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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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Monday, March 21, 2011

servant church, Austin: Another Coffee-Friendly Congregation

On Sunday, March 13, I attended servant church in Austin.  Everly and I were staying in Austin at Ruth and John's house while they went on vacation.  I was glad for a weekend in Austin so I could go to another church and learn some more about Austin's eccesial communities.

I chose servant church because a friend of mine is the pastor.  Eric Vogt is a fellow traveler of mine.  We first met when I was passing through Jackson, MS, one summer Sunday, and he was the guest preacher at Voice of Calvary Church.  Eric had been in a summer internship with the CCD ministries in Jackson, working with John Perkins and others who had forged a new model of faithful church life among the poor of Mississippi.  It turned out Eric was a student at Duke Divinity School in Durham, where I also lived at the time.  Before going to Duke, he had participated in another creative experiment in church life in Austin, TX.  A small start-up congregation had at that time been meeting in the building of First Baptist Church, where another friend of mine is pastor, Roger Paynter.

As our life stories had already intersected in many ways, eventually Eric enrolled in a class I was teaching at Duke Divinity, called "Church and State:  Modernity, Liberalism and the Nature of Political Engagement."  My friend Willie Jennings thought up the title to make it grab the attention of Duke Divinity students.  But I digress.

Church growth technocrats would be happy about at least one feature of servant church:  it is not hard to find.  A few blocks into residential neighborhoods on a street that has an exit from the interstate, I found my way straight to the location.  Signs outside assured me that I was at the right location, a Methodist church site where two congregations are meeting.  Without difficulty, I parked and made my way to the location.  I stumbled into a prayer meeting already in progress, but was greeted warmly and located the coffee without difficulty.  Yes, it was another coffee-drinking-allowed-and-encouraged congregation.

Wearing my standard uniform (guayabera and jeans), I was a little overdressed for this crowd.  Besides a couple of women in what my gramma would have called "everday dresses," jeans and t-shirts were the rule.  Oh, yeah--one guy had khaki pants on.  At 53 I would have to say that I was the senior adult of that Sunday's gathering.  As my daughter Naomi loves to remind me, I was probably at the distant end of the "cool" continuum as well.  Not being clued in to much of the Austin culture, I learned during conversations that the insider's way to refer to the big music festival is the shorthand "South By."  I was proud to know that later in the week when a NC public radio broadcaster, in a halting voice, called it "Ess Ex Ess Double-you" (SXSW--South By SouthWest).  Again, I digress.

I was blessed to sit next to a young woman who grew up in Austin and had recently married in servant church, with Eric officiating at the ceremony.  She was warm and sincere, and worshiping alongside her and her husband made me right at home.  I could tell I was in a university town by the sound of the congregational singing.  My experience in Waco, Austin, Durham, and other university towns is that there are an abundance of people who have vocal training, and with the Austin music industry that gets magnified.  Lots of folks were willing to cut loose and experiment with harmonies, exactly how I like to sing.  The guest worship musicians for the day were two young women.  The lead played acoustic guitar and the other played soft percussion.  There was a kind of Emily Saliers feel to the singing.

The music impressed me, as it had at Ecclesia Church in Houston.  Many familiar hymns formed the core of the singing, along with some contemporary worship songs (but not the mindless repetition of emotive states).  The lyrics were posted to help the uninitiated.  The rest of the liturgy may have relied a bit too much on a single projection screen, and sometimes there were too many words on the screen at once, meaning the font may have at times been too small.  That sort of minor issue goes with the territory of being a very new congregation, still charting its ways. 

Eric's sermon addressed the lectionary text from the Gospel of Matthew, the narrative of Jesus' temptation.  The central theme of the sermon was that Jesus did not choose the easy way, but was willing to suffer for doing right.  It was a respectable interpretation and reflection, so his Duke teachers should be satisfied.  The call for a response to the Word included coming to the Lord's Table, bringing prayer needs to the altar, writing letters to leaders about the state or national budget as a moral document, using art supplies to explore one's faith response, or looking for ways to become more part of the life of servant church.  Tables with appropriate materials were strategically located around the room, with paper and "talking points" for letter writing, a place to write out and place prayer requests or to light a candle in prayer, announcement boards and sign-up sheets, and art supplies.

This congregation is definitely on the youthful side, as congregations go.  Young adults, married and unmarried, with and without children, and a children's area for smooth movement in and out of the formal worship made this a comfortable setting for those who find certain patterns of traditional worship unnecessary or out-of-date.  Yet it was not a rush to contemporaneity for its own sake.  The traditional liturgy remained the backbone of the service.  Biblical and theological texts shaped the sermon and reflective conversations.  Ancient symbols of the faith remained prominent.

I was proud to see what this congregation had done and what my friend Eric was helping to lead.  If you are in Austin on Sunday, don't be timid about "hanging out" at servant church.


Shaun Harr said...

It is interesting to me that Servant Church has "letter writing" stations, especially given the traditional view that entering into the political discussion puts churches at risk of losing 501(c)3 status.
However, this type of involvement is exactly what I believe Jesus wants of us as we strive to make our world a better place, rather than having our eyes focused off into the who-knows-when waiting for Him to return and letting everything go to the dogs in the meantime. It seems to me that that approach is the same thing as digging a hole in the ground and burying what your master has given you to invest because you are afraid of what he do if you don't make a big enough profit for him (I think I read something like that somewhere...)

Anonymous said...

Do you think Coffee will be served in heaven? I sure hope so. I love non-traditional forms of worship services. It adds spice to the kingdom. I have no qualms with this especially if the word is being preached with power and clarity. I would like to know the economic demografic of that church. ps Dr Broadway did you wear your Birkenstock sandals?

Anonymous said...

Servant Church, Austin: Another Coffee-Friendly Congregation
Do you think Coffee will be served in heaven? I sure hope so. I love non-traditional forms of worship services. It adds spice to the kingdom. I have no qualms with this especially if the word is being preached with power and clarity. I would like to know the economic demographic of that church. PS Dr Broadway did you wear your Birkenstock sandals?- Gordon McKinney

Roosevelt Ethridge said...

I believe that our diversity in worship will help to develop our theological position. Diversity does not only have to be played out by race but it can also be engaged by age. The Servants church integrity to lead young spirited and devoted Christians to devout and Christianized convictions says a lot about the church. With the commercialized world, it has become challenging for many to come to God without the flashy and bold fahsion statments for attention. In all things we must remember why we exist and by whose name we exist. Ministries like the servant church can present a great God in a simplistic way when the environment has been cultivated for "God and Coffee."

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