Wednesday, March 29, 2017

We Go to Afternoon Church (or was it evening?)

bulletin for Grace Clovis Presbyterian Church, Clovis, California
We don’t hear enough about Amos, one of the minor prophets of the Old Testament. Back in high school, my youth pastor did a few Bible studies with me. First we work through the book of Hebrews, and then we went through the Book of Amos. I remember studying that book with a map.

Amos addresses Israel and tells them of the judgment coming to other nations. My youth pastor Barry pointed out that Amos starts with judgment on Israel’s neighbors -- which must have made the Israelites exclaim, “Preach it! Those heathens deserve your wrath!” Eventually, though, the warnings get a little closer to home, and Amos tells the Israelites that God’s wrath is coming to them because of their sin, wrath like a lion attacking its prey.

Grace Clovis Presbyterian Church, Clovis, California
As I said, Amos doesn’t seem to get preached often, but when we visited Grace Clovis Presbyterian Church, the congregation was working their way through the prophecy. The sermon focussed on chapter 3, verses 9 -15 the afternoon of our visit.

We went to the 4:00 pm Sunday service, which the bulletin described as the “evening service.” (During the sermon, the pastor said both, “this morning” and “this evening.” The latter was more accurate, but neither seemed quite appropriate for the time of day. It’s an afternoon service in my book.)

We were greeted by Pastor Brad Mills and his wife Carrie. We told them about our project of visiting churches, but mentioned that we had adopted The Bridge in Fresno as our home church for now. They told us they had met at the Bridge (back when it was called Fresno Evangelical Free Church; Carrie referred to it as “EVFree”). They told us Grace Clovis is a PCA (Presbyterian Church of America) church plant, a daughter church of Sierra View Presbyterian Church in Fresno. Grace started as a home Bible study in 2013 and had their first worship service in 2014.  They now have Sunday School at 8:00 am, morning worship at 9:00 am (where they’re working through Peter’s first letter to the Church), and the 4:00 pm service we attended.

Brad and Carrie have been pleased with the growth of the church. We learned that we were visiting on a low attendance day. Carrie mentioned that the night before they’d had a church game night, and a number of people had let her know they wouldn’t make it to the service.

The service began with a call to worship from Psalm 134. Singing led into a prayer time with an opportunity for people to share prayer requests (sometime that doesn’t happen in the morning service because the group tends to be larger).  One prayer request was for a house sale (“Many of you helped with the clean-up, and we are thankful”).  A young man, Chandler, hopes to go on a mission trip in the summer and is looking for wisdom (Japan or Cambodia?). One request was for the new widow who has been a missionary in France with her husband. He passed away suddenly two hours after preaching a sermon, and now she is trying to decide whether to continue to serve in France or to return to the States.

The responsive reading was questions 16,  17, and 18 from the Westminster Shorter Catechism along with their answers.  (I mentioned I don’t hear enough from Amos, but I also don’t hear enough from the Westminster Shorter Catechism. It opens with one of the most profound things ever written outside of Scripture, “What is the chief end of Man? Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” I love the use of the word “enjoy.”) Brad said, “There is some important doctrine in the confession, but you should look up the Scriptural proofs that go with it.”

Brad’s sermon was titled “A Powerless People.” As a background for the passage, he mentioned some things from earlier chapters that I remember Barry bringing up way back when. The people of Israel were “Amening” the condemnation of their neighbors, but were not pleased when the judgment came to them. The Israelites were called out for what might today be called social justice failings. They were oppressing the poor, seeking their own hedonistic pleasures.

Amos uses the lion as an important symbol for justice. Since he was probably a shepherd, with the attendant worries of lions attacking his sheep, Amos may speak from his own experience when, in chapter 3, he uses rather grisly imagery of “when lions attack.” Because of the predominance of this symbol, Brad used a lion graphic for the sermon series. (Perhaps another reason I appreciate this book is because my brother works with big cats, including lions, through an organization he founded called Project Survival.)

In the sermon, Brad mentioned something he didn’t think we see enough of in the church -- church discipline. “We must be committed to practicing church discipline, but it is practically absent in the evangelical church today. We should be willing to submit to leadership. We need a distinct morality.”

Grace Clovis Presbyterian Church, Clovis, California
I found this interesting, because one of the more common things we hear when we talk about churches to people in bars to people is that they don’t want to be judged. And we’ve heard horrible stories about people rejected in churches because of the way they dress or the way they look or their life circumstances -- but does that mean there’s no place for discipline or judgment in the Church?

It might be a silly example, but I was thinking of athletes. What if, say, a figure skater said, “I don’t want to be judged. Let me just go out on the ice and do my thing, but no judgments. Still, a medal would be nice.”

That would be absurd.

But perhaps it’s just as absurd for those of us who call ourselves followers of Christ to expect to never be called out for our bad behavior. The people Amos was calling out were really hurting other people, and God wasn’t about to let such injustice slide. I don’t think the people we talk to in the bars would say, “Oh yes, if people are committing acts of violence and stealing from other people, it’s all cool. Don’t make it into a thing.”

It’s a quite different thing for a person to willingly submit to a church for accountability than for people to take it upon themselves to judge others.

Church discipline is not an easy or fun topic, but it’s important, and I was glad to hear Brad addressing it.

After church we talked to Justin and Jenny (whose son Chandler asked for prayer during the worship service). I asked what brought them to the church.

Justin said that they had moved from Mississippi last summer, and they came to the church because he already knew Brad -- they’d been in seminary together. Still, Justin said, “If I didn’t agree with the direction that Brad was taking the church, we would still be friends, but I’d go somewhere else.”

Jenny expressed her gratitude for people in the church who had helped them when they moved to the community.  “They are the nicest group of folks. They helped us set up our home. That’s the hands of Christ.”  

“It’s a community,” Justin added.

We were happy to be a part of the community, if only for one afternoon. Or evening. The time of day really doesn’t matter, I guess. What matters is that this church seems to be a place where God is at work.

Service Length: 1 hour 5 minutes
Sermon Length: 33 minutes
Visitor Treatment: We were the first to arrive, so we stood out a bit. A number of people greeted us as they came in.
Followup by Tuesday Morning: None
Our Rough Count: 34
Probable Ushers’ Count: 40
Snacks: none
Musicians: keyboards (woman)
Songs: "MIghty to Save"
"God of Grace:
"Christ is Mine Forevermore"
"I Sing the Mighty Power of God"
Distance to Church: 5 miles
Open WiFi: no
Tie/Suit Count: none

Church Website:

Thanks to Cate Mills, who Mindy asked to take three pictures of important things about the church.