upper room daily devotions

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

My Trip to Mars Hill Church

A friend of mine and I attended worship at the 8:30 PM service at the Ballard campus of Mars Hill church this Sunday. I've been a couple of times to worship just to see what all the hoopla is about. In Seattle, the most unchurched city in the country, Mars Hill is growing rapidly with a membership reaching 10,000 people in its ten year history. They've grown to five campuses and are adding another one in the downtown region. While I don't have the statistic to prove it, I would bet that it's the fastest growing church in the area. So, last Sunday we went and yet again I was surprised at my reaction to the worship service. What surprises me, you might wonder? Every time I go, I am bored. And every time I go, I am reminded that Mars Hill takes theology very seriously, unlike many of our mainline churches that are afraid to delve into theology out of fear that they will offend someone or run someone off.

Why does Mars Hill bore me? I don't know; it just seemed...boring. Not much happened. I didn't experience prayer. Mark talked too long. I was bored.

The worship service is liturgically very similar to what happens in mainline churches except it is light on liturgy and community. However, I give them props for including Holy Communion (of a sort) at each worship service. United Methodists sure don't do this. I am very glad that we are moving toward weekly communion, but I would bet that most churches still serve it monthly. Here is my run down on worship at Mars Hill - the good, the bad, and the ugly (just a phrase, folks):

You enter the lobby, which is well appointed, clean, spacious, and occupied by well marked kiosks and information centers. No one greets you or comes up to you. I happen to like this. I like anonymity when trying something new. There is also an interactive station where you can learn about the church, home (community) groups, ministries, and its mission. I like that this, too, is an anonymous activity. You - I - don't have to feel new or out of place or awkward.

Next you move through the lobby into the worship space, which is appointed like a concert venue. There are no bulletins, greeters, or ushers. I like the dark atmosphere. Again, it allows for anonymity. This Sunday the venue never quite filled up, but it was the fifth service of the day. Still there were several hundred people present, all of whom were younger than I! Chairs are arranged in sections like a concert is. They are linked together to make straight rows - no scooting your chair for room or to see around the posts! Understandable, but a bit constricting. Well, less constricting than pews, I suppose. There are multiple screens scattered around - two big ones flanking the stage (and it is a stage, not a chancel), one smaller one actually on the stage, and two more mounted up high for those seated in the back sections. I find that many screens distracting. The room is big, but it isn't cavernous. How many Mark Driscolls does one person need to see at any given time? The stage has a cross, a band set up, a podium, and one screen.

The best part about the service? The lighting and the sound system. They are top notch. Lighting changes across the stage and along the side walls to create a wonderful atmosphere, especially since we're worshiping in a warehouse. The lights add a sense of "specialness" to the service.

Okay, time for the service to begin. A worship leader welcomes the crowd and lists a few announcements. Every time I've been there finances have been clearly and specifically mentioned. I like this; they seem to do a better job than most local churches in being clear about their needs and expectations. On the other hand, it was announced that they were averaging $1.50 per person in giving. That's pretty low. Next the band plays a couple of songs; it's a tight band, but not my idea of worship. I'm an old fogey. There was a time in my life that I appreciated hearing in worship the sounds I listen to on the radio, but that time has mostly passed me by. I prefer worship that feels different from the rest of my life. I find the songs of my tradition important and meaningful. A mix of the two would be fine. I won't get into the theology of the songs. Let's just leave it at, "It's not my theology." Then Mark Driscoll comes on the stage and talks for an hour and fifteen minutes. This week his topic covered fourteen kinds of grace. Some of his kinds of grace I've never heard of, but mostly it was an overview of grace. Again, most of what he said is theologically far from me. I don't believe in the elect or in predestination. As a good Methodist, I believe that I have free will. Driscoll doesn't. After his talk, he responded to some questions that were texted to him during his talk. Then the worship leader returns and announces Holy Communion, except that it wasn't communion. There was no liturgy or words of institution. There was no loaf. No one broke the bread or presided over the elements. Instead we were asked to remember Christ's sacrifice for us (and via Mark we've already been told how awful we are and how we are enemies of God so we knew how big that sacrifice was) and to come for Holy Communion if we're Christian; communion is reserved for Christians. I like that they offered wine and juice, both clearly marked. Then the band played a few songs while people came to the various stations for communion where there was wine, juice, and bowls of cubed bread waiting for you. The band played about six songs in a row. Then we were offered a blessing and a dismissal with another reminder of announcements. That's the whole service. It was about an hour and forty-five minutes long.

Several times during announcements and in the talk people were asked to make a decision to become Christian. They were invited into a process to become Christian. We are rarely so audacious in the mainline church anymore. However, growing up I recall that the last hymn of every service was the "Hymn of Invitation" during which anyone could come forward for prayer. It was our version of an altar call. Being fully bourgeois, though, no one ever came forward unless it was a planned transfer of membership or something quite like it.

Other than the theology, which I find not only faulty but harmful in many ways (that's another topic), I didn't experience a worship grounded in prayer. I always expect a more evangelical worship when I'm at Mars Hill and I'm always surprised at how "bam, bam, bam" it is. It's logistically flawless but feels a little spirit-less. Clearly I'm in the minority on this point; thousands of people worship there weekly. But I just don't experience a deep pull to prayer in their service. It really is primarily a lecture from Mark Driscoll bookended by songs and some juice.

How does its emphasis on theology surprise me? There are no gimmicks, just a long talk about theology. Every time that I've been to Mars Hill the sermon/lecture barely includes any anecdotes or other stories that make the points concrete. They are in there, of course, but they are short and exist solely for the purpose of illustrating a theological point. The theology in the music is completely commensurate with that which is preached. The invitations to Christian life falls clearly within a clearly stated theological mission. It is strongly theological.

While I could never worship at Mars Hill, I believe that we could learn a few things from it. Worship is worship and only worship. It has been my experience that too many mainline churches try to do everything community related during its worship because we don't see each other outside of worship. Mars Hill strongly emphasizes its small group ministry which frees worship to be one thing. Perhaps our worship services would be better if we just let them be worship and created community through other means. Second, music is important. While I don't like the music at Mars Hill, it is expertly done. I don't sit anxiously wondering if they will miss any notes. I can (at least I could if I weren't busy cringing at the words) just float into it because I'm not concerned about it. Too many of our local churches suffer from mediocre to bad music. Music should glorify God, not torture God (or those in the congregation). Third, anonymity is a good thing. Churches have had it beaten into them that welcoming the stranger is important (and it is). In consequence, a lot of churches threaten newcomers with their "love bombs." Let people find there way into community in a non-threatening way; just make sure there is a clearly identified and welcoming way for them to enter when they decide to do so. Fourth, atmosphere counts. There is a performance aspect to worship. What does your worship atmosphere say about God and community? How does it reflect the overall personality of your church? Fifth, liturgy is important. Ancient practices tie us to a long tradition. Even Mars Hill, as bereft of liturgy as it is, turned to icons on the screen. Know your liturgy and know why you use it. And last, prayer is important. I didn't find real prayer at Mars Hill and I learned that I need it, absolutely need it. I may be entertained, intrigued, and even enlightened by an event that doesn't include prayer, but I only worship when prayer - authentic, deep, and real - is emphasized.

So this is my long report on "My Trip to Mars Hill - by Katie Ladd."

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Invitational or Predatory?

I've just come from a conference during which people shared a bit about their work in inviting others to church. Some of what I heard was creative and exciting. Some of what I heard was a bit troubling. In the wake of that conference, I am wondering, "When does the drive to be invitational become predatory?"

The United Methodist Church has done a terrible job in the area of evangelism. The word itself conjures all kinds of preconceived notions. For some people evangelism begins and ends with enticing or coercing another into praying a "sinner's prayer." Other people can't even talk about evangelism because they have had bad experiences with it in their own lives. Despite these different understandings of and approaches to evangelism, I think it is critical for the spiritual health of the church for Methodists to embrace again our evangelistic roots. After all, how will anyone come to experience the loving grace of God without someone inviting them into church, into a small group, on a retreat, or to go to camp. Faith begins somewhere, and for an increasing number of unchurched people, that place isn't in one's childhood home. It begins with an invitation, but it should never be predatory.

Let me tell you a little story. I went to college in Lynchburg, Virginia. While there I joined and attended a gym. A number of students from Liberty University also worked out in that gym. I eventually had to withdraw membership because I was inundated with questions about my soul from people in the locker room, on the stationary bike, and in the juice bar. It all started when a student from Liberty saw me reading my Bible; I was studying for a test in Introduction to the New Testament (I was a religion magjor). She came up to me in the locker room while I was waiting on a friend to complete her workout and we struck up a conversation. It didn't take long until she asked about the Bible and inquired about what small group I belonged to. When I told her that I didn't attend Liberty she expressed some surprise that I would be reading a Bible. That annoyed me a little bit - as though only students from Liberty could have an interest in the Bible! She then asked the dreaded question, "Have you been saved?" I answered in a smart-ass way: "From what," I asked. I shouldn't have answered in such a manner, but I was minding my own business and I felt trapped, invaded, and annoyed. From that time onward Liberty students sought me out wherever I was; they were filled with a fervor to save my soul. Eventually I withdrew my membership and worked out in my college's gym. What I'm sure to them felt like persistent invitation was experienced by me as predatory behavior. Regardless of what I said or how I acted they wouldn't leave me alone.

When does a church move from invitational to predatory? How we engage in evangelism is critical to how or even whether we are able to reach people for Christ and lead them into a life-long journey with God. Talking to people in malls, handing out tracts, and engaging in unsolicited dialogue with strangers are not behaviors that I will do, not because I don't believe in evangelism, but because I do believe in evangelism. Even if the person I corner isn't offended by my behavior(which I believe would be a significant majority of those approached), what effect does such a conversation have? What lasting effect can there be? I am not interested in someone praying the sinner's prayer; I am interested in building a relationship with someone that will lead to a life-long walk with God, a walk that goes deeper and deeper into faith and discipleship. Such a walk isn't concluded with a prayer after which a person is left to his or her own devices.

The question about invitation v predatory behavior isn't theoretical. I am finding more and more Methodists engaged in what, in my opinion, is annoying and even hurtful evangelism. I believe the only thing worse than no evangelism is off-putting/harmful evangelism. It's vital for us to tell our story of faith in such a way that others are attracted to a life lived in the heart of the Creating God, alive in the grace and power of the risen Christ, and invigorated and sustained by the power of the Holy Spirit. We don't have to strong arm people to this message. It is compelling and life transforming if we tell is simply and honestly, and, perhaps more importantly, live it gracefully every day.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Grey's Anatomy Struggles with Faith

Last night ABC's "Grey's Anatomy" took a shot at exploring faith - why we need it, what it is, and what it does for us. While the primary story line was Chief Resident Amanda Bailey, her son, and her husband, each of the characters revealed something about their journey with faith.

Izzie Stevens wants faith in her skill - the same faith that she thinks Cristina Yang possesses. Alex Karev's lack of faith is challenged by a faith healer who recognizes how the pain of his childhood has robbed him of belief in goodness. Derek Shepherd loses faith in Meredith Grey but gains faith in himself which frees him to look for new possibilities in life. George O'Malley is confronted with the faith of his religious tradition and how his actions have fallen short of its expectations. Cristina Yang moves beyond her blind belief in skill and extends emotional and spiritual care to Bailey's injured child. Callie Torres speaks to her belief in love even though she has lost faith in many of her traditional religious beliefs. Other characters also muddled in the faith story this week as well.

Faith as belief that we belong to a larger story is a fundamental part of Christianity. It is also what seems to characterize most religions. We belong to a story that neither begins nor ends with us - a story that pulls us through the singularity of any moment into a future as yet unwritten. As Christians our story tells us that life is stronger than death and that love is stronger than despair and hate. I am surprised that a soap opera like "Grey's Anatomy" didn't' reduce faith to a list of dogmatic professions or supernatural events.

Last night's episode was called "Lay Your Hands on Me." You can watch it streaming online or via iTunes.

Monday, January 07, 2008

No Such Thing as "The Christian Vote"

Now that the new year has come (Happy New Year, everyone), we will be hearing even more about the presidential race. As part of that conversation, it has become clear that most of the candidates are courting "the Christian" vote. And yet, what does that mean? Christians vote across the political spectrum, influenced in a variety of ways by their faith in God as revealed in and through Jesus Christ. Even the word "Christian" is pluralistic in nature. What it means to be a Christian differs from person to person, from denomination to denomination, from culture to culture.

Christianity has always been pluralistic. When we turn to the earliest writings of our faith, we find that they exist primarily to deal with conflict arising from different understandings of what it means to be a Christian and to live inside of the Christian identity. There were Ebionites, Marcionites, gnostics of many forms and shades, adoptionists, Montanists, docetists, and others. Paul and Matthew radically disagree on what is called of one who iidentifies as a Christian. Diversity continued to be found in Christianity even after the rise of othodoxy. There are Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox Christians, Anglicans, Reformationists, Wesleyans, and other church movements. Within major religious movements one can find mystics, monastics, adherents to the social gospel, proponents of liberation theology, people who emphasize the teachings of Jesus, people who emphasize the atoning death of Jesus, those who emphasize the Cosmic Christ. There are panentheists, process Christians, and evangelicals. And many of us would use an array of modifiers to explain what kind of Christian that we are. To believe that there is "the Christian vote" radically over-simplifies the diverse and wonderful nature of Christianity.

For a look at what candidates believe, check out the Christian Science Monitor's "Faith and Values" overview.

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