Sometimes I'm away for work over a weekend, which among other things gives me the opportunity to see how other people do church. It's a really interesting thing to do, especially in America. I've been to some places that are quite large, others that are quite small, some that are very traditional in everything, some that are less so.
On a couple of occasions I've had the chance to visit Capitol Hill Baptist Church for their Sunday morning service. You might have seen Mark Dever, their senior pastor, at ministry/preaching seminars here from time to time, and I think he's endorsed a few Matthias Media books over the years too, as well as writing his own.
They start things off with what they call "Core Seminars". Think of it like a workshop, or a topical Bible Study group. There are around half a dozen to choose from, each of which would have between 8 and 30 people attending. Topics covered include Biblical Theology, marriage, guidance, New Testament, apologetics, church membership, things like that.
Core Seminars run for almost an hour, then church starts. It's a full on experience, starting with a few songs, then times of prayer and Bible reading before the sermon starts. Most churches I know of target a 15 minute sermon, but CHBC sermons go for more like 45 minutes. It's not easy to concentrate for that long when you're jet lagged.
But getting back to the topic of the post, what have I learned from these visits?
1. Welcoming. The way a visitor is welcomed sets the tone for the whole morning. When there's a culture of anyone coming up and welcoming you (even with sometimes silly questions like "oh, you're from Brisbane, do you know so-and-so?"), it has a big impact.
2. Music. Doesn't need to be big. My observation here is that CHBC have thought this out quite carefully. Instruments are just a piano and acoustic guitar. But they have three or four singers (the guitarist is also one of the singers, and the main coordinator I think) to make sure that there's a voice and a face in every direction in the hall. They choose songs to suit the sermon each week, and aren't constrained by era, source, or familiarity. I've sung very old hymns there, familiar modern songs, and unfamiliar hymns and songs too. In fact one chap I was speaking to said that it wasn't unusual for him not to know all the hymns, even though he could clearly sing with gusto when he did know the song. They quite like going acapella for the last verse, which I think can be overdone, but at the same time there's a definite lift in the voices as they do it. And I think acapella can be very useful for drawing attention to lyrics.
3. Communion. I haven't been there for a communion service, but I love the way they prepare for it. They do it in the evening service on the first Sunday of each month. The morning of, and the week before, they explicitly remind the congregation that communion is coming, and encourage everyone to prepare themselves for taking the Lord's Supper. No doubt in my mind, when people listen and respond to that sort of encouragement, spiritual growth will follow.
4. Diversity and humility. CHBC is near the US Capitol obviously. It's a well-to-do area, and the congregation includes lots of congressional staffers, senate staffers, lawyers, and wider government and military personnel at all levels. But I haven't seen any signs of one-upmanship or people trying to big-note themselves. Some come in suits, some come in jeans and t-shirts. There's no pressure to conform - if a particular song or prayer leads people to raise hands, fine - they don't force everyone to do it, nor do they force people to keep their hands down. During one hymn, an older lady in the back pulled out a tambourine and started shaking in time with the song. Just that one, she wasn't trying to do it for everything, but it fit with that particular song.
5. Bible. With a 45 minute exposition, the Bible is undeniably at the centre of their time together each week.
I'm sure CHBC have their flaws - every church does, because they're made up of sinful human beings. And I wouldn't necessarily want to apply all of their practices to my own church. But I think we can learn a lot by observing how other churches do things, and be better disciples of Christ and more effective ministers for him as a result.