The Early Service isn’t always Lame
So I’m really doing this. As with anything I do, I start out really pumped up and sometimes bite off more than I can chew. I planned to do a Saturday night service, 2 Sunday services, and a Sunday evening service. I know, a bit much. I ended up just doing 3 Sunday morning services. Two were at the same church but caught the worship of the second service before I had to leave for the second church. So here’s what I did and some thoughts I have on these experiences.
Sunday, February 13th, 2011:
Today I visited a Unitarian Universalist Church. I have some friends who have chosen this faith and I love my friends so I want to better understand where they are coming from. Before deciding which particular Unitarian Church I was going to attend, I did some research on all the area churches including Orlando and Sarasota. I thought this particular one I ended up choosing seemed like the better choice to start off with. I drove a little over an hour to get there and my plan was to attend an 11:00 service at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation but before that catch the 8:50 service at another Christian Church I’ve wanted to visit anyway. A friend of mine is the cousin of the worship leader there and I’ve wanted to check it out for some time. So I left extremely early to attend the first service at TLC Family Church. Before I started blogging about this, I considered the question of whether or not I’d want to mention the specific church names. I think I will mention some of them and the others I will just use a general denomination reference. I’m trying to have an open dialogue about my experiences. I’m sure that I will learn a lot about myself through this experience and my own particular biases, ignorance, and preferences. But mostly, I’m just going to do some explanation of the belief system of the church itself, and what I experienced and learned there and how I was received for the most part.
So like any Christian early service, there are very few willing to get up at “un-Godly hours” like that. This visit reaffirmed that truth! Usually early services in churches are there to make room for the “main service” which is somewhere around the 10:30-11:00am mark. Or they are there for a different style or sometimes the more traditional service is held in the early service because the church wants to accommodate those who are still wanting the old traditions instead of the new “contemporary” direction the main service is going. Sometimes churches have more than 3 or 4 services on a Sunday and even a Saturday evening service for the purpose of growth. They’ve grown out of their capacity for one service. And a lot of times, the faithful long-time attenders are asked to choose another service to “make room” for new people coming in. I have to be honest. I always hated this. I don’t like going to the early service. I despise it in fact. And I’m supposed to feel more spiritually mature by giving up my seat at the main service? I hated this tactic. Just being honest. If I had my choice, we’d move the main service time back even later, except there would have to be a pot-luck buffet intermission because by the end of the service my stomach is rumbling and I’m thinking about food. I know many of you reading this have done this too. Come on, we’re human. So I’m just saying….an intermission buffet would be killer!
This particular church I attended at 8:50am was like most early services. It didn’t quite start right away, and there were very few people attending who were mostly those “dedicated servants”, as far as I could gather, who attended to either make room for visitors in the later service or maybe even some who wanted a more low-key intimate group setting. Not sure what everyone’s preference was, but there were not many people there. Probably around 14 by the time everyone arrived. However, I stayed for the 10:15 service just for the worship portion and I saw several of those very same people attending the “main service”. But there was a different speaker for that one and there was still plenty of room. So for whatever reason, they still had an early service in a separate, smaller room. And everyone knew I was a visitor. Kind of obvious. Despite the few in attendance, everyone was fully engaged “verbally” with the Pastor’s message. I kind of like that personally.
I could tell right away though that these people were genuine. Pretty much everyone there came up and spoke to me and welcomed me in a genuine, warm way. To be honest, I wasn’t expecting this. It was probably odd having a visitor at the early service. I got my own special announcement and welcome. Being aware of how churches function and the norm of service times, and coming from a church background, I didn’t particularly feel embarrassed or put on the spot. No one made me feel like that. Believe me, I know how that feels as I’ve visited some churches that went a little overboard. I don’t think I would like that if I was a new person trying to check out the church for the first time. But knowing that I was just a visitor for today, the pressure was off. And no one made me feel awkward. It was pretty casual and open. Everyone seemed close-knit and like a family.
The Senior Pastor was away in India, one of my favorite cultures, so for both services they had someone else speaking. I met Pastor Stanley who spoke that morning, as he came right up and welcomed me before they started. But I stumbled across my words like an idiot though and called him “Stanley”. Hopefully he didn’t notice I left off the “Pastor”. Doh!
From what I knew of this particular church already, it had more of a Pentecostal, yet non-denominational feel to it. The worship in the first service was genuine, intimate, yet still passionate. Pastor Stanley gave a great message. It was not over-done with fist pounding as some Pentecostal preachers do, but spirited, genuine, reaffirming things I’ve read in the Bible before, encouraging, and had an afterthought that hit me between the eyes. I’ll elaborate on that in a bit. The worship leader who I already know to be amazing in what he does, just played the keyboard and sang by himself for this service. Two modern worship songs. So this was not for a “traditional” type service.
The later service was in the larger sanctuary and was very modern. It was televised so there were cameras everywhere. I’m not always a good guess at numbers but maybe the auditorium held 1000-1400 people but it was probably ¾ full by the time I had to slip out to attend the 11:00 Unitarian service a few minutes away. The setting was modern in its décor and tastefully well-done. The stage was up higher like in a real auditorium, not the lower church stages which are intended to be “down with the people” more. I appreciate a taller stage though in an auditorium this size because I am a short 4’ 11” and can never see anything. This always bothers me and it never fails that big tall people stand in front of me everywhere I go. So I was happy I could see everything and didn’t feel like a sardine or Zacchaeus.
The worship was with full band and team of about 4 other singers. It was celebrative, spirited, and expressive. There was a big space upfront between the chairs and stage which I would like to refer to as the “mosh pit” where people just came right up and stood to fully engage in worship. Almost like a concert. I saw others in the back waving banners and streamer type things. There were people laying on the floor upfront as things progressed into a more lower-key, long expressive worship transition. I could tell that people were genuinely here to worship God and were very comfortable doing so, and were allowed to worship in whatever form or expression they felt comfortable. There were people speaking in tongues. People sitting, kneeling, standing, dancing, clapping, waving banners, laying flat faced on the floor, and some just standing still with their eyes closed. If I’m being honest, this is the type of freedom in worship that I wish for all congregations. Although I know there are many forms of worship, not just music and singing, and everyone has their own comfort level with the music part of worship, I would hope that all of us who love God can worship Him with this much passion, genuineness, truth, and without inhibition whether it’s physical, emotional or intellectual in its delivery. And have the maturity to allow others around us to do so.
The congregation was multi-cultural which is something I really like. I have to be honest again and say that I do not like attending an all white church, or even with just a little culture. I appreciate and value people of other cultures, ethnicities, and nationalities. I know that geography plays a big role in the racial genetics of a church, but if you’re in a multi-cultural, multi-race location like a bigger city, the cultural and racial diversity of your church shows health and how determined you are to reach people of many backgrounds and how welcome they feel there. It’s just my preference, but I like this about a church, yet I still appreciate the uniqueness that an all Black, Hispanic or Asian church has too. But I’m still at a place, where I do not feel as comfortable in most all White churches. Not because I don’t feel comfortable with White people, but because it is usually very formal and refined in a lot of them, not all, but a lot of them. I also must say that I appreciate the liturgical and traditional customs we have also. It’s just that those seem to be most of the focus in most of the all White churches I’ve attended. I’m just being honest about this and letting you know what my preference is. But as I mentioned before, I’m learning to worship God more freely despite my preferences, no matter what type of service I’m attending. I’m growing up a little bit.
At the end of the first early service, I thanked the Pastor for a great message and told him that something he said really hit home for me. It reaffirmed what I’d been through and where I was going. The message he gave was of recognizable truths I’ve come to know, about putting on the whole armor of God (Ephesians 6) as he spoke specifically about each one and what it meant. He spoke about battle and being equipped to fight our enemy. But what I got out of this was not the typical “the spirit of darkness is your enemy”, but sometimes we ourselves can be our own enemy, like when we choose to hate, or not forgive those who have hurt us. Things will come up against us that will hurt us, like people who say things to hurt us or keep us down, like even corrupt leadership in the Church. He spoke of David and his relationship with Saul, (read the book of I Samuel for the whole story, but chapters 18-24 for this story) how he fled to a cave to run away from his King, (his “pastor”) Saul, who wanted to kill him. Saul had become jealous of the attention David was getting and attempted to have him destroyed. David fled to a cave. Like so many people run away from church and church people because we have hurt each other. We’ve been hurt by people who should know better, people who are in leadership over us, and we run and hide. We leave. The truth is that David had the respect of his army and could have had Saul killed at any time. He certainly got close enough to cut off a corner of his robe without him knowing. But David remembered and respected that God had anointed Saul as King. David still respected that and refrained from having Saul killed.
When we are hurt by people like Saul, most of us do kill our pastors, our leadership. We kill them with the ill words we speak about them, try to demise their position and get others to come up against them. It’s a tough thing and I know it’s happened to so many people. It’s happened to me. I’ve been unfairly and unjustly treated by leadership over me. Leadership that was jealous of the favor God had placed on me instead of worrying about the anointing God had given them for their position. When we forget about our calling and are too worried about others showing us up, many of us turn to destructive tactics that ruin people’s reputations and either cause them to leave our congregations or destroy their spirit altogether. I’ve been at rock bottom because this was done to me. It’s no fun. I got angry at God for allowing this, for allowing someone in leadership to get away with it. We see corrupt leadership discredit others, stretch the truth or slant conversation about others in an unfavorable way, or leave out truth so no one will know the good things about that person or how gifted they are because they feel their own position is threatened. We also do it to those in leadership over us who don’t do things the way we want, or tell us things we don’t want to hear.
The truth is that if God places you somewhere it’s up to Him to remove you if He wants. Sometimes it’s not always because someone is better than you, or because you did a bad job, but because He wanted you to have that experience, to learn what you needed to learn to move to the next place He has for you, and sometimes it’s about what others are going to learn from you while you’re in that position. I certainly learned a lot from observing bad leadership. Things I didn’t want to repeat when I was in that position. And sometimes it’s about moving someone else up who God needs at a specific time and place, and you might have to move over. When we put too much worth on our leadership or position, we become like Saul and try to destroy those we feel threatening our position or who might take it from us, or make us look less than. And we’ve forgotten the one main thing about leadership – that it’s not about being served by others, but to serve others and bring up others higher than they thought they could be, even if it means they will rise higher than ourselves, using wisdom and discernment to guide them or allow them opportunities to shine that are within our power to grant them. Many leaders will not allow those opportunities because deep down, it’s all about their position and they hold too tightly to it. When this happens, I’ve seen God take position away from people. But at the same time, He doesn’t always take things away for those reasons like corrupt leadership. Sometimes it’s just part of the plan. And if we are humble servants, we get that. We’re ok if God puts us in a lower position because we get that He is in control and knows the reason that we just need to trust Him on.
I identified with that story of David this morning. Because I’ve fled to the cave after being wounded by corrupt leadership. It’s never easy when this happens, but eventually, the Saul’s of this world are dethroned and new Kings are anointed. There are times to walk away from a really bad situation, and times to stick it out. Only God can tell you which one you are supposed to do. It’s not the same for everyone. Sometimes, it is ok to walk. If enough people walk, maybe it will finally click that something is wrong with this picture. If enough people address the same issues, or speak up about them, maybe it will finally hit home that Saul needs a motive check. I hope that most would be big enough people to admit that there is always room for improvement. But most are not. They see it as a sign of weakness instead of seeing that it takes a stronger man to admit he’s wrong and work towards changing his ways.
So that’s what I got from the early service this morning. And I didn’t need a lot of hoopla and flashing lights or video montages to learn it. For such a time as this, it was spoken to me.
Next up: My experience with the Unitarian Universalists Congregation. Stay tuned.