A Tale of Two Churches

The past two Sundays, my wife and I have visited two different churches in an effort to experience what worship is like for different members of the kingdom of God. We are considering visiting other churches in the next few weeks, but following my experiences this week, I would like to reflect on what we have seen so far. 

The two churches we have visited are Liquid Church, a non-denominational, multi-campus megachurch, which was established in 2007, and Trinity Presbyterian Church, a Presbyterian community which has existed since 1963, and has a legacy dating as far back as 1894. Walking away from the service on Sunday at Trinity, I was astounded at the amount of differences between these two Christian communities. Here are some initial thoughts:

Worship Space

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The Liquid Church sanctuary features many of the things I have become accustomed to in a church: a giant stage, a loud rock band, concert-like lighting, big screens, and colorful, yet very plain, walls. The room appeared to be a giant former warehouse which had been remodeled with carpeting and set up with state-of-the-art acoustics and lighting. All the chairs are aligned to face the stage, which gives the space the shape of a theater. The pastor preached in front of a TV screen, which he used to make points and show videos which would enhance his sermon presentation. His "pulpit" is a small stand which was hidden behind a prop - a gps marker - since his sermon was about figuring out God's "path" for your life.

 

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The Trinity sanctuary is shaped like a cross, with a very high ceiling and a giant, white cross hanging from the ceiling directly in the center of the space. Pews fill up three sides of the room, while an organ and the chairs for the choir are elevated above the rest of the congregation on the fourth side. In the direct center, under the hanging white cross, is a one-foot high stage, which holds the communion table in the direct center, a stand with a candle, a stand with a water jug (which I presume is used for baptisms), and a cylinder-shaped pulpit, upon which the pastor preaches from. Everything in the room is directed toward the white cross and the communion table which sits underneath. There is no lighting, as the giant windows on all sides provide plenty of light, and the shape of the room allows for excellent acoustics with a minimal sound system.

 

Liturgy

Since it is such an old-fashioned word, some might think that new and "hip" churches do not feature a liturgy. Indeed, my home church, a non-denominational Evangelical church, has done many things to make sure that the repetitive aspects of the Catholic liturgy do not appear in their services. This may lead one to believe that it does not have a liturgy, however, I contend that every church has a liturgy, for at its heart, liturgy is how that group of Christians collectively worships God. It could be complicated and monotonous, or simple and chic, but each church has one.

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At Liquid Church, they explain their liturgy in very simple terms. I must admit that it was quite helpful to see the way they laid it out, even though it is very easy to catch on to. The band played a few songs, many of which repeated the chorus or bridge five or six times (some even more than that). There were a lot of songs which featured God battling on our behalf and defending us from evil, and all of them described the vast might and size of God. The congregation had a chance to greet each other, there was an offering taken, then we watched some video announcements highlighting what would take place at the church in the coming weeks. Following that was the sermon, which lasted roughly a half hour, and used Acts 16:6-12 to help set up a new sermon series, which was titled "Divine Direction." The sermon was started and closed with a prayer from the pastor, which included an invite for all non-believers to pray for salvation. The band concluded the service with a song and sent the church away with a brief blessing. All in all, the service took around 75 minutes.

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At Trinity, the liturgy was very long and sometimes difficult for me to follow, being that I have experienced a church like this on only a few occasions. In the picture I have posted, I include only two pages of the liturgy, when in fact, there were two more! It started with announcements about what would take place in the church. This was followed by a hymn, and I must note that there were never two hymns played in a row, as all nine songs were interspersed throughout the service. Some of the songs were sung by all in attendance, some were sung by only the choir, and others were instrumental, played only by the organ. The liturgy provided opportunities for the congregation to sit in silent prayer, listen to the prayer of the congregation leader, and also join her in a public, scripted prayer. There was a "Call to Reconciliation," giving the congregation a chance to repent to God of any and all sins, and an affirmation from the leader that those sins are forgiven. We shared a greeting, but instead of simply saying "good morning," which is what I'm accustomed to, we said "peace be with you." Following that, there was a children's service, in which the pastor invited all the children in the congregation to a front pew to hear a brief, five minute message based on the text she would be covering later, and then she dismissed them to Sunday school. We listened to the leader read from both 1 Samuel 3:1-20, the sermon text, and from John 1:43-51, as both are featured in the church lectionary this week. After a sermon which lasted about 20 minutes, there was a communal confession of faith, the Lord's Prayer, an offering taken, a prayer over the congregation, a couple hymns throughout, the Doxology, a benediction, and a closing hymn. The entire service lasted 60 minutes.

 

Content/Teaching

As I mentioned earlier, many of the songs at Liquid were repetitive and tended to have the same theme. There was nothing complex about any of the songs, either lyrics, notes, or chord progression, and all of them seemed to serve as a reminder to the congregation of who they believed God to be. The repetition, the lighting, and the solemn sound of a few songs created an atmosphere in which it was easy to get emotional about what was being sung.

As far as the preaching was concerned, the pastor was dressed in casual attire, a sweater and jeans, and he preached on a stage that was decorated as if for a theatrical performance. The sermon covered all of Acts 16:6-12 and highlighted many historical points about the passage. However, it seemed as though the passage itself was not the focal point of the sermon, but instead it was used as an example for answering some modern-day, personal questions. While I do not think this is a bad thing to do, it's very interesting to highlight how Scripture was approached in such an expansive and diverse congregation.

At Trinity, we sang hymns directly from the Presbyterian hymnal. All of them highlighted something different, depending on what point in the liturgy it was used. We started with a praise hymn, concluded with the Doxology and a hymn of farewell, and each other hymn had its place within the structure of the service. What I found most interesting is that no songs were repeated and there was no place within the liturgy for improv of any kind, quite unlike the way that the worship was led at Liquid.

The sermon was on a text from the lectionary, so there was no preconceived plan for a sermon series in which the text fit. The pastor's job is simply to pick one of the assigned texts and teach on it, which does not leave much room for continuity of sermons from week to week. What I did enjoy was that she spent a lot of time highlighting nuances in the story and provided insights from different scholars, which enhanced my learning. The sermon, however, was not purely academic, as she spent the last half of it attempting to provide practical applications for the congregation. There was also much more reading from the biblical text than at Liquid, as the only Scripture I remember being read at Liquid were the few verses of Acts and a verse or two from Psalms.

 

Congregation

At Liquid Church, we were able to get in line and grab a cup of coffee before the service, and very kind people helped serve us there before we were ushered to our seats. At Trinity, we were greeted at the door by someone who instantly suspected we were new and welcomed us with a gift bag. He talked with us for a few minutes before encouraging us to join them after the service for coffee and treats, as well as introduce us to an usher. Because of the large size of Liquid Church, we could have slipped in and out almost unnoticed, but we did turn in a welcome card and get a free t-shirt after the service, getting a chance to briefly speak with an usher about who we are and where we came from. At Trinity, because of the small size of the church, we stuck out to almost everyone, and we were welcomed to the church by many different people.

The age difference in the congregation was also striking. Because of the vast number of people at Liquid, there were some from all walks of life, but I would say that the majority of them were young people - either in high school/college or married couples with young children. At Trinity, it wasn't until two minutes before the service that someone near our age walked in the sanctuary, and in total, there were about five people who were between the ages of 18-29. There were about 10 kids who went to Sunday school, and the majority of the congregation was above the age of 55. This was something I expected, but it was still disheartening to see the lack of young leaders in Trinity. 

 

Reflections

If I had to pick one defining characteristic of each congregation, I would say this: Liquid is for "seekers" (those who are seeking a faith for themselves) and Trinity is for the "faithful" (those who have attended the church for quite some time). Liquid's focus is practical and inviting, and they even have the hashtag #ChurchIsFun on their bulletin; this is to show newcomers that church doesn't have to be dreary and boring, which is what they may have experienced growing up. Trinity, on the other hand, focuses on building up the current congregation. The pastor reminded the members of the congregation of what previous members did to create and sustain the church, and then challenged them by asking what their contribution would be to the continued life of the church. The differences in the liturgy highlight what service is intended for beginners (Liquid's) and for those who have been well-versed in Christianity (Trinity's).

As a life-long Christian who has studied things like imagery and liturgy within the church, I was amazed at the beautiful design of Trinity's sanctuary. All the members of the congregation are oriented towards the cross, which in it's very shape, gives off the appearance of life, and life eternal. The fact that the communion table lies directly under the cross symbolizes the unity of the congregation because of the person and work of Jesus Christ. The choir being lofted above the congregation gives an angelic feeling to the praise songs and does not allow the congregation an opportunity to look on them with awe - our focus is always drawn to the cross. While Liquid Church stirred in me an emotional reaction, Trinity's worship space felt peaceful and tranquil.

This is not to say that I did not enjoy my experience at Liquid. They do many things well, and there is no doubt in my mind that it is more suitable for a newer Christian who has not been versed in liturgy and imagery; the complexity of Trinity's service may even leave some experienced Christians wondering what is going on. The simplicity of Liquid's style and it's energetic approach to religion is refreshing and it was evident to me that the congregation truly has caught on to the vision of the leadership team. As someone who has visited a few megachurches, I noticed that the atmosphere was more inviting and the culture more healthy than at least one of the others that I previously attended.

As an Evangelical Christian who grew up in a more progressive-style church, I find myself in between these two worlds. I have grown quite fond of complex liturgies, because I believe that they teach us more content about God than the basic, emotionally-driven liturgy of "pop" churches. It also allows us to practice our faith in a communal setting. However, I do understand how new Christians, and even some experienced ones, can be turned off to the somewhat boring presentation of a classical church, especially if they do not understand the purpose for each of the steps. If someone is not first taught the purpose and the content of a liturgy, it is similar to someone watching a sports game without knowing any of the rules or the goal: it's pointless and impossible to follow.

My hope is that we are somehow able to join these two worlds in the future. Those at Liquid could benefit greatly from the content provided at a church like Trinity, and those at Trinity could enhance their experience with the thought that church can be fun. I am saddened when I see the older generation being left alone in their pews as younger Christians leave to sit in the comfortable seats of megachurches. There is so much that a church like Trinity can teach us about the Christian life and how to worship if we are willing to take the time to learn. My prayer is that these fast-growing pop churches would take time to slow down and understand the purpose of imagery and liturgy within the worship space.

One's experience at church shapes how one lives as a Christian outside of the sanctuary. In order for our churches to thrive, and more importantly, for the Church to thrive, we must be willing to learn from each other and develop better ways to teach the Christian life to those who seek it. Let us seek wisdom from the past and also from each other, for that is the only way we will grow together as the Body of Christ. Peace be with you all.