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3072: Belmont Christian, Christiansburg, Virginia, USA
Belmont Church, Christiansburg, VA
Mystery Worshipper: Gaylord's Hump.
The church: Belmont Christian, Christiansburg, Virginia, USA.
Denomination: Independent.
The building: The building was erected just this past year, replacing their former structure dating from 1972 that was just across the road. From the road, it reminded me of a sporting goods store due to its wooden and stone entrance way. The foyer is large and open with high tables for people to gather around. The decorations were modern and gave it an up-to-date feel. The whole package declares: "We are new and relevant." Definitely a plus for those who are looking to escape an older traditional experience.
The church: They have no fewer than 25 – count 'em – 25 small groups for people of all ages, the purpose of which (quoting from their bulletin) is "to connect to one another as we learn together, pray together and serve together as a community of faith." The "Sunday Night Shuffle" is a program similar (they say) to vacation Bible school that is open to children aged 2 1/2 ("toilet trained," their website pleads) through 10. Their group for teenagers is called Bodybuilders. They also put on a class in self-defense for children and adults, with emphasis on (again quoting from their bulletin) "bully prevention and ... looking for possible threats and how to handle them." Their early morning Sunday service is described as "blended/traditional" and the later two services as "contemporary."
The neighborhood: Christiansburg is a small town in southwest Virginia. It was named after William Christian, a Revolutionary War soldier and politician who helped negotiate treaties with a few Native American tribes. The town is connected in several ways to early America: Christian worked for a time as law clerk to Patrick Henry, one of the Founding Fathers. Frontiersmen and folk heroes Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett both lived in Christiansburg at one time or another. Today Christiansburg is something of a backwater, although the local chamber of commerce tries hard to stimulate tourism with events such as the Wilderness Trail Festival, Heritage Day, and the Food Truck Rodeo. The site where Belmont Christian Church is located is in some ways ideal, for it is easily accessed by those living in any of the three major towns in the area. One of the largest Baptist churches in the area saw this very strength and relocated nearby, stating that they wanted to be a "regional church" rather than one that targeted only one particular town. Yet another church (a new church plant, I believe) has located nearby, meeting in a movie theater that is only about a mile down the street from Belmont.
The cast: A gentleman named Zeke Williams (his name was put up on the screens in the front of the sanctuary) gave a short talk that ushered us into an observance of the Lord's Supper. The preacher was not identified by name at first but someone said, "Thank you, Jerry" when he was done. I learned later that he was Jerry Dowdy, associate minister. I don't know who the gentleman was who thanked Jerry, but the exchange gave the impression that he may have been the senior minister, James "Beaver" Terry.
The date & time: Sunday, September 11, 2016, 11.00am.
Comment: We have received a comment on this report.

What was the name of the service?
Contemporary Service.

How full was the building?
I would say it was about three-quarters full. The sanctuary probably seats about 500 in total and is divided up into three sections. The center section was pretty much full, while the two side sections were each about half full. There were a lot of empty seats around us.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
Our first greeting came from a woman who was directing traffic into their parking lot. She gave us a big smile and a warm wave. My wife and I both commented on how that was a great start to our morning. She remains probably the best part of our experience there – so kudos to her. The next came from an older gentleman who was entering the building alongside us and he gave a warm "Good morning." By this time, I really thought we were in for a treat. I was surprised, however, that there was no one at the doors to greet us. We entered the foyer and there were many conversations going on, which is great. Unfortunately, though, no one said anything to us. As we entered the sanctuary, a woman smiled and said "Good morning" as she handed my son and me bulletins – however, the same woman skipped over my wife without saying a word in order to hand a bulletin to a man who was walking in behind her.

Was your pew comfortable?
Very comfortable. New well-cushioned chairs. They had pockets on their backs containing a card on which you could write your contact information, prayer requests, etc. – and there was even a pen provided, which was great. Noticeably absent, however, were Bibles, which would have fit in those pockets nicely. In fact, there were no Bibles visible anywhere.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
I had never heard of Belmont and so was surprised to see their building as I drove by one day. I did some asking around, but nobody I knew had ever heard of them either. Finally, I found a coworker who said she was considering visiting them because she had two friends who attended Belmont and they had told her just how much they loved the the community feel of the church. Upon entering the building, I got the impression that many do, indeed, experience
good community there. But read on!

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"As most of you know, today is the anniversary of September 11."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
None. All the song lyrics were projected up on a screen, as were any pertinent Bible verses.

What musical instruments were played?
Typical praise band gear: keyboard, guitar, bass, drums. The singing was led by five singers who were on stage with the band.

Did anything distract you?
There were several things that were a bit disconcerting, which I will elaborate on below. But the most distracting thing to me was the disconnect that seemed to exist between the worship team and the congregation. With the music as loud as it was and the gathered congregation as big as it was, to be able to hear one's own voice speaks to how little singing was going on around us. I scanned the sanctuary several times and very few seemed to be engaged in what was going on.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
I get the feeling that the worship team wanted it to be happy clappy but the congregation were rather reserved – on the border of looking downright bored. After the opening worship (three songs), the gentleman whom the screens proclaimed to be Zeke Williams spoke some words on loving our enemies. He said that we might not like what the terrorists did on 9/11 but we need to be a people of love. When Jesus was hung on the cross, he probably didn't like what was being done to him, but he loved those who did it to him anyway. So we, too, need to follow his example. We should all feel welcome to partake of the bread and juice that was about to be passed around and consider the love of Jesus and our calling to love others. After that was the sermon. Finally, the gentleman who said "Thank you, Jerry" also thanked us all for coming out and said that if anyone needed prayer, or just wanted to talk, we should feel free to come up at any time. It seemed heartfelt and was a kind gesture, but it did leave me wondering, "Who is this guy?"

Exactly how long was the sermon?
32 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
3 – Jerry Dowdy basically read his notes, looking up only as he was about to finish a thought. This was really surprising seeing as how this was, presumably, the third time he preached the same sermon this morning. A sermon outline was provided in the bulletin, with blank spaces to fill in as he preached and the answers were put up on the screen. He came across as stiff, except when he told some jokes, which elicited laughter from the congregation but which, unfortunately, didn't connect well with the point he was trying to make.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
His sermon was titled "Facing the Tragedies of Life" and was based on Psalm 22 ("My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"). He began with the story of a young man who lost his life on 9/11 in the World Trade Center and peppered his sermon with a number of other stories of tragedy and quotes from various Christians who had dealt with tragedy (e.g. CS Lewis and Mother Teresa). His basic points were that when we face tragedy, it often feels as if God is far away from us. During these times we should feel free to express our complaints to God. As we do, our feelings will begin to change. Finally we discover that it is through the tragedies that God teaches us about himself and his faithfulness.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The simple wave and smile of the woman who directed our car into the parking lot. If St Peter needs a break at the Pearly Gates for a quick run to the rest room, she would make a good stand-in. I'd be delighted to be welcomed into heaven by her.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
I was bewildered by the way in which they handled the Lord's Supper. After Zeke's words, a notice appeared on the screens that said, "Please take a piece of bread and a cup of juice. You can eat and drink after a personal time of reflection." No explanation of the meaning of the meal was given and no "guarding" of the table was done. If I were not a Christian, I would have had no idea of what this was all about. And as a Christian, I was disappointed that there was not even an effort to remind me of why we were observing it. After a few minutes of reflection time, again without any explanation given, ushers began passing offering plates while people were still consuming the bread and juice. I felt that this was sloppy at best, but certainly a strange way to go about things. My wife remarked to me, "This is painful!" As soon as the offering was received, the preacher walked out onto the stage and launched right into his opening illustration. No transitional statements were given between any of the elements. I've never seen anything like it.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Nobody talked to us. We stood off to the side and just looked around making it obvious, so I thought, that we were new to the place. After no one interacted with us, we proceeded to walk around the foyer looking at the decorations, again making it pretty clear that this was all new to us. We passed by their information table without any engagement. The only person to say anything to us was a woman who was standing by some tables where someone could sign up for a small group. She gave us a warm smile and said "Hello." After hanging around for a while, we made our way to one end of the foyer and then walked the entire length of the foyer to the other side to exit the building and did so without anyone acknowledging us. This was really disappointing given the fact that there were a lot of interactions going on around us. It was a classic illustration of being all alone in the midst of a crowd. Their message seems to
be: "We enjoy ourselves and aren't really interested in anyone else joining us."

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Well, I was looking forward to telling you. They had coffee available before the service. However, not wanting to take a cup into the sanctuary, I opted to wait until after the service was finished. But, alas, it was all packed up before we even exited the sanctuary. No food was offered.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
1 – Their handling of the Lord's Supper is really a non-starter for me. I can deal with a less-than-stellar sermon and even feeling less-than-welcomed. I usually will give a church a second chance. But their approach to the Lord's Supper was enough to make me not want to come back. That being said, if I found out that the woman who greeted us in the parking lot was a small group leader/host, then I would be willing to go out and visit her, and who knows where that would lead. I'm sure that once you are a part of the church family, it is probably a wonderful community. At least that is how it appeared. It is just the breaking into that community that might be tough. After that, maybe I could help them think through their Lord's Supper issues.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
No, not really. It actually made me sad that there are those who have never walked into a Christian church who will have this as their example of what our faith looks like. I really had high expectations based upon my coworker's report, and then the greeting we received from the parking lot lady and older gentleman who walked in with us. So my disappointment is maybe a bit deeper than it otherwise might have been.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
My wife turning to me half way through the service and whispering, "This is painful."

 
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