Sunday, July 11, 2010

Atlanta: Circles of Excellence and Passion City Church

In my last post I mentioned how impressed I was by this morning's preacher at Buckhead Church, Jamie Dickens.  As I tried (and mostly failed) to get more info about him, Google turned up this link about "the TED commandments."  As a huge fan of the TED conferences (they bring together the best minds in every field), this list caught my eye and it's must reading for any speaker.

This blog turned up in Google because the author wrote "As I type this Jamie Dickens is bringing the heat on the Buckhead Church stage" ... and he wrote this last year.  But then I noticed whose blog it was: Carlos Whittaker, a fantastic musician and worship leader.  I saw him perform at Catalyst West this year and bought his CD, "Ragamuffin Soul".

This made me think about how all of these people are connected.  Andy Stanley founded the Catalyst Conferences.  Buckhead Church basically sprang forth from 7|22, a singles-oriented ministry of North Point Church that was located in Buckhead.  The popularity of 7|22 demonstrated the viability of putting a North Point satellite campus there, and finally 7|22 went away.  The lead preacher at 7|22 was Louie Giglio, who also headlines the Passion Conferences.

Louie Giglio, less than two years ago, started Passion City Church.  They aren't even meeting every week, but tonight I visited there (more below).  He recruited Chris Tomlin to be his worship leader - who would've even thought that someone of that caliber would do this?  Furthermore, Chris was living with his family in Austin - he moved them to Atlanta to get this church going.

Tonight, there were about 2,000 people in worship.  Chris Tomlin was awesome, and then I saw that Christy Nockels (formerly of Watermark) was on stage with him.  Turns out that Christy moved her family from Nashville to be a founding family of Passion City.  And then you know who else was in the band?  Matt Redman!

So I started thinking: sure these superstars all know each other.  Excellence wants to be around excellence.  Those who excel are willing to take risks to support others who excel - because they know that excellence is a habit.  How many of us are holding ourselves back because we're choosing to associate with mediocrity?  We know that we don't want our children hanging out with kids who make lousy grades - neither should we.  And taking it a step further, could it be that this is one of the reasons why non-denominational churches are flourishing?  Because denominations certainly aren't hotbeds of excellence - but they are organizations of forced association.  But non-denominational churches don't have forced associations.  They can choose to only affiliate with the best and the brightest - the ones who are doing it right.

So maybe if we want to strive for excellence we need to do more than start within us; perhaps we need to start by choosing to place ourselves where excellence will surround us.

As for Passion City Church, they met in the Cobb Energy Centre, a 2,750 seat concert hall that was mostly full.  I arrived 10 minutes early and had to sit in the highest balcony.  The overall event was far, far too long (2 1/2 hours!) The music was, of course, great; how could it not be great with Chris Tomlin, Matt Redman, and Christy Nockels!  The night began a few minutes late with Louie introducing himself and we read Revelation 4 in unison, leading into the opening song "Revelation Song" (Kari Jobe).  The rest of the set was "Holy is the Lord" (Chris Tomlin), "Expectation" (unreleased yet Chris Tomlin), "Where The Spirit of the Lord Is" (Chris Tomlin/Christy Nockels) and "A Mighty Fortress" (Christy Nockels).

Louie spoke for an hour.  This was just too long.  We were at the 2-hour mark when he finished, and then we still had a ways to go.  His talk was inspiring, but it made me think that he was used to the Passion Conferences, which target youth.  I don't necessarily need a message that is just about how special I am and about how God can do miracles.  It's a great reminder, but as a middle-aged adult I need a little more.  He had one memorable line for me: when God does something miraculously great in your life, would God be happier if it shocked you or if it didn't?  Shouldn't we expect God to be the God of miracles?

He then announced that they had signed a lease on a permanent worship location: a vacant former superstore of 135,000 square feet (!) that will take millions to renovate.  The capital campaign began tonight! :-) If you can see the yellow dot in the map they were showing on the right, that's the location of the new facility.

From a lot of the comments I heard around me, and given Louie's background as a speaker in parachurch settings, it seemed as if this was almost a parachurch-church.  There were church buses parked outside.  I heard people talk about their own churches, and it seemed that everyone knew the songs and already loved Chris Tomlin.  So I wonder if they're actually growing their base or taking it from other churches (but to be honest, if you're doing it better than someone else, if you give people better opportunities to connect with God, then they ought to leave their present churches and come to yours).

And my main takeaway is this: excellence wants to connect with excellence.  And excellence is what leads to going from startup to leasing 135,000 s.f. of space in two years.

Atlanta: Buckhead & North Point Churches

This morning I had a fantastic experience at Buckhead Church, one of the sister campuses to Andy Stanley's North Point Community Church.  Their facility is located in Tower Place, a business/retail complex in Atlanta's Buckhead neighborhood, so you don't drive up to a sprawling campus, you drive into what feels like the parking garage of an urban mall.  However, the "host team" volunteers are everywhere, helping you find your way.  Upon entering the church area, I was greeted - and greeted and greeted and greeted.  I loved it.  I also loved that the greeters are labeled as "Guest Services."  They make it very clear.  It's about welcoming the guests.

The auditorium seats 2,000, and seeing as this was the 9:00 a.m. service on a July Sunday, I wasn't expecting a very large crowd - yet there were probably 1,000-1,200 in attendance.  It was nicely attended without being crowded.

This weekend starts a three-week series called "More" - about how our "appetites" try to control us by constantly crying out for more - and these appetites can be for food, sex, material things, success, etc.  So the band launched the service with a stirring cover of "Satisfaction" (Rolling Stones).  It was rockin'!  The worship song set began with an upbeat version of the hymn "How Great Thou Art", followed by two top current worship songs, Our God (Chris Tomlin) and You Alone Can Rescue (Matt Redman).

After the offering and the obligatory title package, the message was brought by Jamie Dickens, who really brought it.  It was a slammin' sermon.  He even looks like a young Andy Stanley (down to wearing a blue dress shirt with the sleeves pushed up to the elbows over blue jeans).  I couldn't find out much about him, but he's an amazing talent and I doubt he's over 30.

As it turned out, he was preaching essentially the same sermon as would be preached at North Point later this morning by Clay Scroggins.

After worship I attended their "Next!" session - an orientation for people who've started to attend the church and are wondering "What next?"  They hold these once a month.  They showed a short video and distributed a 3-CD audio set that describes their mission and vision.  What really impressed me was the extent to which they were truly sharing their mission strategy with relative newcomers.

They talked about how everything was thought of with the metaphor of three parts of a house: the foyer, the living room, and the kitchen table.  "Foyer" experiences include things like worship.  In the foyer of your house, it's all about being welcoming.  "You don't abandon your values, but you're sensitive to theirs."  The "living room" environments are where people meet and get to know each other.  Service teams are examples of living room environments.  The "kitchen table" is where people become family.  These, of course, are small groups.  Overall, it was a great introduction to how they think and how they position themselves to be a church of influence.  And "Next!" is for people who haven't even considered membership yet.  (Next! is where you find out about membership classes.)

From there I made the 30-minute drive to the parent campus, North Point Community Church.  The first auditorium (now called the East auditorium) seats about 3,000.  When they outgrew it, they decided to build a second auditorium back-to-back (West) that seats about 2,000, rather than enlarge the main auditorium.  The message is video simulcast from the East aud to the West using a very cool technology that makes it feel more "live."  Despite it being a beautiful July Sunday, the East auditorium was standing room only! I meandered over to the West auditorium, which was about 2/3 full (I wanted to see the video system in action anyway).

I was late because of trying to find a seat, but caught the last worship song ("Cannons" by Phil Wickham). In keeping with the difference in campus styles, they didn't do "Satisfaction" here; instead, the thematic song was Carolina Liar's "Show Me What I'm Looking For."  The preacher here, Clay Scroggins, preached the same message as Jamie Dickens - same theme, same basic structure, same opening example - but in his own way.  Clay, for instance, was as folksy as Jamie was dynamic.  And I wonder if it was their personalities or the difference in audiences (Buckhead is much more singles-oriented, while NPCC is suburban families), but in discussing "appetites" that control us, Jamie spoke a lot more about sex than Clay.

The video system uses a cool technique of a large, high-def (but not 3D) static center shot that approximates the look of the "real" stage - including the fact that the preacher is "small" (life-size) - while the two side screens receive the same simultaneous angle shots that you see in the live auditorium.  The net effect (see right) is that it looks like what you would be seeing in the other auditorium.

Overall, though I liked North Point, I loved Buckhead Church.  And I'm pretty sure that when Andy Stanley is preaching at NPCC, they use the same video technology to simulcast him to Buckhead.  I could see going there every week, if I lived in Atlanta and had a different occupation.  Maybe that's what I'll do when I retire.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Atlanta: Saturday visits

First stop: FUSION Church, a startup of the Seventh Day Adventists.  Meeting at a rented facility called The Defoor Center, the worship space was simple and sparingly appointed.  They had a little pre-worship cafe setup, but it wasn't conducive to meeting people (and no one introduced themselves to me).  The space was set for about 75; perhaps 50 were in attendance.

The band was not the best; two men on guitars and a third playing a conga drum.  The opening set was Your Love Oh Lord (Third Day), Beautiful the Blood (Steve Fee), and All Because of Jesus (Casting Crowns).

The sermon was the start of a two-week series called "Dirty Gospel"; today's text was Mark 7:14-23 (Jesus being criticized for his disciples' unwashed hands).  The preacher was a guest who is not really a preacher; he was identified as a soon-to-be Ph.D., and it showed.  He was very didactic in his delivery.  I learned one thing about being interactive: it matters how you do it.  Usually I hear preachers become interactive by asking: "Are you tracking?" (if the answer is 'no', it's the preacher's fault, right?) or "How many of you ever..." (where there's no right or wrong answer).  This preacher asked factual questions such as: "the Pharisees were criticizing... what?" - things you would ask a student (who could get it wrong) but perhaps shouldn't ask a congregation (I was uncomfortable - and I knew the answers!)  The core message was that the holiness of God is evident in God's connection to the world, not God's separation from it.

They were very earnest, and I pray for their success, if for no other reason than the fact that there aren't too many contemporary ministries in the SDA denomination, and I fear that if this fails, they'll be reluctant to try too many more such experiments.

In the evening I visited the Perimeter Church.  They are large and polished.  Established in 1977 by the Presbyterian Church in America (a conservative denomination that does not ordain women to offices), they are attracting several thousand each weekend in worship.  As you might expect in the Atlanta suburbs, there wasn't much racial diversity.  However, the guest preacher was an African-American named Leonce Crump, who is planting a church for the PCA elsewhere in Atlanta.

Friendliness did not abound.  I arrived five minutes late thanks to an accident on I-85, and no one even handed me a bulletin.  There were perhaps 400 in worship.  However, the worship was extremely well-done.  When I saw the band, I was less than impressed - everyone looked to be under 25, and my experience with "church garage bands" has not been good.  But this band was fantastic.  The ensemble consisted of lead acoustic guitar, electric guitar, bass, drums, and piano (full grand, not electric).  The worship leader was identified in the bulletin as Laura Story Elvington, and she was excellent.  Whatever it was - good sound mixing, acoustics - they were as tight as any worship band I'd heard recently.  They were so good that when I got back to my room, on a hunch I Google'd her name (which I didn't recognize) only to learn that as "Laura Story" ( she is the songwriter who penned "Indescribable" - one of the most beloved worship songs of today, popularized by Chris Tomlin.  I had stumbled upon hearing an amazing worship leader by accident.

The opening songs were "All Because of Jesus" (Casting Crowns) and the hymn, "Blessed Assurance."  They had some concessions to liturgy, including a unison prayer of confession, which led into the song "Lift High" (Steve Fee).  The pastor then introduced a mission project for the church: the distribution of backpacks (provided by the church), one per family, with the expectation that the families will fill them with school supplies and return them for distribution to underprivileged children.  The video they made to encourage this featured, of course, an African-American child as the recipient of aid from this very white congregation.  I thought that was a bit too stereotypical.

For the offering the band played "How He Loves" (John Mark Mcmillan).  Leonce preached on Colossians 1:15-23.  He was totally expositional - verse by verse.  (Why is it that African-American preachers feel compelled to point out every time in the sermon where a black congregation would have shouted 'Amen!'?)  His sermon was entirely focused on the divinity of Christ.

They celebrated the Lord's Supper.  I was surprised that the pastor did not employ the words of institution, but simply prayed over the elements.  The distribution was interesting.  They use a "stacked cup."  Using the disposable communion cups, a tiny wafer is placed in the bottom cup.  Another cup is placed on top of it and filled with grape juice.  So you get both bread and cup at the same time.  You are supposed to disassemble it, partake of the bread yourself, then wait to consume the cup together.  The band then closed us out with "The Stand" (Hillsong United).  There wasn't a lot of fellowship visible, but it was a very satisfying worship service.

Visiting Churches: Atlanta

I'm in Atlanta on study leave for the purpose of visiting churches.  Why do I do this and which churches do I visit?

My professors in college used to say that it didn't matter what you studied; any subject could prepare you for success in the world because what you really need to learn is just two things: how to analyze a problem and how to communicate a solution.  So you could be an English major who becomes an investment banker or a history major who rises to be a CEO.

That's the approach I take when studying churches.  I'm not looking to blindly replicate what they do.  That's futile - their situation is not my situation.  At the same time, just as one can study Lincoln's decision to replace Gen. McClellan in the Civil War and learn from it, even though I'm not fighting wars and not leading cavalry, I can learn from observing the issues churches are facing (publicity, encouraging discipleship, lighting, sound, children's ministry) and try to discern how they've analyzed these problems and developed solutions.

How do I pick churches to visit?  I tend to visit only two types of churches: highly successful churches and startups.  Why?  Because I believe that these are the churches most likely to be actively engaged in problem solving.  Too many mainline churches are basically coasting.  They are not confronting their problems realistically or with any sense of urgency.

My weekend plans call for me to visit five churches; two on Saturday and three on Sunday.  My Saturday churches are FUSIONChurch, ( a startup of the Seventh Day Adventists, and Perimeter Church ( a congregation of the conservative Presbyterian Church in America that was founded in 1977 and now attracts over 2,000 families per weekend.

My Sunday morning visits will be to two of Andy Stanley's campuses: the parent North Point Community Church ( and Buckhead Church (; I can't wait to see their high-def videocast of the preacher's message.  Sunday evening I will visit the high-powered startup: Passion City Church (  This startup is the first time noted speaker Louie Giglio has tried to be the pastor of a church - and he recruited Chris Tomlin to be his worship leader.  They aren't even holding worship every week yet.  I can't wait to see it.

Stay tuned.