I took a morning off from the Spiritual Directors International conference, in which I couldn't have felt more religiously or socially comfortable, to visit the North Coast Church in Oceanside, where I steeled myself to be a Stranger. But I wanted to see how they did their four campus, four venue, four service time video worship. Their congregation has more than 10 times our membership, but there are things to be learned.
This multi-site, multi venue church rocks in more ways than one.
It's current site is one of those semi-industrial office park sites off an exurban highway about 10 miles inland. Here's what I experienced.
I'd checked over the website for directions. The website pointed me to visitor parking and to the visitor welcome booth I'd find in the plaza. I found that booth, and was greeted by an extremely personable young man, who, upon discovering that I was interested in multi-site for my church offered to show me around the whole campus, asked about my role and church, took my answers in stride in spite of the fact that they lay outside the bounds of his communion, and answered all my questions. I noted an extremely well organized and well appointed children's ministry, which includes a Special Needs class. He presently delivered me to my chosen venue (the video cafe) and pointed out the coffee and rolls.
There were signs and clues everywhere. Necessary in part because this campus didn't look like a church, but also calming for the first timer. I could see the options as to where to go, where I might have taken my children, where the restrooms were, and so on. I discovered that a donation was expected for the drinks (coffee, tea, water bottles, and cokes at this site. Just coffee in the "main sanctuary" and "traditional" sites, and coffee and Mountain Dew in "The Edge", which resembled a rock concert stage. I didn't have to ask anybody anything, which would have been nice if I'd not been in "find out everything I can" work mode.
The worship folder had no order of worship, but it listed dozens of small groups, retreats, classes, and service projects.
So with my coffee and roll, I go sit in a plastic lawn chair set in rows facing a stage full of warming-up musicians. The rows are far enough apart that little plastic coffee tables are also in the rows. The band leader informs us that the tables are there so we can put our coffee down and raise our arms in praise, which he makes us practice. This plain Jane space has been made comfortable for lots of people with a minimum amount of money, but everything is clean and comfortable. The audio and video equipment looks state of the art and performs flawlessly. There's an extremely well constructed set in the main venue, which we'll all appreciate as the background to the preacher. There are no flowers, no windows, no kneelers, no crosses, no swaths of cloth adding color, no art, no vestments. The only thing you’d call beautiful are the people around you. But the audio is perfect.
This church is affiliated with the Evangelical Free Churches of America. I've come the Sunday after Easter. The subject, it is clear from the worship folder, will be the empty tomb. No communion, however. I've been told already that communion is only served in the Traditional venue, but that the majority of the congregation (85%) belong to small groups which celebrate communion together on a monthly basis. I can't help but think that Jesus would approve of that.
So we sing and praise (mostly with arms at our side.) The music is simple and the words are projected on the screen, and does seem to be producing better singing. I've never heard any of these songs before but I catch on and join in. The band leader is an infectious worship leader and he has everyone singing along. The crowd is mostly folks like me. Suburban. Jeans. (I'm overdressed in Chinos and a jacket.) Some younger, some older, most but not all Anglo. More African Americans and fewer Orientals than I've been seeing in Southern California all week, but perhaps that is because the gifted band leader is a young African American. (the rest of the band includes a two “California Blond Beauties”, one of whom was a dwarf, and a middle aged bass player who projected a strange lack of affect.
There were no children in this sugar and caffeine haven. There is a short note to parents in the bulletin. "All of our worship venues are designed for adults. We believe that your child will get the most out of their North Coast experience if they are with their age group. We will notify you by buzzer if your child needs you. If you feel that your child needs to sit with you, please sit at the end of a row so if they become distressed or playful, you can quickly move out to the family area, where you can follow the service on video. Your fellow worshippers will thank you."
Even before I found out that the typical North Coast sermon is 45-55 minutes long, I thought that that was a good idea.
Yep. 47 minutes yesterday. And all on video. After about 20 minutes of singing, there were some very brief announcements given by a fellow watching a clock count down, and from then on it was video. It was an amazing performance. This preacher used his notes about three times during the 47 minutes, and used a variety of techniques to keep our attention. We followed along in our worship folder, where there were some questions and reflection opportunities. In spite of the fact that this was very much NOT my theology, I learned something and had a chance to think about an aspect of my life. Those folders become the discussion outline for the small groups that will meet during the week.
The band reappeared, there were a few more announcements, another song, and the video came back on for the benediction. An offering was taken, and an invitation to greet those around us as we left.
In spite of the foreign theology, I left feeling good. And the fellow behind me and I exchanged a warm greeting. As I passed the greeters booth, I waved to my tour guide, and he walked me to my car talking about the Multi Site conference to be held in Chicago next month and asked for my card so he could give it to their staff person in charge of resourcing other churches. I had a feeling that this young fellow didn't know what a Unitarian was, and it will be interesting to see if I hear from them.
When I return to my car, someone has left a leaflet on it thanking me for visiting and and inviting me to follow the maps to park in the main parking lots next time I come. These folks have thought of everything.