Mystery Worshipper: Church Hopper
Church: Passion City Church
Location: Atlanta, Georgia, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 2 September 2012, 6:45pm
A large, fairly nondescript white building with the number 515 painted large in orange, that being the street address of the church. The inside halls have very high ceilings and lots of space and put you in mind of a museum. The "sanctuary" itself is set up like a concert hall.
They describe themselves on their website as "conservative and evangelical" and as believing in "a lifestyle of extravagant worship." They sponsor two ministries for children: Bloom, for ages six weeks to five years, and Passion Kids, for ages five through ten. They also involve themselves in issues like stopping human trafficking and aid to the displaced in Haiti. I thought it was interesting that they took a two-week sabbatical this summer and did not hold services for two Sundays in a row.
The church is in Buckhead, which is an upscale suburb in north Atlanta, full of the usual stores, apartments and office buildings you would find in such an area.
Pastor Louie Giglio, worship leader Chris Tomlin, another man whose name was never made public.
What was the name of the service?Gathering. Sounds much cooler than "service", don't you think?
How full was the building?
Full seemed like 2,000 people there. I was astonished, as it was an evening service on a holiday weekend (Labor Day)!
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes, so many welcoming people: at the front door, at the door to the sanctuary, when you were leaving. I was shown to a seat next to a young man and his wife who said hello when I sat down.
Was your pew comfortable?
Yes, it was a movie-theatre type seat and very comfortable.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
As hopped-up as a rock concert. I got there on time, but the band had already started and the lights were flashing, and people were raising hands and singing along fervently.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Welcome to the Gathering. Please turn around and greet your neighbor."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
None. Nothing so old-school as a bulletin or hymn sheet was given. In fact, I did not see any materials around for the taking. But the service was very easy to follow, though it would have been nice to know who was who on the stage. Song lyrics were projected onto a screen. When it came time for the Bible reading, about a third of the people opened a Bible, a third looked at the words projected on the screen, and another third read along on their smart phones. Yours truly wanted to fit in, so she left her black leather bound Bible in the car and popped open her iPhone, the first time I've ever done that in church.
What musical instruments were played?
Full rock band: keyboard, two acoustic guitars, one electric guitar, one bass, drums, backup singer. Chris Tomlin, who is well-known for his worship song "How Great is Our God", led the singing. He was very good at keeping the crowd engaged (though I would have expected that) and made sure to keep the focus on God rather than himself.
Did anything distract you?
There was a tall black support pole in my way and sometimes it would block Chris, but there were three overhead screens to capture the action as well.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Very happy clappy. Usually I am annoyed with rock bands in church, but this one less so. I did not know any of the songs, but everyone was signing lustily and enjoying them. Chris did premiere a new song called "God of Angel Armies" for an upcoming album, which everyone sang along with. I think it could be a hit, so remember that you read it here first when it comes out next year.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
About an hour. I could not believe it was that long because my attention never wandered.
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
9 – Pastor Louie Giglio is a very good speaker, extremely animated and quite funny too.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
It was part of a series on prodigals. Although I have heard the Prodigal Son preached on many times, Pastor Louie brought some new insights to the old story. I won't attempt to reduce an hour-long sermon to a nutshell, so I'll only mention that the son was probably quite dirty and smelly from having lived out in the open for so long, and yet his father ran to meet him and even embraced him, smell and all. That showed how much he loved him.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Listening to the pastor. He sort of acted out the parable on stage, including the running and the bear hug, and it gave me a new picture of how much God loves even me.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
At the beginning of the sermon (or "talk" as they called it) the pastor told a long story about riding his bike and coming upon a raccoon that he thought was dead. But the raccoon reared up his head and hissed at him. He was acting out the hiss and said it loudly and the audience jumped. I was wondering what that had to do with anything, but then he said, "Just as you're surprised by this, you'll be surprised by what you'll learn tonight."
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
After the sermon there were more worship songs. I snuck out just before the end and was in the hallway. I ended up talking with a nice man at a booth advertising an upcoming Passion World Tour in South Africa in October. He gave me a card listing things to pray about.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
None was offered.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – The 25 year old in me wants to give this a 9; the 48 year old that I am wanted to rate it a 7. So we've settle on an 8. Though there were a few people my age in the crowd, this is definitely a young person's church. (Should churches have age demographics? I wonder.) The loud rock band would not be something I'd want to hear every week, though I could tell the music was top notch and so was the speaker.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes. I still cannot get over the fact that a church could attract 2,000 young people on a Sunday night over a holiday weekend. It gives me hope for the next generation.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The image of God wrapping me in a bear hug. And the turnout on a Sunday night.