A New Church and Thoughts on Church Culture


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A friend slash one-of-my-former-small-group-teachers slash former-children’s-pastor-to-my-children is starting a new church in the Huntsville area. It’s called Refuge Church, and you can read more about the why and when at findrefugehere.com.

While I’m very happy to promote Refuge Church, that’s not why I’m writing this so I’m not going to tell their story here. It’s not my story to tell, and they tell it well on their web site.

I’m writing this because as part of supporting the new church I’ve sat in on some planning meetings where discussions have been had about church culture, and I went down to Birmingham this past week with them to Church of the Highlands to see how they accomplish a welcoming culture and how they set up a school as a church (which is what Refuge will be doing) and still maintain a welcoming, hospitable culture.

Refuge leaders talk about the idea of excellence in everything the church does and they’ve used Disney World as an example. Did you know that after closing Disney repaints certain areas of the park? They replant flowers and landscape daily to give their parks the same fresh and new look and feel every single day. Why should Disney, an entertainment company, be the best at something and the church not even care about those things?

It’s irritated me for a long while — and I’ve been guilty and irritated at myself for this too, so not casting stones — that we’ll wake up early or stay up late for sporting events and entertainment but 9 o’clock church is too early to sacrifice sleep for. Also, why should the sporting events and concerts have all the fun and church be “boring”? Why do we cheer louder on Saturday for our favorite team than we do for God on Sunday?

So, at Church of the Highlands this past week, we talked about the things that struck us about how church here was different than “traditional” church. One of the things I said and noticed right off the bat is people want to be here. We got there at 7:15 for the 8 o’clock service and people were already there at the church’s Starbucks-like cafe and the church bookstore and the Internet cafe, interacting with each other and getting ready to serve and/or worship. Between the 8 o’clock and 9:30 services the corridors were full of people waiting for the 8 o’clockers to get out of the sanctuary so they could go in at 9:30. There was an eagerness to be there and to fellowship with people and to sing to God and to hear teaching from the pastor, and that to me was refreshing.

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People waiting to get into the 9:30 service

Along the themes of excellence is a small detail that may not seem to contribute much to the kingdom of God but it really does, and that is the bathroom soap. I had heard about the bathroom soap before coming — what’s that say that your church has a high reputation for good soap that people two hours a way are talking about it? The bathroom soap is a stress relieving scented soap from Bath & Body Works. Are people going to get saved because of the bathroom soap? Probably not. But are people going to feel loved and cherished and lavished upon by God’s people when even the soap is special? Maybe so. And they’ll continue coming to that safe place, and as long as the pastor is preaching God’s word, salvations will happen. Church of the Highlands has had more than 8,000 salvations so far this year, so there just be something to this.

On the way down to Birmingham I asked Jason, Refuge pastor, if he had a sense of whether Church of the Highlands — which was a church start 12 years ago and now has more than 20,000 members at three locations and three services (a total of nine services) — are primary pulling from other churches or are they successful are reaching the unchurched? This is an important question I think because we don’t need more churches for churched people to move around between, but a church that’s successfully drawing in those who aren’t already in church is something I can get behind.

So, Jason asked this to the Highlands pastor that met with our group, and his answer blew my mind and was paradigm shifting. He said, churched or unchurched, it doesn’t matter; people are disconnected from God and that’s who they’re seeking to minister to and to draw in so that people are connected to God, whether they’ve been in church their whole life or are brand new believer. Wow, right?

So I want to end with a funny story about the photo at the top of the worship service. The worship was rockin’ with instruments and lights and we were singing when just as I pulled my iPhone camera out to take a picture the power went out. Instruments, lights, microphones, everything were out. But you know what? We all kept singing and didn’t miss a beat. The leaders kept playing their instruments even though we couldn’t hear them and we all kept singing the chorus a capella, and it was kinda beautiful. I stood there thinking how awesome this was that the power went out but that the lack of electricity didn’t stop or even slow the praise. The electricity may have gone out, but the power of worship didn’t wane one bit.

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