Sunday, August 2, 2015

What I did on my sabbatical: Atlanta

My tour of churches continued this weekend with a visit to North Point Community Church in Atlanta.  The staff and I read Deep and Wide, Andy Stanley's book about how churches can do a better job of reaching unchurched people.  We found it incredibly challenging, so I decided to see this church up close.

Carrie came along, and we saved some time for fun stuff before Sunday.  Neither of us had ever been to Atlanta, but we came away impressed.  We visited the College Football Hall of Fame, took a bike tour of the city, walked through Centennial Olympic Park, and ate some great food.

Landing in Atlanta.  One of us was a little nervous about flying.

On our bike tour, we stopped at Ebenezer St Baptist, once pastored by Martin Luther King Sr and Jr. 
North Point is actually in Alpharetta, a suburb which is about 30 minutes north of downtown Atlanta, although they have campuses all over the city.  We decided to drive out to the main campus, and arrived early.  We got our first surprise as we pulled up.  In contrast to The Ark Church (which we visited last week), North Point is much more hands-off towards first-time guests.  If there is special "visitor's parking" we didn't see it.  Instead, there is a large special parking area close to the building for parents of preschoolers: Obviously reaching young families is a priority.  We had no problem finding a parking place or finding the entrance (it's where everyone was headed).  But the contrast with The Ark--where we were guided and accompanied from the moment we drove onto the parking lot until we sat down in the pew--was striking.  There were tons of people inside the church with T-shirts that read, "I'm glad you're here."  So obviously, North Point figures that if you need help, you'll take the initiative to approach one of these volunteers.  I did so, and he guided us to a seat in the first-time guest area, close to the front middle of the auditorium.

The sermon series was called "Bottom of the Ninth."  To go with the baseball theme, there was a shot of a baseball game on the screen, volunteers were walking around handing out peanuts, popcorn and cracker jacks, and they were playing songs you'd likely hear at a Major League Stadium; I heard "Sweet Caroline" and "Glory Days" (but not "Centerfield," alas).

Just before worship at North Point.  Note the baseball graphic on the screen.

A young woman started the service by welcoming us.  There are actually two auditoriums in the main campus; we happened to be in the one where the preaching is live rather than on video.  So during this welcome, they showed a split screen with a host in the other auditorium.  The two hosts talked for a while, then threw things to another host in "The Studio," where first-time guests were invited to visit after the service for more information and a gift.  This third host also talked about some upcoming events.  Then we came back to the young woman who was our host.  She explained that we were about to sing; she said, "If you don't usually go to church, this may seem a little weird.  We just encourage you to lean in and enjoy this with us, even if you don't know the songs."  The welcome and announcement time was very different from anything I've seen in church before, but it was really well-done, funny and engaging.  It was obviously aimed at unchurched people.  It took about five minutes.

Music started after that.  We sang three songs: Here For You, Never Once, and the bridge and chorus of One Thing Remains.  The music was very well done, although a little more loud and showy than I prefer.  I love contemporary worship music, but I'd like to be able to hear my fellow worshippers sing--but loud and showy has become the standard in most big churches (Ecclesia a couple weeks ago was the exception).  One of the worship leaders led us in a prayer for the offering, then they were done.  As the bucket was being passed, they played a video to introduce the sermon.  I checked my clock: At 11:20, twenty minutes into the service, it was time for the message.

I'm now three for three in visiting churches when the Senior Pastor isn't preaching.  The sermon today was by Clay Scroggins; it was the last message in the Bottom of the Ninth series.  It was an excellent sermon, based on the story in Mark 2 about the four friends who did whatever they had to do to get their paralyzed friend to Jesus.  The point of the baseball imagery was that everyone eventually has their "bottom of the ninth" moments, when we're up against an impossible barrier and need someone to come through for us.  Today's message emphasized that faith is best expressed through actions; instead of telling someone going through hard times, "I'm praying for you," we should do something tangible for them.  He ended by asking us to pull out our phones, think of someone we know who is having a tough time, and set ourselves a reminder to do something for them.  It was biblical, at times quite funny, and very challenging.

At the end of the sermon, he prayed, and the service was over.  This is the second church in a row we've visited that ends things on the sermon: No invitation hymn, no benediction or closing song.  It's a bit jarring at first, but I'm starting to see the advantages of it.  Instead of thinking to ourselves, "When is this going to end?" we walk out with the message still ringing in our minds.

I made a point to visit "The Studio" since I was a first-time guest, and here's where I experienced my only real disappointment with North Point.  The room was attractive and inviting; there was a nice rack of brochures, and a table with some tasty-looking cookies, but no one was there to meet me or tell me about the church.  I saw a volunteer at one of the tables talking to someone, but that was it.  I grabbed a couple brochures, noticed that inside one there was a gift card for a free drink at Starbucks, waited around for a few moments to see if someone would approach me, and headed home.  I was never asked to fill out anything.  As far as North Point knows, I never visited, so I will not be contacted by them.

I suppose North Point's strategy is this: We do things really, really well here.  We're going to present church that's more engaging than what you're probably used to, and if you have young kids, we're going to try really hard to help you feel you can trust us, but we're not going to do anything to make you feel uncomfortable or on the spot.  If you have questions, we're going to assume you'll approach one of our volunteers.  If you want to join the church, accept Christ, or get involved in one of our ministries, we're going to make sure that stuff is listed in the bulletin.  But again, we're not going to pursue you; if you want to take the next step, that's your decision.

I have mixed feelings about this.  On the one hand, I can see that this approach would work for a lot of unchurched people who already feel awkward enough about being a church.  They don't want to be glad-handed.  They just want to check things out anonymously, and decide for themselves whether or not to come back.  But for people like us, who are used to having churches go overboard showing us how much they want us to come back, it was a very different approach.  Clearly, church folks like us aren't the target of this approach.

It's obviously an approach that works.  The huge building was full.  There was a terrific diversity of races and ages in the room, although overall the crowd skewed younger than most churches.  And to think there are several other campuses...If I lived in Atlanta and was looking for a church home, I would absolutely visit North Point again.  

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