Wednesday, August 16, 2017

We go to Community Family Night

It probably shouldn’t be a surprise that the traditional congregation decided to provide bingo in the Family Center -- with one of the most appealing attractions in Fresno this time of year: air conditioning. A number of families were already in the room when the games started up, and many little kids had bingo cards.

Bingo was just one of the activities available at Community Family Night at Butler Church. The four congregations of Butler came together it put on the event for the neighborhood with free bounce rooms for children, along with face painting, free snow cones, and a free bike repair clinic. Mindy and I were quite pleased with the $1.00 tacos. (A server told us, “I haven’t tried them yet but they look and smell good.” No worries, they tasted as good as they smelled.)

As I mentioned, Butler, which belongs to the Mennonite Brethren conference of churches, has four congregations. While Mindy played a game of bingo, I talked with Pastor Jim Holm. He’s pastor Faith Community, an English language congregation that gathers for a traditional worship service. He told me about the three other congregations: the other English language congregation, Common Ground, that celebrates with a contemporary worship service (both of the English language congregations meet at the earlier service time, 9:30 am); Amor y Fe, the Spanish language congregation; and Asian Grace, the Laotian congregation (the Spanish language and Laotian worship services meet at 11:15 am). All four congregations came together to put on this community event.

Each congregation has their own pastor, with one pastor, Scott Holman, as lead (or administrative) pastor for all four congregations. Each congregation supports their own pastor, but a “common pot” from each congregation supports the facilities, office staff, and other shared needs.

Seven times a year (including Christmas Eve), the four congregations meet together. The morning after the Community Family Night was going to be one of those times, with the new president of Fresno Pacific University as the speaker. The church and the university are in the same’s right across the street.

This month we’re focusing on community churches, and since 1957, this church has been committed to Southeast Fresno. The church has a monthly community meal for the neighborhood and a food distribution program for the poor. During the Family Night there was bicycle repair available for those who needed it. The church’s website says, “We cooperate with local organizations to help make Fresno a better place to live, and will continue to work against social injustices.”

I spoke with Calvin, who’d introduced himself to Mindy and who’s been a part of the church since 1980. He had work to do and really didn’t want to take time for an interview, but he did say it’s important that the church “makes people in the neighborhood know that God loves them as God loves us”.

Fresno is a multi language, multi racial, and multi ethnic city. I’m glad that there’s a multi language, multi racial, and multi ethnic church working to show that unity is possible and it is what God desires.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

We Go to Church in a New Neighborhood

Here's where you'll find Neighborhood Church in Fresno: at Jackson Elementary
Neighborhood Church, Fresno, California
Is “neighboring” a verb? I know the term is usually an adjective for “adjacent” or “very near,” but I think the people at the Neighborhood Church in Fresno are intent on making it a verb as well, beginning with the way they use their name. They’re putting being a neighbor front and center in their title, and they’re in Jackson Neighborhood, the area that surrounds the school where they meet, Jackson Elementary School.

Last year, when we were visiting a church and bar in every state, people often told us they wanted a sense of community from a church, so we’ve decided to take this month to go to churches that make community a priority -- at least enough of a priority to put something like “Community” or “Neighborhood” in their name.

We were frankly a little puzzled when we arrived at Jackson Elementary on Sunday morning. We saw sound equipment and chairs set in rows in a space by the playground. The thing that really confused us was the signs on the fences around the school. They advertised Neighborhood Church Services at 4:00 pm. Mindy had seen the 9:00 am time on the website, but the website also had pictures of the group meeting inside. As we drove by, we could see that all the gates were chained and locked. Eventually, we noticed the (really obvious) open door into the school auditorium, and all was explained when we walked out the doors on the other side of the room.

Heidi, who’s married to Joe, the church’s lead pastor, greeted us as we approached the chairs. She told us that for most of the year, the church does gather at 4:00 on Sunday afternoons, but the school doesn’t have air conditioning, only swamp coolers. It can get pretty hot inside, so for nine weeks during the summer (“9 at 9”) they meet in the cooler hours of the morning. On this particular morning, someone had forgotten to turn on the swamp coolers in the building, so the leaders decided everyone would be more comfortable meeting outside.

Heidi was surrounded by a number of small children, some of her own and others that weren’t. Some of the kids were taking advantage of the watermelon available on the community table to advertise Ooooby (“Out of Our Own BackYard”), an organization that sells the produce of local farmers to local consumers; restaurants, markets, and families can order a weekly customizable box.

I wondered about why Ooooby was there, but during the service announcement time, it was presented as something that fit nicely with the church vision. We learned that three things form the chief priorities of Neighborhood Church: 1) Jesus, 2) People, 3) Place.  The first two things are pretty common in church vision statements, but the third is less so. Neighborhood Church believes in the importance of getting “entangled” in their neighborhood, their community. Buying from local farmers is a way to be engaged in the community.

We learned that Pastor Joe wasn’t there that week because he’s been working on a book about the importance of neighborhood in ministry, and he was taking a little time for concentrated effort on that work. At the church website Joe has written, “We are a Neighborhood Church that is deeply invested in our Jackson Neighborhood. If the church vanished from the neighborhood overnight, we would want people to say, ‘We miss them. They were a part of us’.”

The service started about nine after nine (which seemed appropriate for a “9 at 9” service). The congregational singing was complicated a bit by being outside, because the monitors that normally display the lyrics, weren’t available. Fortunately, we knew the songs well enough to sing along, and there was the occasional lyric line spoken in advance, but it would have been tough for some guests to sing along.

During greeting time, we were encouraged to ask those around us about the highlight of their summer so far. I met Rosie, who said she was happy that this summer her kids have been able to experience summer camp for the first time, and they got to go to a local water park, too. About ten minutes or so into the service, Pastor Heidi led the children off for Kids Church, taking a rather large contingent of the congregation.

Pastor Mitch, who does youth ministry for the church, preached. His text was Psalm 133, a chapter short enough that I’ve had it committed to memory at times (and at times it has gone away). “How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity! It is like precious oil poured on the head, running down on the beard, running down on Aaron’s beard, down on the collar of his robe. It is as if the dew of Hermon were falling on Mount Zion. For there the Lord bestows his blessing, even life forevermore.”

Mitch’s opening illustration of the the fellowship described in that chapter came from work he does with the football team at nearby Roosevelt High School. He told about kids sharing what it was like to be homeless while attending school and playing on the team. Sharing that pain brought the team together as brothers. I was greatly encouraged to hear that Mitch is able to minister in such a powerful way with these kids from a public school.

Mitch had a three point sermon, noting first that Relational Harmony (which I kept hearing as “racial harmony”) was a gift from God, second that we are in a world with little Relational Harmony, and that God wants to restore that Relational Harmony. Pastor Mitch emphasized that the most important relationship we have is our relationship with Jesus, and that other good relationships can flow from that.

Mitch also talked about his work with neighborhood kids to combat gangs and drug abuse. He said that when the church began in the neighborhood (only a year and a half ago), the neighborhood kids mocked the ministry, but now relationships of trust and respect have developed.

At the conclusion of the service, people were asked to add pictures or words to one of the signs that would be a gift to the teachers of Jackson Elementary on the first day of school.  People were to write notes of love and appreciation for the work of the school’s teachers.

Though the church has considered buying a building in the neighborhood (particularly a house across the street from the school or even a closed bar a few blocks away), Neighborhood Church has no plans to move their worship services off campus. The school is central to the neighborhoods, so it’s a good place for a neighborhood church to meet. Such “entanglements” suit the church as they reflect the way Jesus came down from Heaven to become “entangled” with us.

Service Length: 1 hour 6 minutes
Sermon Length: 28 minutes
Visitor Treatment: As we drove up, a woman pushing a stroller smiled at us as she crossed the street. Once inside the schoolyard, the same woman came up to say hello, along with Pastor Heidi and another woman. Heidi made sure we were aware of the church's informational materials and told us about the church's ministry in the community. During the worship service, people seemed happy to chat with both friends and strangers during the greeting time, and after the worship service ended, several people struck up conversations with us.
Followup by Tuesday Morning: On Monday we got a personal email from Lawrence, who'd led the music during the service and who we'd talked to for a few minutes after.
Our Rough Count: 31
Probable Ushers’ Count: 35
Snacks: Cool water and watermelon (and anything else that could be eaten raw) on the community table
Musicians: acoustic guitars (men)
vocals (woman)
Songs: “Your Love Never Fails”
"Your Grace is Enough"
"Great are You, Lord"
"Everlasting God"
"I Give You my Heart"
Distance to Church: 6 miles
Open WiFi: no
Tie/Suit Count: none
Church Website:

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Dean and Mindy Go To An Outdoor Acronym

“Why do we sing about Heaven but don’t talk about it?” Sarah asked. She said this in a place that a number of people would describe as Heaven, Yosemite.

Sarah is a representative of ACMNP (the name of the organization is an acronym, A Christian Ministry in the National Parks. I don’t know why it’s not ACMITNP).  This Christian organization is not a part of the National Parks system, but the Park System works with them to facilitate worship ministries throughout the country, mostly during the summer.

We went to Yosemite National Park on Sunday, in part as a celebration of Mindy’s birthday. Our son Bret joined us as we drove an hour or so from home to the Wawona Amphitheater, at the south end of the park. We weren’t camping -- we were daytrippers up from Fresno. ACMNP facilitates two other worship services in Yosemite, another 9:00 am service at the Lower Pines campground and a 10:00 am service at Tuolumne, but Wawona was the closest to us.

Three young people were running the service, Sarah, Austin, and Matthew. We arrived a few minutes before the service was scheduled to begin, and they were debating about starting the service on time or waiting for Michael. They said Michael wasn’t officially in the ACMNP program; he hadn’t gone through the training, but he’d been supportive throughout the summer. Matthew had phoned to remind him, and Sarah and Austin teased him when he arrived, saying he was late because that phone call slowed him down.

Austin said that this Sunday service was one of their larger groups of the summer, even before Michael got there. I asked when they started doing services. Austin said their first service was the last weekend in May. They were supposed to have a service the weekend before that, but no one showed. So she and Matthew had discussed Romans.

ACMNP works by recruiting people who support themselves with work in other jobs in the National Parks. Matthew and Michael work in the General Store, Sarah and Austin work in Recreation (and Laundry) at Tenaya Lodge. I asked Matthew if they ever got together with the teams who do services in Lower Pines and Tuolumne, but he said though they had a barbeque together, it was hard enough with their schedules for the Wawona team to find a time to meet and plan.

I really appreciated that the service had a good balance of singing, Scripture reading, prayer, and message -- and still wraps up in about half an hour. There were a number of small children at the service, and they were well behaved throughout, which I think says something about how the service was run as well as something about the kids and their families.

Sarah’s message about Heaven from Revelation 7 was short, but encouraging.

Some people say, “I don’t go to church, I worship in nature.” ACMNP does a great job of reminding people that worship shouldn’t be an either or situation. You can gather with folks and praise God while appreciating His Creation. One should never exclude the other, but how great to be able to do both together.

I especially appreciated Sarah’s talk about Heaven in that location, because of the incredible thought -- within sight of trees, rock formations, and flowing river, in one of the most beautiful locations on Earth -- that Heaven will top it all.

Service Length: 27 minutes
Sermon Length: 10 minutes
Visitor Treatment: We were all visitors, and Sarah, Austin, and Matthew greeted each person as they arrived. After the worship service was over, we were asked to sign their guestbook, and the ACMNPers talked to each person in attendance, asking where they were from, what brought them to Yosemite, and other friendly questions.
Followup by Tuesday Morning: none
Our Rough Count: 17
Probable Ushers’ Count: no ushers, and we could all count to 17
Snacks: no snacks, but they’ve considered bringing some coffee to share
Musicians: acoustic guitar (woman)
vocalists (man, woman)
Songs: “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee”
“Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing”
“Blessed be Your Name”
“Shout to the Lord”
Distance to Church: 63 miles
Open WiFi: no
Tie/Suit Count: none
Church Website:
ACMNP worship book 2017

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

We go to Church at a Car Show

Full Gospel Revival Center, Dinuba, California
Full Gospel Revival Center 50th Celebration and Car Show, Dinuba, California
It’s a good thing for a church to consider what unique strengths and gifts they have and to use those things to reach people.

As a way of celebrating their 50th Anniversary, the Full Gospel Revival Center in Dinuba decided to do something special: they held a Christian Car Show in a downtown park in Dinuba. We drove down to Dinuba on Saturday morning. We and parked our van far from the cars on display because though our 2006 Dodge Caravan, Harold Bijoux, has been very good to us, taking us to 47 of the 50 states last year (you won’t be surprised that we flew rather drove to Hawaii and Alaska, but we flew to Washington State as well), Harold isn’t cool.

The Cruisin’ for Jesus cars were very cool. Here are pictures of a number of cars cooler than ours:

Some of those cars were the work of Central Cal Street and Strip, a shop that does custom car work. Rick, the owner of the shop, was happy to be part of the event along with a couple of other men from the company. (Some of their cars were entered in the competition. Cars were divided into various categories, such as pre and post 1980, and trophies were to be awarded to the winners as the end of the event.)

I saw a Suzuki among the Harley Davidsons. There’s nothing un-American about the Japanese import, of course, and patriotism was on display right from the opening when JR, the pastor of Full Gospel Revival Center, led everyone in the Pledge of Allegiance. A man tucked a flag into the back of one of the classic trucks. Then MMLJ, the musical act (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) played the Jimi Hendrix version of the National Anthem.

The band’s guitar player, Keith Toms, said that since it was a hot day, they’d be starting out with  surf music, including “Pipeline” and “Wipeout.” He added, “We play old rock, and try to redeem it.”  They played a different version of “Louie, Louie” singing, “We’re all saved, so we get to go.” They said Jimi Hendrix had originally started with “Purple haze, Jesus Saves,” but “the studio didn’t care for it. We’ve restored it to its roots.”

The motorcycles on display were mostly the property of the Sequoia Chapter of Guardians of the Children. There are 25 or 26 chapters of the organization, according to “Bullfrog” (his real name is Jeremiah). He said the purpose of the organization is to protect and mentor at risk kids. Sometimes these are kids that have been abused at home, sometimes kids that have been bullied at school or in their neighborhoods.

The Sequoia branch is just starting up. It’s only three and a half months old, but they’ve already taken three kids under their wings. Just as the member have a cut (club patch) and road name, adopted kids are given the same. I talked to another member with the road name “Wrench” (Tony) who said that his own kids had two teenage friends that had committed suicide because of bullying, and he wanted to be a part of something that could protect kids.

I wandered over to where the hot dogs were grilling. The church was providing lunch to all who came to the event, and I met the pastor of the fellowship, JR. He’s been pastor of the congregation for 26 years; prior to that he was the youth pastor for a couple of years. When he proposed this event to other churches, he was told they couldn’t pull it off -- which made him all the more set on pulling it off. He said the city had been quite cooperative in providing the park for the event.

I asked him more about the Full Gospel Revival Center, He said they were a small group, usually twenty to twenty five people in attendance each week, but it was a committed group. I asked about the group’s strengths, and Pastor JR said their congregation was quite committed to prayer. He said they wanted to have this event in the park to reach out to the community. “If we can reach at least one person, it will have been worth it. If we reach more, it will be a bonus!” I asked JR if there were any unfamiliar faces at the event, and JR noted three young men who had just walked into the park to look at the cars. JR went to speak with them.

I don’t know if one of those three men or the bonus of all three might have been drawn closer to Christ that day. But I appreciate the Full Gospel Revival Center making the effort to go out into the world and present Jesus in creative ways.

Service Length: 3 hours (we were there for 1 hour 30 minutes)
Visitor Treatment: Whenever we approached a booth or person, people were more than willing to engage in conversation
Followup by Tuesday Morning: none
Our Rough Count: 47
Probable Ushers’ Count: 75
Snacks: Water, hot dogs, chips
Musicians: keyboard (man)
Drums (man)
Electric bass (man)
Electric guitar (man))
Songs (all performed by MMLJ): “Star Spangled Banner”
“Louie, Louie”
“Purple Haze”
“All Along the Watchtower”
“The Lord is Coming”
“Open the Eyes of my Heart, Lord” (with The Who-style intro)
“Simple Kind of Man”
“Children of the Future”
“Your Love Never Fails”
"God Shall Wipe away Every Tear"
Distance to Church: 27 miles
Open WiFi: none at the park
Tie/Suit Count: none
Church Website: none