Last Sunday night my family and I ventured to an Acts 29 church in Denver. If you are not familiar with the Acts 29 movement see http://www.acts29network.org/. We have friends who are quite excited about Mark Driscol’s ministry at Mars Hill Church in Seattle, and the church planting movement he established. We also have a few acquaintances who are critics of Acts 29. So, part of the reason we drove the 70-minute trip was to see for ourselves what all the hub bub was about.
The church we chose to visit is one of the newer of the Acts 29 affiliates. It is only a few years old and is purportedly growing rather quickly. Within the past three weeks they relocated to a more accommodating place. It is a hundred-year-old (or so) Lutheran building of the early 1900’s Gothic architecture. The building, like the surrounding community, is in the middle of a remake. It’s a mix of old and new.
We were greeted at the door by a friendly young man and cheerful young woman who handed us glossy 5″ x 8″ cardstock fliers with “Welcome to Park Church” in white bold letters over a picture of Denver’s skyline. The two-sided brochure is very nicely done. The young man was dressed casually; the woman attired in a stylish summer dress. The whole first impression was an odd mix of old Gothic and stone building on a crowded street across from dumpy houses but next to a newly remodeled complex, with young people on old steps, giving us sleek and modern materials. Eclectic is probably the word I’m looking for.
The entryway was “old doors flanking old steps meets new wood floor”, which opened up to a remodeled foyer. A large, clean, simple 2′ x 5′ sign made it clear we were welcome at Park Church, and also gave us a 2-second overview about where things were. There were a few dozen young people clustered in groups, most of them hovering near the tables that hosted large pots of coffee and all the accouterments. I did not check to see if it was Starbucks. Little children were chasing each other around.
To the right of us was a tall kiosk where a handsome young man and two lovely young ladies were waiting to answer any questions. While my wife talked with the two gals, I perused through ample literature that basically gave all the primary information you would need to know about the church. Three 4″ x 8″ (well, approximately) colored cards gave very simple and unapologetic presentations of the Gospel. The materials fit our culture’s age of stylish tweets. A few books by John Piper, Tim Keller and a couple others were for sale, along with CDs produced by (I think) the church’s music team.
The ladies gladly pointed us in the direction of the worship hall, which happened to be upstairs. They really did not have to tell us because more clear and informative signs literally pointed the way. This informational arrangement met my penchant for visual info, and my wife’s auditory style. Little children zoomed passed us as we entered deeper into the aged building. The dirty, maroon carpet reminded us of old hotels we’ve visited. More young people walked by us, and some even greeted us.
When, at last, we arrived at the top of the second story landing, we stepped into the worship area. The musty room was in an old theater-style arrangement with old and dark wood floors, except for the old maroon carpet in the aisles. The floor sloped toward the large stage. I did not notice a piano or organ. The seats were wooden in old metal frames. You had to drop your seat down to sit, but you had metal arm rests if you were so inclined to use them. A u-shaped balcony hovered above us. The plaster was cracked or missing throughout the room. Tall, beautiful stain-glassed windows lined the side walls. Big, shining candles were perched on the window sills.
As we got comfortable, it was then that our college-aged daughter exclaimed that this church was filled with people just like our friend, Mark. Mark is 30-ish. Yes! it took me a while to realize that they were all YOUNG! From what I could see, about 98% of the congregation were Gen-Y (born 1977-1994) with some Gen-X (born 1966-1976). I noted a couple who may have been in their late forties. My wife and I were clearly the oldest folks (we qualify as antiques).
They were all dressed in their generational fashion. Very casual, dressy casual, but definitely in faded material with cool, brand-named t-shirts or wrinkled dress shirts hanging out of pants. It reminded me so much of my hippy days where my cool generation all rebelled against the establishment by being ourselves (all dressed alike in torn blue jeans, tie-dyed shirts, with macrame belts, chokers and/or purses, and all the other hippy accessories).
I had been wondering where all the 20 and 30-somethings had gone. They weren’t skipping church – they were in this church! Well, at least over 100 of them were. And, from what I hear, they are piling into Acts 29 churches all over the country!
The demographic was also telling: the majority were Caucasian, with only a handful of what I would guess as Latino and a few Asians, and only one black woman. But, they all dressed in the Gen-Y style (I don’t even know what you call it, which shows you how way out of touch I am!) We did not see any children in worship, even though there may have been some. The astonishing thing was that there appeared to be more young men than young women present. I don’t know, perhaps 55% to 45%?
As we got settled, one of the girls in front of us turned around and introduced herself. Like so many others, she was fairly new to the church. Like all of the young folks we talked with, she was from another church. However, we have heard that many people were new to the faith.
At 6:00 PM four musicians started singing. A man on electric bass guitar played in the back, a woman was front left, with the lead singer on guitar next to her, and then a man with a guitar to the right. I don’t know what style the music was in, but it was pleasant.
One of the pastors came forward and casually gave a few announcements. He talked about the congregation’s journey through the season of Lent, and then pointed out the donation box in the back. He also said we could go on-line to support the church. He asked us to rise.
The music team led us all in the call to worship, which was projected on the large drop-down screen. With their beautiful voices they led us in a song, a familiar hymn and two more songs. In between we read a passage of Scripture in unison. The audio-visual people were having technical difficulties. The songs were new to us, but very easy to learn. The tempo and tunes were mellow. The words held strong, biblical, Gospel theology.
As a woman came forward, who had a hard time getting her hand-mic to work, we all sat down. She read the passage of Scripture for the message, which was Ecclesiastes 7. Then the other pastor got up on stage. He opened in prayer. This pastor was also young, with stylishly cool glasses, faded jeans, and well, he blended in.
His message was filled with personal illustrations, contemporary and relevant stories, and examples from the latest news. He spoke Gen-Y vernacular. He was humorous, but at times was quiet, contemplative and moving. Our daughter later noted that he sounded like so many of the other pastors of the same age in similar churches which she had visited in California. He had a cadence of speaking quite fast, and then slowing way down and then speaking loudly and fast, and then quietly and slowly. He made excellent use of pauses, and did not use the music stand, which doubled as his pulpit, as a prop. His movements were very expressive. He was a good communicator.
The message fit the text, which he wove in and through the ample illustrations. He led everyone to agree with him about how our lives are so filled with plans and goals and things and stuff, but then ripped the proverbial carpet from under us and helped make us wonder, along with the preacher of Ecclesiastes, how life can suck sometimes. He pointed out what sin and wickedness can do, and what all the false promises and false hopes of our day can do – or not do. He concluded that God was not the deity who put everything in motion and then left the universe to fend for itself and left us to make life good for ourselves. Rather, God is sovereign and in control and often times puts us in bad situations with disappointments and failures and hurts and despair in order to bring us to the end of ourselves and to draw us to him. At the end of nearly an hour he concluded by pointing us to Romans 8.
There was an admonition, but no call for a commitment, as I have heard Acts 29 churches are apt to do. He encouraged people to come forward to talk with him, to pray, or to partake in the Lord’s Supper. It was at that point that four couples walked to the front, picked up ceramic goblets and loaves of bread and stood in the aisles next to the stage, facing the audience. People began to get up and walk forward.
It was at that time that we left. My old back was in pain from sitting on old hard seats. The mildew and dust aggravated my allergies and sinuses. So, I had to get my old wimpy self out of there.
Mark grabbed me from behind. We had not seen him and his wife come in. I was feeling physically miserable, so I excused myself and told him we could talk by phone later on.
On the way home from inner city Denver, we had much to talk about. I will share that in part two.
D. Thomas Owsley