Mystery Worshipper: Friar Tuck
Church: Grace Fellowship
Location: Snellville, Georgia, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 3 May 2009, 9:00am
A sprawling building set high on a hill overlooking a residential area. As you enter the lobby, you are greeted with the inviting aroma of Starbucks coffee. The lobby is huge, well lit and airy, with the coffee shop to the right, a bookshop directly across from it, and numerous chairs for watching the closed circuit feed from the auditorium on a flat screen monitor. Going from the lobby into the auditorium is a stark contrast. The auditorium, with its seating capacity of around 2,000, is dark and windowless. There are three large screens suspended over the stage, and several more on different walls. This makes it easy to see what is happening up front from anywhere. There are cameras and light trees in abundance. I found it to be a fairly intimidating auditorium for a non-member. As for the rest of the building, the basement is set aside for classes. The campus also includes a former house that now is used for youth classes and worship.
They appear to be a very outward focused congregation, although not particularly welcoming to visitors (more about that later). They sponsor many children's groups, including one for children of divorced parents; student fellowships; adult groups for every stage of life; a men's basketball league; and Grace 360, which conducts a number of outreaches into the community. There are four services each Sunday, including an evening service.
Snellville is a suburb of Atlanta beset with suburban sprawl which is moving shopping areas closer and closer to Grace's campus. Since 2000 there has been an ongoing project, not without controversy, to convert abandoned and decaying shopping malls into parkland and municipal campuses.
The Revd Buddy Hoffman, senior pastor, led the preaching, prayers, and communion. The Revd Aaron Keyes, worship pastor, led the worship and praise.
What was the name of the service?Sunday Worship
How full was the building?
Bulging at the seams. There were literally thousands of people there in the auditorium and others watching on closed circuit TV in the lobby.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
There was an official greeter on duty (think: Walmart). The only other person who spoke to me was a rather rude usher who was more concerned that I not disturb the taping of the service than whether I was seated.
Was your pew comfortable?
No. I got to the service about five minutes early and the regular members had "saved" all the padded seats (about 40 per cent of seating). What was left were standard metal folding chairs. I found one free toward the back and sat down, which is when I was accosted by the above mentioned usher. No one helped me find a seat.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Noisy but I liked it. It was full of people catching up with one another. There is also Starbucks coffee available which you are encouraged to take with you into the auditorium. I hope this trend catches on!
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Welcome to Grace! Please move in and make room for others."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The songs were projected onto one of the five (at least) screens, so there was no hymnal used. However, Bibles were handed out so that everyone could follow the scriptures during the sermon. These Bibles were in different modern translations and were ours to keep.
What musical instruments were played?
The praise team used a keyboard, three guitars, and a huge drum set. They had two vocalists, one lead singer, and a deaf interpreter.
Did anything distract you?
The most distracting thing was the constant movement of people at the perimeters of the auditorium. This wasn't terrible but definitely was distracting.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The worship was very upscale contemporary. Aaron Keyes, the worship leader, is very talented but my first impression was that we were being led by a celebrity rather than a minister. This is, I'm sure, unfair but was my first impression because of how much everyone up front looked like a professional rock band.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 – Buddy Hoffman is an engaging preacher whose earnestness is easy to see. The sermon really was more of a biblical exposition than a traditional sermon and was in two distinct parts: reading and commentary on the selected text and then application for practical living. I benefited from it. At the end, though, there was a rushed attempt to fill out an alliterative outline printed in the bulletin. I really didn't think this fit the message.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The sermon was entitled "This kind!" and the text was Mark 9:14-32 (Jesus drives out an evil spirit when his disciples could not). All ministries are not equivalent. Some are "this kind," the kind that demand prayer and patience, while some are easy.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
After the sermon and before communion there was a wonderful moment of unplugged worship singing "All honor and glory and power are yours. Amen" that really was quite chilling in its simplicity and evocativeness.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Trying to get a seat at Grace is an unpleasant experience, and mine was made worse by being made to feel that my presence was less important than the techie aspects of the service. I found this church to be very uninviting for the first time visitor.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I stood in the crowded lobby where people were trying to exit while thousands were trying to come in for the next service. I thought to myself that there must be something great happening here for this many people to love this place, even though I felt completely ignored. And, as a matter of fact, I was completely ignored! Not one person spoke to me in five minutes except to ask me to move out of their way.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Starbucks, baby! The coffee, tea and hot chocolate at Grace rock, even though they asked for a $1 donation. It was well worth it.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
2 – I gave Grace such a low grade because it is one of the most intimidating, uninviting churches for a first timer that I have ever visited. However, it is obvious that people love this place, so if I lived in the area I would have to give it several tries to see what keeps people active here.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Definitely. The emphasis on the Word was wonderful and not at all given from a position of judgment. I felt the people there were outwardly focused and Christ centered.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
Feeling puzzled about the juxtaposition of fervent worship, biblical fidelity and people so focused on getting a comfortable seat that the visitor is not only ignored but actively pushed to the back of the line.