Sunday, September 5, 2010

Ebenezer's Coffeehouse (a.k.a., National Community Church)

If I were to make a list of things I have never seen before in a church service, they would go like this:

1. A church building where the first floor is a coffee shop, and where after you buy your latte you go downstairs to the "worship space."

2. Six (count 'em, 6) screens all flashing the "theme" of the service (in this case, it was called Garden to City), alternated with the translucent, screen-saver-esque church logo.

3. A grid of theater lights not unlike what you see in the Gordon black box theater - and a stage area with colored lights that softly faded in and out.

4. A church bulletin where there was no list of hymns, songs, prayers, or liturgy (but an artful, collegiate-looking list of the church's many locations and a link to their head pastor's blog).

5. A pastor wearing torn jeans and a plaid Quiksilver collared shirt and funky framed glasses.

6. An offering plate that was a recycled burlap sack.

7. A "welcome box" that looked like an old-fashioned popcorn box but that included glossy brochures about the church and a book to help with your spiritual growth.

Welcome to Ebenezer's Coffeehouse, or, as it's actually known, National Community Church.

There's something ironic about the name of this church. Isn't "National Community" at least sort of oxymoronic? How can something be a community church (which to me at least implies a local, relatively close knit group of people) also be national? They are "One church. Multiple locations." Wait. Doesn't that mean you are multiple churches? One church with several wings? One church that moves from location to location?

My confusion wasn't aided as I sat down and saw lattes, cappuccinos, and iced green teas nestled next to purses, messenger bags, their owners Toms shoes peeking out from underneath their artfully ripped skinny jeans. I skimmed the program and, finding no hint of either hymns or contemporary worship songs, I turned to the back cover. The back cover addressed me in a friendly-with-a-hint-of-overly-personal tone.

"Expect the unexpected." Well, I thought, I got that one down. "Irrelevance is irreverence." Ummm... don't know what that means but I will think about it later, since the intro music is getting to an increasingly loud volume. "Love people when they least expect it and least deserve it. Playing it safe is risky. Pray like it depends on God and work like it depends on you... It's never too late to be who you might have been."

The lights dim. We all stand up. What follows is roughly my thoughts for the first twenty minutes.

It's a Saturday night, the light is streaming in the window by the emergency exit stairs, and I'm at sea. A blonde woman takes the microphone and several other people take the stage, strum their guitars, tap their drumsticks and suddenly a song has started! I'm late into singing the words. I can barely read the words because the image behind them (of a tree becoming a lamppost) has distracted me. Wait, they're changing key! I can't keep up! Ummm, sing Hilary, sing! Do I put my hands in the air? Do I keep my arms folding? Can the blonde singer see that I don't know the words? I think she can! Oh no! Another song has been introduced! Late again. I think the blonde singer knows I don't know this one. She is whispering into the microphone as they slow down. The girl in front of me is bobbing her heels in time with the drummer. How does she already know to sway with this song, but clap to that song? Is there a secret earbud in everyone's ears telling them what to do? Okay, now the pastor is getting up, and making some jokes, and I think he's going to pray... oh yes there it is. He is praying - and I think my arms are supposed to be stretched out right now... ummmm, I still don't know where we are in the service, but he has pulled up a bar stool and a music stand and looks like he's going to tell more jokes about his trip to the Grand Tetons and how we need to be like Habakkuk... is it Habbakuk, Habakkuk? I don't remember how to spell that but I guess I'll take notes on it.

Needless to say, I was overwhelmed. As I begin what is likely a long processing period about the contemporary church, my first question is: what does it mean, "irrelevance is irreverence."? Irrelevant to whom? By what standard? Would St. Aquinas, Augustine, Benedict be considered irrelevant? Do Dante and Flannery O'Connor and Pope John Paul II count as "relevant" to this church? How do we measure relevance - and should that be our first priority?

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