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632: "Soularize: A Learning Party," Hennepin Avenue United Methodist, Minneapolis, USA
Other reports | Comment on this report
: A Learning Party,
Mystery Worshipper: Postmodern peregrine.
The church: "Soularize: A Learning Party" – a conference sponsored by The Ooze and held at Hennepin Avenue United Methodist, Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Denomination: Soularize is not associated with a particular denomination; the building belongs to the United Methodist Church.
The building: The church has a building for worship that looks a little like a cross between a Gothic cathedral and the Pantheon in Rome (complete with oculus). It's a gorgeous worship space with soaring vaulted ceilings and rich stained glass. For worship at Soularize, the chancel area was filled in to form a stage, level with the altar rail, which was flanked with stacks of amplifiers and backed by two large video screens. The video screens up front weren't a focal point for much of the service, and early on, one of the leaders instructed people to stand up and face the center, and then the back of the building. Candles, stick incense, and cushions for lounging were strewn throughout the sanctuary and balconies.
The church: Hennepin Avenue should be commended for hosting Soularize; their welcome to The Ooze community is indicative, I think, of their openness to furthering the good news in a variety of cultures. The Ooze is an online community of "postmoderns" – Gen-Xers and members of the Millennial Generation – which has an online magazine, bulletin boards, and occasional opportunities to gather in physical space. Soularize is the annual "learning party" put on by The Ooze. Most of those present were 20/30 something in age, white, and male, and were clad in t-shirts and cargo pants. The majority of those I met were from nondenominational churches; many had left a conventional megachurch to plant a community in which they felt more at home, and which would have a better chance of reaching their peers.
The cast: The service was led by Andy Harrington and Kenny Mitchell, who provided brief meditations, and Andy Hunter, who was the DJ.
What was the name of the service?
Worship experience.

How full was the building?
Hard to tell, since everyone was moving around for most of the service.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Was your pew comfortable?
There were pews and the pews were comfortable, but for most of the service people moved around from station to station, lounged on cushions thrown in the aisles and balconies, or lay on the floor.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
The DJ was spinning music with elements of trance, ambient, and trip-hop – drum beats with some instrumental overlay, and an occasional voice intoning a phrase, such as "find your place of peace." Images of things like people on city streets, nature scenes and icons were projected on the video screens and on the walls and ceiling.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Are we good here?" I think the man speaking might have been talking to the people running the soundboard rather than the congregation.

What books did the congregation use during the service?
None whatsoever, unless you count the creed on crumpled sheets of paper tossed out from garbage bags during the service.

What musical instruments were played?
Two turntables – the music was house/club-style music from an English DJ.

Did anything distract you?
Early on, the DJ was shouting "I want you! I need you!" over and over into the microphone. I felt briefly flattered at all of the attention, but then I realized that he was talking to God. Amidst some deeply moving and wholly appropriate images, there was an extremely cheesy video of some guy putting on fake Roman armor interspersed with shots of a parchment text of Ephesians 6. It didn't fit with the feel of the rest of the service, and I was more amused than edified by it.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The style was very self-consciously hip. There are a lot of churches out there that put on what they call a "contemporary" service, which usually means that the music was written in the 1980s by people 5-10 years behind the musical curve. The Soularize worship experience was an expression of worship within the context of club culture as you'd find it in living flesh in places too hip to let me in the door. This clearly appealed in many ways to most of those gathered. For most of the service, people danced on the floor of the sanctuary or wandered around to various stations where there were opportunities to express yourself to God. One station had finger paints (and brushes, for those who didn't want to get their hands painty) and Play-Doh. Another had materials to write with, either free-form or in a "haiku kit" with the number of syllables each line would have printed next to the line you'd write it on (the self-serve communion station was tucked in a corner here). Another had a special chair for seated massage with someone standing by to administer massage. A variety of fabulous breads (loved the focaccia with sundried tomatoes!), dried fruit, nuts, and teas were on offer here.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
There were several brief (about 3 minutes each) meditations, and one extended guided meditation of about 10 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
5 – Nobody was aiming here to come up with a carefully crafted and unified whole. It felt more like people just tossed out a variety of thoughts and invited listeners to seize on whatever felt useful or interesting from the assortment.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
There were three meditations with a clear theme in which I could consistently make out what the speaker was saying. One was on the temptation to try to be a "superman," especially among people in church growth movements. Another was on projected images, how they are reflections of things shaped by the surface onto which they're projected (there was a point there, I think, but I didn't catch it). A third one (I could make out about a third of this) seemed to be saying that God just wants us to come to God, and there's no one right way to do it. Then the speaker told everyone to take some paper and lie down on the floor for "story time," which was a guided meditation of meeting a tattooed and t-shirted Jesus. Following the meditation, people were told to uncrumple the paper, which turned out to be a paraphrased Celtic creed which we all said together.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Many of the onscreen images were very striking and moving, particularly during a montage set to Five for Fighting's song "Superman (It's Not Easy To Be Me)." It was wonderful to experience worship with all the senses, and to hear some helpful critique of church growth gurus' emphasis on glitz and numbers.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
While the breadth of opportunities to worship in different ways was wonderful, the dynamic of every individual wandering around to do what s/he found stimulating for most of the service felt very individualistic and isolating. In particular, there was a self-serve communion station on a card table in a corner, where bread, wine, and grape juice were set out in paper cups. It seemed almost an oxymoron to take "communion" by myself, while everybody else was off doing other things. Only a couple of others made use of the communion station, and aside from the moment of saying the creed together, there was little to suggest that those gathered were one body.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
People were scattered in every direction for most of the service, so I think one person standing alone at the end didn't seem very conspicuous. Nobody talked to me, and I felt rather sad as they rushed by in small chatty groups.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was none, alas. Even the liquid in the large thermos labelled "coffee" that was available during the service at the "tasting" worship station was just hot water, but bags of some very nice tea were provided. The nearest coffee place I could find was at least 10 minutes' walk away – a tragedy which caused much needless suffering for the caffeine-addicted.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
3 – I'd be thrilled to see something like this happen once a month in my area. I'm a youth group leader, and when I told the youth group about the service (especially about the DJ), they got very animated in a way, and spent a good deal of time talking about how cool it would be to go to something like that, and to be able to bring friends. I loved it as a change of pace, though I would have liked at least some stations to include personal interaction, for example, suggesting at the "tasting" station that people could offer each other bread or fruit, or that people could fingerpaint together to make a mural bringing them together before God. But for my regular church, I'd want far more engagement with scripture, an environment which would be as welcoming to recent Salvadoran immigrants in my community as it is to white club kids, and more experience of community in worship.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Oh yes.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The juxtaposition of images of religious iconography and the faces of homeless people on the street projected on the Gothic stone wall beside the stained glass.
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