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423: Abundant Life, Houston, Texas
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Abundant Life, Houston, Texas
Mystery Worshipper: Texas Tumbleweed.
The church: Abundant Life, Clear Lake City, Houston, Texas.
Denomination: United Methodist Church.
The building: The exterior is very modern, with clean lines. It has a modernistic steeple with a cross on top, the only cross I saw there. Nicely laid out on the site, good parking, and well cared for. The sanctuary, which is much smaller than one would expect from looking at the building exterior, consists of a seating area for about 300, a rather traditional-looking rail and a large dais area set up for the band and singers with a large projection screen over it. No altar, no cross, but what appeared to be a smallish stained glass window of Jesus that could be lit artificially (but wasn't) above the projection screen.
The church: Information on many activities was prominently displayed on a table just inside the main doors, including information packets especially for visitors. A great emphasis on people, especially children and youth, and there were many young people of all ages evident. They're in the midst of their second Alpha program and have home groups and a singles ministry. In addition to being multi-age, the attendees were also multi-cultural, though the majority were Anglo.
The neighbourhood: The church is located in the Clear Lake City area of Houston, a master-planned bedroom community for workers at nearby Johnson Space Center. The vast majority of residents are middle-class to upper-middle-class professionals. It's also not far from the Clear Lake Campus of the University of Houston.
The cast: Dennis Oetting, Senior Pastor, and Cameron Simmons, Arts Pastor.
What was the name of the service?
The 11.20am Worship Celebration. The last of three Sunday services (9.00, 10.10, and 11.20) that are, as far as I could determine, exactly alike.

How full was the building?
About two-thirds full of an estimated capacity of 300. We arrived before the 10.10 service was over, and that service appeared to be full.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
A gentleman whose badge said he was a member of "Team Friendly" opened the church door for us with a big smile and hearty hello.

Was your pew comfortable?
No pews, just very generous and comfortable upholstered chairs that locked together in rows. The distance between rows was comfortable, too, with plenty of room to stand for the singing.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Only 10 minutes is allowed between the services, so the name of the game seems to be to get out when the service ends and to get in before the next service starts. I wasn't prepared for the stampede that exited when the 10.10 service was over – if there's ever a fire there during a service, there will be no problem getting everyone out! A lot of bustling and fairly quiet conversation before the 11.20 service. Definitely not meditative! The recorded music softly played between the services was familiar bagpipe tunes. Interesting, since it was a contemporary service with a praise band.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Please be seated."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
None. Relevant things were projected on the large screen that seemed quite faded much of the time but was legible. Bible quotes were attributed to the NLT version.

What musical instruments were played?
Keyboard, electric bass, drums, congas, tenor saxophone and an electric violin. The arts minister played acoustic guitar and led singing, along with two female vocalists and one male vocalist.

Did anything distract you?
Yes, the sound system volume. WAY TOO LOUD! (This is being written by a contemporary worship musician who's used to high volume.) When the tenor sax played, it was painfully loud. Too bad, because he was very good. The volume was just a bit too high for comfort for the sermon, too, and wasn't needed to keep us awake. The acoustics were not very good.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Definitely happy-clappy, befitting a contemporary service. Abundant Life presents itself as a contemporary church that welcomes those who might not feel comfortable in more traditional church settings. While dress did tend toward casual, I saw no sloppy clothes or anything inappropriate. The service was definitely contemporary: three praise songs, a welcome, a video clip from "Steel Magnolias" (about the death of a woman's daughter – its relevance escaped me), two more praise songs, a short extemporaneous prayer by the arts pastor, the sermon, a longer extemporaneous prayer by the senior pastor, solo, announcements, offertory, and dismissal song: all done in about an hour. There was clapping and some raised arms, and the congregation participated actively in the singing.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
30 minutes, almost to the second.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
9 – The senior pastor, dressed in casual slacks and sport shirt and preaching off of a standard music stand, gave a terrific sermon. If I hadn't been timing it, I would've thought it was half as long. It was organized, tied to scripture, and with just the right amount of humor thrown in to lighten things up when they needed to be. It was very understandable but not at all insulting to the intelligence. It was also interactive, with questions to be answered in the service bulletin and points made on the projection screen behind him as he came to them in his sermon.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
It was part of a series on "Braveheart: The Life of King David." Today's installment, titled "An Authentic Heart," concentrated on how David lost everything, ended up living in a cave, and turned to God. We all have times when we're in "caves", and that's when God works in us: "God does his best work in caves."

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Singing "Every Move I Make," a favorite praise song that was well played at a bearable volume and was enthusiastically sung and clapped to by the congregation.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Absolutely nothing. The pastor disappeared after the sermon and so was not there to greet those leaving. There were many clusters of people talking, but nobody gave us a second glance, even though we stood around looking as lost as we could.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
They had a coffee bar set up in the entry area with a number of different kinds of coffee in neatly labeled thermal dispensers with styrofoam cups, apparently free. It was more used by those waiting for a service to start than afterwards. I tried a splash of Colombian Dark, thinking it similar to my usual breakfast coffee, while waiting for the 10.10 service to end. I heartily recommend it if you want the hair on your head to stand straight up on end and want to grow hair on your chest. Since I didn't need either, I discretely dumped it into an appropriate trash container.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
4 – This is Texas, y'all, and we're supposed to be friendly – I need to at least have the illusion that more than one greeter is glad I'm there to make it my regular church. They're obviously making an effort with Team Friendly, but it takes more than a badge (several members of Team Friendly brushed right by us without so much as a glance). It would have been nice to greet the pastor on the way out, too. Squeezing three services in between 9 and 12.30 doesn't leave a lot of time for welcoming visitors or getting into a worshipful mood.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, though come to think of it, Jesus wasn't mentioned very much outside of the song lyrics.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
Stepping outside after the service to be greeted by some spectacular aerial acrobatics in an air show at nearby Ellington Field.
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