As stated in previous posts, these observations come from my journey through Lent 2005 with the faithful of Ecclesia Houston. I should note that the church no longer meets in the physical church space I describe (West End Baptist Church), but in Taft Street Coffee House. I also want to publicly thank Pastor Chris Seay for permission to “observe” and write about Ecclesia.
Several things strike observers of Ecclesia. To the right of the three-door entrance to the sanctuary there is a large banner tied to a locked black iron gate that reads, “ECCLESIA.” This red banner contrasts nicely with the black iron, red brick, and white doors, yet I do not recall many churches with a banner draped around the entrance.
In the foyer of the church there is a small book table with an assortment of books – copies of The Tao of Enron as well as hardcover copies of The Message. I peruse the books for a few moments and then notice that to the left of the book table sits an icon of Christ Pantocrator, an icon displayed in most Eastern Orthodox churches. This striking icon – with the eyes of Christ fixing a piercing gaze – sits on top of a box draped with tan wool and surrounded by ten candles. Hanging on the wall (nearly above the icon) is an old painting of a decidedly Anglo Jesus. This painting has obviously been a fixture here for some time. Here, at the entrance of Ecclesia, is a meeting of the ancient and the modern, in essence an aesthetic tension between the ancient past and postmodern present, a tension this Emergent church is willing to feel, to embody, and to investigate. I proceed forward.
As I enter the sanctuary on this pre-Lenten Sunday evening, I notice the stage flanked by two large paintings – to my left is a large mural of a what appears to be an African-American boy with a white dove resting on his shoulder; he displays a look of quiet determination and his head, like many Byzantine icons I have seen, is encircled with a golden ring. The painting to my right is harder to make out; the image seems intentionally fuzzy – an Anglo man whose features are distorted but whose head rests in front of the sun. Perhaps, I think, this is some kind of metaphorical painting to demonstrate the way Light can bring healing. I then notice that five large stained glass portraits frame either side of the sanctuary; the portraits feature scenes from gospel stories. In the far right corner of the sanctuary there sits a wooden triptych, though I cannot see what scriptural moments are carved and whittled into its three parts. Sitting in a wooden pew, I take in the entire setting: a “traditional” church stage with candles burning, a short, whitish statue of Jesus with arms open facing the congregation, the stage framed by murals painted by local artists and stained glass that features gospel moments. Like the foyer, I notice a kind of aesthetic tension between ancient past and postmodern present. Developing a feel for the place, I then begin to observe the people who surround me.
By this time the service has started, and the band begins to play. The members of this band, known as the Robbie Seay band, are professionals with several CDs to their credit. They are polished yet worshipful; authentic without musical cults of personality. Songs like “Glorious” and “Hallelujah God is Near” beat from the drums, scream from the guitars, and float from the microphones. I cast my gaze across the congregation and try to notice the various ways in which individuals worship: as those in attendance follow the words displayed on a large screen behind the stage, some clap to the rhythm, others jump up and down as if at a concert, others have hands raised in what is an obvious moment of authentic worship, and another sits to write and reflect in a journal. The moment possesses something of a concert feel and the songs authentically sung are the hymns of a new generation.
The music then gives way to a few moments of tithe collection; plates are passed around the sanctuary and I follow several up and down the rows in front of me. Corporate prayers and confession follow the tithing. The corporate prayers and confession came from the pen (or keyboard) of one of Ecclesia’s members; there is no Apostles’ or Nicene Creed tonight. I listen intently as I hear, among other things, the congregation corporately asking God for strength, ability, and wisdom to serve and love the homeless of Houston and to visit with mercy those suffering brutal inhumanity in Darfur, Sudan. This corporate prayer is displayed on the screen behind the stage, with thematic pictures accompanying the stanzas of prayer. Again, the ancient past – the corporate “chant” of the prayer – mixes with the image- and text-saturated postmodern present as the congregation confesses sin and prays for strength to pursue holiness in strikingly intentional and thoughtfully relational ways. Prayer for local matters meets with supplication for global concerns. It is time for the sermon.
Tonight, the week before Lent begins, Christian author Donald Miller guest preaches and delivers a sermon on John 21 where several disciples dine with Christ on the beach. The theme of fish is everywhere present, Miller points out, and poses the question Christ asked of Peter – “Do you love me more than these?” – to those in attendance. Miller argues that Christ’s question is not about the fish which figure prominently in this passage, but about the things Christians “own” today: reputations, jobs, possessions, etc. The upshot of Miller’s message, he says, is about passion; are followers of Christ today passionate about service and serious about holiness, he asks, or is Christian living merely about meeting a behavioral code? Miller then suggests that Peter’s request for upside down crucifixion did not come about because Peter wanted to “do the right thing,” but because he was passionately “in love” with Christ. Miller ends with an admonition to be “revolutionaries” for Christ in the North American context.
I stay for the communion service. The mood is somber, as this is the last holy meal before the long fast through the Lenten season. As the music plays members and attendees make their way in two rows up to the front of the sanctuary for the Communion elements. I make my way to the front and encounter three individuals – one hold’s the bread, another holds a chalice with wine, and another a chalice with grape juice. I take a small piece of bread and a woman says, “The body of Christ, broken for you.” Like those before me, I dip my bread in the chalice of wine and a man says, “The blood of Christ, shed for you, brother.” Both before and during the communion service, the Robbie Seay band plays; the words of one song describe the moment: “I’m tasting forgiveness/Drinking the mercy/Feasting on redemption/tasting forgiveness.”
As is the custom for many of Ecclesia’s members and attendees, I travel after the service to Taft Street Coffee House, home to an art gallery and bookstore (and now Ecclesia’s worship space). The mood is festive and the fellowship, it appears, flourishes. The walls of the book store radiate with an assortment of colors, displays a large assortment of pictures and paintings and the furniture uniquely defines the communicative spaces of the large coffee-serving room; couches and tables invite those present to sit, read, and pursue conversation. The books rest on an assortment of bookshelves, divided into sections on art, poetry, theology, history, biography, philosophy, and spiritual formation, among other subjects. I even notice a display of books for a number of member-led reading groups (the books and topics rotate every several months). I settle into a comfortable couch with a cup of coffee and I have a number of conversations with people I recognize and also meet several other members of Ecclesia for the first time.
As I sit back and begin to reflect on my initial experience at Taft Street Coffee House, several things are emblematic of the Emerging/Emergent church: an intentional, (often) artistic, non-threatening place for face-to-face and electronic dialogue and conversation (the coffee house is wifi). The wide array of subjects and books serve as a metaphor for the ranges of conversation and diversity of topics welcomed in the Emerging/Emergent movement and the space to display art and host concerts and speakers demonstrates the movement’s commitment to field a variety of artistic mediums and expressions.
Next post: Ash Wednesday.