Week 40: October 2nd: Restoration Church

Restoration Church was described in a Google search as having a predominantly black congregation.  Joe and I had only been to one other church this year with such a demographic, so we put this one on our list for Sunday.  We were not disappointed.

Largely, the service at Restoration is very similar to the half dozen non-denominational praise churches we have been to this year.  The service starts with several songs delivered by a small band and several singers.  The words are contemporary and they are shared with the congregation via two big screens and a PowerPoint presentation.  The songs are followed by a few prayers which are not written down and seem to come more from stream of consciousness than memory of scripture.  Restoration differs a little in that the congregation is a more expressive than some of the other praise churches.  However, the similarities are more striking than the differences (a theme repeated throughout this year’s visits and one which I find comforting).

Restoration was welcoming but without the sermon it would not have made a great impression on me.  However, Pastor Genette Howard was visiting from Charlotte this weekend and she was truly a gift.  I’m certain she has worked long and hard perfecting her craft as she was clearly a gifted speaker.  I love watching people do something they are good at and that is why I enjoyed Restoration Church.

Pastor Howard gave the first sermon of a series on Family.  It was subtitled Learn the function, lose the friction.  It seems the underlying theme of this series will be how important family is to so much of our society.  Pastor Howard mainly discussed the husband/wife relationship during this hour.  She said one thing that really struck me.  Approximately 25% of African American families are headed by a traditional marriage (she defined this as a man and woman both in their first marriage).  She further cited that the percentage rose to about 40% for Hispanic families, 50% for white families, and 70% for Asian families.  Please understand that she was approximating and I am now recalling from memory her words so I may be a little off on the specifics.  The striking part for me, however, was the major differences in these families.  The answers to what these differences cause and what they are caused by, and hopefully how they can be addressed will presumably be addressed in this series of sermons.  Complete answers were not provided in this one hour.  However, I can absolutely say if I knew Pastor Howard was going to deliver the entire series, I would try hard to make several more sermons.  For now, I am left just thinking about these differences and what they mean for our community.


Week 38: September 18: University of Kansas

Will your kids go to church once they leave for college?

I didn’t REALLY go to church this past Sunday, not in the way that people typically count.  My wife, Ali, and I visited our twins who are freshman at the University of Kansas for Parents’ Weekend.  We did all the typical Parents’ Weekend stuff, football game, take the kids to a nice dinner, listen to their new adventures, etc.  Church was not even on my radar and certainly wasn’t a topic of conversation.  Not, at least, until I found myself lying awake early Sunday morning while everyone else was asleep.

Let me pause my story for a bit to address my initial question.  I’m curious how my friends and neighbors think about church and the role it plays in their children’s lives after they are old enough to make choices on their own, both good and bad ones.  Right or wrong, Ali and I have always focused on the early years.  Get them to church, make sure they understand what our belief system looks like, hope it resonates with them, and get them through confirmation.  After that job is done, step away and hope that some things stuck.  However, when they are still living in our house, all that is still around the kids.  They can’t escape it even if they don’t attend Sunday services.  But when they leave for college, all bets are off.  They can take as much or as little of our church and its beliefs as they want.  In my head, I’ve always known this and actually thought it was a good part of growing up, making your own spiritual choices.  However, lying in my bed last Sunday morning, the whole thought nagged at me so much that I just got up and went for a walk around campus while others slept.

I didn’t start my walk intending to search the area for Episcopal churches.  However, it took only about two blocks before I had the idea.  “I’m going to go see where my boys COULD go to church if they wanted to go AND if they wanted to stay with our church”, I thought to myself.  Armed with Google maps and inspired by a beautiful fall-like morning, I quickly located an Episcopal church near campus.  Trinity Episcopal is gorgeous.  It is traditional looking from the outside, massive stone structure complete with bell tower and its fair share of stained glass.  Inside the traditional feel continues (I walked into the already started early service- ok, technically I went to church and I’m counting it!).  I stayed for a bit of the service, checked out the other parts of the church and then left.  This was a great church but I was left with the feeling that something was missing for my boys to feel at home.

I turned to Google again and a slightly different search led me to Canterbury House.  This is the true student focused offering for Episcopals on campus.  It is affiliated with Trinity and one other Episcopal church in the area but it offers its own outreach to the campus community.  I was fortunate enough that someone was at Canterbury House that morning and learned of its Tuesday night’s free meal, speaker series, followed by worship service. It felt perfect for my boys.  My morning was a success.

Ali and I enjoyed breakfast with Jordan and Collin before leaving.  I really like how the boys look forward to meals with parents when we are visiting.  My guess is it has more to do with who is paying and where they get to eat than spending time with Mom and Dad but I’ll take it anyway :).  Right before we said goodbye, I told them both about Canterbury House.  I didn’t push.  Well, I hope I didn’t push.  I just let them know it was there if they wanted a nice meal in a familiar and friendly environment on Tuesday nights.  Will my kids go to church now that they are off to college?  I don’t know but I think I’ve done all I can do.  The choice is now theirs.image

Week 36: September 4th: St. John of Chicago Orthodox Church

I thought the Catholics had the corner on market of ritual until this service!  Little did I know that the Orthodox Church takes it to a whole different level.

I think quoting from the churches welcoming bulletin will give you a feel of what to expect and an understanding of how it differs.  “Contemporary churches have changed the way in which the ancient Church worshipped in order to be “seeker friendly”.  Services in some cases have become more about us than God.  Often these practices adapt the services to please and even entertain those who attend.  This is not the case in the Orthodox Church.”

It was clear from the service that entertainment value was minimal.  One goes to this church because they want to worship in a prescribed way that is connected to the earliest church.  Priests wear ornate clothing, there is abundant incense, communion is very formal, etc.  It is comforting to those that have been through the service many times.  It is a little confusing to new visitors.  However, please don’t mistake confusing for uninviting.  This church was incredibly inviting.  They made me feel at home in the middle of all the newness.

I was struck by the children in this service.  There were probably about ten children in a service of about 30 adults.  The children were not the focus of the service.  They were not sent off to children’s church.  They were simply with their families and they were learning by watching, something I think kids have not been asked to do much recently (mine included).  It was fun watching the little girl in front of me, probably 6  or 7 years old, imitate her parents as they bowed, knelt, and cross themselves at the appropriate times.  The girl didn’t get it all correct but she was learning.  I bet in a few years she has all of it down perfectly.

One different custom I particularly liked occurred during communion.  Holy Communion is only offered in the Orthodox Church to confirmed members.  This is not all that unusual as other churches have similar beliefs.  As I was standing in my pew as others filed forward and received communion, the young girl I had been watching earlier walked back from communion directly towards me.  She held out her hand and offered me some communion bread.  I was taken aback.  I thought she was simultaneously breaking church rules but interacting with an adult in a most thoughtful and grown up way.  I quickly decided to take the offered bread as I was touched by her offer to a stranger and figured there was no way I would receive a mark against my good person ledger when my day of judgement arrived for such a transgression :). Nothing happened when I ate it, no power loss, no lightning bolt, just a smiling little girl.  I had succeeded.  I smiled back thinking we had just shared a “sneaky” moment that we would never tell all the others.

My mischievous pleasure was soon corrected.  The young girl’s father walked back from communion and approached me the exact same way, with hand outstretched filled with bread!  He did the same for Joe.  What followed was bread offerings from no less than the majority of people on our side of the church.  A lot of good will.  A lot of bread! I learned that feeding the bread after communion is part of the church’s history.  It recalls a feast that followed worship in the ancient Christian Church and all are included.  It was a really memorable experience and very unique.

Why does St John’s exist?  It is clear that most of the congregation has family/historical ties to the church.  Like some other liturgical churches, I think attending here is partly about faith and partly about culture.  There is a certain comfort in being a part of something that your family and community have been doing for centuries.  I doubt this is a place that attracts vast numbers of new members in today’s church outreach efforts.  However, it is clear to me that it is a positive addition to our community.  This is a unique offering.  Visitors are made to feel welcome.  If it appeals to you, there is a clear path to membership.  Otherwise, feel free to visit, observe, enjoy and simply get to know a few more of your neighbors.

Week 34: August 21st: Chinmaya Mission Northwest Arkansas


When about 150 children and over 100 adults gather routinely each weekend, a compelling opportunity to “get to know your neighbors” exists.  That is what Joe and I found when we went to our friends, Aneet and Swati Sharma’s, equivalent of Sunday school for children in a Hindu setting.  Of course, this gathering is not called Sunday school but I use the term as there are clear parallels to what Christians do for their children each Sunday.  The term for what we visited is Balavihar and the objective is “To help children learn Values with fun To delight like the moon And shine like the sun” – Swami Tejomayananda.  I like the description on their website (cmbentonville.org) “the goal of Balavihar is to “wake up the sleeping giant” in our children and inspire them to reach their maximum potential by imparting a value-based education through specially designed age appropriate curriculum.”

A brief description of our visit- This group gathers in a community center building.  Like other groups that use public facilities, they have a group that comes in early and transforms a basic meeting room into a suitable worship space.  In the medium sized room, it was not long before over 100 children sat neatly in rows on the floor in the front of the room and their parents all in chairs in the back.  Prior to the children leaving the room for their specific teaching, a series of responsive chants occurred.  These chants illustrate hurdle #1 for anyone, especially these children, as the language is not even remotely connected to what one hears everyday in this area.  This hurdle reminded me of the challenge of young American Jews trying to learn Hebrew.  If it is going to be accomplished, it must be a priority of the child, the family, and there needs to be a community of support.

The community of support is what Chinmaya Mission NWA represented to me.  I learned that Hindus in NW Arkansas have a unique challenge.  Most of the parents in the room were not raised in the US.  They grew up in a community in which their faith was woven into their daily lives.  Their festivals, daily practices, teachings, imagery, language was a constant that everyone simply lived.  As a result, they admitted that many never thought about how to TEACH their belief system to their children.  Everyone learned by osmosis.  This system works perfectly, until you leave your country and osmosis alone will leave you with children that only worship pop culture and don’t know anything about their culture except that it is WAY different than what they see each day.

Balavihar is the solution for these neighbors of ours.  Each week they gather and teach their children about their faith and culture.  They also appear to use the same community to teach more generic topics that simply help these kids thrive in everyday life.  While all this is going on, the adults spend time learning from their faith leaders and discussing topics that range from very faith based all the way to how do I raise a teenager in today’s world.  If this all sounds like the Sunday school that you have experienced, it is because some challenges we all have with our kids are universal.  That is common ground.  That is a great place on which to meet our neighbors and begin getting to know each other.

So why does CM NWA exist and why does Balavihar exist?  The answer is different from that I have written for any week so far this year.  Without Balavihar, the culture and faith of this group of people will die in their children.  Yes, it is that dire.  An entire way of life will disappear if this community does not continue its work.  I’m sure it is difficult and taxing at times for parents to bear this additional burden.  However, I hope they find the support they need in this community and keep up this great work.  Our area will be so much better if they are successful.


Week 33:August 14th: Vintage Fellowship


Have you ever listened to Desperado during church?

Joe and I went to Vintage Fellowship Church on the recommendation of a friend.  It was described as simply a church worth putting on our list of places to go before we ended this year long journey.  As we entered the parking lot, I was admittedly not excited.  From all outward appearances, we had visited plenty of churches just like this one over the last few months, non-denominational, relatively new, in a non-traditional strip mall setting.  I figured we were about to spend time in another “praise church” or “plant church”.  My disappointment centered less on these churches not quite appealing to me personally and more on the fact that I really wanted something unique this particular Sunday.  I was hungry for a different experience.

Entering the church didn’t change my expectation- same decor, same stage, same demographic, etc.  We made our way to a seat while the band played its first tune.  I didn’t recognize the song but, in retrospect, it was a little different than the typical praise tunes I have heard this year.  And then, it happened.  Song number two began with the familiar chords from the electric piano of Desperado by the Eagles.  Almost instinctively I recognized the song.  Almost as quickly I cringed, thinking, “what messed up lyrics are they going to put to this classic song”.  Thankfully, no one tried to improve on the Eagles.  They simply sang Desperado (and I thought did a good job at it!) And, the third song was a currently popular pop tune on most every teenagers favorite station.  It was simply fun music.  It was decidedly different than any first 10 minutes of church service we had experienced all year and, I liked it.

The rest of the service was unique as well.  Vintage Fellowship makes a point to call out the doldrums of summer as Ordinary Time.  This is very distinct from the very churchy periods of Advent and Easter.  Vintage makes a point to celebrate Ordinary Time with the purpose of seeking meaning, God, the Divine, in the very normal, almost boring things we do every day.  To illustrate this effort, they spent this Sunday skipping a normal sermon and, instead, interviewing a parishioner that has a compelling story of struggle, perseverance, and inspiring faith.  It was incredibly personal.   Even for someone that never met this person being interviewed, the story was impactful and made me realize how truly fortunate/blessed I am in so many ways. Without even trying, Vintage found a way to drive a worthy message strongly into my gut Sunday morning.

One last unique practice needs a comment.   Most churches have a greeting period or an exchange of peace as part of the service.  Vintage expands the normal obligatory 2 minute meet and greet and really makes it personal.  We spent no less than 10 minutes, maybe 15, truly having conversations with those around us.  The sense of community was palpable.

So it is time for me to answer the question I always pose, namely why does Vintage Fellowship exist?  First, Vintage is truly unique.  This is not the church you grew up in regardless of what denomination you call home.  This place seems to truly be about community and fellowship.  They celebrate both in anyway that seems appropriate, as evident in the musical selections. Although my description above did not do it justice, there is a clear grounding in Christian faith and liturgy (there were two readings and a Gospel during the service).  This non-traditional celebration either appeals to you or not.  If it intrigues you, go visit.  It is possible the visit may change your Sunday routine for awhile.  If not, at least you will hear a few good tunes.

Week 32 St. Joseph’s

Patrick was out of town and I had not been to St. Joe’s in awhile. Went to the nine o’clock Mass and did what I always do when I go in, sat where I sit and did the same exit after Mass. Being a Summer crowd the congregation was a bit thin, but I know both of the people who read the passages, know the Deacon who read the Gospel, Bud and I like the Priest who delivered a sensible homily. It got me thinking more about liking what we know and knowing what we like. Patrick’s Father in Law is Catholic and I believe eighty. Ray goes to a Mass that is spoken in Latin, that’s what he grew up with, he is comfortable with that and that is his church. Some of the church’s we have visited have not done much if anything for me, is it that church or my lack of familalarity and history or is it because there really is no history or context with these churches. I’ve opined before that many if not most if not all of the “plant” church’s feel the same. I wonder though if as a result of more churches there are more people going to church? Obviously that is good, there must be a battle going on though. How do you attract more attendees? Do you have to be cooler, hipper, have better music? To be honest I really have no idea of their individual outreach programs, maybe that is where they a hitting the ball out of the park? Another thing I think Patrick have learned is that more churches does not necessarily mean there are more “experiences” out there, we will endeavor though to find some, any suggestions? Rest a little tomorrow ok.

Week 31Grace Cumberland Presbyterian Church

The Cumberland Presbyterian Church was the result of the second awakening, essentially as a result of western expansion Ministers were in short order and a split occurred between the Presbyterian Church and those who were being less selective in who they ordained and sent west. Hence the Cumberland Presbyterian Church.

Grace Cumberland Church on Weddington in west Fayetteville is an attractive older church with an older congregation. Patrick and I sat next to the Ministers wife, a lovely, gracious woman. She gave us a brief history of her husbands ministerial career, which included prison ministry, he had also been I believe an Engineer for some 30 years before he became a full time Minister. The summer congregation is older and around 30 were in attendance. The service is contained elements that knew, The Doxology, The Apostles Creed, Gloria Patri, but we also sang Happy Birthday and got in a circle, holding hands and with some asking for prayers for themselves and some asking for prayer for others. There was an emphasis on confession, or “do-overs” as it stated in the weekly handout. I liked this in particular”God of new life and hope, we confess that we have forgotten your vision. We live anxious lives filled with worry. Fearing that we will not have enough or will not be enough, we turn on others. We use our words as weapons to knock others down while claiming our own glory. We point fingers and ascribe blame to everyone but ourselves. We store up material things thinking that our possessions will protect us from an uncertain tomorrow. We fail to live fully into the life characterized by humility, gentleness, patience and kindness that you have designed for us. Forgive us God, and help us to grow into the people you would have us be”. This hit home to me, simple, but makes so much sense in today’s look at me on Facebook world. Lastly, Reverend Tom Merchant seemed to be a very good man and his service was meaningful. My only arrow would be the Sermon which was very passage based and while I learned a bit, it may have been a little long and overly technical. I still like a sermon that merges the Gospel and the life you lead in the world you live. Patrick is on assignment this Sunday so I’m on my own. Hope you are well.