My Atlanta trip in late June included a number of unique experiences. I visited my first satellite church plant while in Atlanta. I went to Buckhead Church, which is a satellite church for North Point Community Church.
Andy Stanley is the senior pastor for both churches. He speaks at the main campus and his message is then broadcast to two remote locations. Andy is a well-known Christian communicator and the son of preaching legend Charles Stanley.
Here’s my disclaimer. This is my honest assessment of a church after only one visit. I know that is probably not fair. You can only learn a limited amount about a fellowship from one visit. And I applaud the many innovative things that North Point Ministries is doing. On the other hand, I have to be honest about my experience.
I found it hard to find the church facility at first because it didn’t look like a church building. It looked like an office building from the outside of the facility. That may be a plus for many people. But it made my first visit a challenge.
I knew this would be a unique experience because the Buckhead area is way above my pay grade. It is the high rent district in Atlanta. I passed new luxury townhomes being built nearby. The sign said, “Luxury town homes starting at only $1 million.” I gasped and thought that maybe I would be a tad underdressed for my visit. The good news is that I wasn’t. The attire was very casual.
I came in from a side door to see a really neat bookstore full of books, CDs, teaching DVDs, etc. It had a lot of North Point resources as well as other major Christian voices. The selection was good. The service lacked southern hospitality. I was the only guy in there between services and nobody said boo to me even though I looked at a variety of North Point DVDs for about 20 minutes. The bookstore should have had coffee. I would have probably stayed longer and bought more… just a little marketing tip.
I stumbled into the kids area to see a theme-based motif complete with fresh paint and some kind of adventure jeep. It looked cool and became apparent that North Point’s approach focused on creating the right kind of environments for people to grow and experience God. Even Buchhead Church’s info packet talked about ministries in the terms of various “environments.”
I finally found my way to the main sanctuary by following the crowds of people entering for the next service. The lobby had a tall ceiling. It looked kind of like an office building or convention center foyer. It was very open with almost no furniture. I would have liked a few places to sit. There was a central information stand and two small sales kiosks on each end with recent CDs for sale. There were a few ministry tables promoting a few different environments.
Nobody initiated a conversation with me the entire time that I was there except for the 30 seconds of forced community during the service where everybody was supposed to great the people around them. I hate that part of services, yet I like them too for some strange reason. It must be one of those love/hate things.
I strolled into the sanctuary between services and was amazed to see all the chairs. I figure it must seat about 2,500-3,000 people. The room was light grey with acoustic tile in the back. It looked similar to a modern movie theater with moveable chairs and a sloped floor. The large screens on either side of the sanctuary showed varous announcements. All of them were designed to fit the theme.
Before the service started, the band came out and played some songs related to the theme, which was, “Destinations.” Andy Stanley had been speaking about the journey of life and making right decisions to go where we want to end up. Instead of just put on the Ipod as background music, the band played popular, secular songs that dealt with the theme. They played On the Road Again, Life Is a Highway, I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For, etc. These songs helped to set the mood, entertained the crowd as everyone gathered, and drew people into the room to see why the music was already playing. It seemed like a good idea to me after the fact.
I first thought these were the worship songs and was very concerned that I had entered McChurch. Don’t get me wrong. I love many secular songs as much as the next “sinner.” But I do feel that Church music should focus on glorifying God not appeasing men. I later discovered this was just intro music before the service began. This little experience showed me that I should be careful jumping to conclusions.
The crowd appeared to be fairly young with lots of people in their 20s-30s. The attire seemed casual although you could tell that some people had money by their watches and clothing. Evidently, the facility was almost brand new. I belive it was part of a $20 million project.
The service that I attended was packed. I think that Buckhead Church had two services on Sunday morning and one Sunday night. All of the announcements and music were done live.
Despite a quality band and good song selection, the crowd was fairly sedate. I simply got lost in worship and suddenly remembered that I was in a new place. I looked around to see if my hands-raising, pentecostal style would work there. I didn’t see a single person who seemed to care what I did. Neither did I see many hands raised. I sensed that the Holy Spirit released me to go for it. By the end of the song set, there were a few more hands raised and even a few folks crying near me. Overall, the spirit of the crowd seemed a little stuffy. I can’t judge the heart of the congregation. All I know is that I felt the crowd seemed a bit cold and guarded.
The worship band did five songs, including a reworked hymn to a more modern tempo. Video cameras put images of the band on the screen along with the words. The video quality looked more like a worship DVD than just a basic service. It was clear that this church has the audio/video side of the equation nailed down.
From the songs to the backgrounds to the bulletins, everything fit the “Destinations” theme. The bulletin looked like a road map and was printed on quality paper. There were buckets at the doors where people could put the used bulletins so that the next service could use them as long as the person did not write on them.
The message was broadcast on three big screens. I believe that Andy Stanley spoke from the main campus. The two side screens were presented as upper chest and head shots. These looked more like you were watching a TV. A huge screen came down at the front of the stage after the band left. This screen was a full-body, full-stage shot. It made Andy Stanely appear as if he were really standing on stage. It looked kind of 3-D. I am not sure if that was due to a special projector or screen or the arrangement of the full-body shot between the two head-shot screens. The effect was cool and added to the reality of the experience.
Stanley’s message included a number of great ideas. He spoke on one Scripture and expounded on it well. His message was the second in a series called “Destinations.” He presented the idea in a clear format and included a number of humorous stories. He drove the point home even while keeping the message interesting. I never felt that he compromised the truth to be relevant.
Stanely did not use a lot of multimedia in his presentation. It was a fairly standard sermon format although the message showed a lot of thought about how the Biblical concept related to everyday life. There was no real response mechanism.
People could go for prayer by visiting a table in the main foyer. I thought this was an awkward setup because a crowded foyer is a horrible place to handle prayer and private counseling after a message. The main sanctuary cleared out fairly quickly. I believe there could have been more effective follow-up if some prayer leaders stayed in the sanctuary to pray and talk with stragglers who wanted to interact with a member of the church leadership team.
Overall, the experience was positive although I can tell the church might struggle with helping newcomers feel accepted and really reaching a place of complete abandonement in worship. It had a lot of resources and organization although I see this could be an easy place to get lost and never really connect. I believe the satellite church format worked in terms of teaching. The things that I noticed that could be improved had nothing to do with the sermon.
You can listen to messages spoken at North Point by visiting http://www.northpoint.org/messages