True North: a New Look at My Old Stomping Grounds

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You know those guys who wear orange vests and carry glowing orange sticks so they can direct you where to park when you are going to a concert in the the city? Well, on Sunday morning, those same guys stand in the parking lot of the local elementary school amid waving flags that read “True North Church,” directing worshippers where to park as they arrive for the morning service. I pull my car into a spot near the front, wishing I could have parked further in the back, in a place less open.

I follow a trail outlined in volunteers in neon green t-shirts that read “I Can Help!” into the lobby of the school I attended as a sixth grader 13 years ago. The lobby is crowded, filled with tables with signs reading “What’s Next?” and “Compass Kids Check-in.” Off to the side, there are refreshment tables with water jugs and light snacks. Two volunteers stand along side a computer monitor at an information station, disseminating information. I remember that the lobby looked similar during my sixth grade enrichment fair, though the tables displayed replicas of classic American landmarks, like my own Golden Gate Bridge, rather than God’s word.

Screenshot (48)I enter into the gym, which seems to be transformed into a sanctuary of sorts. There are eight rows of blue folding chairs in the middle, facing a stage decorated with dark black fabric. There are six rows of the same folding chairs angled at the stage to the left and right of the center set-up. The stage is home to a large drum set, a drum set encased in a clear walls. There are other instruments on the stage, as well, including a keyboard, two guitars, and a bass. Above the stage, aligned left and aligned right are two large monitors that rotate through the following five slides: “Welcome Home,” “Download the True North App,” a compass kids advertisement, a website advertisement, and an Instagram handle.

Most of the congregation appears to be in their 20’s or 30’s, and most attendees are couples. There are a few families throughout the church, but many take their children to a classroom just down the hall from the gym. Those sitting in the folding chairs talk over coffee. Most of the seats are still open, and groups of young people stand around the room in animated conversation, conversation full of laughter and leaning. I am the only person sitting alone.

I feel a little awkward, but I brush this feeling aside. It’s most likely because I am unfamiliar with the service and the set up.

Music plays, the current song a song by Echo Smith.Multicolored lights flash designs on the white cinder block walls. The overhead lighting is off.

At 11 am, a countdown begins on the screens, and Judah, the creative Pastor of True North, begins talking to the congregation, inviting them to share in the worship experience that True North has to offer. The displayed experiences on the screen show baptisms, youth group, church set up, and Compass Kids classes. The soundtrack of the video is so loud that I can feel the music vibrating in my chest and through my feet.

The service begins with three songs, and all the members of the congregation stand and sing along with the projected lyrics. Hands are raised. Feet tap. Bodies bounce up and down, as though they are channeling a spirit outside themselves.

The music stops, and we all sit down. A video begins playing, introducing the More Initiative, a tithing initiative that will help the church develop its own permanent location. Then, church announcements are shared, a baby is dedicated to the church, and the baptism schedule is discussed.

That’s when the congregation is invited to stand and greet each other. As I do so, Judah, a former classmate of mine, approaches, taps me on the shoulder, and then opens his arms for a hug. “I’m so glad you made it,” he shares. Then, he sees I am sitting alone. “I will sit with you. You shouldn’t have to sit alone.”

He sits in the empty folding chair next to me as his brother, the pastor, gives a sermon on faith and purpose. He interacts during the sermon with “yes” and “come on” with every sentence he finds insightful.Screenshot (49)

The service ends with a song, and then the lights come on. “Well, what did you think of all this?” he asks, motioning around what feels like a set design in the cafeteria-auditorium mix.

I think for a moment, and then I am reminded of On Looking by Alexandra Horowitz, a book that shows us “how to see the spectacle of the ordinary.” I wonder what he can tell me about all of the items they set up. I was still struggling to see the space as more than the place I used to eat my lunch in the middle of the afternoon.

“It’s different,” I said. “Very different. I’ve never seen a church with screens before. I think that if more churches had those, people would come more often. We’re so used to looking at screens.”

He laughs. Then he shakes his head. “People think that, you know. They think if their church just had this stuff, more people would come. But this stuff really isn’t different than anything else. I mean, yea, we put the lyrics on a screen, but other churches have the lyrics in accessible song books. I just see it as my job. I’m the creative pastor. God is the ultimate creator. Everything I try to do is just a way to channel his creativity. I try to make the normal be more of an honor to Him, but our church in Haddonfield, it doesn’t have any of this and it has 160 loyal attendees every Sunday at 10. It’s not about what you have. It’s about the experience.”

He points to the seats. No, I look again. He’s not signaling to the emptying seats but motioning toward the people filling them. “This. These. These people are the church. This building isn’t the church. Church isn’t about a building. You know, my mother-in-law can’t seem to wrap her head around a church that’s mobile.” He’s explaining that while a church provides a foundation for many, a church doesn’t actually need a foundation. I’m reminded of the Francis Nurse’s claim in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, in which he says, “My wife is the very brick and mortar of this church.” The congregation is the foundation; the people are the ones that can be relied on for guidance, for direction, for comfort, for prayer. The building itself doesn’t do anything. The building is just a place for the church to come together.

I ask about the band whose music served as book ends during the service. I say something about how it must be cool to have rock music at church that people enjoy singing along to, but he corrects me, albeit politely, informing me that there are many misconceptions about that, as well. Worship bands aren’t just about the music. The participants are church leaders, directing and engaging worship, channeling the spirit for others.

I nodded, taking in his perspective, seeing the pieces less individually and more as components of one whole. And then, unexpectedly, his words became more than words. An old friend, a friend I hadn’t seen in years approached, “Lauren? Is that you? How’s it going? It’s been a while!”

We talked for a bit, and he said he was glad to see me there. He told me that attending this church has been one of the best choices he made. I saw the church as the people in it.

The cafeteria was more than just a cafeteria for me then, if only just a moment or two.

It was a unique experience, and I would be interested in returning to try and see more of these things for myself.

Images courtesy of @truenorth_church (Instagram)