Monday, August 10, 2015

What I did on my sabbatical: The Village Church, Dallas

This Sunday, Will and I visited The Village Church in Dallas.  Their pastor, Matt Chandler, came to the church in 2002, when it was still known as First Baptist, Highland Village, and had fewer than 200 regular attenders.  Today, Chandler preaches 45-50 minute sermons every Sunday (I podcast his sermons each week); they are highly biblical and brutally honest, and young adults stream in by the thousands to the Village and its several satellite campuses.  We chose to visit a satellite campus, the Dallas Northway location.  This was formerly Northway Baptist Church until they merged with the Village in 2009, so the location is a very traditional-looking facility, nearly as large as Westbury’s.  We arrived early for the 9:00 service.  There were guys in orange vests helping us park, but otherwise, we were on our own to find our way to the sanctuary; fortunately, this wasn’t difficult.  Inside, we saw a table with several people in green T-shirts that said “Connection.”  I approached one and said I was a first-timer.  He told me that their job was to answer any questions I might have before or after the service; clearly, they didn’t have a pre-packaged spiel. 

The crummy camera on my iphone doesn't do the sanctuary justice; this was twenty minutes before the 9:00 service.

            The sanctuary looked like a traditional Baptist worship area after the pews have been removed and replaced with padded, movable chairs, and a large screen installed in the front.  It was very attractive.  There was no bulletin, no designated first-timers area. There was a Bible, several “Connect” cards, and a pen in the rack in front of me.  I filled out a card and checked “first time here,” although I was never asked to do so. 
            I would say the room seated around 500, and by the time 9:00 arrived, it was packed with mostly very young adults.  I would say at least half the crowd was in their twenties.  Upcoming events were shown on slides on the screens before service started, but the minister who welcomed us began the service with almost ten minutes of announcements.  Home groups are a big deal at The Village, as are mid-week classes on big topics like The Apostles Creed; these were getting started again in coming weeks.  Also, the Church was planning a big annual event (“Transform”) next Saturday at Thomas Jefferson High School (right next door), and he wanted to be sure we were there.   The minister did a good job with these announcements, but it was definitely a departure from other churches I’ve visited, who tend to get the service off with more of a “bang.”  After a prayer, he turned things over to the worship band.
            The music was good, as upbeat and skillful as the previous two churches I visited (North Point in Atlanta and The Ark in Conroe), but with a difference that I appreciated.  Whereas those two churches used their screens to show close-ups of their worship leaders and musicians along with lyrics to the songs, The Village simply projected the lyrics.  The former feels--to me--more like a concert than a worship service.  I appreciated the focus on the words we were singing.  After our first song, we read together a collective prayer of confession from the screen, then sang another song (A contemporary version of “Grace Greater Than Our Sin”).  We then read together from Romans 8, prayed, and 24 minutes into the service, it was time for the sermon. 
            On most Sundays, Matt Chandler preaches to all the satellite campuses on the screens.  I really wanted to see how the logistics of that worked.  But alas, Chandler wasn’t preaching on this day.  Yes, I am now 0-4 on getting to see Senior Pastors preach.  Instead, the campus pastor preached a message from Nehemiah 1.  The point of the message was that we as God’s people should have a compassionate vision for our city, like Nehemiah had for Jerusalem.  The preacher was around my age, dressed in jeans and an untucked button-down, but his style was pretty old-school…in other words, he was intense.  He paced, shouted at times, gestured, sweated.  I grew up in the days when that was expected from an evangelical preacher (I remember one preacher who would sometimes fill in at my boyhood church, whose gestures and tone of voice reminded my brother and I of an umpire emphatically calling balls and strikes).  I just haven’t seen that in a while.  My son Will had never seen it, so his reaction was pretty entertaining.  About ten minutes in, Will leaned over and whispered, “Why is he so angry?”  Later, the preacher fervently declared that God loves all the people of Dallas, and Will murmured, “Yeah, but I don’t think you do.”  When we left, Will said, “I thought he was going to pick up his stool and fling it into the crowd.” He found this more amusing than frightening, thankfully.
            But the congregation, young as they were, was on board. I can’t remember the last time I was in a church with so many people who had Bibles on their laps, taking notes and audibly engaged in the sermon.  His message was challenging, and one got the distinct sense that the 500 or so people in that room were ready to rise to the challenge.  The sermon took about 35 minutes, and the minister who had opened the service came back out to lead us through communion.  Just like with Ecclesia in Houston, communion at The Village can be administered by any covenant member, male or female, so as soon as this minister stood up, several members went straight to the back of the room to get the elements.  They passed them down the pews, then we took communion together. 
            That’s when I got my next surprise: the past two churches I’ve visited ended the service as soon as the sermon ended.  But The Village still had plenty to do.  We sang two more songs, then closed with an acapella version of the Doxology.  The worship leader then invited us to come forward to speak with a counselor if we needed prayer or someone to talk with, and dismissed us.  In all, the service lasted an hour and twenty minutes, the longest of the four churches I’ve visited.  As I walked out, I noticed a wooden box on the wall that said “offering,” and that’s when I realized we had no offertory in the service.  I made a point to visit the Connection table on my way out.  I dropped off my card, and they asked if I had any questions.  I asked about the Transform event, since we also have a school adoption program.  They said each year, they help teachers at the High School set up their classrooms.  They also donate school supplies and backpacks to neighborhood families, as well as offering free haircuts and other services. 
             Every church I’ve visited gives off its own vibe.  At Ecclesia, the vibe was, “This is a place where you can be yourself and learn how to follow Christ.”   At the Ark, it was, “We want to do everything we can to make you feel welcome.”  At North Point, it was, “This is a safe place for you and your kids to discover what Christianity is all about.”  Here at the Village, the vibe said, “We’re a church for people who are ready to radically commit their lives to the Kingdom of God.”  There was never any attempt to persuade people to join the church.  I got the sense that, in spite of the young, stylish congregation and slick worship service, this is a church that sets the bar high for their members; if anyone wants to join that movement, they are welcome, but they have to take the initiative to do so.
            I got a wonderful surprise on our way out: We ran into a young man named Caleb Jentsch.  Caleb grew up in my parents’ church in Victoria, and sustained a traumatic brain injury a couple years ago in a skiing accident.  He nearly died, and spent significant time in a coma.  The last time I saw Caleb, he was in a unit in TIRR in Houston.  Sunday, we caught him on his way to serve as a greeter in the 11:00 service.  Many of you prayed for Caleb back when he was recovering from his injury; it was exciting to see him doing so well.  I thank God He brought this great young man back from the brink of death.

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