did I say or do something that hurt the other person's feelings?

I believe a lot of people go to church and think God has stood them up. They hear He was supposed to be at the 11:00 am service at the First Whatever Church of Someplaceorother, and they go, and He isn't anywhere to be seen. It can be discouraging.

And yet, Mindy and I expect God to show up at churches in 2016. We find encouragement for that expectation in Luke 2: 22 - 39. In the passage, Mary and Joseph go to church (okay, they go to the Temple), and see God show up in surprising ways -- particularly through two individuals.

All of the people in this passage model practices that make seeing God more likely. First, Mary and Joseph set a model of spiritual discipline by following commands given in Leviticus chapter 12 that acknowledge God's authority over their lives (and the life of their Child) through circumcision, purification and sacrifice. Taking these steps required time and devotion. Following these practices also allowed the couple to encounter two amazing people who spoke to them with blessings from God.

As Christians, we no longer need to practice Law of Moses, with its ritual cleansings and sacrifices, but there are other spiritual disciplines we should practice, like prayer, fasting, studying Scripture, and meeting with God's people. Hebrews 10:25 teaches us that we must not neglect the gathering together of believers (i.e., going to church).  Some people say, "I don't need to go to church, I see God in the forest." Of course you can see God in the forest, but you can see God in the garden as well, so why go to the forest? God speaks to us in unique ways in different places and times, and church should be one of the places we go to find Him.

In the Temple, Mary and Joseph meet a man named Simeon, who is described as righteous and devout. Luke notes that God had revealed to Simeon that he wouldn't die until he had seen the Messiah. We modern people are pretty skeptical of people who claim a revelation from God, which I think is fair. There are a lot of people who claimed to speak for God when they were speaking for themselves, or repeating what the voices in their heads (that were not at all divine) said. The time when Jesus was first brought to the temple was during what church history calls the "Silent Era" because it had been nearly half a millennia since the last prophet, Malachi, spoke for God.
And yet, God did speak through Simeon. God is free to speak when and through whom He chooses, and we should be ready to listen, just as the Holy Spirit spoke to Simeon and then Simeon spoke to Mary and Joseph.

Finally, we come to Anna. She was an old widow without children in a time and place when such a condition was considered a curse from God. Her life was difficult, full of suffering, but such suffering can draw a person close to God.  She too speaks for God to Mary and Joseph, assuring them that their Jesus is indeed God's anointed.

We need to recognize that God can speak through pain. We shouldn't try to cover over our own spiritual pain or ignore others who suffer, since God may speak through our pain as we bring it to Him or speak to us as we minister to others.

So that's what we hope to do in 2016. We want to be faithful like Mary and Joseph, which for Mindy and me means going to church every week. We want to listen for God like Simeon did. And we want to be willing to reach out to those who are hurting, knowing that that's just one more way God may choose to show Himself.

We trust God will show up in 2016. In our journey and in yours.
-- Dean

Service Length: 58 minutes
Sermon Length: about 20 minutes (Mindy can't find her notes in the confusion of moving)
Snacks: leftover Christmas goodies including lots of different cookies, tangerine wedges, pears, coffee, decaf, tea, water
Songs: Angels We Have Heard on High
            Joy to the World
            He Shall Reign Forevermore
            We Three Kings of Orient Are
Miles to place: 47 (it's only 12 from our house, but we had to make several trips to get everybody)
Total California Miles: 17,735 

Monday, December 28, 2015

"What about your stuff?"

 For the first twenty years we were married, we moved almost once a year, so we got used to packing up all our belongings and rearranging them somewhere else.

This time, though, we're getting rid of everything we possibly can. We're storing a dozen boxes or so in friends' garages and attics, and our son has furnished his apartment with bookshelves, tables and chairs he's grown up with. The cat is flying to New York with one daughter, and we'll ship a few boxes of comics and DVDs to the other daughter in Washington, but most of the books, furniture, kitchenware and bric-a-brac we've surrounded ourselves with will be going back to the Salvation Army from whence they came.

It's not easy saying goodbye to belongings we've loved. I've managed to get rid of three boxes of Christmas decorations, four overflowing boxes of sewing and knitting materials, five boxes vintage items I've cherished for their beauty and function, and countless books we've loved for years and years. Boxing Day had new meaning this year.

The process is getting easier as we get closer to our deadline, though. The sheer volume of belongings to pack makes us value our precious treasures for what they really are: things that someone else might be able to use (or, honestly, trash. We've taken far more trips to the dumpster than I like to think about).

A few more meals, another carload of boxes to our son's apartment and our friends' garages, several trips to the Salvation Army, Goodwill, and the Redwood Gospel Mission thrift stores nearby, and we can give the apartment manager our key. We'll drive our ten-year-old minivan with some clothes, a little camping gear, and three different kinds of maps toward Las Vegas and into 2016 where God has (we trust) some amazing adventures waiting for us.

And at the end of the year, even if all the boxes we've stored with friends are destroyed, we hope to have stored up treasures in heaven -- where they belong. 
-- Mindy

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Shocking News!

Dean and Mindy Don't Go to a New Church Two Weeks in a Row
Let's talk about next week first. We're going to Healdsburg Community Church, which we wrote about already. I'll be preaching. They'll take anyone the Sunday after Christmas. So next week we'll post the Sunday sermon in this space.

This week....we planned to go to church. We were hoping for Christmas carols, pretty decorations, and the story that began in the manger. But last night I started feeling sick. I still set my alarm and considered going. But there were two things to consider: first, would I be well enough to go? I must say, in the graphic honesty characteristic of these posts, I was concerned I would have to spend more time in the little boys' room than the pew. The next concern was whether whatever I had was contagious. I didn't know whether it was the flu or food poisoning. But though Christmas is a time of sharing, it's not about sharing stomach troubles.

Mindy and I have said we're going to a church and a bar in every state in 2016. But this week was a reminder of the truth of the words of James 4: "13 Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and get gain”; 14 whereas you do not know about tomorrow. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. 15 Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we shall live and we shall do this or that.” 16 As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil."
Mindy and I say we're going to a church and bar in every state. Is that evil? (Some may say the bar part is, but the church?) Whatever else this minor illness was, it was a reminder that next year's plans are dependent on God's will. Either of us could get sick. The 2006 minivan with 160,000 plus miles could conceivably have difficulties. Someone in our family could have an emergency and need our help. Our paths could cross storms, floods, twisters, or dogs and cats living together. We could just get the service time wrong, which we have done before.

So Mindy and I plan to go to a bar and a church in every state next year, God willing. Not to boast, but December 30th we plan to begin the adventure, first in Nevada. But we know we will be relying on God, family, friends, and the kindness of strangers.
-- Dean

Monday, December 21, 2015

"But how can you afford to do this?"

Over the past few months, when we've told people about what we'd like to do during 2016, we've been asked some version of "Are you crowdfunding?"  We gave involved answers at first, referring to Bible passages where Jesus sent his disciples on journeys with only the clothes on their backs. We want to be that trusting in God's loving provision as we follow this adventure, so we don't have an GoFundMe site, or an Indiegogo page, or even Kickstarter. However, there are other passages where Jesus tells his followers to consider what they're doing before they start to make sure they have what's needed to finish. We want to be that wise, too.

So, we've got three different crowdsourcing campaigns going. The first covers our immediate needs, and involves folks in our geographical area only -- and no money at all. The second is monetary, and anybody who wants to help can. The fourth is the most important. The third might involve the least effort. Two (possibly three) have incentives!
1. If you live near Santa Rosa and have a few free feet of storage space, we'd appreciate being able to store a box of books or photos. Incentive: we will pray for you every day during 2016 (and we really want you to keep us informed of your needs so we can pray intelligently).

2. If you'd like to help us financially, we're set up as "creators" on Patreon, which is a little different. People who donate are called "patrons" because they're supporting artists (and writers and film makers and whatnot). Some creators are set up for support by the creation; we're asking for monthly donations, since we'll be posting at least five times a week on the three blogs we'll be writing this year. We're asking for this kind of support because while we have savings to cover most of our day-to-day expenses, we know there will be car repairs, insurance needs, and unexpected costs during the year. This way, anybody who'd like to help financially can do it easily and securely, either one time or on a monthly basis. Incentive: there are several based on donation amounts.

3. We're still figuring out our destination in a few states. If you're involved in a church and could let us sleep on your floor for a few nights, we'd love to hear from you! Please get in touch in the comments or by email at DeanandMindygotochurch <at> gmail <dot> com 

4. All good missionary letters ask for prayer, and we're no different. We couldn't do this trip on our own. The kind words of friends (and strangers!) have helped prepare us for the year to come, but unless God is with us, there's no point in our going. Please pray that we will follow only where He leads and that He will supply our needs.

So the answer to the crowdfunding question is yes, we have a crowdfunding campaign in place, but it's not the only way you can join us on the ride. Thanks for asking!

-- Mindy

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Bayside Covenant Church, Blue Oaks Campus (Roseville)

"When you enter the building you will see a large tree.  Let's meet there." That was the Facebook message from Allie, one of my former youth group students at Concord Bible Church. I assumed, it being December and all, that the large tree would be a Christmas tree. But it was an oak. A fake oak, but an oak. And kind of cool.

The morning was rainy and blustery, so we were happy to get inside the Blue Oaks Campus of Bayside Church. They meet in a warehouse, which we heard is a temporary facility, but it has been made into a very warm and inviting space. Christmas music was playing ("Silver Bells", "Caroling, Caroling," and other bell songs on a relatively short loop, but in fairness we arrived about an hour early) The oak was the center of The Park near the ping pong table and children's play structure. The area is open during the week for people to enjoy this part of the facility and the cafe.

Bay Oaks is one of four Sacramento area campuses of Bayside Church. The first campus was the Granite Bay, founded by Ray Johnston twenty years ago. The impetus of the church's founding was a number of teenagers' suicides in the area. There was a concern that churches weren't reaching young people, so a number of parents got together and prayed for a ministry that would make a difference.

Now 14,000 people attend weekend services at the four campuses (with six services at Granite Bay, four at Midtown, two services at Folsom and two services at Blue Oaks). Youth and children's ministries continue to be priority for Bayside, with the intention of reaching the community by reaching the youth.

We met Allie, her husband, their three kids and Allie's parents (who had worked with youth at Concord Bible Church when we were all there) by the oak tree before in the service. I went with Allie to check her kids into Sunday School. The attendant asked for Allie's last name or the last four digits of her phone number. Allie's younger son and her daughter went into the K - 3rd area, a large outdoor adventure-themed room with tents for the children's small group time. Her older  son was checked into the 4th & 5th grade class. Allie told me it was the children's ministry of the church that drew her and her husband, Kevin, to Bayside. Their kids have made good friends in their Sunday School classes.

The middle school students also have a class during the service, but high school students meet in small groups before or after the service and worship with the adults. There were announcements during the service for Unleashed (the name of the high school and middle school programs) activities, a camp and a Mexico missions trip in the spring.

The main announcement was for the upcoming Christmas Eve services. Free tickets were available for the 8:30 pm service, though the 4:00 pm service had already 'sold out' (tickets are free).  Ray Johnston came to the service to encourage people to bring guests to one of the two services at Blue Oaks or one of the fifteen services at Granite Bay. (Each campus has their own pastoral staff and worship team. Lincoln Brewster, a prominent Christian performer, serves as the Minister of Music at the Granite Bay campus.) Johnston said that last year, hundreds of people made commitments to Christ at Christmas Eve services, and that many people become a part of the church after first being introduced through this service.

There was also an announcement about the need for volunteers to care for children during the Christmas Eve services at Blue Oaks. They needed twenty people, we were told, but not just anyone. Tthey needed twenty qualified people. They hoped to be able to allow parents to enjoy worship without worry.

During the worship there was a cool fog effect along with an effective use of lighting. The worship leaders were talented, but their leadership wasn't just a performance. People were urged to join in the singing ("Come on, church, clap your hands" "Come on Blue Oaks, let's hear you" "Come on, Bayside, let's worship"). And people were singing along. (Though most of the songs were not particularly Christmasy, the close was "Hark the Herald" which was rightly noted to pack more theology in one place than most any sermon.)

The sermon was part of a series on Luke 1 & 2 titled "All I Want for Christmas." This Sunday the text was Luke 2: 1 - 15 (you know, the Linus passage) on Christmas joy. There was an exhortation not to aim for happiness at Christmas, but rather joy.

We felt that Bayside Church is doing its part in the Kingdom of introducing many in the Sacramento area to joy of the Lord.
-- Dean
Service Length: 1 hour 23 minutes
Sermon Length: 41minutes
Visitor Treatment: When Mindy went to the welcome center about an hour before worship began, they were still setting up. During the service, we filled out an attendance card included i the bulletin along with a lot of other enclosures. During the announcements before the offering, visitors were invited to take that card to the welcome center after the service. Dean did and received a tote bag with various materials including a coupon for Chick-fil-A. There were several opportunities during the service to interact with others seated around us.
Followup by Tuesday Morning: none  an email on Wednesday morning 
Our Rough Count: 1,200 
Probable Ushers' Count: 1,400
Snacks: coffee, decaf, and water available outside the worship center (free), with a variety of selections of drinks and pastries for sale in the cafe
Musicians: two bass players (male), two acoustic guitars (male, also singing) one keyboard player (male), one drums (male), two singers (female)
Songs: "Young and Free"
"We'll walk in grace as you call us to glory" (not the title; I couldn't find it from a lyrics search)
"Our God"
"Hark, the Herald Angels Sing"
Miles to place: 127
Total California Miles: 17,666

Monday, December 14, 2015

3 Alternate Hymn Versions we Heard During 2015

When I was growing up, Morning has Broken was in the hymnal our church used, but whenever it was mentioned, someone was sure to say, "It's not the Cat Stevens version, you know." I never quite understood what the deal was; to me, the song was the song -- I didn't particularly notice variations in arrangement.

Over the past ten years or so, classic hymns have been adapted to a worship style that's more drums and guitars than piano and organ, and even I've noticed. In addition, hymn variations and new songs that use some hymn lyrics seem to be more common than the original versions.

Here are three variants we've heard this year:

3. Fairest Lord Jesus (to the tune of Morning has Broken, but no mention of Cat Stevens)

-- Mindy

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Pleasant Grove Missionary Baptist Church, Oakland

We don't often get to go all Law and Order ripped-from-the-headlines in our church visits, but when the opportunity comes, we take it. In October, I came across this headline while reading the San Francisco Chronicle: "Oakland threatens to fine a church for loud music." We had already planned to focus on church music this December, so a plan came together.

According to the article, Pleasant Grove Baptist Church in West Oakland received notice from the city of Oakland's nuisance abatement division that, because of complaints from a neighbor, they would be facing $500 a day fines. The church was told the "excessive noise of the organ, drums and amplified vocals" from the weekly choir rehearsals violated the city noise ordinances.

We arrived about an hour before the service and walked around. The church is in a residential neighborhood with houses on either side and across the street. There are other churches about a block away in either direction, and it's a few blocks from downtown Oakland.

When we entered, shortly before the service was scheduled to start, I noticed an older woman and man greeting each other. "How are you?" "Blessed. And you?" "Still above ground. Woke up with some aches and pains but it gets better as the day goes along." For most people in the church, "Blessed" was the answer to the "How are you" question.

We were warmly greeted by a number of people, with handshakes and hugs. When we sat down a pew by ourselves, a woman called us to sit next to her, and we chatted for a while. Just before the service began, she remembered she needed to be by the aisle, in case she was moved to go forward to pray, so we rearranged seating.

It was a damp morning. In the call to worship we were reminded, "We may be wet on the outside but we don't need to be wet in our souls." The music began, and I could understand the basis for the noise complaints -- not that I was complaining. The singing, drums and keyboard were tuneful and joyous but definitely loud. On occasion we've been warned before entering a church that the music would be loud. But most of those warnings proved pointless ("Watch out! This Barry Manilow album excessively rocks!" kind of warnings.) But the volume this Sunday was high.

We were encouraged to praise. "Regardless of the situation you're in, we're here to praise him." "Devil take notice: you can't take my peace!" "Come on, come on, give God some praise!" We didn't use hymnals or slides for singing time. For most of the songs, the worship leader would sing and the congregation would repeat.

Guests (there were a few others besides us) were asked to stand and were greeted. "If you're looking for a church home, you're welcome here." A woman read the announcements, including addresses for bereaved family members. People in the congregation felt free to call out corrections and additions to the announcements.

For the offering everyone was asked to stand and face the outside walls, then we all walked forward to go by the offering baskets. The ushers marched briskly by the baskets with a hand behind the back.

The Reverend Thomas Harris III came forward to preach. There was loud feedback which took a few moments to fix (the one moment of sympathy I had for the issuers of the noise complaints.) He spoke of being known by the way we walk. He talked about the way African American men walked back in the '70's, "a cool walk, with a limp to it and one hand behind the back". He walked that walk to the delight and with the encouragement of the congregation.

He then called the congregation to walk with integrity. "Integrity is a lost art," he said, and added that we need to value our good name as advised by the Proverbs. He pointed to the newly appointed deacons in the church as men of integrity and invited all to stay after the service for their ordination.

He encouraged the congregation to be there for each other. "You all know how I love illustrations, he said, then asked me and another guest, a woman, to come forward. He asked us to stand on either side of him. He leaned on both of us. "Sometimes a stranger can be an easier person to lean on. At times we can speak more freely with such a person." The worship team then led the congregation in singing "Lean on Me."

Communion was served with interesting plastic cups with the grape juice sealed in and the wafer sealed on top of it. Women were offered small, white head coverings to wear during the ceremony (most, but not all, women accepted them. A few women were already wearing hats). The communion elements were covered with a cloth and remained hidden while the elements were passed through the pews.

After Communion, padded black office chairs were wheeled to the front of the church, and an invitation was given for prayer. One man came and sat in the seat, and the deacons prayed for him. A woman came forward and gave testimony of God's provision.

Two new deacons were invited to sit in the chairs after that, and their families were asked to come forward. The pastor and the rest of the deacons prayed for them, officially installing them in their new positions. The service was then concluded.

I had an opportunity to talk with Rev. Harris when he came to greet us, and I asked about the fines for the noise violations. He said they had worked things out with the city. The church has been there for 65 years and "we were used to doing things our way." The main problem had been choir practices on Wednesday nights that went past 9:00 pm. The church had agreed to end those practices by 9:00 pm, and the fines had been rescinded. The community had really rallied around the church, which was a blessing, the pastor said. And they had been able to make contact with other churches that faced similar issues, providing a chance to encourage each other.

It seems that good has come through this time of trial for the church. If nothing else, it made more people (including us) aware of their warm and joyous ministry.

Service Length: 2 hours 9 minutes
Sermon Length: 38 minutes
Visitor Treatment: We were greeted warmly by "ershers" (I'm guessing it was a church joke, since I heard the word used a few times by different people) and by other people coming into the sanctuary. Our seatmate introduced us to all the people seated near us, and "welcome visitors" was part of the very brief order of service in the bulletin. Both during the welcome time and in conversation, we were invited to come back and to consider making Pleasant Grove our church home. We also signed the guest book in the foyer, but nobody else seemed to have written in it since May.
Followup by Tuesday Morning: none
Our Rough Count: 65
Probable Ushers' Count: 80
Snacks: none
Musicians: drums (male), organ (male), keyboard (male, worship leader), three men and six women (one on tambourine) in the choir. Two children joined (I think) their mom by the end of worship and were helping out with the tambourine. The young man on the organ left before the sermon.
Songs: "This is the Day"
            "He Has Made me Glad"
            "I Come to Lift Him Up"
            "Magnify the Lord with me"
            "Praise Him"
            "Hallelujah, You Have Won the Victory"
            "We Say Yes"
            "God is Great and Greatly to be Praised"
            "Every Day is a Day of Thanksgiving"
            "Lean on Me"
            "Bridge over Troubled Water"
            "Show Somebody the Way"
            "King Jesus my Savior"
            Draw me Nearer"
            "At the Cross Where I First Saw the Light"
            "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms"
Miles to place: 64
Total California Miles: 17,411

Monday, December 7, 2015

23 Songs We Sang Most Often in Church in 2015

This is possibly the least scientific year end list you'll see among the many coming out this month, but to the best of my knowledge, these are the songs we sang most frequently* in the churches we visited this year. (All except one of the churches were in California, for what it's worth statistically.) They're grouped by number of times we sang them, and if there's an alternate title it's in parentheses. They're listed from least to most frequent, and as alphabetically as I could manage on half a cup of coffee.

Sung twice
All Creatures of our God and King
Amazing Grace
Bless the Lord, O My Soul (10,000 Reasons)
Blessed be Your Name
Glory be to the Father (Gloria Patri)
The Great I Am
Holy, Holy, Holy
I Love You, Lord
I Surrender All
In Christ Alone
Lord, I Need You
The Lord's Prayer (I think each time was a different tune, but I didn't note that)
Song of Hope (Heaven Come Down)
There is a Fountain
Trust and Obey

Sung three times
At the Cross
Come Thou Fount
I'll Fly Away
This I Believe (The Creed)

Sung four times
Amazing Grace/My Chains are Gone (counting the traditional version of Amazing Grace, we sang this song six times, making it the most frequently sung worship song this year. Which really isn't surprising, is it?)

Sung five times
Doxology (Praise God from Whom all Blessings Flow)
-- Mindy
*There were a whole lot of other songs sung in churches we visited this year. These were the ones sung at more than one church. Here's the complete list (which will be updated to be complete through the end of the year) for 2015.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Evergreen Valley Church and Church on the Hill, San Jose

Throughout the month of November, Mindy and I visited churches that were featured in movies, so for the last month, I've dealt with false expectations you may have from those films ("The church used for Sister Act doesn't sing sanctified doo-wop," "Horses are not tied in front of the church location for High Noon," "Dustin Hoffman is not eternally knocking on the glass of the church from The Graduate"). So I was going to deal this week with false expectations you might have with the churches from the film I'm in Love with a Church Girl.

But who are we fooling here? You haven't seen I'm in Love with a Church Girl. You could watch it on Netflix, Amazon or even YouTube, but you haven't yet, so it would be silly to deal with false expectations you'd have from watching the film. There are, however, some interesting things about the origin of that film that I'd like to write about before we visit the churches.

IiLwaCG was written by Galley Molina while he was serving time in prison. He had been a drug dealer, and he wrote a fictionalized story of the experiences that led him out of his life of crime to faith in Jesus Christ. He came to serve at Evergreen Valley Church in San Jose. He raised funds to make a film of his story, but Evergreen Valley Church was too small to serve as a film location, so the production company went to the nearby Church on the Hill, also in San Jose. This Sunday we experienced a happy double feature, visiting both churches.

First of all, on the off chance there is someone reading who saw the film; I should let you know that there was no Lamborghini in the parking lot at Evergreen Valley Church. Before the 9:00 am service, I talked to one of the pastors on staff, Greg Trapp. He told me Pastor Galley is one of their ministers of worship at Evergreen Valley, but he wouldn't be there that morning.

I could understand why the film wasn't made at Evergreen. The sanctuary was relatively small and narrow. But it did fill up, and this was one of three services for the weekend. The music also filled the room. (I was warned by a parishioner named George before the service that the music could be loud; obviously concerned it might bother us. Thank you, George; it did not.)

"I was a manager at a Kmart for ten years. Last Friday was Black Friday. I don't like Black Friday. But I like Good Friday. Black Friday brings chaos, but Good Friday brings peace." That was how one of the other pastors, Dennis Hadley, introduced communion. (There are seven pastors on the staff of this relatively small church.) Communion was served in a rather unique way. The trays passed contained plastic cups in stacks of two. The top cup had grape juice and the bottom cup had a wafer. The church serves communion every week, believing that most important thing they do is commemorate Christ's sacrifice for our sin.

The sermon was given by the Senior Pastor, Tim Wood (and yes, rare IiLwaCG viewers, that is Pastor Tim from the film) on the theme of Thanksgiving. "We may be Post Thanksgiving Day, but we are not post thanksgiving."

When the first day of Advent falls after Thanksgiving, it sometimes provides a quandary for service planners. Should the theme of the service be Thanksgiving or Advent? This week we were able to celebrate both. Thanksgiving was the theme at Evergreen, but at Church on the Hill they were celebrating the First Sunday of Advent.

The church is visible at distance with a unique look, a bit like a circus tent with a globe on the top. There is a school on the property, so soccer fields are next door to the building. Music from a variety of Christian artists can be heard from the parking lot.

Approaching the building greeters shook our hands. Inside the lobby there were people enjoying beverages and snacks from the café. I looked in the sanctuary and was handed a bulletin (Mindy had gone in a few minutes earlier). Though musicians were playing, I thought they were practicing because there were a number of empty seats. But the service had, in fact, begun. (And only about half of the large space had chairs. There was a good deal of empty space.)

After some worship choruses, we sang my first carol of the season, “O Come, All Ye Faithful.” During the announcements, people were invited to an evening of decorating the church lobby for Christmas, “so that we won’t just have the prettiest place in San Jose but also the most welcoming.”

A woman was invited forward to give her testimony and light the first Advent candle of the season, the Candle of Hope. A nicely done video also presented the theme of hope, presenting a variety of sentiments (from “I hope for peace on earth” to “I hope Dad stays sober.”)

The sermon was, not surprisingly, on the theme of Hope, using the first chapter of John and a survey of that Gospel. The pastor acknowledged that there are plenty of reasons why people might lose hope (everything from reports of terrorism in the news to personal tragedy), but insisted hope can be found in Christ.

I had a chance to talk to a gentleman named Paul who was in the lobby with a couple of his young children. I asked him why he came to the Church on the Hill. He said he appreciated their young pastor. He also said he had grown up in the church, and “I’m a faithful guy.”

It was obvious looking around that there were people who hadn’t stayed faithful to the church. It was a bit strange. It was a large facility and people seemed to act as if they were still a mega church, but were no longer that. Mindy did a bit of research, and found that Church on the Hill had indeed had some struggles in the recent past. It seems like there are still good folks at the place, and I hope that God can continue to work through this ministry. As the preacher said, there is always hope, particularly in this season of Advent. I trust God will continue to work on the Hill and in the Valley in San Jose.

Evergreen Valley Church
Service Length: 1 hour 10 minutes
Sermon Length: 21 minutes
Visitor Treatment: Just like in the movie (sort of), Mindy was escorted in when we arrived...but only as far as the restroom door. We were greeted and given bulletins as soon as we came in the building, and each of us was greeted as we walked around before the service began (we think at least three of the people who greeted us were pastors). Pastor Greg was especially welcoming. There was a greeting time during the service when people went out of their way to greet us, and after the service, an usher made sure we went to the information table for the visitors' gift (a logo'd shopping bag with a devotional). We filled out the visitor card that was available in a number of locations around the building.
Followup by Tuesday Morning: We got a personal email on Sunday from Pastor Greg
Our Rough Count: 87 plus balcony (we didn't see how many were there, but guess around 30)
Probable Ushers' Count: 135
Snacks: none, but there was a table with bags of bakery bread (with Bible verses) in front of the church (we took some that had caraway seeds. It is delicious)
Musicians: 1 man on various percussion instruments, 1 man on drums, worship leader (man) on keyboard, 1 man on electric bass, 1 man and two women singers
Songs: "First Loved me"
"When I Think about the Lord"
"Thank You for Loving me"
Miles to place: 117
Total California Miles: 17,160
Church website: evcsj.com

Church on the Hill
Service Length: 1 hour 10 minutes
Sermon Length: 43 minutes
Visitor Treatment: One of the two greeters outside the building shook our hands and welcomed us. We filled out the visitor card in the pew.
Followup by Tuesday Morning: none  an email invitation Tuesday afternoon for the evening's lobby decorating party and an email from the pastor asking us to say hello in the lobby next week (we saw him in the lobby this week but didn't want to interrupt the conversation he was having)
Our Rough Count: 180
Probable Ushers' Count: 200
Snacks: Coffee and a variety of foods available at the Cafe. (Among the service opportunities listed in the bulletin was doing the shopping to stock the Cafe)
Musicians: worship leader (man) on acoustic guitar, man on drums, man on electric bass, woman singer
Songs: "Cornerstone"
"O Come, All ye Faithful"
"Song of Hope (Heaven Come Down)"
Miles to place: 12
Total California Miles: 17,160
Church website: churchonthehill.com