sunday morning: express to mess

Continuing the “color commentary” for my whopping NINE church service visits this weekend, here’s the update from Sunday morning…

(The first three services are covered in Saturday’s post, and all this crazy weekend’s main posts are logged in this first post.)

catching the 8am express

One of the values of a billion church visits this year has been seeing unique tweaks to the classic “weekend service.” In the case of SouthGate Church, each Sunday morning begins with what they call their Express Service. The aptly named experience runs a guaranteed 30 minutes, from 8am to 8:30! (They were big on that guarantee business – I saw the words “30-minute guarantee” on at least 3 different materials.)

I wondered… was this “Express Service” just pitiful pandering to a consumeristic culture? Or was it a purposeful strategy to get a “foot in the door” with potential congregants – or, more appropriately, to get attenders’ feet inside the church’s door – in hopes of drawing them in for more?

It turned out to be the latter. And it started with a bang; on the way in, the older guy sitting on a bench gave one of the most genuine-yet-purposeful greetings I’ve received at a church this year. After chatting warmly and introducing me to a “regular,” he gave me my first-timers’ packet and – this is key – noted that if I liked what I saw, they would love for me to come back or even stay Sunday for the later (longer) service.

It’s an interesting strategy, as long as you execute it well…


The service ended at 8:38, 36 minutes after starting. Certainly, and especially for the service’s target audience, a broken guarantee could be a dealbreaker, right? To me, it wasn’t too big a deal. Although I ended up 9 minutes late to my next service, so… maybe it kinda was.

getting my morning coffey

Phoenix First Assembly of God was last year’s 14th most influential church in America and the 11th largest at a reported 16,000 in weekly attendance, so I Pathfindered my way over there Sunday to see what all the fuss is about!

While I didn’t get to enjoy the sights as I rushed in (and later back to my car), the grounds of “Phoenix First” are probably the prettiest I’ve seen in awhile. They’ve taken some cues in landscaping and fountains from the likes of the Crystal Cathedral, though it’s certainly not to that scope. The sanctuary is also plenty big – one of the half-dozen double-balconies I’ve seen this year.

How do you get to be on the Most Influential list? One thing I’ve noticed all year is that plenty of churches on that list are probably “top of the heap” in their segment. That means being one of the very biggest or very “loudest” in the denomination or some other major identity group. When a whole bunch of like-styled churches watch how you do things – like all the United Methodists (Granger Community Church) or all the Multi-site churches ( – it naturally makes you influential.

In the case of Phoenix First Assembly of God, my guess is they heavily influence a couple of “segments,” actually: first, the large denomination of which they’re a part; second, those in “TBN-style” ministry. Put those two segments together, and that’s an awful lot of churches. Further, Pastor Tommy is the father of (and sometimes co-pastor with, in an arrangement I don’t fully understand) Matthew Barnett, who leads the Dream Center / Angelus Temple in Los Angeles, the founding congregation of the Foursquare Church back in the day.

Most fun part of this service? Coffey Anderson from “Nashville Star” participated in leading worship. I’m not a big fan of country music, but for some reason I do really enjoy “country worship.” Maybe I just miss Texas.

invited by a friend

Obviously, many people try a new church when invited by a friend. I had that experience with the next church. Sort of.

I had planned on attending my third church of the morning a little ways across town, hoping and semi-expecting Phoenix First to last a little shorter than it did. When it left me with about five minutes to get to my next church, I called an audible. But how would I find another church in time?

Garmin, my wonderful Garmin GPS, my faithful friend in a year-long excursion, came through for me once again. After she quickly listed numerous churches, I realized I was approaching one – North Mountain Baptist Church. As the road curved, it revealed the small North Mountain Church (“Baptist” was removed in 2006, apparently). Glancing at the sign, I found the 10:30 service time I was hoping for. I parked by a palm tree and plopped into a pew with time to spare.

Besides the dramatic means of arrival, I can think of three more particular notes. First, the youngish worship leader did a quite admirable job of leading a generally-older-than-him congregation through some pretty contemporary songs.

Second, I was reminded that Ferrell and Walken have probably forever ruined the cowbell for serious use among those in my generation. Not that it had too far to go in the first place. While that worship song was pretty fun, I personally couldn’t quit laughing. (It probably didn’t help that I was in my third church service before noon.)

Third, I was touched watching a dad with his mentally challenged son sitting a few rows ahead. I do not have the patience dad displayed – nor the focus in worship, even when I don’t have the attentions of a patting, kissing, grabbing, fidgeting child. It was a beautiful picture.

Old and young, cowbells and patience. A gorgeous mess indeed, this Bride of Christ.

Written from Tempe, AZ

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