By Teena Myers
I usually switch the station when a preacher comes on the radio. Finding truth is hard enough without listening to a myriad of voices muddying the waters. When a preacher came on the radio talking about Abraham, I reached for the dial to change the station, but hesitated. I had been reading about Abraham, the father of our faith. I returned my hand to the steering wheel.
At the conclusion of the broadcast, the pastor gave his churches web address. I looked up the website. I don’t know why. The most interesting thing I saw was their location in a shopping mall next to the food court. Yet the church became a thought I could not escape. I am not interested in changing churches and dismissed the thought, so I thought.
Later that evening I was lying in bed trying to sleep. Thoughts about the church in the mall kept me awake. Then another thought invaded. I have been writing about people for seven years and wanted to take a break. What if I wrote about first time guest experiences? The church in the mall would be a good place to start.
I ran my stroke of genius by my husband the next day. “On the weekends you have to work, I am going to visit other churches and write about how they treat a guest.”
“Are you going to name the church?”
“I hadn’t thought about that. Maybe. If it’s a good experience, but not if it’s bad.”
“Sounds like a good idea.”
My husband’s approval gave birth to my “First Time Guest” series. I decided not to identify the church beyond its affiliation. A good or bad experience is subjective to my bias. I don’t want to leave the impression that a church is not worth visiting if they were having a bad day. I also decided to attend churches where no one knows me to guarantee a genuine guest experience.
Sunday morning my husband kissed me goodbye at 4:30 am and departed for work. My ancient wiener dog and Gandolf the three pound wonder dog decided it was time for me to arise as well. Service started at 10:30. There was plenty of time to read, check email, scroll through Facebook, follow those who followed me on Twitter, exercise, shower and eat twice before I left for my first “First Time Guest” experience.
Enter by the Food Court side of the Mall said the directions. There will be signs. The signs were easy to spot. I was early and decided to do a little shopping. I have not been to the Mall on a Sunday morning in a very long time. Most of the stores were closed. The two that were open did not have what I needed, so I returned to the church by the food court for my guest experience.
There were two entrances into the large conference room that served as a church on Sunday mornings. I bypassed the entrance with coffee for the entrance with bulletins resting neatly on a table. Their Facebook page identified them as a Nondenominational Christian Church. The sixty page magazine next to the bulletins told me they are affiliated with Calvary Chapel.
Their mother church, Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa, CA, was founded by Chuck Smith, a leading figure in the Jesus Movement of the 60s and 70s. He started his ministry in the Foursquare Church established by Amiee Semple McPherson. Smith left because the denomination wasn’t a good fit for his style of ministry. He disagreed with the pastor serving as the evangelist to make the church grow. He believed healthy Christians who understood the Bible would evangelize. His non-denominational church became a new denomination of 1,500 churches that focuses on a systematic teaching of the Bible.
A broad smile stretched across the beaming face of the young woman who greeted me. “Good morning, my name is Stephanie. How are you doing today?”
I smiled. “I am doing fine.”
“So, how are you doing today?”
“I am doing fine, thank you.” There is not much more I could say to a complete stranger no matter how broadly she smiled. But I do give her points for being friendly.
Unable to get anything more out of me than my name and “fine” she changed directions. She pointed at the table I had bypassed thinking the only offering was coffee. “We have coffee, juice and water at the other table. Please help yourself.” I was thirsty and welcomed the escape from a strained conversation. As I sipped a small glass of water, I heard, “How are you doing today?” No, Stephanie had not followed me. An older woman wanted to know how I was doing. I think she told me her name, but the same question for the third time in less than five minutes distracted me. I gave my standard answer, “Fine, thank you.”
Their Facebook page said they had been meeting for sixteen years. I was expecting a larger congregation. Thirty people were scattered about the room. Six of the thirty were in the band. At that point I could either admire the pastor’s faithfulness to his small flock or assume the church was larger and something tore it apart. The truth usually comes to light in a sermon from wounds yet to be healed. I never heard the pastor speak. On my first visit Richard spoke. The following week, Brian had a message.
If the pastor was present, he did not feel a need to mark his territory. If he wasn’t present, no one felt a need to explain where the pastor was. A little internet sleuthing revealed the pastor was traveling with his family. I am guessing the small tight knit community did not have many guests, and no reason to explain who’s in charge and why he was a no show.
The service followed a simple format. Two songs. I loved the violin. Offering. Two songs. Announcements. There will be a guest speaker next Sunday. The Wednesday night Bible study resumes next Wednesday. Then Brian opened his Bible to John Chapter 14 for a nice talk, more of a Bible Study than a passionate exposition. I am writing this 24 hours after I heard the message, but I can’t remember what he said.
Brian concluded his message, “I am finished, service is over, but you can stay and fellowship.” I looked around the room. No one moved. I was the first to exit.
On the way home, I pondered if my experience would have encouraged me to become a part of their fellowship. A pastor that misses three services in a row appears detached from his flock and his responsibility to God to care for them. My thoughts were interrupted by a church commercial promising a free lunch after their service. Interesting. I think that will be my next first time guest experience.