For my first visit, I chose Ecclesia, located in Houston's historic First Ward arts district, near downtown. Ecclesia has long been known for effectively reaching the Millennial generation and people of all ages who come from non-Christian backgrounds.
As we drove up, men in orange vests helped us find a parking spot--always a nice touch for a newcomer. The building itself looks like a warehouse from the outside; inside, the feel is converted warehouse/coffee shop/art gallery/small conference venue. The "conference venue" is the worship area, with seating on three sides of the stage, and screens all around. We got into the worship area a bit late (I encouraged my family to try the coffee bar, and the line was long), so we had to sit near the back of a packed room--not my usual seating preference. The crowd was young and racially diverse, although white folks were in the vast majority. I would say the average age in the room was 25-28. People were well-dressed but casual; it looked like a catalog for American Eagle or some other popular clothing brand.
The worship service went as follows:
- Opening song: an upbeat version of Amazing Grace.
- Standard stand-and-greet time
- An infant baptism; it was much like our parental dedications, in which the parents pledge to raise their kids in the faith and the church promises to do all they can to help; except with a baptism, and anointing the baby's forehead with oil. The leader encouraged us to write a note to the baby and his family, to encourage them; I thought that was a neat idea.
- Two more upbeat worship songs: My Lighthouse and All the Poor and Powerless
- A slower worship song, with which I wasn't familiar. The chorus was "I can't help myself."
- The offertory was introduced by a responsive reading, then baskets were passed as the band played another song. The kids left at this point for Children's church.
- The sermon was entitled Generously Good, based on 2 Corinthians 8. Founding pastor Chris Seay is in Rwanda, so the preacher was introduced simply as "Gideon." The basic question of the sermon was "How is generosity a path to good news?" Gideon talked about how most Christian generosity produces pride and a sense of entitlement in the giver (as in, "I've given so much, I deserve something good in return"). Whereas true biblical generosity comes from a motive of gratitude which leads to abundant joy. It was a highly biblical sermon, very challenging and very effectively presented. The graphic presentation on the screen was well-done and helped us assimilate the information in the message. The sermon lasted about 40 minutes. My only complaint was that I had a tough time hearing everything Gideon said.
- Communion was introduced by a responsive reading of confession and a prayer to bless the elements. Church members sign up for the opportunity to serve Communion; at the appointed time, they left their seats and walked to the front, where they stood in a cluster, holding pieces of bread or cups of juice or wine (both were available). There were also gluten free breads at other places in the room. The band played while we streamed forward to take a pinch of bread and dip it in the juice/wine. People who wanted prayer could approach prayer leaders during this time; people who wanted to join the church could do so as well, by filling out a card and lighting a candle. This all took around 10 minutes.
- The service closed with a benediction. It was just short of 90 minutes long.
Worship at Ecclesia was an interesting mix of the new and the old. The dress was stylish casual (Gideon wore a white T-shirt and denim jacket), the music was strictly contemporary (with a five-piece band, including a steel guitar, giving it more of an indie-folk feel than the Hillsong driving rock beat that is so popular in many churches) and very well-done, and the sermon was delivered in a conversational, authentic style with plenty of humor and self-deprecating testimonial...and content fitting for any truly evangelical church. However, elements like Baptism, anointing with oil, Communion, responsive readings, and ending all prayers with "In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit" were reminiscent of more liturgical churches. I thought the mix worked.
As I waited for my family to get their coffee, I was standing at the back of the worship area when I was approached by a young man named Andre. He asked how long I had been attending Ecclesia. He had been coming there for 6-7 weeks. We had a nice, friendly conversation (it turns out we have a mutual friend). After a minute or two, he excused himself to close the partition that separated the worship area from the coffee area. I found it remarkable that a guy who has been attending for less than two months has already found a volunteer role, and feels a responsibility to greet newcomers.
I was impressed by Ecclesia. If I were looking for a church home, I would go back.