At Your Service: Surprising simplicity at Harvest Church

Harvest

Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

Harvest Church is large and rather dramatic, but the service and the sermon were unexpectedly earnest and low-key.

Harvest Church, 1235 West Wicks Lane
Service: 9 a.m., Sunday, Nov. 23, 2014
Length of service: 1 hour, 19 minutes. Length of sermon: 38 minutes

It’s difficult to live in Billings and not know something about Harvest Church. That’s the one that raised a huge church building up near Skyview High, the church with the climbing walls in the lobby.

Harvest is the church that rents billboards to advertise its sermon series, the church that built the waterpark in the Heights, the church that puts on the big Fourth of July celebration at Castle Rock Park.

AtYourServiceAnd yet at the heart of it I found a surprising and very simple thing: a preacher wrestling with the words of the Bible, trying to figure out what they really mean, and trying to involve his congregation in that search. That may sound silly—isn’t that what they do at all churches?—but there was a difference here, which I will attempt to explain in a moment.

As for the church: Yes, it is very large. When I first saw it years ago, from a distance, I honestly thought it was a new high-end apartment building. I was amazed when I found out it was a church. The lobby is tall and spacious, with a big coffee bar in the middle and the climbing walls near the front entrances.

The worship area is a big, black box, with rows of individual chairs, sort of like Faith Chapel but not as large, and without a balcony. A band was playing when I walked in, a six-piece band with the drummer ensconced in an acoustically friendly Plexiglas box.

What is this series about?

To read the essay that introduced this series click here.

The lead singer was a young man in the requisite plaid cowboy shirt and jeans. He put me in mind of Justin Bieber, what with his prominent forehead surmounted by a steep wave of slick-backed hair.

After one song, the lead pastor, Vern Streeter, casually walked out onto the stage to make a few announcements. He was wearing jeans, too, and a long-sleeve striped shirt, untucked, and canvas deck shoes. He is tall, thin and youngish-looking, with sharp features and that same sort of intentionally messy hair I had seen on the bandleader at Faith Chapel.

He was quite folksy in his announcements, which included an update on the hiring of some new church staff, including a “tech guy,” about whom he said, “We got a guy coming with chops.” After a prayer for a new member of the church council, Streeter said to him, “Stan, bless you, buddy.”

This was followed by two songs, professionally performed but utterly undistinguished. The first one was built around the verse, “The blood of Jesus is enough,” and the second also spoke rather lovingly about the blood of Jesus. The older I get, the odder I find this reverence for blood, this holdover from the most ancient of human rituals.

Not that it mattered much. This did not appear to be a congregation accustomed to surrendering to rapture, and these songs were not designed to elicit it. There were hands raised in worship and some singing along, but I heard not a single “Amen.”

After those two songs, with no other formalities, announcements or rituals, Streeter came back out and launched into his sermon, Week 3 of a series called “Dumb Things Christians Say.” The “dumb thing” under discussion this week was “God will never give you more than you can handle.”

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Here’s what was different: With a minimum of personal anecdotes, cloying asides or theatrics, Streeter spent 38 minutes in almost pure biblical exegesis or interpretation. There was some overt folksiness—“drug” for “dragged” and several uses of the word “bro” among them—but mostly it was a patient examination of biblical passages.

To his credit, he didn’t simply announce what the text meant, but rather worked through it slowly, explaining variant definitions of a Greek word or trying to establish what he believed was the correct context for this or that word or phrase. I’m not saying it was particularly compelling from my perspective, but I admired his patient, respectful attitude.

He might have been a bright young professor at a Bible college facing a classroom of eager students. He was more cerebral and bookish than any minister I’d heard so far, and his charisma was more intellectual than visceral. Nor did I hear any of the exhortations to the congregation I’d grown so used to. I remember only a single “Still with me?”

His main message, as I understood it, was that God does give people, even his favorites, much more than they can handle at times. We cannot ask why, but only place our trust in a God capable of all things. Better yet, we can also place our trust in other people.

“Understanding is overrated,” Streeter said. “Trust is everything.”

I felt a wave of disagreement rushing through my body. This was a sentiment I’ve heard many times, in different ways, and it always rubs me wrong. Trying to understand is the essence of being human, and in too many cases trust is the easy, the lazy way out. I will never apologize for trying to understand, to reason, to think.

At any rate, that was the end of the sermon. After a few moments of silent prayer, the band played another song and Streeter invited those who wanted to accept Christ to raise their hands. One young man did and Streeter welcomed him aboard and told him he was starting a new life, right then, with a clean slate.

There was another song, an a cappella rendition of an updated “It is well with my soul,” followed by a round of polite applause. I left there feeling curiously unmoved, feeling there must have been something I missed. It was like not caring for a book widely hailed by others, and of being uncertain whether the fault was with me or the book.

Previously: Chapter 1: St. Patrick Co-Cathedral.

Chapter 2: Mount Olive Lutheran Church.

Chapter 3: Full Gospel Revival Tabernacle.

Chapter 4: First Church of Christ, Scientist.

Chapter 5; First Baptist Church.

Chapter 6: Billings Freedom Church.

Chapter 7: Faith Chapel.

Chapter 8: Eagle Ministries Inc.

Chapter 9: First United Methodist Church.

Chapter 10: Pilgrim Congregational Church.

Chapter 11Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Meetinghouse.

Chapter 12: First Christian Church.

Chapter 13: Victorious Word Church.

Chapter 14: Oasis Church.

Next week: Billings Association of Humanists.

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