It’s an encounter unlike any at the typical church.
A giant red heart sits in the center of the altar. From the heart springs a line of ribbon that stretches down the center aisle and extends into each pew.
Pastor Greg Carder is at the podium, encouraging churchgoers to hold the thread.
Music swells as piano and guitar chords mingle, adding subtle emphasis to the words of the speakers.
But this time, it’s not Carder who is speaking.
“We actually opened up a microphone for anybody who wanted to come up and read a verse of the Bible that was a verse of encouragement to just really help people through whatever it was that they needed a little bit of courage and hope for,” Carder said.
Carder said the goal of the exercise was to make people feel anchored to spirituality when confronted by wild and unpredictable times.
“It’s often tear-filled. A good kind. Not a sadness, but meaningful,” Carder said. “I heard a lot of people walking out saying, ‘I needed that. I needed that encouragement, that reminder.’”
Moments like these are what distinguish and define Encounter Church of Berks, an interactive worship experience that aims to go beyond the typical model of three songs and a sermon.
“We’re going to listen to Scripture, take Communion, all those church things,” Carder said, “but we also want to pass the authority to every person sitting in the room. To say here’s the content, take some time to really think through what it means for yourself.”
To accomplish that, Encounter seeks to stimulate all the senses, with a creative combination of sight, sound, tactile experience and community interaction.
“We want to engage the ears, the eyes, the hands and the relationships in the room to make sure that the message sticks,” Carder said.
Carder said he believes that truly digesting the Bible’s messages together makes families stronger, healthier and more honest with each other, and deepens connections between friends in the community.
Encounter — which conducted its first official Sunday worship this weekend — held a series of preview services in December and January at St. John’s Reformed Church in Sinking Spring.
The first service was attended by 84 adults and 19 children, Carder said.
“Sometimes we’ll play a game. We try to involve both adults and kids in that,” Carder said. “We want our kids to watch and learn from their parents. We think there’s something really valuable to that.”
As a youth minister in the Berks area for 16 years, Carder worked closely with middle and high school students.
His work made him realize that not everyone learns by listening.
Through conversations with friends and loved ones, Carder became convinced it was possible to step outside the standard church experience of sitting and listening, then leaving.
Along with a team of 17 volunteers, Carder coordinated with St. John’s to organize and launch Encounter Church.
“(St. John’s) has just been so kind to us,” Carder said, “This church has existed in the community for 200 years. They figured if the Lord wants us to use this building to help nurture a new church, they were all in.”
Nourishing that community through faith is a major goal of Encounter.
Carder said that at one of the church’s preview services, he was discussing the story of Moses deciding to stand up to the pharaoh and lead his people to freedom.
“He (Moses) said no first, he said I don’t want to, I’m not very good at speaking,” Carder said, “but God coached him through that by showing him something he didn’t see in himself.”
Carder said that lesson on identifying gifts in each other led to a moment where churchgoers stood up and called out those gifts.
“We had this teenage girl who got up to the microphone and said my mom shows up for me every singe day,” Carder said. “The mom was like I didn’t even know you noticed. It was an unforeseen, but very sweet result.”
Carder said his work with Encounter made him realize people are starving for affirmation.
“There’s a lot in our world that would lead us to believe we’re really terrible as human beings,” Carder said, “I think sometimes we miss the good that people can leverage to someone else’s benefit. We want Encounter Church to be a place where people’s gifts can be affirmed and celebrated.”