I spent Saturday morning in Atlanta. My sole purpose in being in Atlanta this time was to worship in a community known as Fusion. Don't get confused; there is an Atlanta Fusion Church that will show up on Google. Look further down for the one that meets in the DeFoor Centre on Saturdays.
The cafe opens at 10:45, the worship starts at 11:30. I'm not sure what it is about coffee and emerging, but there is definitely a link. Somebody please tell them all to start buying fair trade!
Sorry, that was an aside. The Arts Center (Note to emerging people. Arts centers like emerging apparently. Think of them when you need space.) where Fusion meets has a separate cafe' that you can grab a cup of coffee and a pastry in then wander into worship. Or, you can enter the doors to the building and find the Keurig system that the congregation I assume has set up for one shots. You will find this first. When I arrived, it was jammed and a group was attempting to solve the problem. How many emergents does it take to brew a cup of coffee...?
Okay, bad joke. Well, at least one of them, Keith(?) introduced himself to me. The rest, I assume thought I was always there. So, eventually I got a cup of Newman's Own coffee and wandered in the presumed direction of the worship. No signs anywhere. There were seats for about 75 people, though only about six or eight there.
On stage is a mike and guitar stand. About 4-5 are gathered in conversation. I walk past them, sit down and wait. Nothing happens. None of them group looks up and notices me. Other people wander in. No one says a word. Kids come in and wander somewhere else. 11:30 comes and goes.
Finally, I get up and wander in the direction where I see some other people headed. And that's when I fine the real cafe! You mean I could've had a cup of real coffee!? Not happy.
Eventually I head back to the worship space. More people come in. Finally, the service actually begins. By this time, there are about 30 adults and 15 kids present. Finally emerging church that remembers there are such things as children!
Hipster worship leader (black glasses, black t-shirt, skinny jeans, and untied high tops) says, "We're gonna start now" and begins singing "Blessed be your Name" and then another song I did not know. When he is almost done, Keith wanders right in front of him to grab a mike. At the end of the music, it is time for announcements. Kids are to leave after the next music segment, adults get to stay for the message, sermon, you know. Thank you Ricky, our worship leader. He tells us to stand up again for the music.
Time for another aside: What is this business of calling music leaders worship leaders? Or is the music the only time these folks think we are worshiping? Ricky was no more in charge of that event than I was. I think this has become a case of bolster their egos while continuing to pay them nothing.
Of course, the next two songs are slower and really don't make most of us want to stand. Some last through the first of the two, but by the second one, everyone is seated. Both songs are forgettable (At least, I forgot them.). The kids walk out. And out comes someone named Chris that we have not seen until now. Another hipster, this time with faux hawk, untucked in black shirt and baggy pants that are a little too long.
Chris give the message. Apparently, we have been doing something called the New Testament Challenge, the challenge being to read it. And we have been giving messages about it. Oh, I should mention that Chris brought out his own podium, complete with laptop notes and Bible. He places it right next to the center staircase which he climbs on frequently as he talks. So, we are at the end of the New Testament challenge which means what? Yes, I shuddered at the thought of a Revelation sermon. But no, Chris punts and says Revelation would require much more time, so he's going to talk about eternity instead.
Now I know I am in a strange land. An evangelical who doesn't want to talk about Revelation!!?
Here's what I learned about eternity. If you want to participate in this gift of grace, you must do three things: 1) Recognize that you are made for eternity. 2) Secure your place in eternity by the gospel of grace (I am coming back to that one in a moment). and 3) Invest your life in eternal pursuits.
Chris has plenty of stories and that folksy style that makes it look like he did not really want to polish this up too much or it might begin to sound like an actual sermon. At one point, he thinks of a different passage of scripture than the one he has prepared and spends several minutes trying to find it, eventually giving up until a member of the congregation locates it via her smartphone. In the middle of the second point, Chris starts talking about how not everything you hear referred to as the gospel is really the gospel of grace that he is talking about. Then it get interesting.
He tells about going to a Georgia Tech game and seeing the folks with the "God hates f---" signs out there, and he uses the word I just skipped through. Not once, but three times. I'm looking for the way to make a quiet exit. There is none. Good thing too because even though I would never actually say that in a sermon--I don't use the word n----r either--his point is fascinating. Chris goes on to recall Jesus on the cross, lots of blood and tearing skin imagery, as some folks are wont to do, and says, "Now imagine that Jesus saying God hates anybody." I thought, "This guy's gonna get drummed out of the Seventh Day Adventists so fast"....
Now, I will let you work on tying that back into securing your place in eternity. Chris's points were not always direct. And he stopped short of just saying, God does not hate gay people. Nevertheless, I had to give him credit 'cause he led all the horses to the water and practically shoved their snouts down to drink. If they did not make the final step, it was because they chose not to.
So, he sums up with what sounded to me like a benediction. By the time of the third point, Ricky was playing background music on guitar. Chris offers a prayer of Recognition of the sermon(?) and says that during the next song, the basket will be passed. Don't feel obligated, but.... Chris wanders to stage right and Ricky steps up to sing.
We get the song, Keith wanders up at the end again, more announcements. Chris talks extensively about a housing project where they built a playground and are looking to do more work, about how one woman there had reclaimed a crack house and put a church in it. Some stirrings of social action and social justice, not just personal piety! Even a dig about how the need is not all over seas. Keith gives some messages to visitors. And a final prayer ("Father we just thank you...") and goodbye.
The fascinating thing is that, in many ways I kind of liked it. Maybe you can't quickly tell, but I liked the effort, and I appreciated the fact that this was not the same old song repacked in contemporary Christian Music. They just need to get over their fear of just letting worship happen instead of feeling like they have to tell everyone exactly what is happening, thereby removing all formality--and mystery--from the experience.
But no one talks to me. Keith does, saying he never got my name--not true; he just went off to do something else immediately after saying hello. When I said I was from out of town, and all interest in me fades. And where exactly did Chris go, in case I might want to ask him about his sermon? Probably off to the cafe, which was the opposite direction from where the visitors were being sent. At least, I am assuming he went there.
Folks, if this is how we are going to reach out to the unchurched, it's a dismal failure. If we are reaching out to those who have left the church, it's not much better. I left there glad at what I heard, tired of songs that are more about me than about God, but mostly feeling that if I wanted a community, you were not doing any better at reaching out to me than the churches you left. Suddenly, I was missing Adam from the megachurch parking lot (see last blog).
As I write this, though, I have an even more interesting story about the Assemblies of God to tell from Christ the King, in Valdosta, Georgia. One you will like even more. Let's just say it is about jazz too.