Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Churcharama, and digressions

Sarah and I have been attending metro Denver churches, hoping to find a new home where we can meet other young parents and grow up for a while. We've been sort of careful about it. We've used a list from Denver Theological Seminary, checked out churches online, tried to check for small groups and family ministries like women's studies and Mothers of Preschoolers. We are trying to avoid churches that are loosey goosey on the Bible, but also trying to avoid extra-denominational places, along with fire and brimstone kinds of places. It's time to grow. Two, three hundred people in the Sunday service seems about right.

Two weeks ago we screwed the whole thing up.

We drove the back way to Cherry Hills Community Church. We took a road called Wildcat Reserve Parkway. I believe it does actually pass by a wildcat reserve, but we haven't explored all the parks (of which there are many) in the area. I knew the way, because the day before we had gone swimming at one of the Highlands Ranch Rec Centers. These are free to residents of Highlands Ranch, and we had heard that this one had an indoor pool for kids. The pool was very cool, with all kinds of fountains and slides, wading, a spa, and one wavy loop with a slow current that tugs you around. The loop was also the only place I came close to putting Alex underwater. I was holding him up, as was his flotation vest, in the little river. Going around a curve, the undertow pulled my feet off the bottom and I got dunked. As I fell, I pushed Alex's butt up with my hand, trying to keep him up for Sarah, who was behind us. I lost him for a second, got my balance and spun around to look. Sarah had him ok. She told me that when I pushed him up and let go, he looked surprised, but he started kicking and kept himself afloat for a second. To me, this bodes well for his future, both in the water and in overall survival. Anyhow, this pool was a little way down the right hand of an intersection on Wildcat Reserve, and this church was a little way down the left.

We turned onto Fairview and saw traffic cones taking out a lane, and a cop parked in the middle of the road. We wondered what was going on until we got to the cop, who... waved us in to the church parking lot. Oh. We got a sinking feeling. They have to control the traffic for the Sunday service? And there they were, hundreds of cars driving around. I can't say they were driving around a church building. Instead, they were crossing over into the embassy of what was, and still remains, a foreign country to me.

The complex, campus, whatever term you prefer, sprawled out on a hillside. At first, we didn't know which door to enter because crowds were going towards a few different entrances. We lucked out and found a sort of atrium that the church used as a greeting area. To the left was a concierge with information. To the right was the child check-in area.

We went to get Alex signed up for the nursery. As a first-time child, we had to give up some personal information to get registered. It didn't help that the man attending us said, we'll get him right in the database, so he'll be good to go next week. I have been a little more wary of this lately. I mean, the weekend before I started work I went to our local haircut place to get spruced up for my first day. They asked for my name, then they asked me for my phone number. For some reason, this brought me up short. I had never been to a barber shop that needed my phone number. My name, yes, my money, yes, my repeat customer punch-card, sure. But my phone number? So I said, "I would prefer not to." This completely flustered the receptionist. She literally did not know what to do next. She had to ask one of the stylists, who said, use the phone number for the house. Even so, the stylist had to come over and help the receptionist click through her menus. Finally, I was all set, and the receptionist told me the wait would be fifteen minutes. Just enough time to get groceries, I thought, so I told her I'd be right back.

Half an hour later or so, I walked back in, ready for my haircut, and sat down. The receptionist chose that moment to vacuum up nothing from the floor right in front me. Then the stylist, busy with another customer, said, you were already on the list, right? I said, that's right, ready to wait. When it was my turn for a haircut, the stylist asked me what I wanted. I said that I just wanted it nice for my new job, and I hadn't been in a while, so I'd like it shorter. For the rest of the haircut, the stylist didn't say one word. She sprayed my hair with the water bottle for so long that my head was freezing, then she cut my hair practically without using her comb. I didn't figure it out till later, but she left a wing on one of my sideburns, and barely touched the sides, which have since begun to poof out. Needless to say, they've lost my business, but the more interesting point is that they were willing act affronted and mess with me because I wouldn't give them my personal information. There is such a thing as privacy, and you've got to start somewhere.

So I was really stuck, checking Alex into the nursery. I already knew, without even seeing the service or the nursery or much but the parking lot that we would never be back, yet I had to give out my information again. This was a situation that called for a little protest, but what? On the form I found it, two lines not marked "Parent A" and "Parent B", but instead, "Head of household" and "Spouse". For me, that little line created all kinds of feelings, basically a heated theological debate, which I proceeded to win with permanent ink: I marked Sarah as head of household, and myself as spouse. Alex was tagged with a serial number and the last four digits of our phone number were marked on his tag. During the service, the man said, if we were needed in the nursery our digits would be flashed under the screens. Screens? but we had no time to think about it then. We took Alex off to the nurseries.

The nurseries were divided by age, as in all the churches we've visited. Here the difference was that there were maybe eight, maybe a dozen nurseries, divided up by age groups of two or three months each. That is, Alex was placed in a nursery for children born in September and October 2004 only. Think a little about how many staff and children this implies (a hundred kids? more? under three or four), and you'll get an idea of the scale of the thing. I glanced out the sliding door of the nursery as we handed Alex off to the nice young man, who was explaining about the emergency paging system again. There was a Big Toy, a little playground out back of this (and presumably, every) nursery. We dropped him off and headed for the service itself.

We got lost on the way to the service and had to consult a map. Again, the traffic was no help because people were going about equally both up and down the hall. Finally, we arrived in the worship center, which again was enormous. It reminded me of a theater. It had a balcony, of course. Greeters were stationed across the expanse as you walked in, impossible to avoid. Ushers at the door handed out full-color brochures. Later, they would guide people into open seats. Sarah and I sat on the end of the next-to-last row, in the middle, by the door.

The theater atmosphere continued inside. The band was already singing as we found our seats. Where to start? The room is perhaps best thought of as a quarter of pie, with the stage at the point. We were seated at the bottom edge of the crust, near the tin... The stage was enormous, like the stage on Austin City Limits, or any other theater you care to imagine. There were two enormous big screens to either side of the stage, and five slightly smaller big screens arrayed around at balcony height. These screens displayed various members of the band as they sang and played, panning, fading, and zooming in a manner reminiscent, for me, of PBS concerts. The lyrics to the songs we sang (all of them Christian praise choruses that we all knew quite well) were displayed, not on an overhead, but as subtitles placed gracefully on the screens without obscuring the musicians.

There were thirteen people in the band: five singers, a pianist on a grand, a drummer, a bassist, a lead guitarist on a flying V, a saxophonist, a guy on acoustic, a guy on a synthesizer, and a guy on the violin. They sang with palpable emotion. On the stage itself were two columns, where the lights and shadows of concert lighting played, and a gigantic screen in the center, behind it all, made screen-saverish patterns like the ones that play behind the singers on American Idol. And I started thinking the word "staged", a word which still captures almost everything I took away from the production. A few other things stood out to me about the music. The guy on lead guitar had these amazing solos, which were technically breathtaking, but not, perhaps, setting the mood. On the song "You're All I Want", the lead singer started singing the lines of the verses before us, while we sang the regular tune behind her. The effect was not unlike the echoes of a gospel chorus, which again was technically cool, but it occurred to me later that we the church, like the other four singers on stage, had metamorphosed into her backups. Of course, no matter what the song, the band was turned up so high that it was not possible to hear yourself or the congregation singing. And perhaps most important, everyone clapped after every song, and it felt like a rock show.

The sermon was not much better. For some reason, there was a rug onstage for the pastor to pace on as he delivered his talk. It was about the apostle Paul seizing his moment. I was hoping for great things, I guess, as this was the most Christian part of the show, but here, as exemplar, was the takeaway point, in gigantic words on the big screens: "Jesus calls us from something, for something." This, I thought to myself, was the problem with preaching to such a wide audience: the lowest common denominator. And after the sermon, the people all clapped. And at the end of the service, it was the biggest ovation of all.

Sarah told everyone afterwards what I said to her as we hurried past the luxury cars to our little Corolla and got out of there: "I don't know about you, but we're not going back." We talked about it for most of the rest of the day, but we already agreed about that.

We've had better luck our other weeks, with two fine churches in Bethany Evangelical Free Church, and Valley View Christian Church. We are hoping that we have many to choose from; time will tell.

In other news, I've also started work in what is basically a locked-down facility. I've been enjoying work, but there are aspects of it that are a little surreal. And I almost forgot, but Sarah and I finished the Harry Potter saga. Without spoilers, let me just say that JK Rowling deserves your money and your eyeballs glued to her pages, and I'll leave it at that. Buy them, read them, give them out. We now need something new to read together, so feel free to suggest something.

I miss you, friends, and I hope you're having a happy, fulfilling time wherever you are.


Jen said...

I'm DYING to hear more about the "head of household" and "spouse" thing. I think I may be learning something about you that I didn't realize was there. Please please, share! What feelings did that line ignite in you and why? Let's hear the heated theological debate. I wait with baited breath. (Is that the expression?)

Laura said...

I had to laugh at the whole cop directing traffic at church thing because in Richmond the church I went to was past a Baptist church where the parking lot was across the street from the sanctuary and they had a car with flashing lights and an official looking person stopping traffic to allow the church goers to safely cross, but instead of a cop, it was an animal control officer. The image of all those Baptists being herded across the street by a dog catcher with a more PC title was pretty funny.

vince54 said...


Good to hear that you are seeking a fellowship to be a part of. (I can't seem to write without ending in a preposition.)

I had no doubt that you will land somewhere, but too many leave their last church and never find a replacement church.

"I couldn't find one like MBC."

I have heard that a lot. Please land somewhere ... but take two months to commit to a local body.

When I toured with another fellow (1979-1981), we sang at colleges, churches, and coffee houses from Alabama to Alaska. We probably sang in 40 different churches per year. We rarely found a church over 500 members that had anything desirable. No community, no accountability ... just glitz. Peninsula Bible Church in Palo Alto, CA was the one exception. It tried to maintain enough worship services to keep the single service attendance below 500. It had a plethora of small group bible studies in homes. Once it got too big for the building, it did not go on a 'bigger building' crusade. Rather, it planted a sister church about 20 miles away.

One suggestion. Stay local. Chose a church near home. There may be a great church 30 miles away, but the good church 5 miles away is where you can serve.

Just some thoughts.

Again. It is good to hear from you.