"You look like you're shopped out," said Worship Arts pastor Brad Hansen. "Have you been hitting those malls like I have? Putting up those house lights? It's a good thing to be in the house of God, so that we can get right. Putting up those house lights can take you places you don't want to go!" The congregation laughed in sympathy. "We're here today to magnify the name of the Lord and to get in the Christmas spirit. We see all the lights; we need to get our hearts right, too. This song will help us." A few Christmas lights pricked the relative dark of the sanctuary -- threaded through a strand of garland that wrapped around the upper wall, encircling a couple of trees in the front corners -- but the real light was trained on the stage. A row of spotlights illuminated the 80-plus members of the choir and the tight, layered band beside them. A pop intro, heavy on the synth, built and built until the choir burst out "Glory!" and the twangy bass sprang to the fore. "Yeah! Gloria, glory, gloria, glory be to God on high!" The sound was still pop, but with a gospel backbone -- or perhaps gospel with a pop gloss.
Whichever it was, the choir, bouncing from side to side, launched into a funksome rendition of "Angels We Have Heard on High." Different band sections took the intervals between the lines -- the organ, the horns, the bass. "Oh! Oh! Glo-o-o-o-o Oh! Oh! Glo-o-o-o-o Oh! Oh! Glo-o-o-o-o-o-RI-A!" blared the choir on the chorus, before giving way to a throaty alto soloist.
"What did the angels shout?" she asked the choir.
She ranged all over the staff, singing, "Glory to glory to glory to glory to glory to glory to God," then turned again to the choir: "Hey -- help me SING!" The choir picked up the "glory" line, and the song shifted and swelled through a couple more musical themes (we had left the carol far behind by this point) before climaxing with the refrain "To the only our Savior be majesty, dominion, and power, forever and ever and ever! Glory! Be! To! God! On! High!"
Then Hansen led the congregation through several more hymns -- mellower, more participatory -- often with his arms spread, his eyes closed, his head tilted back in worshipful prayer. "We hunger after you, O God; we thirst after you, O God..."
The lights came up just a bit when Pastor Brawner ascended the steps and led the congregation in prayer. "We give You thanks and praise. May your healing, may your ministry, may your wholeness be in this room today, we pray that You would touch broken bodies and marriages and families and lives and finances. We pray for wisdom and guidance and direction, Lord..."
The sermon was the second in a series taken from the title of Carrie Underwood's country hit, "Jesus, Take the Wheel." Week one was "Jesus, take the wheel of my problems"; today, it was "Jesus, take the wheel of my decisions." When you say that, said Brawner, "you're inviting His insight, His instruction, His inspiration.... I want to show you five biblical principles for making good decisions." The principles: look up to God, look in at yourself, look out for facts, look around for advisors, look toward the future.
The source text for those principles was the Book of Proverbs. "It talks about how to go to war, when to go to war, business, marriage, family, finances, children, conflicts. You talk about life -- it is in there." Throughout, he cited verses from various translations, including The Living Bible ("What a shame, yes, how stupid to decide before knowing the facts"); The Message ("Trust God from the bottom of your heart.... Run to God"); and the NIV ("Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisors they succeed"). He surrounded those verses with an array of stories, drawn from Scripture, from fellow Christians, and from his own life.
Brawner's final prayer at the end of the service: "I thank You, Lord for the wisdom of your words and for the practicality your word is so full of.... You have given us commands, principles, and insights. I pray that You would help us...make the ultimate decision of positioning You as the Lord and leader of our lives."
What happens when we die?
"We keep living," said Brawner. "It's only a matter of where and how. Today's message was on decisions, and the decisions I make now determine the life I'm going to live in the future. Ultimately, God simply carries out what I've decided. People say, 'How can a loving God send anyone to hell?' He doesn't send anyone to hell.... I make decisions -- whether I'm going to accept God or not. Then, when I die, that decision is put into effect forever."
Denomination: Assemblies of God
Founded locally: 1950
Senior pastor: Jeff Brawner
Congregation size: 2000
Staff size: 28
Sunday school enrollment: no traditional Sunday school; about 800 involved in various educational programs
Annual budget: n/a
Weekly giving: n/a
Singles program: yes
Dress: a step above casual -- polo shirts instead of T-shirts
Sunday worship: 8:30 a.m., 9:45 a.m., 11:30 a.m.
Length of reviewed service: 1 hour