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)

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