Thursday, October 20, 2011

Tale of Two Churches

After attending traditional churches for the first forty years of my life, I’ve been spoiled by two churches who are helping re-write the blueprint. A large percentage of those who grew up in the traditional church eventually quit going, most often during their college years. Others grew tired of the boring sermons, dreadful music, poor teaching, dead worship, or factions dividing the church.

Knowing there were already plenty of “regular” churches, North Point Community Church was founded as a “church for the unchurched.” Their goal is to create excellent environments: hassle-free parking, great music, post-modern teaching of applicable, relevant topics. Safe, clean, fun places for younger children to learn. Same-sex group settings where teenagers can discuss in-depth personal issues and go to well-planned, fun events. A church that leads attenders toward spiritual growth, but not in an overbearing or boring way. Lately Andy has been teaching more and more from Biblical passages, as opposed to past messages more loosely based on scripture. Every three for four years a topic might be re-addressed, only because of its significance. For me, the messages remain the best part of the service.

Though hard to notice, North Point services are strategically timed. This is done out of respect for the worshippers time. Only the most important announcements are discussed, though many others are in the bulletin and on the screens before the service. The number and selection of songs are determined based on the message and whether there are baptisms, to keep the service meaningful and on schedule. The pre-taped video testimonies often make the baptisms the most touching parts of the service. Anna went through the baptism process on her own, with our blessings but not our help.

In addition to the five main campuses (Alpharetta, Buckhead, Cumming, Canton, and Gwinnett), North Point has opened many more satellite churches further away: Peachtree City, Athens, Birmingham, Chattanooga, Charlotte, and Pittsburgh (there are more). The live services at draw huge numbers each week, and broadcasts have increased to five times on Sunday, plus once on Wednesday. They have long passed a million hits.

All together, this network of churches draws national interest from both inside and outside Christian circles. NP’s leadership can leverage the best opportunities to bring Jesus to the unchurched. When Michelle Obama spoke at NP during a Thursday visit, there were over a thousand in attendance who had never set foot in a church. Before the First Lady arrived, NP had an hour to deliver the message of Jesus.

Based on where North Point’s campuses are located, the worshippers largely resemble the demographic of the immediate area…white, suburban families. Still, several cultures, races, and types of families are represented. Buckhead surely attracts the most singles. Regular attenders are strongly encouraged to serve, and most do so willingly. Each year thousands of NP people travel around the world on hundreds of mission trips. Even more serve locally, particularly during NP’s annual “Be Rich” service campaign. Church members are allowed to vote on various matters, but membership is rarely discussed.

North Point’s structure and organization most surely reflect its very detail-oriented senior pastor. Ministries and resources are leveraged across all campuses, glorifying God through a streamlined, well-run organization…allowing a greater percentage of offerings to go directly into ministry and missions. Instead of creating new organizations to minister to a certain populations, NP instead wholeheartedly supports established organizations that are already in place. Locally, North Fulton Community Charities is a prime example. NP contributes volunteer hours, money, and twice-yearly food drives. Additionally, Andy serves on NFCC’s board of directors.

Similarly, Passion City Church closely resembles its founding pastor Louie. Big and bold, worshipful and fun. Though surely services are painstakingly planned, they usually start several minutes late. Fun, loud, spirited songs are sung, seemingly until the Spirit moves Louie to talk. His rambling messages are filled with love, smiles, and God’s Holy Spirit. Whereas NP’s sermons are delivered as multi-part series, Louie’s talks often skip around from week to week. This summer he started preaching though the book of John, taking a chapter a week. After several chapters he had moved on to another topic.

Still, PCC worship services are almost always special, as are Louie’s messages. Services are targeted to college students, and worship is enthusiastic. Chris Tomlin’s welcoming eyes seem to focus directly at each individual in the large room, quite unusual for a “celebrity”. Announcements are few, and rare. There’s no church bulletin…I suppose students know to check out the website for information.

Before starting this church, Louie and Chris traveled the country staging one night Passion Concerts on college campuses. These continue. Every New Years the Georgia Dome and GWCC are filled with tens of thousands of college students for the annual multi-day Passion Conference. Will went for the first time last year, and is returning again this January.

Anna and Matthew enjoy the smaller, low-key youth activities at Passion much more that the huge, blowout youth events at North Point. Even though NP focuses on small groups led by the same leader every year. NP does attract scores of worldly public-school kids. Though caught up in the extreme fashions, music, and lifestyles of the day, it’s great that they’re presented the gospel. Matthew in particular is known by the youth leaders (and all the musicians as well). Where else do you have a youth leader like recording artist Brett Yonker? For the first time ever, the outgoing Will is known as “Matthew’s brother”.

The PCC building is most always packed, with young worshippers standing in the aisles and out in the wide hallways. Even after expanding to two weekly services, the 11 am service is still crammed full and the 5 pm about 90% so. Repeat worshippers know to arrive an hour early to wait for the doors to open, so prime seats can be quickly claimed. Most Sundays the entire front section is completely full literally one minute after the doors open. As organized as the “door-holders” and parking-lot personnel are, there’s still a large traffic jam after the service as cars flow out to Piedmont and Lindbergh.

This makes attending PCC hard. Since teenagers meet at 3 pm, we need to leave before 2:30 to make it to south Buckhead. Then we have an hour to kill before the doors open, plus another hour to wait for the service to start. PCC services are great, but they last a good two hours. Then it takes over twenty minutes for the traffic to die down, and another thirty minutes to drive home. That’s 5-1/2 hours…quite a chunk of time for a family with homework and other undone household chores.

But we’re still at the stage where we need to go where our kids WANT to go. For all three kids (and Ceil) that’s PCC. Guess I can always watch the NP service on line.

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