Sunday, January 01, 2017

The Reformation Project: Analyzing my Visit to St. John Baptist Church

In my previous post, I described my visit to St. John Baptist Church. In this one, I will provide some analysis of that visit. Because the prior post is foundational to this one, I would recommend that the reader look back at that one prior to proceeding here.

I did not know much about the church prior to the visit, though one past action by the church has gained some attention in the local religious community. Several years ago, Pastor Denny Davis opened his pulpit to Joel Gregory, the former co-pastor at First Baptist Dallas, thus beginning the rehabilitation of his ministry. 

St. John Church, with a reported average attendance of 8,800, is the 10th largest church in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, according to data compiled by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research. While some aspects of the church service were high tech (the use of video to make announcements), overall the service was more traditional in nature than any of the churches visited for this study. Black churchgoers from past generations would have recognized the liturgy, music, and sermonic style of the service.The advertisement of upcoming revival services represented a look back at an era that is now largely past.

Thus, the musical selections used for both congregational and special music were repetitive and emotional, though, as noted in my earlier description, the songs did contain Gospel content. While the presence of such is a positive, one should note that the music also contained some of the weak theology common in modern evangelical churches. Thus, the statement that the singer knows that God is real "because I can feel him in my soul" falls far short of biblical defenses of the faith, which rely on more objective considerations, such as the empty tomb. Nonetheless, the congregational music was more singable -- and more widely sung -- than what was experienced in other churches that were involved in this study.

The sermon had as its theme the cost of discipleship, and the pastor made a serious effort at expounding the text and applying it to his congregation. At one point, he even referenced a resource that he had relied on to help him in his understanding of the text. While he did a good job of handling the scripture, the sermon might have been improved by pulling in thoughts of Christ's dying and rising for us, as well as of the Spirit's work in calling the believer to serve Christ. While those thoughts were not in the text itself, bringing them in as a means of showing the motivation and power that God gives to the believer to fulfill what is required in the text would have been helpful.

This is the last post summarizing my visits to the ten largest churches in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. In future posts I will begin to draw some conclusions based on these findings.

Monday, December 26, 2016

The Reformation Project: Visiting St. John Baptist Church

GRAND PRAIRIE, Texas, March 2, 2014 -- Located in a working class neighborhood in Grand Prairie, the church has only small parking lots, and many of those arriving for the service are forced to park on small neighborhood streets.  The church holds multiple services in order to accommodate its crowds, and it was of interest to realize when arriving for the 9:00 a.m. service that the earlier service, which began at 7:00 a.m., was relatively full.

Entering the front of the building, one finds himself in a small, crowded lobby. As the 7:00 a.m. service was still ongoing, those arriving were asked to line up along the right side so that those in the earlier service would be able to file out. Other attendees waiting were friendly. A woman standing near me struck up a conversation, asking if it were my first time attending and telling me how much she liked coming to church here. Several ministers wore clerical collars. When, after entering the sanctuary, I asked one for help finding a restroom, he started to give directions, realized it was getting difficult to follow, and took the time to walk me in the required direction.

The sanctuary was by far the smallest of the churches attended for this study, and at first I wondered if the attendance figures reported by the Hartford Institute were inflated. However, the church has two campuses, multiple services, and children meeting elsewhere for separate services, making the claimed attendance possible. The pulpit area was also relatively small, with a band and choir squeezed in behind a traditional pulpit area that included a white marble podium. For some reason there were NFL football pennants attached around the pulpit.

The facility is aging, but well-kept. Banners, which appeared to be home (or church) made, hanging along the side walls contained titles for Christ such as Lamb of God, King of Kings, and Lion of Judah.

The choir entered around ten minutes after the stated starting time wearing white and navy choir robes. The service began with two energetic songs, led by a song leader and praise team and an instrumental band of guitarists, drummer, and keyboardist. The songs were repetitive, but contained gospel content. One entitled “I Just Want to Bless your Name” included a verse discussing being ransomed by the blood of Jesus. The song leader led in prayer.

After those songs, several announcements were delivered via video. The St. John Bible Institute has the purpose of providing more detailed Bible study for laymen. Other announcements concerned an upcoming mission trip, a class for those planning on getting married, an upcoming emphasis on fasting, discipleship groups, and a holy week revival featuring a speaker from out of town. A short video highlighting the church’s singles ministry talked about focusing less on who to marry than on why.

Another video featured the work of a scientist named George Caruthers, who is a black Baptist and a renowned scientist. A prayer of Thanksgiving was offered.

After one of the ministers made some additional announcements not on video, visitors were asked to stand. Only a few did so. This was followed by a fellowship time in which members milled about shaking hands while music played.

At this point, the choir performed an animated anthem, with much rhythmic clapping and swaying involved. Some in the congregation stood and clapped along with the choir during the performance. After that, Pastor Denny Davis came to the pulpit and asked for those having March birthdays to stand. After leading the congregation in singing Happy Birthday, he made some additional announcements about upcoming meetings. A soloist, along with the choir, then sang a song entitled “God Is Real,” which claimed that “God is real because I can feel Him in my soul.”

By the time Pastor Davis stood to preach, the service was nearly an hour long. Wearing a Geneva gown, he announced after a prayer that the title of his sermon was “Whatever it Takes,” taking for his text Luke 9:57-62, which reads as follows (ESV):

57 As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” 58 And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” 59 To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” 60 And Jesus[a] said to him, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” 61 Yet another said, “I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” 62 Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

Rev. Davis pointed out that in the text Jesus was exposing shallow commitments by some would be followers. After humorously referencing some secular love songs that make verbal commitments to one’s love that go well beyond what most men will actually follow through on, he pointedly stated that many Christians will sing, “I surrender all,” when they mean: “I surrender some.”

From this text, the pastor first talked about “the cost of followship.” He contrasted Jesus’ promise of the possibility of homelessness with the claims of modern prosperity preaching. He contended that Christians should not expect prosperity, but hardship, but added that rather than complain about our plight, Christians should remember the things that Jesus endured for us.

Second, the pastor spoke about “the urgency of followship.” Acknowledging that verses 59-60 appeared to be harsh, the pastor told the congregation that he had relied on a book entitled The Hard Sayings of Jesus (F.F. Bruce) to help explain the passage. Ultimately, he urged upon the congregation that we must move beyond past pain and be ready to move forward to the future in order to follow Jesus.

Finally, he spoke about the “commitment of followship,” which is to the King. One cannot follow Jesus and follow self at the same time. The pastor contended that no one can follow him and follow self at the same time. He argued that Jesus is saying here, “I have developed the rules. If you want to follow me, you have to live by the rules.”

From this point through the end of the sermon, the pastor began to use a melodic delivery that was punctuated by chords played by the organist. He closed by relating children’s games such as Simon Says to the necessity of following the words of Jesus and praying for the congregation.

An invitation for people to come forward was then made as the choir sang. The service concluded with an offering and communion taking place simultaneously while the choir and a soloist sang “The Blood Will Never Lose its Power.” Prayers were made both prior to and following the offering/communion ceremony.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

The Reformation Project: Analyzing my Visit to Watermark Church

In my previous post, I described my visit to Watermark Church. In this one, I will provide some analysis of that visit. Because the prior post is foundational to this one, I would recommend that the reader look back at that one prior to proceeding here.

Watermark Church, with a reported average attendance of just under 9,000, is the 9th largest church in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, according to data compiled by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research. The nondenominational church was founded in 1999 with a determination to evidence authenticity of their faith in Jesus Christ. That focus on authenticity is the reason for the church's name. While the church is not a part of a formal denomination, its beliefs are baptistic and dispensational.

While some of the music used in the service contained good content, it seemed overwhelmed by the performance focus of the service. In fact, the entire service, from the pop style performance music to the emotionally anxious lead singer to the preacher clad in untucked shirt telling 10 minutes worth of jokes before giving practical advice from the Bible gave the appearance of a giant youth retreat. That is not to suggest that all that happened here was bad; it is just that the service, for better or for worse, had a vibe to it.

So, the minister on this Sunday offered up practical advice on the subject of marriage. This is something that the Scripture certainly addresses, and to the pastor's credit, he utilized a lot of Bible passages in his sermon. Even so, the sermon left me with a somewhat vague sense of uneasiness. In thinking through it later, I realized that the uneasiness largely came from the realization that the minister over promised: that is to say, in his zeal to offer therapy in the midst of our therapeutic culture, he stated assurances in a way that goes beyond what God has promised to us.

Consider the following ideas expressed in the sermon:

  • If the church started getting marriage right, it would be the most earth shattering thing that the church could do;
  • Marriages can't be made right unless the Gospel enters the marriage; and
  • In a list of characteristics of successful marriages, he stated that they radically depend on Christ.
While no one should doubt that good marriages among Christians would be a positive for both church and world, the first of those bullets is biblically false. Jesus himself pointed out that even if one rose from the dead that many would not believe, and the truthfulness of that statement was demonstrated in the aftermath of his own resurrection. If the resurrection of the dead and the proclamation of the gospel lack earth shattering impact, what makes us think that our marriages would have the same? We should encourage one another in our marriages without giving to ourselves such a sense of self-importance.

The second and third bullets are demonstrably false. All of us, I suspect, know non-Christians with wonderful marriages, and we likely know Christians that have struggling ones. None of this is to say that the believer's relationship with Christ makes no difference to his marriage, nor would we deny that the Bible offers practical guidance in this area. However, in this age of the already and not yet, God's common grace to all men frequently permits them to enjoy happiness in marriage, just as the incompleteness of the sanctification of believer's often means we do poorly at marriage in this fallen world. Again, none of this should be used to excuse Christian failures (I certainly don't want to be guilty of excusing my own). However, the situation is simply more complex than the minister described it, and all of the above thoughts need to be included in wise pastoral counsel.

Good pastors should give wise counsel from Scripture about our family life. The Scripture, and the preaching of law and gospel, form the center of the pastor's message and expertise. Getting the gospel right is the most potentially earth shattering thing that the church can do. This is what must be offered to both the church and the world.

In my next two posts I will conclude this portion of the study by looking at the tenth of the largest churches in this region.

Friday, December 16, 2016

The Reformation Project: Visiting Watermark Church

DALLAS, Texas, February 23, 2014 -- Watermark Church had taken over and renovated an office complex on the south side of the Lyndon Baines Johnson freeway in North Dallas. At the time of my visit, significant construction had been ongoing, affecting both the freeway and the frontage road along which the church facility was located.  While that certainly could not have helped attendance, the church seemingly has flourished during this time of extended inconvenience.

Entering the building, one finds an enormous lobby that once functioned as the central lobby of the office complex. A large section to one side is filled with small tables at which people are seated chatting and drinking coffee. The coffee is free. Unlike many of the other churches visited, the café space in the center of the lobby is closed for Sunday. Around the café area, one can find brochures about various church activities and functions, including one describing a ministry called “re:generation.” This is a sort of recovery group. It was interesting to note that an important theological term was reappropriated for the purpose of branding that ministry.

From one side of the lobby, one can also see a children’s area that includes a jungle gym. Going through a door to that side, one finds a small pool such as is common at suburban office complexes. 
Going back inside and into the church auditorium, one finds himself in a large, semi-circular room that has a small feel due to the width of it. The room is crowded, as the passage ways between the seating sections are small. The large stage has faux wood paneling on either side, as well as two large video screens running a series of announcements about church ministries and events. At some point, a countdown clock begins displaying when the service will begin. The eight member band comes to the stage, and music promptly begins to play when the clock hits zero.

The service began with a set of five songs mingled with some talking by the worship leader and a prayer. The first song did contain some gospel content. At one point, the leader urged unbelievers to pay attention to the next song, as it would teach about who God is, but the song actually had little to say about God. The group of songs concluded with  “Cornerstone,” which consists of the lyrics to Toplady’s  “The Solid Rock” with a new tune and chorus that strings some thoughts together without any discernable purpose. Seemingly coincidentally, this song had now been sung at four of the nine churches visited to this point for the project.

In addition to the video screens, sections of the wall behind the stage changed colors frequently.
Following this singing, Pastor Todd Wagner came to center stage, using no pulpit as he spoke to the congregation while dressed in an untucked white shirt with light patterned stripes, jeans, and sneakers.

Wagner said that he would be talking about marriage today. He declared that if the church started getting this issue right that it would be the most earth shattering thing that the church could do. He claimed that marriages can’t be made right unless the gospel enters into the marriage. Citing statistics showing the impact of divorce on children, he quoted from Malachi the statement that “God hates divorce.”

Before launching into the body of his sermon, Pastor Wagner told a series of jokes about marriage, each concluding with the statement “…that’s when the fight started.  He then quoted and made brief comments about several scriptures related to marriage relationships, though he didn’t really expound any of them. Ultimately, he did use a variety of Bible passages to support his contention that there are five characteristics of individuals that have successful marriages:

  1. They resist the lies that push them into a bad relationship in the first place;
  2. They ruthlessly commit to their marriage;
  3. They regularly consider themselves to be the biggest problem;
  4. They radically depend on Christ; and
  5. They relentlessly live humbly in relationship with others.
While dwelling on the first point, Rev. Wagner made an extended and passionate argument for sexual purity prior to marriage. He closed the sermon with prayer. He mentioned that he had a video that he wanted to show, but they were out of time. Instead the service closed with a pictoral montage on the video screens of the pastor and his wife, as well as others, while the band played music.

In my next post I will provide some analysis of the service.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

The Reformation Project: Analyzing my Visit to Friendship-West Baptist

I previously described my visit to Friendship-West Baptist Church in this post. In this present essay, I will provide a bit of analysis of that visit. Readers are encouraged to read the earlier post, as it provides the basis for this one.

With a reported average attendance of 9,000, Friendship-West is the eighth largest church in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, according to information provided by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research. The church is in the southern part of Dallas, an area which has long been predominately black and economically deprived. The area has long been a center of political controversy, as it is widely alleged that economic and social policies promoted by the city favor downtown and the more affluent areas north of downtown to the detriment of the southern part of the city. This is the social environment in which Friendship-West exists and it serves to explain the reasons for some aspects of the worship service I visited.. While these factors do not excuse aspects of worship ministry that are unbiblical, they have to be considered when seeking to understand the church. After all, as will be elaborated on below, all of our churches reflect the cultural values of the people drawn to any given church, and sometimes those values, which often go unchallenged because we remain largely unaware of them, are not biblical.

This blogger has lived in the Dallas area for the last 10 years. I first became aware of Friendship-West in 2008, when then presidential candidate Barack Obama came under criticism after the release of tapes of the preaching of his minister, Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Although Mr. Obama ultimately cut ties to his minister, Friendship-West's pastor, Dr. Frederick Haynes, was a vocal defender of Rev. Wright, who he described as a friend who had preached at the church.

Three of the ten churches I visited during this study were predominately black, but those churches reflected widely divergent traditions of black Christians in the United States. Earlier, I wrote about the Potter's House, where Pastor T.D. Jakes promotes a prosperity gospel of health and wealth -- arguably Rev. Haynes criticisms of the prosperity gospel in the sermon I reported on may have been directed particularly at Rev. Jakes. A church I will write about in the near future, Saint John Baptist Church, represents a mainstream expression of the black Baptist tradition. Friendship-West Baptist places a significant focus on social justice issues and ministry.

I suspect that the church would deny that its focus on social justice comes at the expense of personal evangelism. In its favor, I would note that the church's statement of beliefs on its website is more lengthy, specific and orthodox than many of the evangelical church websites I have looked up. During the service I attended, the pastor explicitly stated that the church stood for both evangelism and social justice, though the service did not reflect such a dual emphasis, as it focused almost entirely (some of the music providing the only exception) on grievances against social injustice. In addition to material in the sermon, the use of the church service to provide an advertisement for professional services, as well as the use of church time to promote candidates for secular office, should both be questioned. The pastor used the sermon to express strong disagreement with a court decision, urging an angry response in the process.

Of course, white Christians find it easy to disagree with these types of practices, but one might point out that we do not notice the way that our own cultural expressions get in the way of biblical fidelity. In fact, because our expressions reflect majoritarian culture, they may be even more difficult to identify. Thus, it is common for churches in the United States to have American flags in their churches during worship, in spite of the fact that there is no biblical rationale for doing so, and, in fact, the presence of such flags confuses allegiances, as God's people gather to worship a King whose kingdom extends beyond national boundaries. The practice is so common I rarely even notice it. Another example, expressed directly by Dr. Haynes, is the common pictorial expression of a white European Jesus. While I disagree with Haynes' rather extended but spurious argument that Jesus was actually black, he is certainly correct that Jesus did not look like the white portrayals. Dr. Haynes argued for black portrayals of Jesus. To the contrary, I would argue that we should stop altogether remaking Jesus in our cultural images. Both the white Jesus and the black one, for many reasons, are violations of the Second Commandment.

I appreciated Dr. Haynes' criticisms of prosperity preachers, who promulgate a message that is harmful to all people, particularly to the many poor people who live in the community around this church and compose, no doubt, many of its members. However, the message he preached also gave focus to a different gospel of cultural grievance. By looking to an eschaton that will come about through hostile political activism, the pastor seems to have buried the transformational hope that only comes about through the real Gospel of Christ, who himself experienced oppression in spite of living a sinless life, and who was crucified. That Christ rose again and is seated at the right hand of the Father making intercession for us. Those who suffer for him also reign with him.

That is not to deny that social ministry can be an aspect of the church's ministry, particularly as it equips its members to work actively in their vocations for the good of the community. Indeed, using many New Testament passages as an example (several of Paul's letters highlight a , this should be a cooperative enterprise among believers. Sadly, the churches on the northern side of the DFW north/south divide don't seem to have much interaction with those to the south. One might wish that could change.

Finally, because many aspects of the service seemed openly hostile, with a generalized anger directed toward whites, I want to state that the people around me in the service treated me graciously during a fellowship time, as well as both before and after the service. In the pews, we were brothers and sisters in Christ.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

The Reformation Project: Visiting Friendship-West Baptist Church

DALLAS, Texas, February 16, 2014. The campus of Friendship-West Baptist Church sits along the north side of Interstate 20 to the south of downtown Dallas.  This was the only church visited for this study that had traditional pews. The large, elevated stage and choir loft was framed by two large video screens to either side that scrolled various church announcements as the congregation filtered into the sanctuary. As the early service started, the lower level was mostly full, and the balcony would largely fill in as the morning went on.

As the service appeared to be formally beginning, a video was played in which a physician, Dr. Andre Graham, advertised his professional services.  This was followed by an advertisement for an upcoming conference that was taking place that week and which would be discussed further in the service. In fact, a large number of visitors prominently seated near the front would be playing leadership roles in that conference. Other advertisements played, as well.

This was followed by another video of roughly five minutes length featuring a black woman describing various forms of racial injustice that she had experienced throughout her life, going back to her birth in Temple, Texas, for which her parents had relied on the services of a midwife because doctors refused to see blacks in that area.  She described numerous experiences of discrimination, both in employment and as a would be consumer of services. Explaining that she had lived in other states, she added that the worst of her discrimination had occurred in Texas. As the taped testimony concluded, she exhorted the congregation that education was something that could not be taken away.
This was followed by a long, vibrant prayer by a female minister of the church.

An energetic song leader, assisted by a band, praise team, and full choir, led the musical part of the service, which began with songs declaring “It’s all about Jesus” and “When You Call upon Jesus, Something Happens.” The music was repetitive and emotional, consistent with black church traditions extending back throughout American history. Interestingly, an organ was not heard during most of the congregational and other singing, but it did play in accompaniment to persons speaking.

Pastor Frederick B. Haynes, III, who, it was noted, had just celebrated his 31st anniversary as the pastor of the church, welcomed those in attendance.  During these opening remarks, he made mention of “nonsense in Florida last night.” As I had not seen the news that morning, I was uncertain as to what he was speaking about, but as it became clear that this subject would be a significant point of discussion in the service – Pastor Haynes indicated that he had changed his sermon plans in light of the news -- I quickly scanned the news on my smart phone and learned that a jury had returned a verdict of guilty in 4 of 5 counts in a case involving a white man shooting into the truck of a group of black teenagers. The fact that the not guilty count involved the most serious charge enraged the minister, and he would discuss the nature of his anger through the course of much of the sermon later in the morning.

At this time, he mentioned that many guests were in attendance for the upcoming Proctor Conference, an annual event encouraging political activism on the part of the black church. Attendees included a representative from the World Council of Churches. The minister also worked in a reference to Fox News, who he identified as Fake News while expressing unhappiness that a story critical of a black minister had appeared on the network in the previous week.

The pastor then used a portion of the service for the purpose of introducing the congregation to members of the church who would be up for election in primaries to be held the following week. The candidates had completed cards about their candidacy that were read by the pastor, who expressed his approval of them to the congregation – he took care not to actually endorse anyone, but wanted the congregation to be aware of their presence on this Sunday. In addition to individuals who would be on the ballot, Rev. Haynes also asked controversial, but popular, Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price to come to the platform. At the time of this service, it had been widely reported that Commissioner Price was under investigation from the Justice Department for various crimes associated with his position (he has since been indicted and is awaiting trial), but Pastor Haynes provided his enthusiastic endorsement for Commissioner Price’s work to the applause of the congregation. For the remainder of the service, Commissioner Price would be seated prominently near the front of the congregation, enthusiastically raising his hand or standing to show approval for many of the pastor’s most controversial statements.

Pastor Haynes additionally spoke about his work along with Pastor Jeremiah Wright, the controversial former pastor of President Barack Obama, in encouraging churches to combine an emphasis on individual salvation and social justice in the same manner as Wright’s Trinity United Church of Christ and Hayne’s Friendship West Baptist.

After an announcement by Dr. Iva Carothers promoting the Proctor Conference, the congregation was treated to a violin solo by Daniel Davis. Only in his early 20’s, Mr. Davis showed considerable talent and poise, continuing to work flawlessly after the microphone on the violin failed and required changing. This was followed by an offering, which essentially required everyone in attendance to file to the front. This enormous undertaking for a large crowd was handled in an organized and expeditious manner. The choir then performed “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah.”

The text for Dr. Hayne’s sermon was from Matthew 2, the text recounting Herod’s murder of the innocents following the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. He criticized Christian groups that claim to be pro-life while cutting funding for government programs and otherwise displaying a failure to value black life. Along those lines, he suggested that the jury verdict in Florida furthered an attitude explicit in American culture, as revealed by provisions in the U.S. Constitution as originally ratified that counted blacks as 3/5 of a person.

Dr. Haynes sharply criticized ministers that failed to address these issues, saying that “Herod always has some preachers on payroll that he can pimp.” In particular, he resented those ministers that preached prosperity instead of prophetically speaking truth to power.  The church needs more preachers like Moses and Nathan, he urged, and, in that vein, he offered criticisms of President Obama for his drone policy, suggesting in the process that the President had been duped by the Jewish lobby. Nonetheless, he urged that God’s people also have the faith to see beyond the troubles of right now to a better not yet.

Returning to the Matthew 2 text, the pastor pointed out that Joseph found safety in Egypt, argued that Egyptians were black Africans, and contended that the fact that Jesus could be hidden there proved that the Messiah was also black.  He expressed disdain for white depictions of Jesus, but instead of opposing images of Jesus as violations of the second commandment against the use of images as aids to worship, he insisted that depictions of Jesus should be of a black person.

He used those thoughts as a further springboard calling on blacks to rediscover the achievements of African culture, including medicine and the building of the pyramids.  He then returned to the subject of the Florida trial, complaining that other preachers “will not say one damn word about what happened last night.” Anticipating criticism for the use of the curse word in that statement, he expressed outrage that there is no controversy around damning black children. While continuing to express anger toward the verdict, he offered hope that God has the last word regarding all injustice.

Following a prayer addressed to God, who was described as “our Father and Mother,” he offered an invitation for those who need “to give your life to the Lord.” This was followed by a video promoting the work of St. Jude’s hospital, for which the church received an offering, and a benediction based on the Aaronic blessing.

Monday, December 12, 2016

The Reformation Project: Analyzing my Visit to The Village Church

I previously reported on my visit to The Village Church in this post. Readers who did not view that post are encouraged to peruse it prior to proceeding through this one, as I am now analyzing the information previously described.

The Village Church, with a reported attendance over 10,000, is the seventh largest church in the Dallas/Fort Worth area according to the Hartford Institute for Religion Research. Prior to the arrival of pastor Matt Chandler, the congregation was known as the Highland Village First Baptist Church. It has since changed its name and moved its primary location to what was once an Albertson's grocery. In addition to promoting growth at its main campus, the church has maintained an aggressive program of working with satellite churches in the DFW metroplex as well as providing resources for church starts elsewhere.

The church remains affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, though more important to understanding its identity is its affiliation with the Acts 29 Network, of which Pastor Chandler became president of its board following the removal of Mark Driscoll. Acts 29 is coalition of generally Calvinistic and often Baptistic churches committed to planting like minded congregations.

Given those connections, I will admit to looking forward to my visit at The Village Church, as this was the congregation in my study with which I would personally have the most in common. That sense of expectation would be both met in some respects and in other ways disappointed by the service I attended.

As I left the worship service along with my wife and son, my wife suddenly asked, "Is this church really Reformed?" It is an interesting question that can only be answered by asking what the meaning of "Reformed" is.

For many, the term "Reformed" simply has to do with whether one accepts the five points of Calvinism. By that definition, the church would be considered Reformed. Others will find that definition to be insufficient from a historical and theological perspective, insisting that the historically Reformed churches held to certain views with regard to the sacraments and church government. By that definition, no Baptist or Baptistic churches could be considered Reformed (in earlier generations, Baptists who took what we now refer to as Calvinistic views referred to themselves as "Particular Baptists, not Reformed). More important to the present discussion is this: historically, the Reformed churches, in addition to having doctrinal confessions, have made use of directories of worship. By that standard, as well as the second one, The Village Church could not be considered "Reformed." The regulative principle of worship adhered to by historically Reformed churches, including Baptist ones, was no where to be found on this Sunday morning.

That is not intended to be overly negative toward the church. Certainly, I found much to agree with in the sermon. The principles outlined for understanding and applying the teaching of the book of Acts were certainly sound and worthy of the attention of any Bible reader. Though I had one minor quibble, I also thought that the teaching surrounding the work of the Spirit in Acts was also very good. Additionally, the pastor mentioned that for those who wanted additional study material that he would be posting more resources on social media. This is an enormously valuable tool available to churches. More should make use of it.

So, unlike some of the other churches I visited, in which I have expressed harsh thoughts regarding the preaching, I thought Chandler's message, which was intended only as an introduction to a series on the rest of the book, was sound. Unfortunately, there was an enormous disconnect between the sermon and the worship.

Over the course of this study, I visited churches with a wide range of free church traditions -- Baptist (both Reformed and Arminian), charismatic, Pentecostal, nondenominational. However, in terms of what happens during worship, for the most part these churches share less in common with their traditions than they do with one another. Thus, a member from the charismatic Gateway Church walking in on the first part of the worship at the Reformed-ish and Baptist The Village Church would feel right at home (though, truthfully, the music at Gateway was better in the services I attended). On the other hand, someone from a historically Reformed church would not be sure of what in the world he had come upon.

It is an open question whether Reformed doctrines divorced from Reformed worship can be sustained across generations. It will remain for future studies of this church and others like it to know.