Northwest Church, Fresno, California
Something that intrigued us last year when we were visiting churches in every state, was the number of churches that targeted young people, but used hymns in worship. We went to several urban churches with congregations composed primarily of those in their twenties and thirties that used works by Watts and Wesley, along with other hymnists old and new. Often the hymns had new settings, and they weren't accompanied by an organ but rather by a worship band with electric guitars and drums.
We were at Northwest Church’s Primetimers last Saturday afternoon, and Pastor Bob asked the group, “How many of you love the old hymns?” I do believe everyone raised their hands. This wasn’t much of a surprise, because the event was, after all, a hymn sing. We’d heard the event announced at the 11:00 am “Live and Loud” worship service the Sunday before, and we decided we wanted to go. The music at Sunday’s service had not been hymns. As was true of most large churches we’ve visited in the Fresno area (especially those targeting young families), they mainly sang choruses with the worship band’s volume to eleven.
There was lively conversation around the table. Bill and Kay sat next to me, and Bill mentioned that they too had been to all fifty states. He talked about churches he’d visited in various places. Usually, they’d been greeted warmly (he remembered a Methodist Church with a woman pastor that he’d happily revisit) but one church in their travels was an exception. Everyone treated them cooly, and the only reason they could figure for this was that Kay had been wearing slacks, while all the other women wore dresses.
I asked if Primetimers was the name of a Sunday School class in the church and was told it wasn’t. Primetimers is the name for special events for seniors. Still, most of those at the hymn sing attend the same 9:30 Sunday School class after attending the 8:00 am traditional worship service (with a choir and orchestra and “a mix of classic and contemporary music” according to the church website).
The hymn sing was the fifth of six Primetimers events this year. Several women at the table spoke enthusiastically about the Super Souper, a soup potluck, a challenging event where it’s difficult to try everything. The only remaining gathering this year is a Veteran’s Day event which will feature a Honor Guard.
While we ate, Bob (not Pastor Bob Small who organized the event) played the piano. We were told Bob played the organ at the 8:00 am worship service, and his work was greatly appreciated and admired by the group. Senior pastor Will Stoll wasn’t at the event, but it was obvious that his work was appreciated by the group. Their love for Pastor Bob, whose ministry is to the senior adults, was also very much apparent.
After people had an hour to talk and eat, Pastor Bob went to the stage and thanked Bob for his work on the piano. He passed out the “Red Backed Hymnal” which he described as the go to book for classic hymns -- though it didn’t have all the old classic hymns. It didn’t have “It Is Well With My Soul,” so a printed handout with that hymn was passed out. (The book did have the song, “Tell Mother I’ll be There,” but we didn’t sing that one.) Pastor Bob introduced Virgil, who would be leading the group in singing what Virgil said were “all your favorites.”
We sang “Victory in Jesus” which apparently was a favorite of a former staff member at Northwest and once was quite a favorite in the church. Before singing “It is Well,” Virgil had us read through the lyrics aloud, and Virgil made remarks about the hymn, a short little sermon. “It is well with our souls. The longer we live, the less well it is with our bodies,” he added.
“Amazing Grace” was introduced as “America’s Hymn” which I think is an apt description. (I think that’s true even when it is sung to the tune of “House of the Rising Sun” or the theme to “Gilligan’s Island”. Not surprisingly, the original tune was used here.)
We noticed as we sang that one or two people at our table signed along. We learned later that a woman at our table has a son who is deaf, and that Bill taught sign language. We enjoyed talking about the challenges of translation when the singing was done.
We had a good time with the friendly and welcoming people of the Primetimers. It’s good to hear the “grand old hymns of the faith” kept alive. I’m sure we’ll sing these songs in Heaven along with some Jars of Clay, U2 -- and possibly Stryper.
Service Length: 1 hour 43 minutes (from prayer for the meal to the end of the hymn sing)
“Sermon” Length: 6 minutes
Visitor Treatment: Before we even came in, a woman greeted us. Someone helped us put our dessert on the table, and Margaret invited us to sit at her table. Nobody seemed “assigned” to greet visitors, but quite a few people welcomed us and invited us to come back.
Followup by Tuesday Morning: none
Our Rough Count: 33
Probable Ushers’ Count: 35
Snacks: Three tables covered with desserts, salads, little sandwiches, and deviled eggs; decaf and water.
Musicians: keyboard (man)
“Power in the Blood”
“At the Cross”
“The Old Rugged Cross”
“Victory in Jesus”
“When we all get to Heaven”
“Just a Little Talk with Jesus”
“Have Thine Own Way, Lord”
“It is Well with my Soul”
Distance to Church: 5 miles
Open WiFi: no
Tie/Suit Count: none
Church Website: www.nwc.org