If you live in the Twin Cities, consider attending a Substance Church service sometime. I went there with a family I am close to yesterday — my first time visiting a church in years, and the first one I’ve visited since the Christ claimed me. It was an awesome experience. Let me walk you thought it as honestly as I can.
I walked into the lobby and got some free coffee and a doughnut from the friendly volunteers. Right away I could see the the congregation is young, averaging mid-twenties, and solidly multi-ethnic. A beautiful crowd. The dress code is Come As You Are, which often translates to Hip and Fonky. People wished me good morning at every turn. A positive vibe all around.
I walked into the auditorium and was instantly dazzled. It was obvious this is a “mega-church”. The place was well attended. Two humongous video monitors flanked the stage, which was set with full rock band instrumentation. Recorded worship music on the venue system instantly put me in a good mood.
“Good bass,” my friend commented. He and his sister and father and I found four available seats to stand in front of just moments before the service began in earnest. Church announcements were presented via the video monitors. Church goings-on were detailed, many of which focused on youth activities, some of which addressed all age groups. There’s a triathlon coming up to raise money for displaced peoples in Africa. We were encouraged to join a “sub-group”. “Church doesn’t start until the service is over” is the Substance motto.
The band kicked up and we all sang along to some very good rock worship music. I found it easy to pick up the lyrics and melodies, which were broadcast on the monitors. I also found it easy to get into the spirit of things, raising my arms and whatnot to fully immerse myself in worship. I have never done that in my life. I milked it for all it was worth, singing my heart out. I believed in the lyrics. I was moved. I surrendered to God in the music.
The sermon was telecast from a video recorded the previous day. At first I didn’t like that. It felt like the substitute teacher wheeling in the A/V rig. But two minutes into it, the illusion set in and it felt “live”. Substance has multiple “campuses” and so the featured preacher may not always be at your campus in person. The preacher in this case was Peter Haas, the director of the church and author of the book Pharisectomy: How to Joyfully Remove Your Inner Pharisee and Other Religiously Transmitted Diseases. By that title alone, you should now be aware this is not a typical church, but it makes a point to emphasize that the messaging is 100% bible-centered.
The topic of the sermon was “Change Before You Have To”, the third in a weekly series. The main message of this sermon was, “Your ability to delay satisfaction is based on the trust you have for that person.” In other words, trusting in God is a prerequisite for obeying his commands, and in fact trusting God makes it very easy to follow him. Haas highlighted scientific studies and biblical passages to make his point. He’s got great stage presence and is very eloquent on multiple levels. Haas, who long ago used to be a non-Christ-following club DJ, uses youthful slang and embraces casual language, reflecting a conscious effort to speak with young audiences. While this can at first seem a touch contrived, I have grown endeared to it through listening to Haas’ recorded sermons online, and I found many occasions to raise my eyebrows and say “Amen!” in moments of enlightenment. Humor was a recurring element. I lawled.
Haas does a good job of addressing the camera to achieve the aforementioned illusion of fleshly presence. For me, sitting among a few hundred fellow worshipers had a magnifying effect on the overall sensation of presence and in-the-moment-ness the Substance media team seems to aim for.
The in-person emcee, Rob Champion, another fantastic Substance preacher (please do yourself a favor and listen to this powerful 50-minute sermon), led us into another round of worship music. He had the band keep the last song going for a few more minutes, saying, “This is my favorite song.” I was glad he did that; I didn’t want it to end.
I went up to get a prayer after the service. I referenced Jesus’ parable of the seed sower and requested that they make me “good soil” for Christ’s word. Three men placed hands on my shoulders and prayed for my new walk with Christ. One placed two fingertips on my chest over my heart as they prayed. They were warm, gracious, and respectful, and they invited me to their Thursday men’s groups, which I do plan to try out.
I spoke with Champion in the lobby. He’s a great outreach representative and seems sincerely committed to making Substance the best it can be, eliciting my thoughts and letting me talk. I regaled him with a review and told him a clipped version of the story of how Christ claimed me against my will just over three weeks ago. I felt my words were chaotic, being that I felt chemically pumped up by the experience of the past hour or two. I signed up to get hooked into the Substance community, writing that I’d like to help out in whatever way I can, and got a free copy of Pharisectomy in return.
I couldn’t stop thinking and talking with my friends about the service for hours afterward. I wanted to stay and worship (party, more like) all day long. It was so much input. It’s good to fellowship, it’s good to worship, and it’s good to get lost in the whistles and bells and the production and pomp and circumstance of this hip, young, biblically committed church. And the messaging, as I said, was intellectually stimulating and spiritually informative.
In a way, in my heart of hearts, I found the Substance service to be too much input. I couldn’t help but notice I found it difficult to hear the quiet voice of God for the rest of the day. Let this be a piece of advice for anyone who attends a flashy church like Substance: Unwind afterward. Regroup. Meditate. Pray. The service took place at 9:30 a.m., but it wasn’t until I turned off my lights in my bedroom twelve hours later that I could finally close my eyes and talk with God and really hear him and have an uninterrupted back-and-forth. He and I had a lovely discussion for a few minutes about the question of my life’s mission before I dropped off to sleep.
Overall impression? Go to Substance Church. Check it out. They really have their stuff together. They know how to make Christ accessible. The audience they seem to be addressing is the uncertain, somewhat agnostic, somewhat contrarian contingent of Christians and curious people — the seekers, the strugglers, the ones who live in an information-saturated world in which grasping someone’s attention amounts to a mathematically Herculean endeavor to mediate myriad communications variables. All that input, wonderful as it is, must absolutely be balanced with your own, individual, quiet, meditative conversations with God in moments when you are totally alone with him, lest your brain overflow with information and displace Spirit itself.
Go with a joyous heart. Immerse yourself in the experience. Worship. Praise. Lose yourself. Magnify your joy and get your heart’s fill. Extend your joy to the others in attendance. Receive the gift of your fellow followers.
And then let it all go, and go with God.
Says the new Christ follower who, if he is to be honest with himself, really doesn’t know jack squat about life or anything.