Mystery Worshipper: Gaylord's Hump
Church: Fireplace Church
Location: Blacksburg, Virginia, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 12 February 2017, 10:00am
Fireplace Church meets at Kipps Elementary School, which houses approximately 490 children in grades K-5. Upon entering, one encounters a large welcome sign framed by pillars cleverly disguised to look like pencils, as well as student artwork and other trappings of an elementary school. The "cafetorium" (combination auditorium-cafeteria found in many elementary schools) was smallish, with a tile floor and a stage at one end. The overall color scheme is blue.
They have a YouTube video that offers an interesting explanation about why this church was begun. They recently celebrated their one year anniversary. The pastor was the former college ministry pastor at a church in Farmville, Virginia, a college town about two and one-half hours from Blacksburg. His wife works with Chi-Alpha, the official college ministry of the Assemblies of God. My best guess is that the church is largely composed of college students who are a part of the Chi-Alpha ministry on campus. During the message, the pastor commented that about 75 per cent of the congregation were millennials, but judging by appearances it seems that the number was higher than that. See their website for a description of what they call "A Teams," "B Groups" and "C Time" ("Getting involved is as easy as A-B-C," their website proclaims).
Blacksburg is located in southwestern Virginia very near the border with West Virginia. It is named after Samuel Black, a wealthy landowner whose sons developed the original town site in 1797. Today, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (better known as Virginia Tech), one of the top engineering schools in the nation, dominates Blacksburg's economy. Virginia Tech was the location of a mass shooting in 2007 when 32 students and faculty lost their lives. This morning the pastor said that on the day when he moved into Blacksburg, he discovered that 100 years ago to the day, a religious revival had been held in Blacksburg led by a blacksmith whose name was Thomas. The pastor's name being Alvin Thomas, and the church's name being Fireplace, were a confirmation from God (he said) that he was there to continue a work that had begun long ago. Kipps Elementary School is located on Prices Fork Road in the western portion of Blacksburg.
Alvin Thomas, pastor, led the majority of the service. A gentleman named Brandon provided a brief challenge to the congregation before the taking of the offering.
What was the name of the service?Sunday Service
How full was the building?
The room was about half full at the start of the service (I counted around 45 in attendance), but by the time the service was under way, it felt pretty full around 70 people there. There was still plenty of seating for more.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
As we approached the building, a gentleman greeted us and asked us if this was our first time there. We affirmed that it was and he welcomed us. Holding the door open, he yelled to two young ladies in the foyer that we were first-timers. We were then greeted by these two young ladies, who offered to give us a thermos mug with the church's name on it and an information card to be dropped in the offering basket. They were very kind. Walking into the cafetorium, we spotted a number of people milling about and talking to one another, but no one said anything to us until the pastor and his wife came up and gave us a warm greeting. We discovered that they are actually neighbors of us, living not far down the street. We spoke of getting together some time over coffee. They introduced our daughter to another young lady, a recent college graduate, and they had a very pleasant conversation. But no one else spoke to us.
Was your pew comfortable?
We sat on plastic chairs with no cushioning, but they were comfortable enough. I didn't even think about them during the service so they did their job.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
The pre-service atmosphere was one of visiting and talking loudly with friends. A very informal gathering. The website says that the service starts at 10.00 but it didn't actually get started until about ten past the hour, presumably because of people slowly trickling in and not wanting to interrupt the fellowship going on. It was a warm atmosphere to walk into, but it would have been a bit warmer had we been drawn into some of those conversations.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning, guys. We want to welcome you to Fireplace."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
None. Everything was put up on a screen. I noticed that only about half the congregation had brought Bibles with them, along with notebooks in which they were taking sermon notes. I'm not sure which version of the Bible was used for the projections; I was reading along in my own English Standard Version and there were some slight variations in the text on the screen from mine, but it was very close.
What musical instruments were played?
Electric keyboards and two guitars: one acoustic, one electric. All run through amplifiers.
Did anything distract you?
One moment stands out. A gentleman's cell phone went off during the middle of the sermon. The ring tone was some modern dance tune. Rather than turn it off, the gentleman jumped up and started fishing through his pocket to get it. The pastor stopped preaching and, while the congregation were laughing, did a little dance to the tune. The gentleman exclaimed, "Sorry, I'm on call!" as he ran out a door at the side of the room that exited to the outside. Other than that, there was general chatter among the students sitting directly in front of us. It wasn't too bad, but it did pull my attention away from the sermon now and again.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The worship was definitely more happy-clappy maybe, better said, wavy-swayvy. A lot of hand raising during the worship. It was expressive but not out of control. Between songs there was a time where we were asked to clap our hands to the Lord and at the end of the service clap our hands because a young lady had given her life to Christ. Other than those two moments, it was emotive but not loud. The songs were modern worship tunes with certain lines repeated over and over. I didn't recognize any of these songs and neither did anyone in my family. They closed with one song that we did know, which was nice. Lastly, and this is just my own preferences I suppose, but the worship team of four people included a young lady who stood with her side or back to us for the majority of the singing as if this was her own little private worship time rather than a congregational gathering. No real big deal but it did strike me as unusual.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
Anywhere between 43 and 50 minutes depending upon where you considered it finished. The pastor went straight from his exposition, which lasted about 43 minutes, into an altar call and prayer that went on for another seven minutes or so before he invited the worship band to close out the service.
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – I felt like Alvin Thomas had a good balance of direct exposition, personal stories and illustrations – and a smattering of humor. The only slightly negative critique I would offer would be that there were times where he spoke very quickly and his accent (a slight Southern twang) made it sound like a mumble to me and I had to strain to hear what he was saying. This was rare, however, and I felt he did a good job. I found myself being very introspective during the sermon and critiquing my own devotion to the Lord. In this, his sermon was exactly what I needed.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
This was the first in a four-part series that he is calling "Take the Mountain: Caleb's Quest" and is taken from Joshua 14:6-12. He said that he had many heroes from the Bible, and Caleb is the type of man he would like to be when he is older. Caleb could "take the mountain" because he (1) believed God's Word; (2) stewarded the encounter; (3) was fully devoted to God; and (4) walked in God's identity. He challenged us to be like Caleb in each of these areas. Trust God even when his answer seems slow in coming. Caleb waited 45 years for God to deliver on his promise; how many of us can't even wait 45 minutes without beginning to question God? [Laughter] Just because God doesn't microwave the promise doesn't mean that he isn't Crock-Potting it for us. [More laughter]
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
My wife loved the music, whereas I, personally, would have preferred a few hymns. But hey, it is not about me. The end of the service was very moving. The pastor said that anyone who wanted to give their lives to Christ should raise their hand. One young lady did, and he invited her to come up to the front of the sanctuary and for women from the congregation to come up and surround her. He then invited people to come forward to ask the Lord to help them "take the mountain." A goodly number came up. It was quite moving. The pastor dismissed the congregation saying that if those who were up front wanted to continue praying, they could do so, and the band would continue playing background music. The rest of us, he said, could leave on our own timing. I typically appreciate a more structured approach; this, however, was very heavenly indeed.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
There were two occasions when the pastor stepped too far forward and, standing in front of the speakers, created feedback in his microphone when he was trying to make a serious point. This was too bad and hard on the ears!
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
No one spoke to us after the service, excepting the pastor, who shook our hands as we left. We stood around for a bit while several people breezed right past us without saying a word to us. We can understand, I suppose most of them were at least half our age, and we remember what it was like to be their age and not want to bother with "older" people.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was coffee offered at a table in the sanctuary before the service. There was also a three minute break given between the music and the message to greet one another and "fill up your coffee cups," but we decided to wait until after the service. But with people praying and music playing, it didn't seem like the type of environment that called for us to go sample the coffee at that time, so we didn't get to try any. Besides, I didn't see any pastries on offer.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 – I've got a feeling we might come back and visit despite it being a bit off my own personal denominational preferences. My family and I have been attending a local Presbyterian church regularly, which is much more liturgical and much more subdued. I prefer the Presbyterian experience, but my wife clearly preferred today's service to what we have grown accustomed to. We have never been a part of an Assembly of God church, but my daughter attends one in another town. She would take the happy-clappy over the stiff upper lip any day. I think my wife agrees. But we'll be meeting the pastor for coffee and I'll be interested to hear his story. If there is any way that I can encourage him in his work, I'll be happy to do so.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, it did!
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
God doesn't microwave he Crock-Pots. What a great line!