After spending two weeks with the all-inclusive Unitarian Universalists, I was reminded of an important verse from the New Testament where Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth and the life, no man comes to the father but by me.” (John 14:6). So basically, if you take Christianity you have to throw everything else out because of the “no man comes…” part.
Why did Jesus say that? I don’t know, but he must be telling the truth.
So Sarah and I headed back deep into Jesus culture with the Ecclesia Church. “If Paul and Barnabas had started a church today this would be it!” is what I kept hearing. And indeed, the first person I met after I walked through the door actually said those exact words to me!
…Paul and Barnabas were those famous bible church planters: Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, and indeed the members of Ecclesia actually call themselves “Ecclesians.”
As usual, Sarah will be writing in Italics and Joana will write in regular type. We use the following metrics to help us rate our church experiences. Each item is worth 10 points, with an additional 10 points awarded by Me for availability / convenience of coffee and snacks.
5/10 for coffee and snacks. There is a coffee shop inside the church, but if you are as disorganized as me, you will not have any money with which to buy it. Not that I loved that people, the preacher included, brought their coffee into the chapel area and sipped on it throughout the service. Right on.
Please keep in mind that these are only our impressions, as they relate to us, specifically. Hence, your mileage may vary, Batteries not included, and content may be unsuitable for children, unsweetened breakfast cereals, farm animals, etc..
(Also a disclaimer from me): I differ from Sarah on that last point. The fact that the preacher brought in his coffee cup for the opening prayer and toasted the congregation with the cup, right off, kind of repulsed me. I have to admit—I’m trying to keep an open mind about this one… It’s a church that’s “branded” itself as a church for artists so I want to try it. But as a kid who grew up in California, USA I’ve been inundated with this designer-imposter Christian “culture”—Jesus Culture, some call it.
But why would we need to “image” or “brand” Jesus? Like, somehow making ourselves look exactly like the image that all the “cool kids” want to have is going make it appear attractive enough for even me?
Personally, I think this sort of evangelism backfires and the people end up partly worshiping Jesus, but also worshiping the “cool image” which involves new clothes, movies, pop culture, physical perfection, fakeness, slick car. It’s a strange mutation, because Jesus was not about having the best stuff, or being the most popular or the most powerful. He was about freeing people from all of the corporate things.
That said, I keep hearing great things about the community at Ecclesia, so let’s go!
Ecclesia is housed in Houston’s Gayborhood, Montrose. It’s really different from any other church I have ever been to. The first thing I noticed is that the people are beautiful to look at. If you are into youngish hipster guys with tattoos, interesting clothes and beard stubble, you will really enjoy the “scenery,” so to speak. The ladies are just as breathtakingly, unconventionally pretty. It’s like a Nerd-Chic-Casual sort of look. Quite fetching, really.
The church is in this sort of warehouse building, that also serves as a coffee shop, bookstore, art gallery and recording studio. The chapel area itself is a sort of an industrial space, high ceilings, mismatched chairs, cinder block walls, it feels a lot like a true urban loft.
The walls are covered in some of the coolest, most creative, most amazing artwork I have ever seen. Some of it was so impressive that it left me speechless. This is a church where graphic designers, tattoo artists, bloggers, clothing designers, chefs and artists will feel at home, and find a welcoming community.
The chapel area is sort of shaped like the letter V with the stage / pulpit located at the pointy bit. The thing I liked best about the space was the lighting on the stage. Somebody who knows a little something about Lighting design lit the stage, and they should be commended for doing such a nice job of it. Clean lines, great art, good lighting, with contemporary graphic design behind the stage, I wish my house looked like this.
During the service, the audience sat in the dark, which was interesting, I couldn’t decide if that helped me focus my attention on the sermon, or if it made me feel like I was watching a play, instead of participating in a worship experience. 7/10
* * *
Ecclesia reminded me of what I have heard of called “The Emerging Church,” which is a 21st century, postmodern, decentralized response to the institutionalized church. It can draw on many traditions, usually tends to be more experimental and uses art and other multi-sensory stimuli. Part of the buzz of this place was that they actually have an artist who stands on the side and makes a painting! That, sounded, to me like a great show!
His name is Scott, he’s from Seattle, has a style reminiscent of Shephard Fairey and yes, he’s actually employed by the church. He makes 5 paintings a weekend–one for every service that they hold. He’s also responsible for the Xnihilo Gallery (which inhabits one side of the “v” of the sanctuary) Right now it’s filled with photos from the show he recently put together for the season of Lent that received national press attention. It was called “Cruciformity,” and for it church members got tattoos to remind them of the suffering of Christ. Photos of the tattoos and quotes were in the gallery when we visited.
Another part of Scott’s job title is that he’s in charge of the “visual culture” of the church. Meaning; the entire attitude that ensues when you walk into the place, Scott made that. I’d say, he’s doing an amazing job.
I have to say, I didn’t feel a lot of joy here. People were happy, but not joyous. I didn’t hear much laughter, or see a lot of hugging. It is worth noting that the place was packed, standing room only! They must be doing something really right to have that kind of attendance. One area where I did feel genuine joy was the music. Both weeks, the music was overflowing with joy, everyone singing along, and clapping, and generally rocking out. 4/10
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It’s easy to look at people who are really beautiful and fashionable sometimes and think that—based on the way they look—they must have a really happening social-life, tons of friends, and generally everything together, but it’s not always the case. Sometimes beautiful people can be some of the loneliest and misunderstood precisely because they are perceived to have it all, and that makes them untouchable.
The contrast between Ecclesia and the Unitarian Universalist Church that we had attended the week before—where there was talking, greeting, hand-shaking, laughter—was huge. It left me wondering what was going on. These people seemed so reserved (perhaps from trying to be too cool) that they could not relax and enjoy themselves…So I asked a friend who I knew had been a part of Ecclesia for three years. She used the phrase “introverted congregation” to describe it, and that made sense to me.
When I asked my friend if she felt it was a joyful place, she said that the joy she felt there was “deep joy” that came from a closer connection to Jesus than she had ever felt.
In the pic below I am handing out Orbit Bubblemint Gum to our entourage—a certain joy-enhancer. It’s always good to carry gum to church, because of close-talking, especially after drinking communion wine/grape juice, breath can be offensive! (P.S…And always bring enough to share!).
I liked the Children’s Ministries here! You check in via a computerized system, and your kid gets a sticker that matches yours. It is a little time consuming, but much less haphazard than the usual church kiddie retrieval system. The kids area is staffed by nice church members, and the area is impeccably clean. It looks like something straight out of the IKEA catalog. My kid had a good time, though I have absolutely no idea what she did there.
time, and time. . .
* * *
I keep hearing stories about what humble beginnings Ecclesia had. The area where the Children’s ministries is now used to be the original sanctuary of the old church building that Ecclesia inherited (and the sanctuary is what used to be the churches’ gym). It was once also a communal living space for Christian singles who really cared about green living, composting, drum circles, spirituality, etc…
As things were winding down with the service I popped out to see if I could sneak a peek at what my daughters were doing .
I was met at the door by a young man who jumped up out of his chair at my approach and asked me my business. (I have to say, it was a bit startling, but probably good to be careful in this part of town, you never know what kind of crazies might wander in). I told him that I was new and I wanted to see what my daughters were doing.
“Do you want a tour?” “Yes!” I said. And he told me about how I should stay quiet and hidden from the view of my children. “Oh…ok” I said.
We started to move through a small hallway of closed doors and high walls past the two year old nursery-type area where, through a small fiberglass window I could see Noa sitting at a table, all alone, playing with a little Sesame Street pop-up toy. She was not crying—so that was good.
And at some point there must have been a lesson because this was sign was posted outside the door on the high wall.
We moved into the main Children’s area. The people who ran the children’s ministries were obviously very professional—I walked past some gorgeous child-art on the walls.
If they do something good in class, they get a shell from the teacher with something written on it, like, “sweet,” “share,” “love,” “respect.” At the end of the time they deposit them in this box. . .”They like to put them in the box,” he said.
One thing he told me that sounded really unique, was, they do art on the floor during the music portion. I always thought that music with kids was the time to get their sillies out by doing some crazy hand-motions to an old song like, “I’m in the Lord’s Army.” Of course, it’s also a sure recipe for chaos, but Ecclesia’s way reminded me of something more along the lines of art or music therapy.
The young man let me peek my head around the corner where I could see my Abilene seated at a table listening to a lesson with some other kids, but I was not allowed to get close enough to hear what was going on.
When I asked her later what she did she could not really tell me, but that her favorite part was “eating rice.” So, good, healthy snacks! Points for that—no graham crackers and Kool-aid here!
Many Ecclesians I spoke to mentioned helping with the children’s ministries as something that they had done (and that I could too) And I loved that! I think that the children’s ministry of a church should be manned by the church members. It makes it more like a family when everyone gets to play with the kids!
The Music was absolutely f*cking fantastic. It made me wish I was a Christian. 20/10
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I had been dying to get in some hand raising, dancing in the spirit or both. I had heard the music at Ecclesia to be infamously good, and that Robbie Seay—their worship leader—was working his way up the “Christian Chart.”
The first week we went was led by Robbie, and reminded us of Mumford and Sons, the second week the music was led by a lovely woman, Cameron Dezen Hammon. Her sound kind of reminded me of Jane Siberry, but of course, it was mostly all her own, clear and effortless—like a songbird! I could have sung with her all day—gorgeous!
So, when Cameron started singing, and that voice came over the perfectly reverberating sound system, I was like “Yess!” My hands sprung up in the air, I started swishing back and forth, feeling totally in my element, wishing for a tambourine, privileged to be worshiping my creator this Sunday–Hallelujah!
And then strangely—after the first couple of songs, I opened my eyes, looked around, and realized that everyone else was standing there stock-still, just slurping on their iced coffee straws, staring up at the giant screen with the lyrics on it. I mean, I’ve been to concerts like that before, where the music is amazing and everyone’s just standing there–and I guess they are enjoying it, but personally, I can’t do that.
So, there we were, everyone was just kind of standing there, some even staring at me (oops!). It made me want to go hide.
I started looking around the back of the room for a corner where I could hide. I imagined myself, dancing, singing freely, just generally have a good, uninhibited time there (in the back) for the rest of this amazingly good music service. I spotted the corner for me, and then, as I started planning how to get myself out of my current row and to the back corner, I realized, one person dancing in the back corner! That would definitely not call less attention to me, it would call even more! It was a big, open room. Who was I kidding?
So I just stopped moving at all, and shrunk my hands down to a low-level raise. And then a few sobs started coming out of me. So now I was standing in the audience crying. Not really “feeling bad” crying, I felt—just something needing to be released So, after a few moments of that I begin to notice that Sarah—who is right next to me—is kind of checking me out. She had never seen me in this context before—she hasn’t seen a lot of this manifestations of Spirit kind-of-stuff and was probably like, “What’s the matter with Jo?” So, the next thing, she puts her arm around me, and pulls me really close… Probably better than hiding in the back.
The lyrics to the songs were projected karaoke-style on one big screen in the center and two flat screen televisions on either side. And even though I only knew one song prior, I was able to sing a long with everything! But, one thing I have to add about the churches that have the song lyrics up on giant screens is just that the people end up looking kind-of zombie-like staring up at the screen—and even when they do know the song words, they still stare at it. I think it’s pretty much true across the board, you put a screen in front of people and they will stare at it. And I just think that’s missing the point. Sarah’s arm around me reminded me of how much I love to cuddle, and that you can’t cuddle with a television screen.
The sermons were wonderful both weeks we went, though sometimes it felt a little like we were at an AA meeting. I’m not sure why. The second week, the sermon was the best I have ever heard, in my entire life. The guy who lectured was engaging, funny, brilliant, articulate, and gave a magnificent lecture on the idea of being holier than thou, and worshiping through self flagellation, basically, and how pointless that is. It was a tremendous lecture, and I’m going to listen to it again this week on the podcast.
As the world’s worst Muslim / Atheist / Quaker I found my mind wandering during the Jesus-centric stuff, but that is, apparently, what being a christian is all about. Like, I think Christians perceive Jesus and being on the same level as god, and as more than just a prophet or something? Anyway, Joana is a major Jesus lover, and it made me feel really happy that we were in a place where she could really express her love for Jesus. Because it you are a Christian, then for the love of the lord (literally!!) worship Christ. 10/10
* * *
Ecclesia’s senior Pastor, Chris Seay has written a handful of books, but he was not preaching either Sunday we went….And both Sundays the preaching was really good anyway, which, I think says something about the strength of the community.
When you walk into the sanctuary at Ecclesia it is very dark except for a well lit stage and candles all around. The ambiance suggests that you are about to watch a great show, and I must admit, the show at Ecclesia does not disappoint. Music, readings, preaching, communion…it all ran like a well-oiled machine, and the caliber of the performances was very high.
The only thing that I would have liked to have seen more from a church- for- artists is more of the artists (and their art) up front, on Sunday morning; not just at some mid-week artist support group. I wondered about all these “ringers” who were obviously hired by Ecclesia because of their talent. It made me question if/ how the voices of the body are allowed to contribute to the visual culture/brand.
Can a artist/member of the Ecclesia just walk in and hang a painting in the Gallery? Or is it exclusionary to some who, maybe don’t have the golden ticket with the leadership? I mean, when you have a beautiful body of dedicated, passionate, creative people who also love God, a nicely lit platform, great lighting and sound-system….I would take advantage of that. Why limit yourself with the rigidity of perfection?
The above blurry photo is of Jack Wisdom preaching. (My camera is so crappy). Jack gave the lecture that Sarah said she wanted to hear again. It was basically on holiness and I took *a lot* of notes, but for me, this was the take away:
The Body of the church is primarily 20-40’s couples, with a few youngsters and oldies scattered here and there. Lots of big ideas floating around, and lots of cliques of people enjoying chatting and connecting before and after the service. We did enjoy some easy conversation out in the front courtyard, where my favorite feature of the church is located. They have an ashtray!!!! in the courtyard!!!!! Where I can smoke without having to leave the church grounds or stand on the street like some sort of outcast!!!! 10 bonus points for that.
Make no mistake, this is the church for cool kids. Rolling into the place on the first Sunday, I was immediately wowed by how Cool and pretty everyone was. Everybody was nice enough, but with the exception of the ministers and active preachers, slightly standoffish. It was a really “Houston” kind of place. Everywhere I go in Houston, I smile at people, and they just look back at me blankly, or scowl. It has taken a year and a half for me to achieve 80% neighbor friendliness on my own block, and I sort of felt that vibe here.Part of that is likely because most of the crowd is from our generation, and as a generation, we are not overly Happy-Clappy, “Love Bomb” people. And honestly, that was refreshing, because there is nothing worse than having some over-eager type-A personality blowing sunshine up my ass at 11:00 on a Sunday morning. 6/10
* * *
I had a conversation with Mike at the back (he was the same guy who said that it was like a modern day Paul and Barnabas church). Mike insisted that Ecclesia was not a place where people come to be “seen.” And it’s true, I did get the drift that these people are seeking some sort of “spiritual experience.”
I hunger to be in a place where I can “just be” myself. As is. I grew up around a church in Stockton, Calif., I had about 60 cousins there, and all the people had been in community together for so long that the youth group went off to college together, the daughters married the sons (many generations over) and the families were all inter-connected now. It was a place where everyone was “known” from birth to death, and it was always so comfortable because of that. If you sang too loud, no one judged you because they knew you in context, “That’s just Joanna, she’s got a loud voice. Her entire family has loud voices! …You outta hear them when they sing together!”
I am thirsty to find people who I can learn to know like that—inside, outside. And I am also looking to find my surrogate church grandma. One thing I didn’t really see, was anyone of an elderly age at this church, and I missed that. For some strange reason, all the people I talked to said that they had been going there for 3 years.
Eclessia cares about being green. There are notices about composting everywhere, it’s coffeeshop uses coffee cups made from 100% renewable materials, and the to-go cups are made from corn fiber. (see the sign below).
I would have liked to have seen more of a a presence of “real” cups. That would- of course- be the greenest option, making no trash at all! Why can’t the members just bring a cup? Or have a members cabinet, some hooks on the wall, or a shelf?
Ecclesia is also in the process of renovating a new building, and, because of their already green-mindset I am confident that they are using products that keep the whole-life cycle in mind.
9/10 on Green.
“Simple Feast”—Every week after the 11 o’clock service members of Ecclesia go to a park downtown and serve lunch to the homeless. I caught a pic of this group holding a prayer circle before heading over.
“Face to Face”—They do practically the same thing as Simple Feast every Wednesday at Hermann Park.
“No Studio Studios.” Homeless artists are invited to come to their courtyard on Thursdays.
(Gotta hand it to them for some really poetic names for their ministries! Tells you what it is, and makes you want to join!).
They also have a tutoring program, a big brother/big sister program to kids in the first ward, Another tutoring program for kids in the Third Ward, and a Community Garden…. I loved this quote from their website about the garden project,
“We intend for the garden to be an example of how something that seems to be in a debilitated condition, if loved on, tended to, prayed for, and invested in can be transformed into something beautiful and filled with the Glory of God.”
They are also active in service projects worldwide. One that really stuck out to me was Living Water International, which works to equip local people with the resources they need to bring clean drinking water into their communities.
During my two weeks at Ecclesia I mentioned to a couple of people about my search for a new church, and that I would be writing about it as I went—and for some reason they always looked a bit suspicious when I mentioned the writing part—although I’m not sure why—it’s just a blog! Where else am I going to talk about stuff??
One random Thursday I was hanging out in Ecclesia’s coffeeshop, and a few women seated around one of the tables were singing a song that I used to sing when I was at summer camp in the Sierras, so I joined in.
Hear O Israel
The Lord thy God is One God
And thou shalt love the Lord thy God
with all of thy heart
And thou shalt love the Lord thy God
with all thy soul
And thou shalt love the Lord thy God
with all of thy mind
And thou shalt love the Lord thy God
with all of thy strength
Hear O Israel
The Lord thy God is One God
The Lord thy God is One!
We started talking about Christianity and where it was headed. They said that felt called to study the Hebraic roots of Christianity, and were all going to a Shabbat service. At first they asked me to come along, but then they realized I would have already had to have RSVP’d.
I mentioned to them about my search, and writing about it, and then feeling a little self-conscious I said, “Maybe it’s not such a good idea… traveling around instead of settling in and growing somewhere.” And immediately one of them responded, “But I think in terms of the Body of the church, you will get to experience more. I mean, why would you want to just stick with a toe?”
3/10 for Spirituality
(I know, that seems low, but I just didn’t feel it here. Maybe it’s just that the show was a little too polished and planned—I think that the spirit needs room to breathe and be spontaneous).
Here’s the map of how to get there. If you are driving, make sure you take a close look, some of those one-way streets can be tricky.
Ecclesia doesn’t really have a parking lot– but it didn’t seem to be a problem. I was under the impression that many Ecclesians are actually from the neighborhood—which is right in the heart of Montrose– and they walk, bike, take public transportation or skate to church. There is a bit of a gravel pit out the back, and if you park there this man above–Willy, might come out to meet you and ask if he can wash your car in exchange for a few dollars and a sandwich (my car really needed it).