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An Outsider at "church"

Last night our small group did not meet so instead I chose to visit a local church to take in worship with people I don't know.

I headed for a large predominantly Caucasian congregation a few miles from my home. I arrived about 15 minutes early and went in to take my seat. The ushers gave me a bulletin which I read when I sat down. It was a prayer list of nearly 100 requests. I then looked at the inside of the guide and realized that I walked in on their 'prayer meeting'.

Although I pray and I normally wouldn't mind a prayer gathering, I felt that I really wanted to experience 'church' somewhere else so I found an exit and got back in my car. On my way out to this bigger church I recalled seeing a predominantly African American congregation much closer to my home. So I thought "why not?" and drove on over to this church. I've been in many 'black' churches so that wasn't as much of a big deal but I hadn't really been in an upper-class black church before.


Pulling into the parking lot I quickly noticed that I was out of place. As I parked my Maxima I scanned the parking lot and I saw Lexus, Mercedes and all sorts of expensive cars. Coming out of those cars were people dressed in some of the finest clothes I had seen in a long time. Very sharply dressed and sharply groomed men and women began to head for the main entrance.

I thought to myself "Okay, this must be the church in my area where most of the wealthy African Americans attend services." I was dressed in my sandals and Old Navy shirt and I was definitely the only 'white guy' in the whole place. As I approached the front door I noticed a woman handing out bulletins dressed in all white complete with white gloves. I thought "that's different". When I walked through the doors I noticed that she was not alone. ALL of the ushers and ministry personnel wore bright white outfits and all of the ushers had white gloves. It was very different from anything I had seen before. On their website the church claims 3,000 members. I'd guess there were more like 250 in this evening service and the room probably seated 1,000.

I won't go through my entire experience because it would take an hour to describe but I'll highlight a few thoughts from the evening.

1. They value decency, order, quality, education, respect, loyalty, beauty, among other things.

2. The way they took up offering was by having everyone stand and line up toward the center isle. As the usher dismissed your row, you walked to the altar and placed your offering in the basket. Nearly everyone (during an evening service) got up and brought 'something' forward.

3. Many of the African American worship songs speak to overcoming struggles. I knew that before but it was a huge reminder to me last night. David Crowder doesn't get much play there :)

4. I could completely see why so many African Americans embrace 'church' as a form of social strength and pride. Throughout the night I observed the Pastor pointing out SO MANY who have achieved something (degrees, promotions, etc.). It was obvious that he was sending a message to his congregation that "you can do it" and "there are plenty of role models in this church". I think it's safe to say that if a young black man attended this church for very long he'd get the support, encouragement, training and anything else he'd need to succeed. It was almost as if the Pastor takes it personal to be sure his people do not make excuses for less than the best in their lives. This attitude was actually pretty biblical too. It wasn't a 'name it, claim it' theology. It was very much one of "walk in faith and obedience and God will bless your efforts" type of thing.

5. These people LOVE and adore their Pastor. He's been there 23 years and apparently all day yesterday he did not speak. He had 3 up and coming ministry candidates speak. This Pastor trains people in ministry and apparently yesterday three of his students delivered the message. The woman who spoke during the evening service is currently getting her Masters in Theology. She did a very good job with her presentation and was right-on theologically. Prior to her intro a guest musician told the congregation "You have a fantastic Pastor" and the whole place rose to their feet to give he and his wife a standing ovation. I thought that was very special. He's obviously been a strong but loving leader to this congregation.

With this experience I was definitely in the minority. My jeans and sandals were not the norm. I am white. I didn't know all of the church traditions so I found myself watching others. I didn't know the lyrics to the songs so I had to fake it for the most part. No one took time to talk to me. Granted, this was an evening service and one where they do not see many first time guests but that was the only downside to the whole thing. I liked it though. Being a Pastor I haven't felt like there were many occasions where I could feel like a genuine guest again. This church brought me back. Now if I was a true guest I wouldn't have known other things in the service like the 'doxology' and various biblical references the audience was expected to know.

All in all I am glad I ended up there. It wasn't my comfort zone and I think that's a good thing. I think heaven will initially be out of my comfort zone. I'll be in awe for a long time in heaven and it will be nice.

This experience more than anything caused me to question much of what we do at Focal Point in the way of caring for our guests. Different is good. It was a cool experience.

When was the last time you worshiped outside of your comfort zone? Do it. It will be a learning experience.

posted by Tally Wilgis @ Monday, September 18, 2006

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