Monday, August 17, 2015

What I did on my sabbatical: Menlo Park Presbyterian Church

For the last church visit of my sabbatical, my daughter Kayleigh and I went to Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in Menlo Park, California.  Menlo is just a mile and a half from Stanford University, and less than an hour from San Francisco.  I was actually born in San Francisco; my dad was stationed at the Presidio in the year following his service in Vietnam.  I was born, then a month and a half later, mom and I went back to Texas.  I had been back once since, when Mom and Dad took us on a huge car trip through the West, including a couple days in San Francisco.  I was looking forward to taking my own daughter back there, and the trip did not disappoint.  They had a heat wave while we were there; temps were in the high 80s Saturday and Sunday.  People who found out we were from Houston accused us of bringing the heat with us.  We would have gladly traded our weather for theirs!  We took a boat ride through the bay, rode bikes over the Golden Gate Bridge and into Sausalito, saw redwoods at Muir Woods, ate ramen in Chinatown…we wore ourselves out, but had a great time. 

Would you believe Kayleigh and I met a couple of fellow UH grads on our ride to the Golden Gate Bridge?  We took one another's pictures.  

            I didn’t choose to visit Menlo just to see Northern California.  The Senior Pastor at MPPC, John Ortberg, is in my opinion the best preacher of the Gospel alive today.  Of course, he wasn’t there Sunday.  I ended my sabbatical 0-5 in seeing Senior Pastors preach; a perfect shutout.  That’s alright; I didn’t actually come to see Ortberg--I can podcast his sermons anytime.  Menlo Park Presbyterian is doing an amazing job of reaching a highly irreligious region for Christ.  I wanted to see how they do things up close. 
            Our bodies were still on Central Standard Time, so it wasn’t hard for  us to make it to the 9:30 service.  In fact, we made it there just before the 8:00 traditional service had ended.  MPPC is the only church of the five I’ve visited that still has a traditional service.  The first thing I noticed is that MPPC doesn’t look like a megachurch.  I suppose that’s because it didn’t start off that way (naturally).  The church has been in that community for over 140 years.  When it became large, the leaders chose not to do a massive tear-down and rebuild (or relocation) to more modern, trendy environs, as is common among megachurches.  Instead, they’ve put their money into ministry, including starting numerous other campuses around the Bay Area.  The sanctuary itself is a very pretty, quite traditional worship space--with actual pews!--except up front, where they have the modern contemporary worship setup.  The space itself seats around the same amount as WBC.  Outside, they have numerous tents with coffee, lemonade and donut holes.  As the traditional service ended, the worshippers stayed around those tents for a long while, catching up with each other (this could only work in a place that has year-round good weather).  There was also an easy-to-locate welcome center, and greeters just inside the front doors. 

A traditional sanctuary retro-fitted for contemporary worship.  Sound familiar?

A look at the nice stained glass windows

            Of the five churches I’ve visited, this is the first where the average age was older than me, although quite casually dressed.  There were plenty of younger people in the packed sanctuary, but they were outnumbered by the gray (or bald) heads.  I wondered if the average age was lower at the 11:00 service (It was certainly a lot older at the 8:00 traditional), or at the Saturday night service.  
            The service was hosted by the campus pastor, Charley Scandlyn, whose job it was to tie everything together.  He came out briefly to welcome us, and invited us to sing along with the band. The worship team was very young and very talented, although the congregation didn’t seem engaged in the singing.  We started with two very upbeat songs, “By Your Grace I’m Saved” and “You’re the Lord Our God,” then transitioned to a slower, more contemplative song, “Your Praise Will Ever Be On My Lips.”  Charley came back up, spoke briefly about the privilege we had to worship God, and invited us to greet one another.  After the handshake time, he reminded us of Pastor Ortberg’s sermon from last week and the new directions it signaled for the church, including a new website and goals to start new campuses, then briefly introduced the new series that was beginning today.  The series is called “I Quit,” about four toxic habits we need to eliminate from our lives in order to live the way God wants us to.  The sermon started after that.  We had been there for 18 minutes.
            The preacher was Scottie Scruggs, Executive Pastor and frequent speaker at MPPC.  It was about quitting the habit of constantly being in a hurry.  That may not sound like a very deep spiritual topic, but he did an effective job of showing us that hurry can be toxic, both spiritually and emotionally, and that God’s Word urges us to slow down.  He cited the story of Mary and Martha, and Jesus admonishing busy, hyperactive Martha to sit down with her sister and hear the Master teach.  He quoted Matthew 11:28-30 (“Come to me all who are weary and heavy burdened, and I will give you rest…).  He pointed out something I have never considered: Jesus speaks of taking His yoke upon ourselves.  A yoke bound two oxen together.  They would have to walk at the same speed.  Jesus, Scruggs said, was inviting us to live life at His speed. And Jesus never hurried. He always had time for people.  He never got impatient (aside from His impatience with injustice and spiritual stubbornness).  I found it highly convicting.  Scruggs urged us to build time into each day when we unplug from the world and practice slowing down.  Take advantage of moments when we have to wait.  Schedule extended time alone once in a while.  Learn to say no to demands on our time. And practice the Sabbath weekly. 
            The campus pastor came back at the end of the sermon and gave a brief introduction to the offertory, including the point that visitors shouldn’t feel compelled to give anything.  The song during the offertory was “You Lead Me,” a very pretty song based on the 23rd Psalm.  At the end of the song, the campus pastor invited us to come forward after the service if we wanted prayer, reminded the church of a “Healing Prayer Service” that day at 12:15, and dismissed us with a benediction based on Psalm 23.  The service took about an hour and five minutes.
            There are several things that stood out to me about MPPC: First of all, there was nothing particularly Presbyterian about the worship service.  There was nothing that seemed artificial, overly formal, or intentionally "hip."  It was low-key and natural, while still being meaningful. I would gladly invite a non-Christian friend--or a friend who had grown up in church and felt "burned" by religion--to MPPC.  Second, the campus pastor did a great job of tying things together.  Elements in the worship service which may have otherwise seemed randomly placed were instead part of a cohesive whole: This was a worship service designed, from start to finish, to convince us to slow down and find rest in God.  None of the other worship services I’ve visited has done such an effective job of being this intentional.  Third, the preaching was excellent, and I cannot over-emphasize how important that is in making a worship service meaningful.  Fourth, I think MPPC’s key trait is its emphasis on small groups and support groups.  We received a bulletin with the sermon title, a few announcements, a place for notes, and a tear-off card for us to place in the offering plate if we wanted prayer, counseling or other information.  But we also received a card listing the small groups on one side and the support groups on the other.  These include: Divorce recovery, AA, Narcotics anonymous, a support group for people in debt, and another for people in job transition (and a couple others I can’t recall).  It also includes a support group for those who suffer from mental illness and their families.  I had read about this ministry in Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission, by Amy Simpson.  One thing I’ve learned on this sabbatical: Effective churches these days offer people more than songs, a sermon and a Sunday School class.  There are also programs to help people with the problems they face.  As I look down that list of support groups, I realize that I don’t know a single family that isn’t touched by at least one of those issues.  Of course, most churches aren’t large enough to offer all those groups. But we must at least know how help can be found in our communities, and have a plan for supporting people as they struggle.  

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