In the distance you spot a really big cross that can be seen for two miles in any direction as you come up on the building. Once you get to the entrance of the property, you drive on a road for about half a mile or more. It almost seems surreal. All of a sudden you get to where the church is, and it is a massive structure. You can’t help but be awestruck. It is one of the largest church buildings I have ever seen! It almost looks like a professional office building from a distance. It has glass windows in the front. Also in the front there is what looks like a glass tower connected with the building. On the top of that tower is a cross. The campus is also big. They have their own sports athletic fields to play baseball or softball in. A lot of the campus, as well as the surrounding property, is hills and fields.
This is a megachurch, with all the usual ministries for all age groups – these are well documented on their website. I did get the impression, though, that for the most part the people are close knit with each other. Some are welcoming; others keep to themselves or within their close knit circle of friends. Most of them don’t say much unless you speak to them first.
Gardendale, a suburb about nine miles to the north of Birmingham, was first settled in 1825 by veterans of the War of 1812, who called the place Jugtown after a nearby factory that turned out – jugs. The name Gardendale was selected in 1906. The city’s relatively low cost of living and reasonably priced housing stock make it an attractive bedroom community for commuters into Birmingham.
The senior pastor, who appeared via video as he was away in Kentucky; the assistant pastor; the student youth pastor; the student praise band.
What was the name of the service?Blast Weekend Sunday Service.
How full was the building?
The building was not full, as social distancing was being observed. They had blocked off every other row. Even so, it is a very large church, and I would estimate that there were about 2500 people in attendance.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
When I first walked in, there was someone at the door greeting people. He seemed very sincere as he smiled and said, ‘Hello. Welcome to First Baptist Church Gardendale. I hope you enjoy the service.’
Was your pew comfortable?
They did not have pews in the church. They had stadium type movie theater style seating.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
During the pre-service there was loud chatter going on where people were talking with one another. I could not tell the subject of conversation. The chatter was not concentrated since people were walking to their seats.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
‘Good morning, church family. We are glad you are here with us today.’
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The congregation used Bibles to find scripture that was being talked about during the service. They either used the traditional Bible or some used their phones or tablets to follow along in a Bible app. I could not tell which version of the Bible they were using since it was not posted on the screen with the actual verses. The sermon made references to the book of Psalms and the book of 2 Samuel.
What musical instruments were played?
Keyboard, acoustic guitars, electric guitar, drums.
Did anything distract you?
One distraction was just before the service began – the window shades came completely down as to block the natural light. The motor driving those shades was loud enough for me to hear it. Another distraction was when the speaker went off point several times regarding his family life.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The worship was relaxed regarding music choice. It was mainly contemporary but it did have one reference to hymns. The congregation seemed stiff-lipped during the contemporary part. When the hymn was sung, the crowd seemed to loosen up and sang along. The student youth pastor baptized seven individuals in grades 6-12. One of the baptisms was of his own son. After the video message from the senior pastor and the baptisms, the student praise band led the congregation in a few more songs. The senior pastor then came back on the video screen and prayed with the congregation in regard to tithes and offerings. After this time, the student youth pastor shared a message out of the Bible. When he was done, he asked the student praise band to play a song. Then he encouraged people to come to know Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior or to make other decisions that were between them and God. When this part of the service was over, the assistant pastor came up and gave a closing prayer.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
6 — The preacher made good points for the most part and could inspire you for most part. I gave the low rating because he was an average speaker and would get off topic several times.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The sermon was about having sin in your life and messing up. It was also about seeing after God to cleanse you of your sin and shortcoming. It was told from King David's point of view, and related the story of David, Bathsheba and Uriah (2 Samuel 11). The sermon was talking about how we need to come to God in pieces so he can heal us and mold us in his image. Come to the throne of God as you are, not as what you think is acceptable.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The part where the whole congregation was singing ‘How Great Thou Art’ in unison. It felt like being with an angelic choir worshipping God.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
There was a part where the microphone had technical issues and feedback and the sound did hurt my ears a bit. The speaker’s response was that it was water in the microphone. This happened about a quarter of the way through the sermon. Also, I did not like seeing a countdown on the screen. Even though it was for a livestream, it was overly distracting.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I stood in a place at the back of the church looking lost for about five minutes afterward. It was very awkward, especially when no one came up to me and spoke with me or even asked if I was OK. I wouldn't call it embarrassing, but most of the time you would hope someone would come talk to you because I could have been dealing with some issues that needed at least to be acknowledged. It was like I was just passing through and no one cared about my well-being.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was no after-service coffee or donuts. They had them available before the service, along with sodas and other pastry type items. They all tasted good, but I did not like the fact that they were expensive! The money charged, according to a sign, was going to be used in helping with missions within the church, but even so, the high pricing gave me sticker shock! It wasn't explained what mission work they were talking about.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
5 — I am inclined not to visit again because I felt out of place there.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, especially when the song ‘How Great Thou Art’ was sung.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
I will remember not feeling welcomed by people other than how the door greeter went out of the way to welcome me. I just don't like how no one else greeted me or attempted to engage me in conversation.