Posts Tagged ‘ River Hills ’

River Hills Community Church, Traditional Service – Visited on 8/14/11

It is important that you understand certain things about River Hills.  To the north and east of York County sits a great spider, spinning out its web.  That spider, the greater metropolitan area of Charlotte, NC, spreads its concrete strands of housing development service roads and strip malls further and further from its center, the great glass and steel tower of Bank of America, every year.  Charlotte’s web does not sit idle: its strands snare homemakers from the American Northeast even as we speak, snaring them in aluminum box-houses and the bricked hubris of McMansions in ever greater numbers.

Years ago the web spread over the shores of Lake Wylie, a small body of water that defines the eastern border of York County.  There it snared yet more flies to feed their time and money to the great weaving beast at Charlotte’s heart, in the form of a swirling mandala of new suburban housing complexes carved into the forests that surround all settlements here in the Carolina piedmont.  Of these perhaps the largest, certainly the most visible, is River Hills: a gated community for the middle and upper middle class of York County, a new pole of political and economic power fighting to metastasize into its own school district where the children of the relatively well-to-do need not share classrooms or cafeterias with the greater mass of the county.

River Hills Community Church sits on two plots of land astride the road to River Hills—one must pass between the church’s two complexes to reach the community’s barred gate.  It boasts an athletics center and an expansive sanctuary for the church’s traditional service, and supports at least three worship services a day—two of the aforementioned traditional services, presided over by the church’s lead pastor Bruce Jones, as well as a contemporary service called “Journeys,” led by associate pastor Kenny Ashley.

I attended that latter of the day’s two traditional worship services.  The old sanctuary, where it took place, is a cavernous chamber paneled from floor to ceiling in dark wood.  The ceiling vaults high above the congregation, hung with banners of white and green like some time-lost Viking hall.  Rows of pews fit to seat hundreds sprawl back from the raised altar while a choir loft broad enough for dozens of singers rises behind it.  Behind and above the choir the wooden walls give way to plate-glass windows that fill the airy hall of the sanctuary with natural morning light.

The worshippers who filled the sanctuary for the traditional service that morning represented the long-time faithful of River Hills: retirees in their Sunday best sat shoulder to shoulder in their hundreds, intermixed with a handful of young professionals and parents with teenage children. Magisterial tones from the sanctuary’s pipe organ welcome worshippers to seats they’ve occupied for Sundays uncounted while the pastor and his staff prepare themselves for the morning’s service.

Music forms a strong component of the traditional RHCC service.  Years ago the church hired Kevin Gray, then one of two leading music instructors in the Clover School District, to take over as choir director.  Mr. Gray is a perennially energetic man who directs his choir of at least twenty volunteers with the panache of a seasoned performer.  His dark hair rises to a peaked black spitcurl—Gray has been known to moonlight as a fairly convincing Elvis impersonator in his spare time.  He and the choir perform with undaunted energy throughout the service, and even take a moment aside to accept hymn requests from the audience each Sunday.

Two speakers interrupted the procession of praise music that morning.  The first was a representative of Operation Mayday, a local charitable group attempting to recruit players for a charity golf tournament planned for early October.  The second speaker was Kenny Ashley, pastor of the Journeys contemporary service at RHCC.  Ashley is a big man, balding, who still commands the rough gregariousness of the high school football coach he was before turning to ministry.  He is a man who refers to his God as “Papa,” and describes the religious experience as ‘being broken to God’s saddle.’

Ashley addressed the congregation for a sobering announcement: he planned to leave the RHCC and take his Journeys program with him.  He said that just as he’d felt a calling to become a pastor, he now felt a calling to take his program beyond the bounds of the RHCC where it could become its own organization.  It was a similar refrain to that provided by Matt McGarity of relevant Church, whose organization was also once a part of the RHCC as well and split from that group a mere five weeks before Kenny Ashley’s announcement.

When the music finished the lead pastor finally rose to stand behind his pulpit.  Bruce Jones has the look of someone’s congenial uncle, an older man with a round face and thinning crop of gray hair, drooping jowls hanging about smiling lips.  As he delivered his sermon, the second in a series that strove to explain ‘why bad things happen to good people,’ he maintained the rhythm and energy of a public speaker sharpened by decades of practice.

Though the sermon began by exploring competing theological explanations for the purposes of suffering and calamity in the world, Rev. Jones soon passed into descriptions of two moments when he’d felt the hand of the Almighty directing the events of his life.

First he told the tale of how, as a boy, he’d jumped from a diving board into a public pool, only to find himself unable to swim.  Jones began to drown as he struggled towards the lip of the pool until he felt what he described as strong hands grasping him and lifting him above the water.  The pastor said that when he’d looked behind him to find who had saved him, no one was there.  Rev. Jones attributed his rescue to the hands of God himself, lifting him from the water to preserve his life towards the fulfillment of some unknowable purpose.

Rev. Jones’s second story hailed from much later in his life, when he was already pastor of the RHCC.  He related how he’d planned to visit a hospitalized woman of his congregation but felt a strong urge, as though from outside his own mind, to visit a day earlier.  When he arrived at the earlier occasion he found he’d come just in time for a crisis: a car wreck wounded several members of a family from his church that night, and Jones described how he spent that evening praying with them and their visitors before visiting the woman he’d originally come to see.

Jones said a call to the hospital the next day brought news that the woman he’d visited the night before had passed on in the night.  Jones attributed this remarkable timing, both in arriving to minister to the family involved in the wreck and to comfort the unnamed woman on her last evening alive, to God steering his actions.  In addition he mentioned that over the course of his ministry he witnessed seven occasions where members of his congregation were miraculously healed of their illnesses by divine providence.

After concluding his sermon, Rev. Jones had one last announcement for the congregation.  After a joking aside that “No, I’m not leaving too,” he let it be known that he intended to step out of the day-to-day operations of the Church to devote his time to his wife, due to return from missionary work in the Philippines soon, and to focus on his pastoring and ministering.

I conducted a brief interview with Rev. Jones after the service.  On the affiliation of his church he said that the RHCC was strictly nondenominational, and held within its congregation members of some 27 different Christian traditions.  On the departure of the relevant and Journeys programs from his church he explained that no bad blood lay between the RHCC and its splintering contemporary programs.  Rather he said that those ministers, McGarity and Ashley, had felt it was time to plant their ministries beyond the bounds of River Hills. He made no mention of any link between his own withdrawal from the RHCC’s day to day operations and his associate ministers’ leaving the church to establish their own ministries.

When asked about the 1st Amendment and the relationship between Church and State, Jones would only refer me to Romans 13, which instructs the believer to “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s,” and leave matters temporal in the charge of secular authorities.