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.

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