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February 4, 2009

Extreme Makeover: God edition

Since last summer, your Church Hoppers have visited nine houses of worship. And each one gave the Man Upstairs a slightly different look.

Pleasant Grove Baptist Church saw him as the Dad-in-Heaven concerned with our everyday needs. “The thing that I remember,” said Zach, “is the married couple that stood up and said they got an anonymous $2,000 check when they really needed it. They totally believed God was helping them.”

New Vision Ministry Center proclaimed a God who heals people from their addictions. But he was also something like a genie: If you rubbed the offering plate, he’d grant you three blessings.

At St. Michael Orthodox, the Lord was set apart, unapproachable. At Church of the Advent, he was a nice guy who just wants us to help each other. At Second Presbyterian, we’re pretty sure he was boring — but since Zach was asleep, we’re not 100 percent.

As we visited nine churches, your Hoppers observed nine different portraits of the Big Guy. Yet every congregation claimed to worship the same God.

Will the real Almighty please stand up?

The best of Church

Zach and I began our series looking for congregations that connect people with God. We both think we found a few — we just couldn’t agree on which ones.

My fave was St. Francis of Rome, a little Catholic parish in Clifton. When Father Lawman Chibundi broke bread for communion, I felt like I was present at Jesus’s Last Supper. Every element of the Mass was well written and meaningful, and the priest’s passionate sermon challenged me to put more trust in Christ.

But Zach wasn’t into it. “I was kind of indifferent [to St. Francis],” he countered. “I liked Canaan Christian. It wasn’t like anything I’d ever experienced.” He was impressed with the energetic Gospel music and passionate preaching. Your Hoppers were two out of perhaps 10 Caucasians in an African-American megachurch, and we still felt accepted. And there’s no denying that people seemed to experience God. When Pastor Malone gave an altar call, 80 percent of the congregation knelt in the aisles!

Most Christians acknowledge that the ultimate test of a church is whether it changes people’s lives. Unfortunately, your Hoppers couldn’t evaluate that in one visit. For example, both of us disliked Northeast Christian (we thought the service felt like a pep rally). But as Zach pointed out, “If you have that many people, you have to be doing something right.”

So we can only speak from our personal experiences of life change. Lifechurch.tv’s Internet service helped me contemplate making a difference in the world. Zach left Pleasant Grove Baptist thinking about giving to charity. Neither of us walked the aisle to repent of our sins, but those pastors motivated us to try harder.

When all is said and done

Now that we’ve finished our Church Hopping, I’ll return to my regularly scheduled worship service at the congregation I call home. Zach will return to sleeping in on Sundays.

“There’s a part of me that still feels I could go to church every week,” he said. “I got used to that tradition when I was a kid, and I kind of miss doing it.”

Ultimately, he feels like his spirituality lies outside church walls.

“God is still very ambiguous to me,” he admitted. “If I’m going to connect with him, I can do it by myself outside in nature. When I’m outside thinking, ‘Wow, did God really create all this?’ — that’s easier than listening to someone preach about stuff I don’t understand.”

In the end, I was glad to see so many different images of God portrayed in the churches of Louisville. Chances are no one had it exactly right, yet each one captures shreds of truth about an infinite deity. So Zach and I could each pick a different church and encounter God at both.

Still, there’s one conviction I hold dearly that doesn’t resonate with Zach: I believe God revealed himself in human form through Jesus. And that’s the key difference between your Church Hoppers’ perspectives.

Zach can connect with his God in nature anytime. I do that sometimes, too. But in the end, I’ll always worship my God in a church — beneath the Savior’s cross.

This is George and Zach’s final article in LEO. They’ll miss checking out different congregations, but they won’t miss the occasional three-hour worship service.