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Doing worship in the Heart of Dixie

In the summer of 2001, my husband and I left the West Coast (where we’d spent most of our lives) and moved to Montgomery, Alabama (in the heart of the Heart of Dixie). It was (to say the least) a culture shock, but one we’ve both enjoyed and embraced. We brought many things with us (like our “Yankee” accents and California lifestyle) and left others behind (like Indian food restaurants and any hope of getting things done quickly).

Another thing we left behind was Greenhaven Neighborhood Church, then a 150+ member church. I really liked that church, its informal style and how we worshiped (our worship band was made up of guys from a local rock band—I saw them perform once and loved it). I lived a few blocks from it, I was familiar with the denomination (Mennonite Brethren, for which I was then editor of their magazine), and it was the church in which I came to embrace being a servant rather than warming a pew. In other words, it was where I started becoming the church rather than just attending one.

When we moved to Montgomery, I researched churches on the Web (mostly using a Willow Creek registry and the term “contemporary worship”). A couple of churches popped up, but the second one I tried was Frazer UMC—and I knew the minute I walked into the contemporary worship service that it was going to be home.

A bit of info about Frazer: The church currently has a membership of about 8,000 with a weekly attendance at seven services (three traditional, three contemporary and one Spanish) of a little over 5,000. So, yes, we are a mega church (but it’s the smallest big church I’ve run across for various reasons, which I will save for another day).

Frazer had started a contemporary worship service back in 1996 (way before my time) in a gym on Wednesday nights with about 30-40 people in attendance. Then, about a couple of years before I got there, they got serious. They hired a worship leader and set up a Sunday service (9:30am) in the church’s Fellowship Hall in either 1999 or 2000 (I can't remember, ack). It didn’t take long before they moved to two then three Sunday morning services and finally outgrew that room (which holds about 1,000). In July 2005, a building project was competed which not only provides a larger multi-purpose auditorium (which holds 2,000) where special events are held and contemporary worship services meet, but also an atrium area which provides a large meeting area where those attending all services (traditional, contemporary, and Hispanic) can mingle.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. When I walked in the door in August 2001, they were still at one service with about 500-600 people sitting in rows of folding chairs. The first thing I saw was the larger-than-life cutouts of movie stars, popcorn boxes, and soda lining the front of the Hall (heh, some of those are still in my garage from a birthday party my friends threw for me). On stage (yes, I was late—a habit I can’t seem to break) was a band playing the best contemporary worship music I’d ever heard (turns out we were a bit behind on worship song development in my California church). During the service, they showed a movie clip on two large projection screens on either side of the front of the hall (I was in absolute heaven by then). Then John Schmidt, the teaching pastor for contemporary worship, got up and preached a sermon laced with Kingdom of God language and sharp-edged biblical truth.

As the now-famous line goes, they had me at "hello." They were doing what I'd only dreamed could be done. While there’s tons of sites out there that can articulate exactly what contemporary worship is, for me it’s Acts 17 (a formational text in my heart and mind) in action—using culture like Paul did to connect to his audience and lead them to Jesus. I’d been to dozens of churches in my job as an editor, but I’d never seen one like this. They were using a slew of things—drama (much of it original), film or TV show clips, commercials, popular culture themes and topics, multi-media, creative handouts and visual aids, creative set designs, “wow” factors, popular music, a friendly host team, and solid, fresh looks at biblical texts and truth—to bring people the Message of Jesus in a way that broke through the preconceptions (which are strong in the South) and barriers they’d erected against it and God.

I wanted to know how they did it—and it didn’t take too long to find out. My husband and I joined the church and a couple of months later I finagled my way onto the contemporary worship planning team (after I interviewed John for an article for the church’s newspaper, which impressively has a circulation almost the size of the MB’s monthly magazine of which I was still editor).

What is the planning team? A group of five to eight incredibly creative, God-loving, Jesus-following people (both church staff and volunteers) with a heart to get the Message into the hearts and minds of people. (They don’t officially describe themselves that way, but that’s how I see them.) Each week, the team hashes through what worked and didn’t work in the previous service and plans the next one. We examine all the elements—from the handout at the door to the sermon itself—to make sure they enhance the message and don’t detract from it. Each month, we try to take time to “brainstorm” the next series in the line-up (we usually run three- to six-week series on a topic). A few times a year we meet to plan about six months out. We recently finished an "America's Idols" series (playing off the popular American Idol TV show but focusing on the "idols" of power, pleasure and possessions), and before that a "Desperate Households" series (playing off the popular Desperate Housewives but focusing on how to counter the desperation in our homes and relationships) and a Narnia series over Christmas. You get the idea.

I still have the urge to pinch myself most Sundays. I feel very blessed to have come upon such a church and group of people who not only live in the Kingdom but also want to help others get there, too. And how can I not share that here, on a blog of God and culture? So, if you’re into contemporary worship, check back each week (if I can stay that organized) to see how we are doing it in the Heart of Dixie.

First up? Our six-week series on the Da Vinci Code. If contemporary worship is your thing, stay-tuned! If not, well, just skip these posts!

(Image: my license plate; every license plate is required to have "The Heart of Dixie" on it)


Karen said…
I wish I could "pinch myself" and be back there at the contemporary worship service at Frazer. John Schmidt is so right on. Rob and the worship ministers are God fearing and blessed musicians and it's all good. We joined Frazer's Contemporary Worship service during the Tunnel of Love series in Feb of 2002. They really have it right there, and we haven't found anything like Frazer in our military travels since. Enjoy!