Growing up, I experienced many different Christian denominations and services from Methodist, to Catholic, to Pentecostal, to Non-Denominational. This has sparked an interest to look into two stark contrasting worship services. “Next Level Church” is a growing multi-site Non-Denominational Church with three sites in Ft. Myers, Florida. “Christ Lutheran” is a small Lutheran Church in Cape Coral, Florida. Seven factors will be considered in contrasting the two worship services in the south west Florida community. The differences in the teaching and theology observed/practiced are vastly different. Both churches attract and retain distinct demographics of members which is worth discussing. The fashion in which the members gather to celebrate or worship God with music differentiate despite they both worship the same God. The “skeleton” or foundation of the flow of the worship service are organized in specific separate styles. The ways the members meet and have fellowship together contrast drastically. Pamphlets or handouts given to people attending the worship services have unassociated purposes in their use. The last aspect in contrasting a Non-Denominational Church with a Lutheran Church is their individual values and the culture held in the respective communities. While attending Christ Lutheran, I met Pam and Travis, the Secretary and President of the Church council which served as a huge aid in researching and providing insight to the Lutheran faith. I met a member of the worship band at Next Level Church, Jake who answered many questions pertaining to the Non-Denominational Church. With all this being said, the diversity in two ways of having community is something worth celebrating.
Simply put, Theology is the study of the nature of God and a systematic religious belief tied to it. Both Churches have distinct theologies that shape their church to what it is and therefore influences the worship service. Christ Lutheran is a member of “ECLA”, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The teachings observed is closely related to the Founder of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther (1453-1546). Luther and his partners are famous for their “Five Solas”, their doctrines that serve as a foundation of later starting Protestantism. They include “Saved by grace alone, by scripture alone, through Christ alone, by faith alone, and glory to God alone.” These core fundamentals shaped the way members and leaders think, interact and engage with the outside communities. While talking with Pam and Travis, they stated that the ECLA organization has more “progressive” theology than what one might assume for a Liturgical style denomination. They also brought up how the weekly teachings are shaped from scripture and theology unique to the Lutheran Church. In 1991, the ECLA published a statement on homosexuality in the Church, “Gay and lesbian people, as individuals created by God, are welcome to participate fully in the life of the congregations of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.” This also includes the ordination and leadership roles of gay and lesbian individuals. Next Level Church’s view is slightly different, their website has a short excerpt of their Lead Pastor, Matt Keller speaking on the topic. Pastor Keller goes on to say, “[the Church] doesn’t agree with the redefinition of marriage that the government put forth.” With this being said, their perspective on this reaches into how one might experience a service. He later spoke of how that doesn’t give reason to exclude gay and lesbian people from the Church. I saw, sat with, and engaged with people of multiple nationalities and walks of life but obviously couldn’t determent sexual orientation based on merely the members’ outward appearance. This controversial topic serves as a function to study to contrasting theological approaches.
Next Level and Christ Lutheran bring in very different population groups from different economic and ethnic backgrounds to differing age groups holding a majority within the congregation. Next Level’s location is nestled between several upper-class gated communities which has a large impact on the overall economic status of the average church-goer but still retains a brand of modesty in the service experience. Christ Lutheran is located on a busy commercial street adjacent to a collection of middle-class homes. From my experience of visiting these two churches, there was no distinct difference in appearance of one congregation being financially better off than the other. The most unique difference in the two groups was the age difference. As I walked into the Lutheran Church sanctuary a few minutes before the service started every one was calmly situated in the pews waiting patiently for the opening hymn to commence. At first glance I could only see the back of everyone’s heads but I then noticed that the congregation was heavily filled with seniors and retirees. In the middle of conversing with Pam and Travis we talked about the average age and how that affects the church-going experience. They both agreed that the average age was most likely between 60 to 65. Next Level was extremely different. Walking around in the lobby before service I saw young parents, teenagers, children, and a few seniors sprinkled amongst the crowd. The difference in age demographics didn’t cause a change in “welcoming ability”, but did change the way I was welcomed into the building. As I entered the Lutheran service I was greeted with a genuine handshake and smile by a middle aged man. While walking into Next Level, I was greeted by a young woman with a smile and again by a teenager as he held the door open for everyone and handed me a bulletin.
The next factor considered in comparing and contrasting the two church services is the way in which the members worship God with music. Instruments incorporated with corporate worship has taken place since Old Testament times and continues to evolve today. Much like other similar Non-denominational churches, Next Level’s worship style is a band of two guitarists, a key board player, a drummer, a bassist, and three singers on stage while the lyrics are projected on a screen in front of moving graphic usually matching the color schemes of lights on stage. This experience could be closely related to a modern concert due to the facility being equipped with state-of-the-art light and sound systems as well as fog machines. The band played a mixture of fast paced songs accompanied by slower, contemplative songs shortly afterward. The worship approach of Christ Lutheran is quiet, collected, and calm. The instruments used for hymns includes piano, flute, organ, violin, harp, and a few more that I couldn’t specifically hear or see from my time there. All the musicians were in the back of the sanctuary on a raised floor with a half-wall guarding the edges. All the hymns had their lyrics partnered with the sheet music underneath it. Most of the members participated with the musicians by singing from the liturgy papers. The stark differences between the two goes far beyond the just the music but also leaks into the way the church community has “fellowship” or socializes to build relations within the organization.
The sense of “community” and wholeness plays a major role in what both of the churches value and strive for. Next Level and Christ Luther attain this through different methods and atmospheres. Next Level has a variety of “small groups” that I learned about while visiting. These small groups meet in homes across the area ran by and for a conglomeration of types of people. One small group may be for single moms, while another might be intended for guys in their twenties held outside of the service times throughout the week. Both Churches share a characteristic of spending a few moments encouraging the attenders to greet one another during the progression of the service. During my visit at Christ Lutheran, Travis and Pam kindly invited me to their “Coffee hour”, where they met right after the service for coffee and pastries in the building’s dining hall. The gentle ambience of the dining hall was saturated with small talk and discussions over the teaching that was just heard 20 minutes prior. There is probably no intentional reason this is done but most likely just a matter of tradition.
The overall scheme of the schedule of the services differ from each other greatly. Both Churches have consistent layouts but are expressed differently. Christ Lutheran followed a Liturgy, where all the scripture and hymn lyrics were documented in the bulletin along with an illustration for the children’s sermon. The sermon seemed much shorter than the sermon from Next Level because it shared time with other segments of the service such as a time for weekly communion and reading of scripture from other leaders of the Church. This liturgy had bold-faced type that showed the congregation to respond with those words as well as when to stand up or sit down. The use of the Liturgy stems from a long history of Orthodox Church activity. A majority of Non-Denominational Churches share the likeness of having service started with a few worship songs, the first half being more exciting fast songs then transitions into slower songs followed by the Pastor’s sermon. Next Level doesn’t practice the Liturgy but uses other ways of having a consistent worship service experience. In a similarly interesting way, Next Level has a bulletin to be used as an event announcer, place to take notes and fill in information from the teaching. This bulletin could show the members the flow of the sermon by the main points being stated.
These bulletins and handouts differ greatly in appearance as well as the purpose of their use. At first glance, you would see a black and white illustration of a biblical narrative on the front of Christ Lutheran’s bulletin accompanied by the service date that the Liturgy was made for on a small booklet while Next Level’s bulletin counterpart was a colored trifold with 3 social media websites under their name on the front. The mere template of the handouts plays a major role in showing the organization’s central focus. Next Level’s strategy of organizing the information is a spatial approach. All of their ministries are listed and explained on one side of a page while other important pieces of information are placed within the handout. I was given two bulletins while spending a Sunday morning at Christ Lutheran Church, one was the outline of the Liturgy while the other was a more in depth with information regarding the Church, upcoming events, and Scripture readings for the service. I noticed how at Next Level most attenders left their bulletins in a recycling can while at Christ Lutheran a majority had their bulletins in their hands as they conversed in the parking lot leaving the Church for the day. This is most likely because at Christ Lutheran these bulletins are the main source of information while Next Level’s source of Church related information is found at their website.
The last thing considered in analyzing the contrasting factors of Christ Lutheran and Next Level is their values and cultures they hold within their community. “Creating a place that people love, so they can experience a loving God”, was stated in the middle of Next Level’s bulletin as well as on the front page of their website. With this being acknowledged, we can see that this is held as a strong value to this Non-Denominational organization. While attending Next Level for a Sunday morning I would describe the culture as energetic, enthusiastic, and relevant led by a married couple in their early forties. These characteristics come from the passionate core members as well as the features of their modern facilities. Christ Lutheran would describe their mission statement as, “Sharing Christ’s Love in Community.” From my experience at Christ Lutheran the culture held was introspective, structured, and in a unique way scholarly. These native ideals originate from the history of this Church being the first established in Cape Coral, Florida. I hold neither of these Churches as higher than the other in their Cultural values.
The fast growing Non-Denominational Church “Next Level” and the historically rich, “Christ Lutheran Church” have many differences that are worth exploring and celebrating the differences. This diversity benefits the Christian community as a whole because it has a home for people of all interests and beliefs. The clash of Orthodox fashioned Churches and Progressives have been a significant topic in the realm of academic religious study. The first-hand experience and research involved helped me as a student to understand how religious beliefs can play a role in a Church and its worship services.