This morning we attended The Orchard, a seven-year-old United Methodist congregation that has become the largest and the fastest growing church in Tupelo. It's a megachurch in the making, with a large new building that looks like a modern office complex, with acres of parking, on a major road that runs on the west side of the airport. The church styles itself as a contemporary congregation featuring lay-driven ministry, an extensive small group network, and a seeker-driven approach. To say the church is booming would be an understatement. What struck me is that such a church could flourish in a conservative, Bible Belt town like Tupelo. This afternoon my sister-in-law Betty called from Florence, AL, 90 miles to the northeast. When I mentioned that we had attended the Orchard, she not only knew of the church, but said some of her friends had driven over from Florence to attend one of the services this morning. You know you've got something going when they're driving in from other states.
The church's website notes that the founding pastor, Brian Collier, studied successful churches around the country before founding The Orchard. Somewhere along the way, he got hooked up with Bill Hybels who is quoted as saying that at Willowcreek, they think outside the box, but at the Orchard, they've lost the box entirely.
Here are a few random observations from this morning's service. The congregation is on the young side, as you would expect. When we arrived (a few minutes late), the parking lot was absolutely packed with cars. The sanctuary (or auditorium) resembled a large multipurpose meeting room with the ceiling left open to expose the girders, air conditioning ducts, banks of lights, and so on. We saw no Christian symbols. I would estimate that 900-1000 people filled the 1400 seats. They run an early service at 8:30, followed by a family hour plus a coffee break, followed by the 11 AM service (which we attended). I didn't see a single suit or tie. People dressed very informally. A small praise band led worship, although not many people seemed to be singing. Pastor Brian Collier stepped on the stage dressed in light khaki pants and a light blue shirt, open collar, with his shirt sleeves rolled up. This morning's sermon was all about the real meaning of baptism. I think he preached about 25 minutes. His style is casual, friendly and non-threatening. He spoke without a pulpit and without notes. I noted that he never moved from where he was standing for the entire sermon. I'm no expert on these things but I think his laid-back style of preaching would be very much in vogue today. Several verses from Matthew 3 were projected on two huge video screens. It's hard to say much about the content of his message except that his presented a case for baptism that was partly Lutheran and partly Reformed. At one point he said that since baptism is God's work, it doesn't matter whether you are six weeks old when you are baptized or sixteen years old or sixty years old. While I beg to differ with that point, since I advocate believer's baptism, I do not fault him for declaring the truth as he sees it. The sermon ended with the announcement that we would now witness the baptism of Angel Savage, a fourteen-year-old girl. Her videotaped testimony was introduced with a few bars of loud music. Then one of the pastors immersed her in a baptismal tank. The congregation stood and applauded, which seemed like a nice touch. Pastor Brian noted that her "community" (a gathering of small groups) had entered the auditorium to watch her baptism.
After the baptism while the worship team sang a song (it was not clear whether we were supposed to sing along or not), the ushers received the offering. Then someone made an announcement about getting involved in a small group, someone else made a pitch for a Halloween alternative event for families this afternoon. The woman making the pitch then said, "Thanks for coming." With that, the service was over and everyone got up to leave.
Over the weekend someone told me that Harrisburg Baptist Church (which I visited last Sunday) and the Orchard are the two largest churches in Tupelo. You could hardly imagine two more opposite ways of doing church. Harrisburg is a growing, vibrant, spiritually alive Southern Baptist church organized in a very traditional manner with a strong emphasis on the Sunday School. The Orchard represents a new wave of churches springing up around the country that are non-traditional in terms of organization, worship and outreach. Both churches are evangelical and both seem to be healthy and vibrant, but they rest at different ends of the spectrum.
That leads me to say something about what it feels like to attend church as a participant and not as a leader. This is the first time in 26 years that I’ve not had a regularly Sunday ministry, and in a way it is refreshing and challenging and instructive. Let me put it this way. The view from the pew looks a lot different than the view from the pulpit. It’s good to be part of the congregation and not one of the leaders for this chapter of life. I’m going to write about some of my observations eventually because I’m learning new things every week.