Over the summer I discovered I would have the opportunity to work at Aboite Lutheran Church with my main focus being in marketing. I took this opportunity (as an excuse, really) to visit larger churces in the area – most of whom I have admired in some way or another for some time.
Granger Community Church
First up was – to me – the closest to what we wanted to look like. They tend to travel via very cultural means most of the time; their website illustrates this. They do, however, use top of the line stuff and their methods are definitely cool.
My friend Justin and I left for Granger one morning around 8 am or so. The plan was to hit their 11 am service (a godsend to us since neither wants to get up early for anything – ever) a little early and get a good look around the place. GCCWired.com did an adequate job of getting us directions, and with some MapQuest and a little coffee we took off.
The first thing worth mentioning while walking up to the church was that there were speakers in the overhang that had the message playing. Right inside the door is their coffee shop, at which anyone can sit and cruise the message pdf online while enjoying coffee. It was an interesting idea, and I’m not sure I totally like it, but they pulled it off nicely.
After visiting all the churches we did over those 5 weeks we realized something – Granger was the only church where someone greeted us as we wandered around their church. Even though his name tag read “Campus Guide” – kind of cheesy – it was still nice for someone to offer to take us on a tour of their church.
More than anything else Granger emphasizes their children’s program. The church was impressive in size anyway – even though it only really consisted of its sanctuary, bathrooms, coffee shop, bookstore, and office areas (no classrooms) – but the entire basement level of the church was their children’s area. I didn’t get any pictures – there were children and he preferred I didn’t take any, understandable – but to give you an idea of their setup, each grade has its own room and theme. Under the sea, Veggitales, in the jungle – you name it, they have it. The nice part is that since each kid’s room has its own theme they don’t need to change them nearly as often. Oh yeah, and get this – each room has a corresponding slide. Parents don’t even have to walk downstairs to take the kids to their rooms. Great idea.
Their worship experience was very much like a concert. Impressive, too. Five screens in total: the large one (rear projected by four 8000 lu projectors) and four supporting screens (each run by 2 6500 lu projectors – projected on top of each other…yeah).
Their service began with a prelude followed by an interesting testimonial drama. It seemed like each of the testimonials was real but scripted. There was then only one worship song, during which I noticed something interesting: about the same percentage of people sang as at my church((I don’t know how common it may be at your church, but at ours the common frustration – or concern – among ministry leaders is how we can encourage – or force 🙂 – people to sing.)). This makes me think that while it’s nice to make a production out of worship, to make it look nice, it really doesn’t affect whether a congregation will sing or not.
Some facts about their service: approximately 18 speakers, 1500 seats, and an average of over 6,000 attending weekly.
Willow Creek Community Church
So how do we top a church like Granger? How do we visit someplace that will rival an attendance of over 6,000 a week and a children’s program that brings in thousands of children every year?
How about one of the largest churches in America? How about Willow Creek, near Chicago, a church that boasts more than 20,000 every week.
The church had escalators. Like a mall.
The worship was very similar to that of Granger – believe it or not all of the prevailing churches I’ve been to have been rocking out to electric guitar led and made up of five to ten members. I think it’s great – and even better is that their are actually older people – really awesome, amazing older people – that regularly attend these churches. So really this question of worship styles among different age groups isn’t the problem – it’s worship styles among different types of people((And to me, there are two different types of people. Those who will hold onto the past no matter how irrationally or emotionally based their decision is and those who are willing to move on with the times.)).
Over 7,000 seats in their auditorium. Two balconies. Really only this picture can do it justice.
There was a guest speaker the week I attended – can’t remember his name – who was the captain on the submarine in 2005 that hit Japanese boat of tourists. It was a nice speech, but it felt much more like a motivational effort than anything else. He mentioned God about the same number of times someone accepting an Academy Award would((Too harsh? Nah.)).
Something else worth mentioning: the two screens on either side of their stage aren’t being projected onto like – oh, I don’t know – every other church in the world. They are jumbotrons. Like a football games. Two of them. Massive.
It’s amazing what you can do with God’s money, I suppose.
Mars Hill Bible Church
If you’re still here, I’ll assume you know something about it. Let’s just say I’m a fan. It was a very exciting idea to go visit Bell’s church and see what kind of community they were building – and it was definitely an experience.
Simplicity is the key work at Mars Hill Bible Church. In an excerpt from Velvet Elvis, Rob Bell explains the current status of their sanctuary and the reason for it:
“There were well over 1,000 people there the first Sunday…
And by September of that first year, we had to hold three services, pushing things to over 4,000 people in the first six months…
Around this time we were having problems with too many kids in the classrooms – there wasn’t enough oxygen.
And then, several months into it, the fire marshal showed up. Not good. Legal, but not good…
So we bought a mall. Actually, somebody gave us a mall, and we bought the parking lots surrounding it.
Yes, a mall.”
– Rob Bell, Velvet Elvis, p 100-102 paraphrased
So we went to their mall. Like I said, it was simple. If you can imagine a roundabout meeting area with a worship band in the center, around 3,000 chairs in one area, and simple white letters projected onto a black background, you’ve got the visual of Mars Hill. But that’s hardly it. Their focus is very clear: nothing flashy, nothing in excess, only the Word and whatever will focus them in on it. They began with around 30 minutes of worship – something that seemed like a regular thing with them – and they actually sang out! It was really great. Of course it was easier to hear since there were hundreds of people across the room singing right back at you.
After the worship – you guessed it – lots of teaching. Almost an hour the night I was there – and that was a guest speaker((Of course since I caught a guest speaker I’ll be heading back very soon!)). I can only imagine the kinds of responses Bell gets from his own congregation.
The church was a breath of fresh air. Though I don’t feel I got the full experience, I have heard that during the “school year” Bell is home more often. This idea makes me want to drive up there every Sunday night to see him speak.
As far as their printed media goes (something I’m especially interested in – directly applies to my job :)) Mars had some very interesting material. The first thing that caught my eye was a 7 week devotional book of sorts. In what seems to be tear-out notecards, Mars is encouraging its congregation to stop (together) every day at 11 am and 7 pm to focus on these devotionals and pray. Does that ring a Muslim bell to anyone? I love this because it is a perfect illustration of the beautiful idea of finding truth anywhere and everywhere – just because someone doesn’t have the whole truth doesn’t mean they don’t hit on elements of it. Bell grabbed onto this particular part of the Muslim tradition and said “Wow, this rocks.” I agree, it’s a really cool idea.
Now I’ve read in certain places that some (read: fundamentalists) tend to attack Bell and Mars as a “cult,” probably due to their lack of affiliation with any denomination and some of their practices (such as calling their services “gatherings” and maybe slightly due to the sound of some of their worship). In all fairness, I can see how they might come to this conclusion, but it can really only be because of ignorance. I love what Mars Hill is doing, and it excites me to see a group so willing and welcoming to the Spirit of God in so many different ways. That’s the kind of community I want to be a part of, and want to invite others to join.
But it’s not a conclusion, I hope. I can’t see these church visits ending any time soon. In fact, I did visit another church closer in town to mine – maybe I can throw up my thoughts on that next time. I want to visit Mars again for sure, as well as any others that I think I can get to and back from in a day. Any suggestions?