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Wondering About Grace

Granite Springs Church, Lincoln, California

It was his first church service since World War II. Two weeks earlier Danny had buried his wife of fifty years. The family had searched the Internet for a church that might host her memorial service, choosing Granite Springs Church because it was close. Now he was attending worship. As the congregation stood and began to sing the opening song, I noticed him near the back. He selected a seat on the outside edge, the perfect place to make an early exit. As the congregation sang, “He gives and takes away . . .” tears were streaming down his cheeks. Hugging him, I said, “Danny, I’m so glad you came.” He could barely get the words out: “I brought her with me,” he said, and lifted up a travel urn bearing the ashes of his late wife.

In the back row of that same service sat a man recently accused of sexual misconduct. Nineteen times the local newspaper has featured his unflattering mug shot on its front page. His unwelcome notoriety causes strangers to approach him and ask, “Why don’t you move away to another town?” He’s thought about it. A thousand times he’s thought about it. But he and his wife decided to stay. Two years earlier we met briefly when the city building committee approved a slight change in the design of our church building. After he was first accused, he phoned. Would I come to his home and pray with him? In his family room the details of his life tumbled out. He was raised Mormon, divorced, remarried, and estranged from his children. “The whole town is against me,” he said. “Are you sure it’s OK to come to your church?”

Opposite Danny sat a woman with roots in the Bible Belt now divorcing her alcoholic husband and raising two teenagers alone. Behind her was a high school senior who made profession of faith last month. She comes, without parents or siblings, because a youth leader helped her through a crisis during her freshman year. A recent graduate was there without his girlfriend but with their ten-month-old daughter. A woman sat beside her preschool child, her Nordstrom’s attire belying the fact that she can’t pay a small medical bill.

Doing Church in Suburbia

How might you shape worship in suburbia? On a first drive through our growing city, anyone might be impressed by its carefully manicured lawns, late-model SUVs (and a growing number of hybrids), and laid-back style. Everything looks new. Everyone looks happy. Everyone has spent a lifetime refining what sociologists call “image management.” On the outside everything is fine.

Sixteen years earlier my wife Gerry and I drove into town to begin a new congregation. Shaped by congregations in which everyone spoke the vocabulary of faith, we found ourselves in the suburbs, where Oprah wields far greater authority than Saint Paul or Saint Augustine. Personal schedules follow Hallmark calendars, not the rhythms of the church year. Beliefs are drawn from a spiritual smorgasbord that disparages pastoral and ecclesiastical authority. Religious institutions are so suspect that two young people who recently attended our college ministry were warned by family not to attend because “everyone knows you can’t trust people connected to organized religion.”

We believed our new church needed a ministry paradigm to shape our worship and ministry. We wanted to offer folks suspicious of “religious fanatics” a simple but not simplistic entry into the gospel. Our county is reported to have the highest percentage of Mormons outside the state of Utah, generations of Buddhists, and irreligious folks who have coexisted together since the Gold Rush, so our paradigm needed to be accessible to folks from varied spiritual backgrounds. We designed a framework for ministry based on the parable of the prodigal son.

Running from God

Everyone entering our doors (Danny, the UPS driver, a church shopper, the person who thought our building was the new city library) is very likely running from God. Some of us run from God by leaving or ignoring the church, like the prodigal in Jesus’ story. Others of us distance ourselves from God while staying inside the church, like the elder child. We invite both irreligious prodigals and religious elder children to stop their running and become “the father,” building a new identity as a person of grace. In this paradigm, church novices and veterans share common ground. Both dodge God. Both need a fresh invitation to accept and live in grace. Rather than dividing between experienced churchgoers who seem to have an inside track on church life and inexperienced church attendees whose experience lies far outside church life, all attendees hear about our common need for grace. In our atrium near the front door hangs a large framed copy of Rembrandt’s painting The Return of the Prodigal Son, visually reinforcing our paradigm.

Corporate worship, then, is a time to explore the wonder of grace. Songs, readings, Scripture memory, sermons, even announcements are ways to learn and revel in grace. The Sunday Danny attended our service was the third week in a five-month study of 2 Peter. The sermon’s opening lines described how both religious veterans and irreligious folks frequently misunderstand faith’s sequence. Both groups assume that the first step toward God is to clean up our lives, and that only then will God accept us. Throughout the worship service we described and delighted in the surprising, opposite way of the gospel: the first step is to receive grace and only then do we cooperate as the God of grace reshapes us into our intended design.

Eclectic Worship

Our worship is eclectic. One week we might have the prayer of confession from the Book of Common Prayer (1604), followed by words of assurance, and then the Lord’s Prayer as a dedication to live a new life. Another week children may lead us in a psalm they memorized or a child-like prayer. A teen might give witness to the way a specific Bible verse is alive in her, reshaping her life. We might say a prayer of Saint Patrick or guide folks in a bidding prayer listing ailments of our community and world. We may reflect on the way the lives of Mother Teresa, Iraneaus, Martin Luther, or C. Everett Koop encourage us toward Christian virtue. Each week we pass the peace while children transition to rooms where they hear a message designed for their age group.

Music also varies from week to week. One Sunday the only instrument may be a piano, or we may add a cello. Most often our music features bass guitar, percussion, piano, and several vocalists. Music leader Aaron Antoon designs fine original arrangements of classic hymns and praise songs. Offering music might be a U2 song, a swing version of a classic hymn, or a piano solo.

Cultivating a Deep Love for Scripture

Last year a worship grant encouraging people to memorize Scripture added a fresh layer to our worship. Lacking a common ethnic or theological heritage, we seek ways to build common ground. Shaped by a lifetime of images and values from a culture where God is pushed to the side, many of our attendees stall in their desire to become a grace-filled person. Instead of becoming connoisseurs of grace, their new biblical knowledge mixes with quips from Dr. Phil, themes of pop song lyrics, and family proverbs, forming a stew of beliefs. We wondered if it might be possible to help folks form a biblical worldview by cultivating a deep love for Scripture. So we saturated our congregation with a rhythm of Bible memorization that became a key component of our spiritual formation. We hoped that hearing Scripture recited rather than read in public worship might inspire people to take in those same texts in a personal way.

To our surprise and great delight, it worked. In our worship services this past year almost no Scripture was read from the printed page. Words of confession and assurance, calls to worship, even preaching texts for the week were memorized, adding a new vitality and power to the reading of God’s Word. One day seventeen high school students, the majority of whom do not have parents who attend any church, recited the book of Titus in turns. For two of these students, it was only their second time attending church. When they finished, the entire church burst into spontaneous applause. Another week our summer interns joined in as co-preachers, and six of us together spoke the entire Sermon on the Mount from memory.

Some weeks memorizing seems a huge stretch. One morning I recited the sermon text at the first service, but during the second my mind went completely blank. Thankfully the congregation, full of good humor, rescued me and we spoke the text together.

As in every congregation, worship at Granite Springs can be a grinding chore. One week the microphones screech, another the vocalists call in sick or a cell phone blares out a rap during silent prayer. Still, God’s beauty breaks through. Slowly, gradually, haltingly, we are taking our eyes off our suburban idols and refocusing them in worship. A new attendee learns to pray for the first time. A child recites Psalm 103 with her father. A man clutching the ashes of his deceased wife in his arms sings, “Blessed be the name of the Lord.”

Excerpt

Order of Worship September 23, 2007

Welcome/Call to Worship: Psalm 95:1-2

Songs of Adoration
“Blessed Be Your Name” (Matt Redman)
“Sing Alleluia” CH 198, SWM 184, SFL 68, WR 120
“God Himself Is with Us” PsH 244, TH 382


Scripture Presentation: Colossians 3:1-10
(Four attendees dramatically presented this text from memory)

Prayer of St. Patrick

Song of Response: “Trinity” (an original song)

Passing the Peace/kids dismissed to classes

Announcements and Offering

Offertory: Solo: “A Gospel Number” (by Over the Rhine)

Message: “Living the Good Life”

Scripture Text: 2 Peter 1:3-11

Song of Response: “May the Mind of Christ, My Savior” CH 568, PsH 291, SFL 72, TH 644, WR 464

Benediction: Numbers 6:24-26

Excerpt

Music Job-Sharing

Finding and caring for gifted musicians is a difficult challenge for any church, especially new church plants. Five weeks after moving into their first facility, Granite Springs’ full-time music pastor left to serve a new congregation in Michigan. They needed to quickly find new music team leaders. Aaron and Jillayne Antoon, both exceptional musicians with music degrees from Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan, stepped in to lead the team. They provide a contagious music culture for the team, creating original arrangements for hymns and songs. The immediate drawback was that each has a fifty-hour-a-week job as well.

To keep them flourishing over the long haul, the church found two other musicians, Gene Thorpe and Gerry Adams, to lead the music team one Sunday a month. Gene Thorpe is a long-term rock-and-roll band leader who has toured the country playing straight-ahead rock, blues, and pop music, including opening for the Grateful Dead. Gerry Adams originally launched the Granite Springs music team and adds inside information on worship music to Gene’s vast rock-and-roll experience.

Excerpt

Granite Springs by the Numbers

  • Founded in 1992 as a no-nucleus church plant.
  • Services: Sundays at 9:00 a.m. and 10:30 a.m.
  • Church family: 650; average weekly attendance: 375-400; membership: 145
  • Staff: three full-time (youth coordinator, pastor of hospitality, and senior pastor); five part-time (junior high director, music director, worship coordinator, office coordinator, and assistant to the senior pastor)
  • Adults in small groups: 150
  • Vision: To experience the wonder of grace in a way that frees us to wholeheartedly serve
  • Website: www.granitesprings.org