Tuesday, January 31, 2017

We Finally Have a Home Church (But We Won't Stop Going to Other Churches)

The Bridge Church, Fresno
Over the past year, a lot of people have asked us about our "home church." Usually, we figure they want to make sure we've got people who support us spiritually and to whom we're accountable, so we've talked about Healdsburg Community Church, The Redeemed Life Church, and First Presbyterian Church of Santa Rosa -- all churches where we've had strong ties of family and friendship for years. But we acknowledge that for the past several years, we haven't really had a home church. We've been visitors, sometimes first time and sometimes frequent.

But as of this month, we have a home church: The Bridge in Fresno. We can see the buildings from our front windows, so we don't anticipate much trouble walking the two minutes from our door to the church parking lot. We were briefly part of the congregation more than 25 years ago, and we visited in March of 2015, when we were visiting former youth group members.

Here's a quick update since our last report:
  • The church has called a senior pastor, Andrew Smith. 
  • Seven worship services are held on the campus each Sunday, including an 8:00 am "traditional" service, two services in the cafe (with live music and video sermon), two "live" contemporary services in the sanctuary, a Spanish language worship service, and a deaf service. There are also an abundance of Sunday school classes for children and adults, as well as small groups that meet throughout the week.
  • There are people here who actually remember us from 1990. 
In the months to come, we anticipate becoming involved in an "Adult Bible Fellowhip" (or Sunday school) class, as well as attending at least one worship service here each week. 

But you'd get pretty bored with statistics from the same church week after week, so we don't expect to be reporting on The Bridge after this post. Instead, we hope to visit new churches (mostly in California) each week, generally following a monthly theme. 

Next month, we plan to go to each of the other churches in our neighborhood -- none more than half a mile away. We'll let you know how it goes!

(so far this month, we've visited the "Traditions" service, "The Cafe," and "The Bridge Live") 
Service Length: Traditions 1 hour 12 minutes
The Cafe 1 hour 14 minutes
The Bridge Live 1 hour 15 minutes

Sermon Length: Traditions 42 minutes
The Cafe 40 minutes
The Bridge Live 36 minutes
Visitor Treatment: In each of the services, visitors were welcomed from the front multiple times. The church makes great efforts to ensure new visitors are greeted even before they enter the building, and there's an information station near (clearly marked) main entrance. We were greeted by at least five people as we walked into the Traditions service, and a couple (we later realized they had been our Sunday School teachers almost thirty years ago, although none of us recognized each other) invited us to lunch after church. Everyone in each service was encouraged to fill out the Connections card.
Followup by Tuesday Morning: On Monday, we received a personalized email from the Director of Community Life ; a day or two later, we got a phone call in response to an interest we'd expressed on the Connections card. We also got an email (again in response to interests we'd mentioned on the Connections card) from a member of the Missional Life Department.
Our Rough Count: 165 / 74 / 225
Probable Ushers’ Count: 190 / 80 / 230
Snacks: coffee, decaf, and hot water for tea were available in several locations around the campus. The Cafe had specialty coffee drinks available for purchase, and croissants, muffins, fresh fruit, and donuts were available as well (a "donations" jar was on the table with the snacks).
Musicians: Traditions had an orchestra, choir, and worship band that included an electric bass (man), 3 trumpets (men), violin (woman), saxophone (woman), trombone (man), flute (woman), drums (man), piano (woman), keyboard and organ (man). The choir consisted of 14 women and 8 men.
The Cafe had percussion (man), acoustic guitar (man), electric bass (man), and keyboards (woman)
The Bridge Live included an electric bass (man), electric guitar (man), drums (man), acoustic guitar (man), and vocals (woman)
Songs: Traditions
"O for a Thousand Tongues"
"All Because of Jesus"
"Shout to the Lord"
"The Power of Your Name" (choir only)
"Rise Up, O Church of God"
The Cafe
"Stir in Me"
"What Joy"
"From the Inside Out"
"Love Came Down"
"Called me Higher"
The Bridge Live
"Dare you to Move"
"All to Him"
"Take Heart"
"For the Sake of the World"
Miles to Church: 100 yards
WiFi Availability: open guest wifi
Tie/Suit Count: 12

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

We Go to Church (but is it Really a Church?) before a Meal

Redwood Gospel Mission, Santa Rosa, California
Our trip last year, where we visited a worship service in every state, could have been completed so much more quickly -- perhaps in two months rather than a year -- if we’d mostly gone to places like Redwood Gospel Mission. Last year, each state required a week since we generally attended Saturday or Sunday services, but RGM has a worship service every evening at 6:00 pm.

Technically, one could argue that Redwood Gospel Mission is not a church. The people at the Mission would not call themselves a church. During the worship service, worshipers are encouraged to attend a church. But RGM certainly has worship services, so if we said that we would visit a worship service (rather than a worship service in a church), we might have found missions throughout the country, and the trip would have been a lot quicker. (Still, we have no regrets.)

When we arrived at the Mission a few minutes before the evening worship service, we saw an ambulance outside. Inside the building,I heard people speculating about who was in the ambulance and the reason the person was in it. No one seemed to really know, but speculation abounded.

As we looked around the chapel, we noticed a few women, but men filled almost all the seats in the chapel. I noticed a few men on their phones, and the man in front of us was looking at a local weekly. Christmas decorations were hanging up near the ceiling.

A minute or two before the scheduled time, a man stood in front of the group and quickly read through a list of announcements (among them, the fact that there’s a 6:00 pm worship service at the mission every day of the year, followed by the 7:00 dinner; he also announced a 6:30 am service followed immediately by breakfast). He also let the group know about the Mission’s drug and alcohol recovery program, the Manna Home ministry for women and children, and shelter availability for the night.

Someone led a prayer of thanksgiving for the day’s lovely weather and for the lovely mission. The two men on stage with guitars introduced themselves as Tim and Steve, who attend two different churches that meet in the same building (The Bridge and Alliance Christian Fellowship). Redwood Gospel Mission has a rotation of churches that lead worship for their evening service.

A few technical difficulties with the sound needed to be worked through (“Your mic’s not working yet!” “Got it!” “Karen, can you turn down the guitars a bit?”), but they carried on with a bit of static coming through the system. Tim said, “If we can lift God up and praise Him, it’s a blessing to everyone.” Almost every comment and song was met with scattered “Amens” and “Hallelujahs” from the crowd.

Tim introduced a Bob Dylan song by reminding us that we all need to make some choices (“It may be the devil, it may be the Lord, but you gotta serve somebody.”) Someone praised his singing with a loud “Brave-Oh!”

As we sang, a man came from behind us and tousled the hair of the man looking at the newspaper in front of us. The man responded good naturedly. A different man went to the front of the chapel and raised his clenched fist triumphantly for no reason we could discern.

Karen, who had been doing the sound, came forward to give the message. I heard a man behind me make a crude remark that would have more often be heard in a strip club than a chapel, but fortunately he quit after that.

Karen initially had problems with the sound system and also apologized for a scratchy throat. She apparently had been to the Mission before, saying, “I see a lot of faces I’ve known for a long time.”  She read a bit from the Robert Frost poem about the road less traveled, drawing a parallel with Matthew 7:15 where Jesus talked about the wide road leading to destruction and the narrow road to salvation.

She spoke of the many choices we make in our day to day life, but said the most crucial choice was whether we would accept Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior, a choice between eternal life and eternal condemnation. She quoted Scripture demonstrating our need for God’s forgiveness for our sins that condemn us to death. She told the story of a California governor who offered clemency to a convict on death row. The convict refused the reprieve and went to his death. She said we have the same choice about whether to accept God’s offer of life. (Side note: Mindy wasn't able to verify this story)

She closed with an offer to pray the sinner’s prayer accepting God’s gift of salvation. “Close your eyes and say these words in your heart,” she said, but many in the chapel repeated her words of contrition and request for forgiveness out loud. “If you prayed that prayer, you are a new creation,” Karen said as she closed.

People stirred, getting ready to go into the meal. “Women and children first” was repeated by several people, and it seemed to be a regular prelude to forming the line to the dining room.

We went in to eat with the crowd, hoping to engage in conversation but almost everyone was  much more intent on clearing their very full plates rather than talking. (I did hear a man at another table say, “I have the munchies from hell; if anyone doesn’t want anything on your plate, it’s going in my pockets, somehow.”)

A few days later, I went without Mindy to the 6:30 am Bible study that preceded breakfast. On my way to the Mission, I saw many people walking from the freeway underpass (where they had spent the night) to the warmth of the Mission.

Before the service there was gossip about a rumor that people from the nearby shopping mall were taking pictures of the homeless that might be used to evict folks. Someone said the photographers might be coming to the services, which led one woman to respond, “You don’t have to be homeless to come to church here.” As in the evening service, the seats were pretty well filled, and there was a greater percentage of women.

A leader read a devotion from The Daily Bread and then asked if anyone had any Scripture to share. A woman shared an extended portion from Isaiah, a man shared from John 15 (“I am the vine and you are the branches”), and another man shared a quote from Joyce Myers.

People were then dismissed for breakfast, again with the admonition, “Women and children first”.

During our 2016 journey to every state, we went to a number of missions along the way. Though most of those places wouldn’t call themselves “churches,” at those places and at Redwood Gospel Mission, we certainly saw the Church at work.

Evening Service / Morning Service
Service Length: 59 minutes / 15 minutes
Sermon Length: 17 minutes / none
Visitor Treatment: No special recognition of visitors, but there was a time for people to greet those around them.
Followup by Tuesday Morning: none (no attendance record)
Our Rough Count: 47 / 50
Probable Ushers’ Count: none
Snacks: spagetti, fruit salad, green salad, French bread, green beans, cupcakes, pie, milk, water /didn’t stay for breakfast
Musicians: acoustic guitars (2 men) / none
Songs: “Our God”
“Hear our Praises”
“Gotta Serve Somebody” (solo)
“Mighty to Save”
“Revelatation Song”
“Lord, in Your Name we Lift up our Hands”
“How Marvelous, How Wonderful”
“Listen to our Hearts”
Miles to Church: 2
Church Website: srmission.org
WiFi Availability: none
Tie/Suit Count: 0 / 0

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

We Go to a Church that Looks Familiar (with bonus statistics!)

Santa Rosa Seventh Day Adventist Church
If the photos look familiar, don’t worry, this isn't a repeat of last week. This is a new post. (I mean, it’s a new post if you’re looking at this this week and not a whole lot later, because that’s how time works.) Last week we went to the Sunday service of New Life Fellowship, a congregation that meets in the Santa Rosa Seventh Day Adventist Church building, and this week we went to the Saturday (Sabbath) worship services of the Adventist Church.

We quickly noticed one thing that the two services had in common (aside from the building). No coffee. Strangely enough, both churches would normally have coffee (and possibly snacks), but nobody had signed up to prepare and serve at either church.  

Scott, who was teaching the Sabbath School Bible Study said he didn’t miss the coffee. He said that coffee was something you have to acquire a taste for, and it was his observation that if you had to acquire a taste for it, it usually wasn’t a good thing. He used beer and wine as examples. Adventists don’t do alcohol, but they do coffee...but not this week.

A cheery older woman greeted us when we entered the church. She asked where we were from, and we told her we were staying in Santa Rosa but about to move to Fresno. She expressed disappointment about that. (People from Sonoma County often offer condolences when we say we’re moving to Fresno.) She told us about the two adult Sabbath School classes: a quarterly denominational study and a Bible study. We went to the Bible study, which met in the back of the sanctuary, along with more than a dozen others.

As we walked down the hallway, a number of people greeted us, some with “Good morning” and some with “Happy Sabbath.”

The class had begun studying the book of James the week before, and they were still discussing the first chapter. Many class members added their thoughts to the discussion, particularly about of verse 13, which is about temptation. One man talked about being tempted while he was in basic training, when they had more to do than hours to do it in. He said it was back in the 1980’s, and recruits were assigned slightly fewer items of clothing...including underwear...than they needed between laundry days. So there was a temptation to steal clean underwear, and underwear theft was rampant. Phil said he was sure Jesus would have resisted the temptation, but he couldn’t say the same for himself.

We talked about verse 22, “Be doers of the Word and not hearers only,” and a woman admitted that there was a time when she wouldn’t read the Bible because she knew she would have to act on it. She said that when she did read Scripture, her mind would often wander. But attending Bible study at church had helped her learn from Scripture, she said. I so appreciate when people are honest about their real struggles in such discussion times.

I was watching the time as the class went on, because it was getting close to 11:00 am, when the worship service was scheduled to begin, and at about 10:55, the class closed in prayer. I helped move the circle of chairs into rows, and we found our seats for the service.

Another couple sat in our row, and a man greeted them with, “So, is this your first time here? Are you visitors?”

They laughed, because the man was just joking; the couple were regulars who had apparently been away for a few weeks. What I found funny was that we, first time visitors, were right there.

Right about then, the couple seated in front of us did turn around to greet us. Mitch and Daphne introduced themselves and asked about us. We asked how long they had been a part of the church, and they said they’d “always been Adventists,” but they used to go to church in Sebastopol. They started attending the Santa Rosa church fifteen years ago because of the youth programs available for their kids.

I asked what they appreciated about the church, and Daphne said, “The mission of this church is to reach out to the community,” and she appreciates the outreach the church does. And she said, “This church meets our needs.”  

Mitch said, “That’s pretty much it.” (The couple has been married for 33 years and seem to have gotten to a place where they’re comfortable speaking for each other.)

The service started a few minutes after the hour. Pastor Don Smith greeted the congregation by appreciating the previous weekend’s rain storms, but expressing concern for those dealing with the after effects of storms and flooding. (There was mention of a tree that fell on three cars at the nearby Adventist college.)

The first song was introduced by Associate Pastor Krystalynn Martin as being “straight from the Good Book.” In Sabbath School someone had mentioned “we don’t sing a lot of traditional hymns here,” so we weren’t surprised when the morning’s music was mainly choruses.

During the prayer time, people were invited to come forward, if they wished, or to kneel, or to stay in their seats. Krystalyn addressed “Heavenly Father, Abba, Papa,” and included prayer for the morning’s speaker, who had been the pastor of the church fifteen years earlier.

After the prayer, Pastor Smith introduced  Bryan Aalborg, who would be preaching. Pastor Smith said that the year 2000 had been a real “pivot point” for the congregation. The congregation wanted to have a “relevant trajectory.”  A new pastor had come, a man who “stirred the pot” and was crucial to changes that occurred at the time. This was the morning’s speaker, Bryan Aalborg.

Before Pastor Bryan began his message, he said that credit for changes within the congregation belonged with the godly people who sought to make changes. He said it had been a time of transition and “fortunately, in the Adventist community, we have options.” Bryan said he was an East Coaster, and this church was his first real experience living as a Californian. At the end of his two and a half year stay, he discovered Yosemite and loved it -- but he had already accepted a call to North Carolina (“God tricked me”).

He went on to share a message about God’s glory, starting with Ephesians 3: 14 - 21 and exploring the themes of glory throughout Scripture, from Exodus to Isaiah to John to the Revelation. He encouraged people to remember the teaching of Scripture that God always has greater things in store for us than we could ever imagine.

After the service, I had a chance to talk to Pastor Bryan about the nature of the transitions the church made during his pastorate. The primary change they made was in worship, from the organ and hymns to a worship team with choruses. Music does seem to be a flashpoint for controversy in many churches, but it seems the church survived that time of conflict and is continuing to prosper.

The gracious welcome of the congregation at Santa Rosa Adventist Church did make for a “Happy Sabbath.”

Service Length: 1 hour 18 minutes
Sermon Length: 50 minutes
Visitor Treatment: We were greeted by multiple people and recognized as visitors. Several people asked our names, where we were from, and expressed regret we were moving (flatteringly, they seemed to want us to come back). On the other hand, about half of the people who engaged in conversation asked our name but didn't offer any information about themselves. We filled out a visitor card and put it in the offering (as directed on the card).
Followup by Tuesday Morning: none
Our Rough Count: 142
Probable Ushers’ Count: 160
Snacks: none
Musicians: Keyboard (man)
Acoustic guitars (3 women)
Drums (man)
Mandolin (man)
Bass (man)
Vocals (man, woman)
Songs: "Revelation Song"
"How He Loves Us"
"The Heart of Worship"
Miles to Church: 1
Church Website: http://santarosasda.com/
Guest WiFi Access: no
Suit/Tie Count: 6 (plus 2 bowties, so bonus points)

We also attended The Redeemed Life Church on Sunday. We wrote about the experience in 2015 when we were visiting former youth group members, so I won’t go into detail about this visit, just give a few statistics.
Service Length: 1 hour 4 minutes
Sermon Length: 16 minutes
Visitor Treatment: We weren't really visitors, but Dean's brother and sister-in-law were. They were welcomed warmly and we saw them talking to different people (not just our nephew and family!) before and after the worship service.
Our Rough Count: 16
Probable Ushers’ Count: 16
Snacks: coffee, candy
Musicians: acoustic guitar (man)
Todd showed us his new banjo and played it for just a moment; his guitar was at the ready but not used
Songs: "Come, Now is the Time to Worship/Cheers Theme"
"A Shield About me/Take me Home"
"Morning Has Broken"
"In Your Eyes"
"His Eye is on the Sparrow" (John Denver style)
"How Deep the Father's Love"
"We Shall Overcome"
Miles to Church: 2
Church Website: http://www.theredeemedlifechurch.com/
Guest WiFi Access: no

Suit/Tie Count: 0

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

We Go to a Church in Transition

City Life Fellowship, Santa Rosa, California
As we headed to church, I was fully prepared to title today’s post, “We Go to Church and Don’t Write About It.”
We were visiting the church in Santa Rosa that my nephew and his family attend, City Life Fellowship, and we knew the church was in a time of transition. Last fall, the pastor had announced to the congregation that he would be stepping down from his role at the end of the year. He was not going to a new church, and there was no scandal or division in the church leading to his resignation. He simply believed that it was something God was calling him to do.

Pastor Adam’s last official Sunday was before Christmas, and the congregation didn’t meet the Sundays of Christmas and New Year’s Day. The next Sunday, when we attended, the congregation met for what the church website listed as a prayer service. Jared told us the service was planned as a time for the congregation to listen for God’s direction rather than a more traditional worship service.

So we weren’t sure exactly what to expect, though we’ve seen churches in times of transition. If, on Sunday morning, we found people broken and bleeding, we’d be very hesitant to write about the visit. (I’m speaking metaphorically here, of course. If we were to literally find people broken and bleeding we’d call 911. We’d probably post about that. Tastefully.) If we’d found the group simmering with resentments, taking advantage of a power void to make a power grab, again, it wouldn’t be something we’d want to write about. (At least not with the name of the church and the names of the people. We have no desire to start a GoFundMe for our legal fees.)

But on Sunday morning, we headed to the Seventh Day Adventist church building where City Life Fellowship meets. City Life doesn’t own their own facilities. The front doors on the street side of the building were locked, but the parking lot was in the back, and we could see a welcome banner by an opened door. We entered and found the restrooms (visiting a different churches every week has allowed us to become quite proficient at this task).  We noticed a group assembled in a meeting room, apparently in earnest conversation.

A few people were mingling in the sanctuary, and I overheard someone saying, “We had some trouble getting out of Windsor.” The storm of the season had been predicted for the night before, and I’m sure there were a number of people who didn’t make it to church, considering the panicky news reports (and the roads that were actually flooded).

Tom welcomed us and made sure we knew that this service would be different from their usual Sunday morning worship service. We told him we knew a little about the situation, and he thanked us for coming and, he said, “sharing our burden.”

The service began, and one of the women leading music welcomed everyone to City Life, wishing all  a happy New Year. “This morning is very different than most Sundays,” she said. “Let’s still our hearts so we can put our eyes on Jesus. Each of the songs this morning is meant to be a prayer. You can stand and sing with us or sit and reflect.”

The first song was one of my favorites, “Be Thou My Vision.” (The lyrics, though, were inexplicably changed in a verse or two. I understand why people feel the need to change “true son” in a desire for the language to be inclusive, but really, the rest of the song is just fine as it is.)

Another song spoke of the need to walk in faith. The worship leader encouraged congregants to “get out of the boat and walk in the waves.”  In prayer she asked God “to instill in each of us that faith we desperately need right now.”

The children who are nine years old and younger were dismissed to Sunday School. There were still a number of young people older than nine in the service (along with my nephew and niece’s adorable baby girl).

“We will continue with worship and move into prayer,” one of the leaders said. There was a time of prayer, but people were also encouraged to share their thoughts. One of the elders, Peter, led the time, pointing out that the church had been in a similar time of transition fifteen years before when Adam came to the church. Peter said that they still had a vibrant ministry, but don’t know what it will look like in the future. “We’ll start to watch how this quilt comes together. In the next week, we’ll figure out what our next step is.”

People were encouraged to share. One woman said, “This morning I had a picture of a lake shrouded in mist. I could only see one stepping stone ahead.” She shared that she believed God was painting a picture of dependence on Him.

Someone else said, “God shakes us and we are fools if we don’t open our hearts to hear him.”

Someone shared from Malachi 2, a rebuke to priests that also offered a blessing. He encouraged everyone to take the teaching to heart because of the New Testament teaching about the priesthood of all believers. Someone else carried on with the concept of the shared priesthood, saying the church had so many gifted people that had been bottled up, so the cork needed to come off the bottle to keep the glass from being smashed.

Another woman shared, “Staunch Presbyterian I am, I tend not to get pictures. But I see life as a shipwreck. As life goes on, we have one shipwreck after another, but we must cling to the mast, Jesus. That’s all that matters.”

A young man who seemed to be in his early teens shared an image he’d been thinking of. On this rainy weekend, he said, you couldn’t always see the rain coming down when you looked out the window. But you could see the rain in the ripples of the puddles. He said it was like how you can’t always see God, but you could see his work.

Throughout the service, cell phones were buzzing with emergency warnings about possible flooding. The building we were in was creaking from the winds. It all could have been rather ominous, considering the situation, but people noted that it just showed that God would be with us through metaphorical storms as well as literal ones.

One of the last people to share was a woman who was thinking of the Bible verse that said that God would do a “new thing” but she couldn’t think of the “address” in the Bible. Someone quickly found it was Isaiah 43: 19 and read it to the congregation, “Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.”

Peter said he would e-mail that verse to everyone in the church that week, along with the next step for the church (when that stepping stone was seen).

(I probably should note here that former pastor Adam and his wife -- who taught the children’s Sunday School class --  and family were at the service, but that Adam remained quiet throughout the service.)

Peter prayed to close the service.

I left the building feeling just fine about writing about the service. Yes, this is a church in transition. They don’t know what’s coming next. But they weren’t in despair,and they certainly weren’t at each other's’ throats. They were simply on their knees, asking God what comes next. And that’s exactly where we all should be.

Service Length: 1 hour 16 minutes
Sermon Length: no sermon
Visitor Treatment: we were greeted by at least three people before the service started, but there was no official recognition or registration of visitors
Followup by Tuesday Morning: none
Our Rough Count: 48
Probable Ushers’ Count: 56
Snacks: none
Musicians: acoustic guitar (woman)
Vocals (woman)
Songs: “Be Thou my Vision”
“I Surrender”
“Oceans (Where Feet May Fail)”
Miles to Church: 1 mile
Suit/Tie Count: 0
WiFi: available with password (which wasn’t available)