Church Visits: Westgate and Southbay

I've been sabbatical since the end of May. With Sundays free, Judy and I took the opportunity to visit two churches this past weekend - Westgate and Southbay. We went to Westgate's Saturday evening 6:40 pm service and Southbay's 10:20 am service.

Both churches have exploded numerically in the past couple years. According to my friend's husband who is an elder at Westgate, they grew from 700 to 2000+ Sunday attendees since moving into their new worship center. Southbay's story is even more dramatic - I don't know the numbers but the church is barely four years old and to have four services in a large space is quite impressive.

Clarity of values: Having read Simple Church, I understand intellectually the importance of making a church's mission and vision clear. But these churches are putting it into practice. Westgate is very intentional about publicizing their six40 discipleship process and various global/local compassion ministries. Southbay walks people through the process of how to get involved with the church in five simple, easy-to-understand steps. I know from experience that people need that kind of clarity and they need to hear what a church is about over and over, in a variety of formats and mediums.

Diversity: I'm sure the demographic varies between services but Westgate's 6:40 pm Saturday was predominantly white and older (age 40's, 50's and up). There were some young people but I bet most 20-something attend the Sunday night Awakening gathering (a 5th service if you will). Southbay's Sunday 10:20 am was much younger and more diverse. There were lots of Asians and some Hispanics.

Importance of multimedia and technology: Both services incorporated video as part of their announcements (which makes sense when you have four services). The sermons also included video as part of the overall message. I'm not a big fan of this. It's somewhat distracting and kills the momentum of the speaker. The tie-in is usually very good but I would prefer it before or after the message itself. Westgate has QR codes in the bulletin that you can scan with your smartphone. Southbay allows you to sign up for practically anything and everything online. Despite all the technology, you can't get away from paper. The bulletin packet is pretty overwhelming. They give you a lot of stuff to look at. When I was distracted during the sermon, I would flip through the bulletin.

Loud but brief singing: Both services started exactly on time and each service was timed to run about 65-75 minutes or so. I know why it has to be so short but I wish we sang more. Especially at the end. One song is not enough to respond to a message. I know it may be insensitive to non-believers but to me, that is the time we should be belting out. The music was really loud, the lighting excellent, but I wish I could have heard people's voices more. I remember singing "In Christ Alone" at the Gospel Coalition conference and it was amazing hearing all those people sing. I remember singing with 40,000 men at Promise Keepers decades ago. There's nothing like it. Also, there is a certain lack of intimacy when everything feels like a concert. At Southbay, a guy giving a video testimony commented how his catholic church background did not prepare him for the musical onslaught that is many evangelical church services today. Coming from a small church, I'm sure I could get used to loud music but a big part of me enjoys the fellowship of hearing people around me sing. Mark Averill, the worship pastor at Westgate, is seriously gifted. He has presence, truly leads people in singing, and gave moments where it was just our voices. What makes Christians singing unique isn't just the word we sing but the way we sing - with enthusiasm, engagement, and an understanding of why we celebrate.

High production values: As far as the service itself, pretty much everything I saw was done well. Both churches do a great job welcoming new people in formal and informal ways. At both church services, there is a brief time to welcome each other. At Westgate, both Judy and I had great conversations with our neighbors. At Southbay, they have a newcomers reception where you can meet the pastors, get coffee, and congregate at cocktail tables. The children's ministry at both churches was extremely well-run. We got checked in quickly, the people were courteous and welcoming. I was impressed with the classrooms and use of technology (Westgate = Wii / Southbay = Kinect). The kids were pretty excited.

Gospel-centered preaching: Both churches preach the gospel. I had no idea Steve Clifford's son died two months ago. He talked about his son's death in vulnerable and honest terms. He confessed his own anger towards God. He shared about how he would show up on in heaven and ask God, "What the heck were you thinking?" Steve is not a very dynamic, intellectual, even insightful preacher but something about his character, honesty, and intimacy with God is extremely compelling. I could totally follow that guy. Andy Wood is a gifted preacher. His message was excellent. It was a pretty straightforward message about moving from religion to relationship in the gospel. It is about the work of Christ on our behalf. He had a great illustration from Laos about a recent convert realizing that their village could stop their pagan ritual sacrifice of a bull in order to cleanse them from evil.

REFLECTIONS: Having spent all my Christian life in small churches, it's always a little weird to visit a large church.There's a sense of anonymity and feeling like an outsider that can be heightened in large groups (but it happens in small groups as well). The thing that made me feel most uncomfortable is the emphasis on excellence in production values and how similar each church's service approach was. It almost feels like in order to be a growing, thriving church you need to be good at everything - have a great band, serve good coffee, make hip videos, recruit lots of children's ministry helpers, buy video game consoles, and have preaching that's relevant to daily issues. It feels slightly formulaic, consumer-oriented, and entertainment-driven. The worship service feels like a production and in many ways, it is. I understand that saying this in a small church context is kind of like rationalizing the reason we suck at program/event execution. As if having a crappy facility or not enough children's ministry volunteers is somehow more spiritual. Regardless, I am humbled that people can come to know Jesus in such different ways. In any and every church, I pray the people gathered would neither be impressed by nor dismayed at the quality of the staged event but rather awed by the eternal event of Jesus' death and resurrection and his power to change lives.



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  1. There are no like buttons! If there would, I would press it.

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  2. I enjoy your blogs, and this one no less. Coming from a very large church of 5000+ members with several services and several locations, I've often wondered what the services looked like from the visitor's perspective. My daughter's friend once attended and described the worship similarly to your description, saying it felt like she was on Broadway! I was tickled pink by her remark but had to agree. One of the first things I noticed when my family and I visited that particular church (before becoming members) was how perfectly everything was done. I soon learned the correct vernacular, so it wasn't "perfect" it was done in "Excellence." Of course there's nothing wrong with doing things well, it's what my parents taught me and I have aimed to achieve excellence all of my life, but my thoughts at that time, in observing this church service was, "I will never be able to serve in this church because I could never do things this well all the time. It was quite intimidating to say the least. However, after becoming members, I did serve, in several capacities. I didn't focus on doing it without error. I simply served with an attitude to meet the needs of those I came into contact with.
    "Regardless, I am humbled that people can come to know Jesus in such different ways. In any and every church, I pray the people gathered would neither be impressed by nor dismayed at the quality of the staged event but rather awed by the eternal event of Jesus' death and resurrection and his power to change lives."...THAT ending to your post...warmed my heart!

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