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Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with the blessed memory of his wife, in Durham, NC, and has three adult children living in three different states. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, the faculty and students of Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, and the faithful fans of Duke and Baylor Basketball in his neighborhood.

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Sunday, February 20, 2011

Ecclesia Houston--What Would Dad Think?

I worshiped at Ecclesia on Taft St. in Houston today.  It has some of the expected features of emergent-type congregations: 
  • a repurposed building, 
  • a coffee shop and coffee drinking in the service, 
  • people worshiping in casual clothes, 
  • a worship band and large-screens for lyrics and video, 
  • a slight techie feel combined with functional furnishings, 
  • a sense that the setting is an impermanent stop on a longer journey, 
  • an ambivalent relationship with popular culture, 
  • one foot in the ancient Christian tradition, 
  • a fair share of small beards and goatees, and 
  • conversational worship leadership and preaching.
My dad (Rev. Dr. W. D. Broadway), aged 80 and a Texas Baptist preacher for over 60 years, would call this type of church a "Rock Church."  I'm sure that is language harking back to my teen years when a youth movement of evangelical Jesus Freaks and Catholic folk masses were challenging the fixed norms of worship practice across many denominations.  Dad still uses the term to refer to most "praise and worship" style worship services with a worship band, especially those that sing unfamiliar songs with indeterminate melodies, led by CCM wannabe soloists that seem to be imagining they are performing to ticket-purchasing fans rather than leading congregational singing (I agree that he is right to be disgusted by that kind of deformed church service).  But the latter does not describe the worship at Ecclesia.  Dad would probably have found this kind of Rock Church worshipful.

The first thing I noticed was that the worship band and read-along screens were leading the congregation in singing traditional hymns.  It was not just one hymn thrown in as a token for the old fogeys.  Both of the first two songs were hymns folks would recognize from baptist or other protestant hymnals, if not beyond.  Later, they introduced more contemporary songs, of a different type of lyrical and musical style.  What I noticed, however, was that plenty of people were singing along.  It was not a soloist blasting us out.  I suspect the songs were familiar to regular attenders.  Moreover, there was some theological depth to these songs rather than merely repeating statements of personal feeling ad infinitum.  So I suspect Dad would think that part of the service was acceptable.

The conversational preaching probably would have gotten Dad's blessing as well.  Chris Seay, the pastor, indicated that he was continuing a series of reflections on heaven in this sermon.  His opening discussion revealed that people in the congregation are perhaps wary of what heaven might be.  One of the great comments he made pertained to his 8-year-old son's reticence about growing up, since he loves playing with Lego's so much, but his dad is so busy with so many other things.  By comparison, adults who love what they are doing and people they share their lives with may not be so eager to change it for the unknown joys of heaven.

He focused a good deal around Jesus' words from Matthew 25, "Well done, good and faithful servant."  However, the text analyzed more carefully came from Hebrews 11:32-12:2.  His concern was to emphasize that heaven as a state of existence and a state of affairs is not some kind of narrowly religious place and activity, as much contemporary Christianity might portray it to be, but a place and activity of joyously sharing in the justice and mercy of God that Jesus proclaimed as the Reign of God.

To illustrate his argument, he showed a video clip relating to The Advent Conspiracy and their work to fund clean water for the people of Mt. Barclay, Liberia.  Many of the people, especially children, had been dying of water-borne diseases, gathering their water from a stream.  Clean water from wells turned around the health conditions of the community.  The ministers and others from Mt. Barclay who reflected on the work of God in their community included one who said that the clean water had brought heaven down to earth for them.  You would not be surprised, considering the name of this blog, that I agreed with Bro. Seay that those words will preach.

Finally, I should remark that although it is clearly a young adult dominated congregation, they are not merely detached and carefree.  I could go into a number of ways in which they show signs of taking their place in the struggles of human existence, but I will focus on only one thing here.  This sermon followed a day in which one of the young women of the congregation had been buried.  Without telling us a lot of details, it was clear that she had been facing a life-threatening disease and that her expected time to continue fighting the condition had been cut dramatically short. 

Under these conditions, Bro. Seay offered a hopeful reflection on heaven, in which those who have gone before us are watching and pulling for us in the struggles we face.  Heaven is not the same as our lives here, nor is it a locus of complete wish fulfillment.  It will take some adjusting to the differences, he said, but it will be better than we can imagine.  That is a pretty good riff on the biblical language, as I see it.  Dad knows good preaching when he hears it, and I think he would be passing on some things he heard if he had been there today.  Thanks to Curtis Freeman for telling me about these folks.


Cameron Dezen Hammon said...

Thanks for this. As one of the worship leaders you mention in your blog post, it is encouraging to read your words. In my belief, Ecclesia is one of the "thin places", where Heaven and Earth are close. I count it a great privilege to serve there. Thank you again for your intelligent, honest reflection. Blessings on your journey.

Shaun Harr said...

I hadn't previously thought of our worship at St. John's MCC as "emergent" before reading your blog post, but except for the coffee drinking and the repurposed building we pretty much fit the bill, even given the two divergent styles of worship that take place every Sunday. I have often reflected on the theological diversity of the congregation as something that attracts me to this worship community.
When you visited with us to hear my sermon a few weeks ago I'm sure you noticed several of these characteristics in the liturgy. I wish you could have been present for the more charismatic 1100 worship. I think you would have enjoyed it.

Anonymous said...

Ecclesia Houston--What Would Dad Think?

Wow! This is most insight full. We must start being open to various ways to worship. It definitely looks like a postmodern church. I’m glad the message was sound and the biblical concepts are hermeneutical salient.-Gordon McKinney

Anonymous said...

Ecclesia Houston--What Would Dad Think?

Wow! This is most insight full. We must start being open to various ways to worship. It definitely looks like a postmodern church. I’m glad the message was sound and the biblical concepts are hermeneutical salient.-Gordon McKinney

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