I think I can safely say, without exaggerating, that we have recently experienced one of the starkest contrasts between churches available in the U.S. today.
We have committed to attend church on Sundays during our time on the road. This is important to us for many reasons, but we also feel it will add to our overall experience to meet and worship with our brothers and sisters in Christ across regions, backgrounds, and denominations. This has already proven to be true!
Last Sunday, during Labor Day weekend, we were in the Chicago area and took the opportunity to visit Willow Creek, one of the largest “mega-churches” in the country. We’ve known of Willow Creek for years, read books written by their pastors, attended their Global Leadership Summit in Stockholm, and were generally pretty excited to visit there. It was on a scale that is hard to understand and appreciate in just one visit. We registered our kids for their children’s ministry, and took Emelie to the age 3 room – a large room where all the 3-year-olds gather in a large group led by the (full-time) Age 3 Pastor and the (full-time) Age 3 Teacher. (These were, by the way, not the same people as the Age 2 pastor and teacher, or the Age 4-5 pastor and teacher, and so on.) Then they broke up into smaller groups (of 3 year olds!) after the main lesson. Peter was well taken care of in the crawler room (divided from the infant room and the toddler room of course), where they even took them for a walk in double strollers. All of this to say, it was big. But amazingly well organized, thought through, completely age appropriate in every respect and we were very impressed.
We went chose to attend the service in the main auditorium (from among an overwhelming list of options they gave us at the guest services area) and were disappointed – though not surprised – to learn that the usual teaching pastors and worship leaders were given the weekend off for Labor Day. Pulpit supply. But we would’ve run into that almost anywhere – it was Labor Day weekend after all. Imagine our surprise when “pulpit supply” turned out to be Steven Curtis Chapman (a well-known and award winning Christian musician, for those who don’t know). He led music and spoke and did both very well. After picking up the kids and having lunch in the food court, we headed on our way. (Yes, the church has a food court. This is not the same place as the cafe.)
We were impressed by the ways they made an effort to make “big church small” on all levels, and by the ways we were met, received, welcomed and helped at every turn, from the parking lot coordinators (helpful when we pulled in towing a trailer) to the guest services to the children’s ministry staff.
Today, we are in the Badlands town of Interior, population 67. We decided to attend the Community Church (one of three churches in town). It was an equally wonderful experience in a completely different way. The four of us brought the total attendance up to about 20. They have neither pastor nor musician, except this week when Staffan volunteered to hop in on the piano. They also had their own version of “pulpit supply” in the form of a DVD teaching. Emelie was one of 5 kids in their Sunday School. Willow Creek it was not.
Just in case you thought I was exaggerating how small it is…
The Interior Community Church
Going over songs with Charlie about 5 minutes before the service started.
But we were so warmly welcomed, and the worship wasn’t any less genuine for being led by a cowboy and a walk-in Swede than it was when led by a world renown recording artist for a crowd of thousands. After church we were invited by Charlie and Beth back to their ranch for lunch, and we enjoyed grilled hamburgers made from black angus beef they’d raised themselves. Served with vegetables and cantaloupe that were also fresh from their garden. Amazing. Great food and fellowship with new friends. We are so excited to have met “real people” on a genuine South Dakota cattle ranch in the Badlands.
Sign at the road for Charlie and Beth’s ranch
Ok, I burst out laughing as we drove in toward their house and just have to share this. There is literally a fork in the road.
Their lovely home, on over 2,000 acres with amazing views of the Badlands. Charlie built this house himself together with his family.
I know that people reading this are probably from a variety of beliefs and backgrounds, and in general I don’t plan to be “preachy” with this blog, but the only way to share these experiences is to reflect on how amazing God is to be simultaneously at work in Chicago in a mega-church of thousands and in the tiny town of Interior SD in a Community Church of a couple dozen. We have a deepening understanding of the body of Christ being alive and active everywhere, and we’re so blessed to have the opportunity to experience its diversity.
Thanks again, Charlie and Beth – if you decided to check out our blog – for your hospitality and fellowship, and for giving us an unexpectedly wonderful afternoon.