Wednesday, April 26, 2017

We go to a Play at Church

Truth Tabernacle, Fresno, California
You can’t go wrong by opening with a sword fight. So that, wisely, is how The Centurion, a play performed on Good Friday at Truth Tabernacle in Fresno, opened -- with a tableau of Roman soldiers battling men wearing your basic church program Bible robes. The scene comes to life, and there’s a brief battle with no stabbing or blood. We soon discover that this altercation has resulted in the arrest of Barabbas. It was a nice beginning for the play, and we were already in good spirits from the pleasant welcome we’d received from people in the church.

We got a flyer for the program in the mail. There was a good sized crowd at the entrance when we arrived., and we were asked if we had tickets. We showed the woman our flyer, but she said we needed get a ticket and fill out contact information. She took us to one of the tables and gave Mindy a ticket to fill out. After we’d done that, we headed inside (ticket in hand), where we handed our ticket to an usher. Many people greeted us, often with “God bless you.”

We thought we’d arrived in plenty of time, but the sanctuary/theater was quite full. An usher directed us to seats in the middle of a row, where we sat next to a man with a couple of young boys. He welcomed us, “First time here? You guys will love it.” He told us that there were several different Tabernacle congregations (called Branches) at different locations, but all they all came together for special events such as this one.

The worship service/play began promptly when a man in front invited us, “Can you worship and sing with us tonight?” But there were no printed lyrics and no screen to read from. Fortunately, the first song had plenty of repeating, and I happened to know the next song. The singing was loud and lively. We were then encouraged to “Give Jesus a hearty hand clap of love and appreciation.”

A couple of announcements were made before the play began. No videography of the play was permitted (though they didn’t say anything about photos), and people were to stay out of the aisles (actors would be using them throughout the performance).

After the swordfight in the play, we got to hear a conversation between two centurions who seemed to have a very sophisticated understanding of Hebrew Scripture and theology. (For a bit, I was wondering why the title was singular, but eventually the focus goes on one of the two.)

We then saw Jesus preaching. We’ve been told he’ll be in the marketplace, and there he preached the Sermon on the Mount, healed the woman who touched the hem of his clothes, argued with the Pharisees about healing on the Sabbath, and then saved the woman caught in adultery. It was kind of like a Messiah’s Greatest Hits. Then we watched the religious leaders plotting against Jesus, with Satan working behind the scenes. (The Devil got a red spotlight whenever he was on stage, and it was never good news when anyone in the show got the red spot.)

The Palm Sunday procession which soon followed was sadly donkeyless. Immediately after, Blind Bartimaeus was healed (which the Bible mentions happened in Jericho, not Jerusalem). I guess if the Gospel writers felt the need, at times, to change the order of events to make theological points, I shouldn’t complain too much, but there were little inaccuracies that bothered me.  

These two imaginary additions to the story of the Passion bothered me most:  Judas and the religious leaders haggling over the price of betraying Jesus crept too close (for me) to stereotypes of Jewish frugality. The other addition that was troubling was the characterization of Barabbas as a serial killer (rather than the traditional revolutionary), threatening the families of the soldiers and the people in the crowd. I can’t imagine the Romans releasing such a man.  

There was a really small detail that I appreciated, though: the actress who portrayed the woman who anointed Jesus with perfume had hair that fell nearly to her knees, so I really believed she could dry Jesus feet with her hair. All of the villains, however, were a bit over the top -- from the plotting religious leaders to the sadistic Roman soldiers to Satan himself, who all seemed to (constantly) share the same “Bwahahaha” laugh.

A tableau was used again to portray the crucifixion, with Jesus on the cross in a bloodied robe. Though I could understand why they chose to portray him dressed, that’s not what the Bible describes; it’s not true to the text.

After the death in the play, there was a brief preaching interlude, then the Resurrected Jesus appears outside the tomb wearing white and (for some reason) clean shaven, though He’d been bearded throughout the rest of the production.

The little boys near us laughed at the right times and were displeased with the bad guys. Though the writing and direction were awkward, most of the actors got their lines and hit their marks. The sets and costumes were nicely done.

But after the play was over, the pastor wrapped everything up with a sermon and an invitation. This part, I’m afraid, went beyond a few Scriptural inaccuracies made for drama’s sake into what I’d consider heretical teaching.

Truth Tabernacle says on its sign that it’s a “Jesus Name Church,” and the minister speaking made more explicit what that meant. He said, “There is one God, and His name is Jesus...The Name of the Father is Jesus, the Name of the Son is Jesus, and the Name of the Holy Ghost is Jesus.” He went on to imply that those who were baptized in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit would be in big doo-doo when they got to Heaven because they weren’t baptized in the Name of Jesus alone as Peter commanded in Acts 2:38.

Indulge me while I tell a little side story on Mindy. She went to the same seminary I went to, and she found systematic theology classes difficult. She’d think she’d come up with a solution to a particularly thorny theological conundrum, and in the next class she’d learn that her “solution” was a heresy the Church had condemned centuries ago.

I’m the first to admit the idea of the Trinity is difficult. One God in Three Persons is not an easy idea to understand. What they seemed to be teaching at Truth Tabernacle is that there is not Three Persons, there is only Jesus, which would make many statements of Jesus into gibberish. For example, in Matthew 24:36 Jesus talks about the end times and says no one, not even the Son, knows the day or hour of these things, only the Father. This makes no sense if there is no distinction between the Father and Son. In John 16:7 when Jesus talks about why He must leave, He says so the Holy Spirit can come. He did not say, “Jesus must leave so Jesus can come.”

There are plenty of people who have problems with the Church’s traditional teaching on the Trinity and the Holy Spirit. But the pastor at Truth Tabernacle was clearly saying that if you don’t believe their viewpoint, you are not saved, not a believer in Jesus Christ.

We very much appreciated the friendliness of people in the church and the creativity, energy, and effort used to draw people to this Good Friday (and Easter) play. But I’m afraid that even if the play being performed was Hamilton with the original Broadway cast, I couldn’t recommend this church because their teaching and theology isn’t orthodox or true.

Service Length: 1 hour 50 minutes
Sermon Length: mini-message during the play, 3 minutes
Sermon after the play, about 10 minutes
Visitor Treatment: We were greeted warmly and repeatedly by people at the door, in the parking lot, and inside the building. Early in the service there was a greeting time, and people all around us greeted us and each other.
Followup by Tuesday Morning: none
Our Rough Count: 750
Probable Ushers’ Count: 900
Snacks: none
Musicians: piano (woman)
Organ (woman)
Drums (man)
Electric bass (man)
Electric Guitar (man)
Vocals (2 men, 3 women)
Songs: “I Know it was the Blood”
“Nothing but the Blood”
In the musical
“Messiah Comes”
“There’s a Stranger in Town”
“Alabaster Box”
“Thirty Pieces of Silver”
“This Blood”
“Via Dolorosa”
“Above All”
“He’s Alive”
Distance to Church: ½ mile
Open WiFi: no
Tie/Suit Count: too many to count; women were mostly in skirts or dresses

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

We Go to Church at a Ball Park

The Bridge Church -- Easter at Chukchansi Park, Fresno
Easter at Chukchansi Park, Fresno
“Did you put on any lotion?” one redheaded woman asked of another. The question would be quite odd in the worship center on an average Sunday at the Bridge Church, but it made sense on a sunny day at Chukchansi Park, the home of the Grizzlies in downtown Fresno --  and the location of this Sunday worship service. There had been concern about rain on Easter morning or excessive heat, but instead the day was sunny, near 70 degrees, with a light breeze as the morning warmed up. So the fair skinned were justly concerned about the sun.

Months ago The Bridge decided to celebrate the Resurrection outside church walls. The slogan for the church is “A Church for the Valley,” and Pastor Andrew Smith said the service was being held at this iconic venue of the Valley to carry out that call. Hundreds of volunteers contributed hours to the project decorating the stadium, preparing lunch and activities after the service, and promoting the event beforehand. Smith said, “This is the church mobilized to help and love people.”

In the weeks leading to Easter, tickets were available to distribute to friends, family, and neighbors. One didn’t need a ticket to enter the stadium -- they were purely promotional items.

cheerful greeter at Chukchansi Park for the Bridge's Easter worship 2017
We drove downtown and were directed by a cheery attendant who waved drivers into a stadium parking lot, greeting each carload. As we walked down the street to the stadium, a great number of volunteers in bright green t-shirts pointed the way to the entrance and greeted us with “Good mornings” and “Happy Easters.” When we came to the main gate, people offered first time visitors bags containing promotional material about the church along with tickets for a free hot dog lunch following the service.

Hundreds of chairs faced the stage, which had been set up for a concert at the stadium the night before People steamed down the steps through the stands to take their seats on the field. The service didn’t begin promptly at 10:30 am;  instead, someone announced from the stage that the service would start in five minutes to allow people more time to find their seats. A five minute countdown appeared on the front screen.

The band opened with a song of victory over the grave, but not any of the traditional hymns (“Christ the Lord is Risen Today” or “Up from the Grave He Arose”). People  in Easter Sunday dresses and suits ready for the Easter parade and people in shorts and t-shirts were encouraged to stand and “put their hands together.”  

After several songs and a video about the church, Pastor Andrew Smith came forward to preach, concluding a series on Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness from Matthew 4. He had come to the portion where Satan offered the world to Jesus if He would bow and worship the prince of darkness. “Let’s be honest,” Andrew said (a phrase he often repeats), “What is worship? When we worship we give all we have in hope of getting everything we need.” He said we were made to worship but we often misplace our worship. Our career, money, another person can’t provide all we need. Only God can.

He talked about how we attempt to make that exchange of worship for all that we need. He used the illustration of exchanges made in action movies, of say, money for a person, and how those exchanges never seem to work well. He said in real life our exchanges of devotion for what we need never goes well, when we barter with anyone or thing besides God.

And what do we need, what do we desire? Three things, Smith argued: direction, meaning, and significance. God alone can provide these things. Everything we hope for can be found in Jesus Christ alone.

Smith illustrated how Christ can save a life with a video about a man on the Bridge’s tech staff, Reuben. This man had life without Christ or as he put it, “For years I tried to get Jesus on my team until I realized I need to be on Jesus’ team.” He came to a point in life when he faced a prison sentence, but God miraculously provided release into a drug program instead. After the video, Smith called Reuben forward to the applause of the audience. Smith said that Christ is still changing lives and offered hope for change for those attending. People were asked to talk with the prayer team. With a tent set up on the field, the team would be there throughout the afternoon.

After the sermon, another pastor announced that there were more tickets available for the free lunch, or people could buy lunch from the concession stands, which were opened for the occasion. (The free lunch was a hot dog, a large cookie, a bag of chips, and a bottle of water. We were excited to see the water bottles, because we’d heard in Sunday School that the cost of the bottles might be prohibitive.)

There were Easter egg hunts and egg races for kids, bounce houses, games, and a couple of photo booths. The Bridge wanted to present the abundant life of Easter and I think the hundreds of people who came found it.

(We’ve made a commitment on this blog to go to a new church every week, so you might quite reasonably wonder if that’s what we did this week since The Bridge is the church we’re attending regularly. But the church was meeting in a different place, so that kind of counts, doesn’t it? Also, we did go to a different church during the week, -- a drama on Good Friday at Truth Tabernacle. We’ll write about that next week.)

Service Length: 1 hour 6 minutes
Sermon Length: 27 minutes
Visitor Treatment: As we entered the park, people in bright green “VIP Guest Team” tshirts asked if we’d been to The Bridge before, offering a bag of information and a lunch ticket to visitors. During the worship service, guests were welcomed and all (guests and regulars alike) were invited to fill out the connection card at the bottom of the half sheet map and schedule. All were encouraged to participate in the afternoon’s festivities.
Our Rough Count: 2500
Probable Ushers’ Count: 2500
Snacks: coffee for early arrivers, hot dog lunch with water!; concessions included hamburgers, fries, and sodas
Musicians: acoustic guitar (man)
Electric Bass (man)
Electric guitar(man)
Keyboard (woman)
Drums (man)
Percussion (man)
Vocals (4 women, 2 men)
Songs: Passion/Glorious Day
“I am Free”
“Jesus Paid it All/ O Praise the One”
“Jesus is Calling”
“O Come to the Altar”
Distance to Church: 7 miles
Open WiFi: yes
Tie/Suit Count: forgot to count
Church Website:

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Bret Goes to Church (Guest Post!)

We’ve noted before that it really isn’t fair to evaluate a church (or a bar, for that matter) by one experience, but people often decide whether they’re interested in a church based on one visit. We’ve occasionally visited churches with our son, Bret, and we got to talking about it. Here’s what one recent church visit decided for him -- Dean and Mindy

Church for the Socially Awkward
I’ve never been the best at the whole socializing thing. I was the guy in the corner looking at his phone at most parties, only this was before everyone had smartphones, so I was the guy in the corner looking at whatever electronic device he could find, including pocket flashlights. I needed written instructions from a humor columnist to understand proper bathroom etiquette. Even today, after years of progress, anything I say about the unwritten cues of society should be taken with the same amount of salt as the average fast food… anything.

With that out of the way -- I like to think the Church can deal with people who are socially awkward. I know God can, and we’re supposed to be his instruments on Earth.

Often, the Church has. I’ve been to good churches, both long and short term, and churches where, even if things didn’t work out, the problem was clearly on my end.

At a church I recently visited, I don’t think the problem was on my end.

For all I know, it’s a fine church, full of people devoted to Christ and strong in his service, people who it would be an honor to meet. But there’s the problem. I didn’t meet anyone.

Before the service, I put in a light attempt to mingle. Not anything impressive by professional standards, but I drifted through the break room on the side trying to find anything that was not coffee (an attempt doomed to failure). In the process, I passed by a number of people in prime “party’s full” clusters. And then I drifted back out. No greetings, no “hey, have I seen you before?” No “trust me, the coffee’s garbage.” Just people with their own things going on, and me left with mine.

It didn’t go much better once the service proper started.

There’s no set form, as far as I’m aware, for Protestant church meetings, but if you spend fifteen minutes on a video about your current church development plans before you even have a song, it implies a certain message: “You’ve been here before.”

No greeting or anything beyond “you should probably fill out the cards” for a new visitor to latch onto, just status updates on things you were expected to know already.

I mean, I get it. It’s a late evening service, the regular core is attending; it’s for them. But I felt like it was only for them. Anyone from outside who attended was a statistical anomaly -- they should have already come to a church event or something already, and if they don’t feel comfortable, it’s their own fault.

Well, maybe it's my fault. Again, social skills are not my strong suit, and I didn’t put that much effort into making myself a member of the community instead of using Project Gutenberg to see what Christian writing was in the Canadian public domain.

But one thing I’m pretty sure of?

You shouldn’t leave church lonelier than when you came in.

Bret Anderson recently moved back to his native city of Fresno to find that it seems different since he left 26 years ago. Good coffee wasn’t on his list of requirements for a good church then, and it isn’t now -- but fellowship is.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

We Go to Church to Find Young Adults

The Well Community Church, Fresno
“If you can, come with your family next Saturday night. We need extra space on Sunday morning for the ‘Chreasters,’ the people that only come to church on Christmas and Easter.” The congregation was encouraged to volunteer with child care and other needs on Easter Sunday.

We attended an evening service on the North Campus of the Well Community Church on Palm Sunday (there are two other campuses, the original at Fig Garden and also the Southeast Campus on the opposite side of Fresno), but there was no acknowledgement of Palm Sunday in the service. The focus was on a different event in the week, Passover, which would begin Monday evening.

Usually Passover and Easter are close together. Passover is celebrated the seventh month of the Jewish calendar, the 14th day of Nisan at the time of the full moon, while Easter is celebrated the first Sunday following the full moon that comes on or after the vernal equinox (March 21). So Easter can be as early as March 22 but no later than April 25. Usually the full moon falls on the 14th day of Nisan, so most years Easter falls following Passover, like this year (and like the first Easter). I had to look this all up again, because it never stays straight in my head. I never know when Hanukkah will fall either, but I do know that Christmas is December 25. I know that.

The Well will be celebrating a Seder at the North Campus on Thursday. The website says that “during this free 2-hour event, Brad Bell will teach through each of the elements of the multi-course dinner.” Bell is the founding pastor of The Well, though his title at the website is “Directional Leader.”

The night we were there, Bell was continuing a series through the Book of Exodus. He summarized the first five chapters as a message to the enslaved Israelites in Egypt, “Be patient, God will deliver you.” The sermon, though, was primarily about the first of the nine plagues on Egypt as described in Exodus chapters 7 - 10. Bell talked about how the first plagues, such as the water to blood, were imitated by the magicians of Egypt “like David Copperfield or whatever magician you’re into” (Penn and Teller for me), but the later plagues could not be reproduced by Pharaoh's magicians. They had to admit that God was at work.

Bell was not actually in the room with us as he preached -- the sermon was presented via video. During the announcement time, we were told that he was spending the evening with the church’s high schoolers in downtown Fresno. In previous years, the youth have often gone on mission trips in other places, but this year, they’re doing service projects in Fresno. Bell went to be with them for the first night of their service week. Youth have always been at the heart of Bell’s mission.

When Bell founded the church fifteen years ago, he was a recent graduate of Fresno State (and a defensive lineman for the Bulldogs). He earned his Masters in Biblical Studies from Dallas Theological Seminary and came back to the area to start a ministry focused primarily on college students. As the ministry grew, young professionals were a focus, and now the church includes young families and with that, children’s and youth ministries.

That emphasis on youth was one of the reasons we visited The Well. Our son, Bret, recently moved to Fresno, and friends from The Bridge had suggested that The Well might be a good place to visit, since many others in their mid-twenties attend the church. We went to the 7:00 pm  service, figuring if there wasn’t childcare, more of the people attending would belong to a demographic that doesn’t yet need childcare.

During the announcements we heard of some exciting things the planning to do soon, such establishing their first capital fund to build a facility for youth and a church plant in downtown  Fresno. We also heard how the previous week, they did without worship services and over 1000 people of the Well did service projects with Fresno CityFest. (There was an apology to anyone who might have found the building empty when they came for worship the previous weekend.)

It is a young church, with young people seeking God’s direction. The last Saturday of this month there will be a meeting to discuss the plans for the congregational sites and how people can play a part in those plans. This seems to be a place that God has used and where God still is at work.

Service Length: 1 hour 12 minutes
Sermon Length: 36 minutes
Visitor Treatment: Lots of people were standing around the doors, and they greeted everybody who came in. You can’t miss the information booth, and the people there answered our various questions, directed us to the auditorium, and suggested that we might want to meet the site pastor. During the announcement time, the pastor suggested that people fill out the cards on the seat backs, but didn’t say what to do with them. Mindy put ours in the offering box at the back of the room.
Followup by Wednesday Morning: Two different emails addressed to Dean (instead of listing ourselves on two lines, as self and spouse, Mindy had written both our names on one line. This seems to have confused the mailing program.) hit our inbox around 9:00 am Tuesday morning, inviting us to various events and activities to help us get to know the church and its people better. Both acknowledge the possibility that we’d already found another church home.
Our Rough Count: 185
Probable Ushers’ Count: 225
Snacks: coffee, decaf, probably hot water for tea
Musicians: Vocals (2 women)
Keyboards (man)
Drums (man)
Electric bass (man)
Electric guitars (2 men)
Acoustic guitar (man)
Songs: “Nothing but the Blood”
“Grace on top of Grace”
“In Your Presence”
“Christ Alone (Cornerstone)”
Distance to Church: 4 miles
Open WiFi: no
Tie/Suit Count: 1