Wednesday, February 22, 2017

We Go to Church without Even Thinking of Falling Asleep

Saints Community Church of God in Christ, Fresno
We were there for the early morning shift -- that’s what one of the worship leaders called the 8:00 am worship at Saints Community Church.  The woman offering the morning prayer gave thanks to the Lord for getting us up in the morning, because we couldn’t do it on our own -- though I had not, technically, gotten up that morning.

I’d just started working my night audit shifts at the Best Western, and I’d gotten home shortly after 6:30 am, so I was staying up rather than getting up for the service. It still seemed like the Lord’s work rather than my own. Fortunately, it was a short walk to church from our apartment. That’s sort of our theme this month: churches we can walk to. Saint’s is just a block and a half from our apartment.

We were greeted warmly by many people as we arrived. The usher made sure that we got bulletins and a packet of visitor information. (The usher also stood midway down the center aisle, facing the back of the church, for the first half of the worship service, ready to help with any needs.)

After a call for intercessory prayer, people were encouraged to divide into groups of three to five people (though our group had six) to pray. Some prayer requests were announced from the front -- members and friends of the church who were sick, hospitalized, or grieving. Within each small group, additional prayer requests were raised. In our group, we all wanted prayer for our families.
Early in the service, visitors were invited to stand, and we were greeted by everybody around us. The usher gave us the visitor packet and asked us to fill out a card, saying he’d be back for it so that we could be personally greeted by the pastor. The usher came back just before the offering, while Dr. B.E. McAlister, the church's pastor, was announcing that they were raising money for a new sanctuary -- one that would “allow us to worship more efficiently,” he said. The pastor added, “We’re not expecting all the funds to come from hot wing dinners and chitlin cook offs.” Two men stood in front of the church with gold buckets, and at the direction of more ushers, people lined up to walk forward to give their offerings.

In honor of Black History Month, a church leader read a poem his sister had written about her heritage. The poem referred to the Underground Railroad, George Washington Carver, and Brown vs. Board of Education.

As the pastor was introduced, it was noted that his picture had been in the newspaper that week. He was welcomed with applause, and verbal encouragement of the pastor continued throughout the sermon:
“Talk, Bishop!”
“Yes sir!”
“Tell it!”

The congregation continued to encourage Dr. B. E. McAlister along as he preached on a phrase from I Corinthians 7:29, “The time is short.”  The Bishop was true to his word when he said, “I’m going to talk for a few minutes about time being short.” (Which is good. There are many preachers who might take a passage about the time being short and then talk for a really long time.)

“I have attended more home goings then I ever had in a very short time,” Dr. McAllister said.  “I’ve gone to seven homegoings in the last two months, and three more are pending…This morning I want to ask ‘What if?’ What would you do if you knew you had only one year left?”

He encouraged the congregation to think about what’s really important. He said we must be determined to accept Christ. He suggested we would be amazed how many people would attend the 6:00 am prayer meeting if they knew they only had one year to live. (Saints Church has early morning prayer meetings Monday through Thursday.)

He said that if we only had a year left to live, we would right the wrongs we had done. “But we shouldn’t wait until we are sick to do this, can I have a witness? None of us knows whether we have a day left, let alone a year. Let’s make changes now!

“The Bible tries to warn us, to give us a heads up! But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord! If Jesus would come now, would you be ready? We pray that our spiritual houses would be in order.”

People were invited to come down to the altar for prayer as the sermon concluded, and one man came down to pray with several who waited there.

Afterward several people invited us to coffee and snacks in the fellowship hall. One women insisted, “It’s great coffee.” Mindy appreciated the coffee (I do not), but I enjoyed the breakfast burrito. In the same area where snacks were served, groceries were available for those who needed them (a woman noticed Mindy looking at the food and invited her to fill out the paperwork required to take the food home, which we appreciated.)

We talked to Michael, a young man home from U. C. Berkeley for President’s Day weekend. He spoke with great fondness of Saint’s, but he told us he’d found a church at school and was active in CRU (formerly Campus Crusade for Christ).

Michael was planning to be back in Fresno again the next weekend, because the church would be celebrating Super Sunday College Outreach. This is an annual event at the church, when college representatives come to the church to provide young people with information and encouragement to seek higher education. Michael’s leaders from Cru would also be coming to speak. We wished a bit that we’d be around for that Sunday service, but we liked the one we came for.

Service Length: 1 hour 24 minutes
Sermon Length: 14 minutesVisitor Treatment: We were greeted frequently as we entered, during the greeting time, and after the worship service. We received a visitor packet and turned in a visitor card.
Followup by Tuesday Morning: none We got a letter from Pastor Bruce McAlister about a week after our visit.
Our Rough Count: 49
Probable Ushers’ Count: 60
Snacks: breakfast burritos, coffee, hot water for tea or hot chocolate, bagels, bananas, muffins and other pastries, juice
Musicians: organ (man)
drums (man)
tamborine (woman)
electric bass (woman)
keyboards (man)
vocals (2 women, 1 man)
Songs: "I Come to the Garden Alone"
"Walk with me, Lord"
"Glory to His Name"
"Let it Rise"
"Praise Him"
"He Brought me Out of Darkness"
"Oh, I Want to See Him"
"Come to Jesus Just Now"
Miles to Church: a block and a half or so
Church Website:
WiFi Availability: none
Tie/Suit Count: more than half the men wore suits and ties; a few also wore hats

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

We Try Really Hard to go to Church on our Street

I had a Semantics course for my communications major in college. I remember the professor saying that the word “fresh” by itself on a package of chips would be meaningless. When chips are first packaged, they are fresh. When the package has been in a vending machine for ten years after the zombie apocalypse, the chips are not fresh. The word “fresh” on the bag is meaningless unless it comes with an expiration date.

We moved into our Fresno apartment a month ago, and one of the things that pleased us about the place was all the churches along the street. As I took walks, I’d notice the church signs in the neighborhood. Sometimes I’ve been more observant than other times.

I need to share something else about a transition in our lives. I just started a job as a hotel night auditor again. At the last night auditor job, back in Healdsburg, I had seniority, so I could opt not to work Saturday nights. I don’t have seniority now. I worked this Saturday night and got home at a little after 5:00 am Sunday morning, and I thought I’d be up for the 8:00 am service at a church near us. But I didn’t wake up, so Mindy went to first service at the Bridge, our adopted home church. I said I’d be awake in time for the 10:30 service at another church a couple blocks down the street.

I was up at 10:00 am, and we walked to the church. When we got there, we realized the church didn’t have a 10:30 service. Some misremembering was involved, and actually the service time was 10:00 am -- so we didn’t go in (but we’re determined to go to that church next week).

So we went back to the Bridge for our 11:00 am Sunday School (or, as it’s called at The Bridge, “Adult Bible Fellowship”) class. We were very glad we did, because the person sharing was a missionary to Paris. Only about 6% of people in France ever go to church and only 1% to a Protestant Church, yet a recent poll found that 60% of people in France have questions about God that they feel they don’t have anyone they can ask. The missionary shared about their ministry to provide fresh, not churchy, ways to allow people to ask those questions. Much of what he shared corresponded with things we observed in last year’s journey around the country: the United States is, in many places, beginning to look a lot like France. Churches are going to have to get a lot more creative if they want to be heard.

We were very happy we made it for that class.

But we still needed to go to a new church this week. I remembered a neighborhood church that had a sign for a 4:30 pm service. But considering the day’s track record, I went to the church again to be sure we had the time right. There it was, clear as day, on the sign: 4:30 pm service.

We tried to double check the time, just in case, by looking up the service times on the internet, but as far as we could tell, the church had no internet presence. They didn’t have a website; they didn’t even have a Facebook account.

So we walked to the church a little after 4:00 pm. No one was there. We did notice some signs of disrepair. A sign said there was “NO KATEBOARDING”. (Now I want to go kateboarding, sounds like fun.) There were some fairly mature weeds in the asphalt of the parking lot.

We kept waiting. In college there used to be an informal rule that you were to wait ten minutes past start time for a teaching assistant, twenty minutes for a professor, and a half an hour for a tenured professor. We split the difference and waited twenty minutes. No one showed.

Like the word “fresh” on a chips bag, service times on a sign mean nothing if no one shows for church. If I was hungry for a bag of chips, I’d be disappointed if they weren’t fresh. If I had questions about God, I might be despairing if there was no one there to answer those questions.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

We go to Church on our Street in Fresno

The Quest Church, Fresno, California
“Please let us know if there’s something you think we’re doing wrong,” we were urged by both a parishioner and the pastor. We had explained we were just visiting and that we’re committed to another church, and yet they seemed excited to hear what we experienced.

It can be odd to be a “professional” church visitor. There are churches we’ve visited where no one really greets us at all, or just shakes hands during the greeting time, mumbles “Good morning” and turns to shake hands with someone else. In those churches we haven’t needed to bother with the awkward explanations that lead us to say we’ll be writing about their church in our blog.

There are also churches where someone asks fairly quickly, “Is this your first time with us?” (This happens most often in churches where everyone knows everyone, and the fact that we’re new is readily apparent. Sometimes when we explain why we’re visiting, the greeter moves along very quickly. If we won’t be back, why would they bother getting to know us?

On the other hand, at The Quest Church, we were greeted by Susie fairly quickly after we came on property. She introduced herself and asked about us. When we told her about last year’s project to visit a church in every state, she told us about the pastor’s parents and their adventure of going to different states to help with the construction of churches. (She also showed us where the coffee and snacks were served and where people gathered before and between worship services.) And as I mentioned above, when we mentioned we write about churches, she was eager to learn what we thought, especially about how the church could do things better. That’s a very healthy perspective to have, but it’s sadly lacking in a number of churches.

Susie introduced us to her husband, Dan, and they told us a little about the church building itself. The Quest used to meet at Clovis High School, but when construction began at the school, the congregation had no place to meet. This was a couple of years ago, and that was when the Assembly of God denomination decided to gift the building to The Quest, which is an Assembly of God Church. Another AG church had been on the property years before, but that congregation left the building to the denomination.

When The Quest received the building, it hadn’t been particularly well cared for, and there was a lot of work to be done. The sanctuary didn’t even have heating or air conditioning and had single pane windows. (Despite the image some have of California in their heads, there are many parts of the state where it does get cold. Fresno is a place that can get very, very warm.) So the congregation, with limited resources, has worked to fix up the facilities.

We were enjoying our refreshments (oranges and some very excellent cookies among other things) in the Great Room, the fellowship hall. We heard that the room had been quite the mess when The Quest moved in, but a woman in the church donated money she’d inherited from her father’s to put the room into shape. Susie also noted that the children’s play equipment was another improvement on the grounds. She had seen a news story about a local pedestrian mall being redone,and she made the phone calls to find out that the old children’s play equipment could be purchased at a greatly reduced rate. And the kids love it. (The congregation also bought some park benches from Fulton Mall as well.)

As we stood talking In the patio area before the worship service began, Pastor Dave Erickson introduced himself and took time to talk to us. He told us more about the move from Clovis and the gift of the facilities. When we mentioned our visits to bars along with churches, he encouraged us in that work. He spoke of the church’s priority of reaching the unchurched and mentioned the Life Recovery Group that meets on Mondays at the church. As we spoke, we heard the service starting inside.

After some singing, there was a greeting time. As mentioned above, sometimes during church greeting times, everyone shakes hands and says “Good Morning” (or “Peace” in places where the peace is passed). But here, most people introduced themselves and engaged us in conversation. I was able to ask Dave about what he appreciated about the church. “People are welcoming here, there are no judgments. We all have a past.” (That kind of acceptance is what people often tell us they are looking for in a church.)

Pastor Dave called out “Visiting hours are over!” as the timer on the screen reached 0:00, and everyone returned to their seats. He introduced a new series, “Life of a Champion” and asked if there were any Seattle Seahawks fans in the building.

The response was silence. (I thought I showed good judgement and restraint by not booing the Hawks -- but that’s just me) He played a video of Christians on the Seahawks talking about the importance of character and integrity and trusting in Christ. The NFL video made sense as it was Super Bowl Sunday. (I’ll admit that if it had been a video with New England Patriot players, I probably couldn’t have restrained booing a bit.)

After the video, Pastor Dave proceeded with his message on the disciplines required for the “Life of a Champion.”  He talked about the problems of being just average. “When we choose ‘average’ it’s just as close to the bottom as it is to the top.”  He said that God wants more for us than just “average.” He stressed the importance of practicing the disciplines taught in Scripture to live an above average life.

I appreciated that Pastor Dave gives people the opportunity to ask questions on the sermon through texting (or as the message on the screen said, “Text QUESTions”). There are also small groups (Connection Groups) that meet during the week to discuss the sermon. (Susie invited us to the group that meets in their home. The bulletin reads, “There’s always room on the couch… to grow with us.”)

The service concluded with video announcements. People were invited to a Super Bowl party at the church and were encouraged to bring snacks and friends to watch the game on their “big screen.” They also showed a video of a recent church snow trip, showing people of a variety of ages having a very good time together.

I hope Susie and Pastor Dave won’t be too disappointed to read that I don’t have anything to write about what the church is doing wrong. We observed a kind and loving group of people looking to serve God and each other. All good from what we could see.

Service Length: 1 hour 15 minutes
Sermon Length: 32 minutes (including video)
Visitor Treatment: Susie greeted us almost as soon as we walked in (most people were still outside, but we didn’t know that yet). She introduced us to several people, including her husband Dan. During the greeting time, she came over to Mindy to invite us to the Connection Group that meets in their home on Wednesday evenings. Meanwhile, a number of people introduced themselves to each of us and talked to us. Visitors and everybody else were encouraged to fill out a connection card and put it in the offering box at the back of the sanctuary.
Followup by Tuesday Morning: none
Our Rough Count: 38
Probable Ushers’ Count: 55
Snacks: coffee, hot water for tea, toffee-doodle cookies, juice boxes, muffins and fresh oranges
Musicians: acoustic guitars and electric bass (2 men)
Keyboards (woman)
Drums (woman)
Vocals (2 women)
Songs: “Glory to God”
“Mighty to Save”
“Even So Come”
“One Thing”
Distance to Church: ¾ block
Open WiFi: no
Tie/Suit Count: none
Church Website: