All churches these days don’t look like churches.
Riding down Gibson Road, a passer-by might wonder about the large dark wooden building at the corner of John Calhoun Road.
There’s no sign out front, only the words “Multitudes Church” on the side of the building, whose exterior gives no suggestion it is home to a large congregation of Christians, 200 to 250 on a usual Sunday.
No steeple, no stained glass windows, no pews, no organ, no choir, no communion table and no preacher wearing clerical robes.
Those of us who grew up in a denominational setting may still be confused by all these changes that have cropped up during recent years.
We see some congregations renting unoccupied store fronts in strip malls or space at a school, for example, or in some cases, making a deal to meet on Sunday afternoon in an existing church. Traditional churches sometimes find they have too few members to support their building and are happy to pick up some help by renting to a fledgling group looking for a place to gather.
Even more confusing to those of us schooled in a particular denomination, some of these new congregations make it known from the beginning that they never intend to build a church building, opting instead to avoid what they consider an unnecessary drain on finances. These congregations believe that keeping up a church building is not the best way to use tithes and offerings.
Other recently organized nondenominational congregations do have buildings, just not buildings that look like traditional churches. That’s because they design these buildings to reflect the way they worship and the way they “do church.”
Multitudes is one of these. It does not have a “sanctuary” and doesn’t look any more like a church inside than it does outside.
The very large open worship center is typical of cutting edge congregations that show significant growth while traditional mainline denominations continue their steady downward spiral.
Multitudes’ worship center can handle about 500 chairs, no pews. There’s a large platform in front and a storefront set on either side of the worship center. It’s like walking down Main Street with the Laurel Hill Fire Department on one side and Pankey Town School and the General Store on the other.
Last Sunday, a talented group of church players, men, women, teens, children, performed after the sermon on the theme of a proverbial phrase: “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.”
Move over “Saturday Night Live” — this church’s improv team, including adult men as well as children, pulled off some very witty lines with the ease of seasoned professionals.
A smaller group called the “OAM” (On A Mission) drama team of teens and children did mime and danced to “Break Every Chain.”
In a United Methodist Church, this might be called “Liturgical Dance,” but at Multitudes it’s the same genre but with a different approach, a different beat.
Different is often what makes a difference in these churches, where the nondenominational label, for example, is attracting younger adults who are not particularly impressed by worship in mainline churches. Casual dress is also an attraction with jeans, T-shirts and athletic shoes leading the fashion parade. Last Sunday, the Multitudes pastor was wearing a denim shirt and jeans.
This is not a church for golfers who have a 12:30 p.m. tee time at the country club or the golf course. Last Sunday, the 11 a.m. service was still in full swing until after 1 p.m.
Music is totally contemporary accompanied by a rock band and an excellent piano player who according to a church member was “self-taught.”
Opie Swails is the pastor. He and his wife started the church in 1997 with about 19 people who came to see a puppet show. Work on the present building began in 2002 and the congregation moved in two years later.
Growing to its present attendance in such a relatively short time is impressive.
In that sense this congregation could be classified as a Seeker Church, the kind that offers seekers what they are looking for. But its strong emphasis on performance (music, drama) might suggest it is part of the Future Church Movement or the Emerging Church Movement, which emphasizes the importance of using all the senses in worship.
Whatever it is, a lot of folks in the area are finding it to their liking.
But how about the preaching?
Personally, I don’t like preachers who use big words and are dedicated to making an impression, or those who spend a significant part of preaching time promoting themselves.
Pastor Swails did neither.
His message was based on a well known passage from the Old Testament, the text in Ezekiel 37:14 about the dry bones coming to life. A powerful image of how lives can change when people include God in the mix.
His preaching style is powerful, but not bombastic, no yelling or stomping around.
In conversation this week, this pastor said, “My concern is to be a preacher of truth. What I know from the word of God, not in my opinion.”
On the question of homosexuality, an issue dividing mainline churches today, Pastor Swails said that gays are welcome in this congregation.
“We welcome them the same way that Jesus would. I have preached on the subject,” he said. “We have gay people who are very faithful to the church.”
In a section called “Prayer Needs,” the Sunday bulletin listed 131 names of congregation members and others requesting prayer, more people than most churches have on their membership rolls!
Sunday services are at 11 a.m., but don’t go an hour earlier looking for Sunday school. No Sunday school in this church. Christian education classes are offered at 7 p.m. on Wednesday nights, preceded by supper from 5:45-6:30 p.m.
Reach Flo Johnston at email@example.com or 910-361-4135.