Going to ChurchJanuary 23, 2009
I went to church last Sunday. Big deal. So did millions of other people. It was a big deal, at least for me. It has been over 3 weeks since I left my position as music director at a Disciples of Christ Church. In the past 25 years, I’ve had very few Sundays in which I could experience church services that are outside of my own experience. I’ve been employed continuously by churches since 1982, with the longest hiatus from music ministry being about 2 months. One of the problems of being “in charge” of worship is that one rarely sees how others go about it. This abrupt leave from my music job is the perfect opportunity to visit and make observations at other churches.
The chosen destination for this past Sunday was my husband’s church, one which I’d never attended services at because I was always at the organ of my own church. We loaded up the kids of our blended family that were with us for the weekend and headed out in the snow to the church in the country. It’s part of a small, protestant denomination that tends to be traditional and evangelical. They are awaiting the arrival of their newly hired minister, so it is understandable that this service may not have been a good example of what things are like there on a regular basis. And that’s a good thing.
The people were friendly and happy to see Scott. They greeted me warmly and welcomed our children. We took our bulletins and found a seat, taking a moment to arrange ourselves comfortably. The organist began the prelude and I immediately got nervous. I’m a musician, and a good one. When I hear church musicians who are struggling, I become anxious. This woman was having such a difficult time with her chosen prelude, that it took me quite some time to determine what she was playing. It was an old evangelical hymn Out of the Ivory Palaces.
Which leads me to the next problem I had with the service: the lack of meaningful, timely hymns. The hymnal, by my estimation, was at least 25% contemporary Christian music, or “praise choruses” which I’d hardly call contemporary considering that they were at least 25 years old in most cases. If a song has been around long enough to be included in a hymnal, printed, promoted, and sold to a congregation; and the congregation uses the hymnal for a significant period of time, it’s difficult to consider the music “contemporary”. The one “traditional” hymn planned for the morning worship service was an old Holiness Movement song “We’re Marching to Zion”. It was sung at a slower pace than I’m used to performing it, and the musicians, both pianist and organist, lacked the skills to transpose it into a key in which most congregants could comfortably sing. Imagine being out of breath and reaching for high notes.
When the ushers were called forward, I looked up to see 4 burly men walking forward. I whispered to Scott “is there a weight requirement?” These guys were huge. I said “what’s the minimum? 225?” Seriously, I didn’t know if they were ushers or bouncers. Of course, since this was an important job, handling the money, all of the ushers were required to be in possession of a penis.
The children’s message was delivered by a woman, which is generally thought of as acceptible in these patriarchal churches. Caring for children is the woman’s domain afterall. The woman talked about having friends but the point of her little message was lost on me, so I’m pretty sure the kids were as baffled as they looked.
We plodded through another pop-ballad hymn which was executed with technical accuracy by the instrumentalists, but with all the musicality of a horse counting to ten with its front hoof. This song led us into a time of prayer. I believe that the people who made their prayer requests known are genuinely concerned about those people named. Some moved beyond the typical illness requests and made mention of current events and nationally known tragedies. In all of these honest, heart-felt concerns, there remained a sense of some unspoken desire, an appeal to magic. That appeal to magic was reinforced by the prayer leader, who prayed extemporaneously, including all of the requests voiced moments earlier. I noticed pretty early in her prayer that she had a favorite phrase, which was “Dear Heavenly Father”. She said it so much that I wrote it in my bulletin. She kept saying it, punctuating each paragraph with 2 or 3 repetitions. So many Christians have this habit when praying publicly. It is as if there is a mystical combination of “Blessed Jesus'” or “Loving Fathers” or even “Hail Marys” that said in a specific quantity or order that will unlock heaven’s safe full of blessings. When did prayer become the heavenly Powerball? Jesus cautioned us of this in Matthew 6:7
And in praying use not vain repetitions, as the Gentiles do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking.
Sadly, the sermon, offered by a visiting minister, did little to hold my attention as a visitor. I suspect that it was meant to encourage this congregation as they await the arrival of their recently hired Pastor. The sermon began with the perfunctory joke and apologies for his shortcomings as a speaker. Those who attend this church regularly may have heard some words of encouragement, but my mind wandered off. After one more pop-song hymn, the benediction was pronounced and everyone bolted for the door.
Now, I’ve certainly been critical and some would say downright mean with this post. You might even tell me that the computer glitch that sent my first version of this post out into cyberspace, never to be found again, was a sign from above that I should turn from my wicked ways. Let me reinforce this sentiment: these people are good people, their intentions are noble and their desires are honorable. Unfortunately, they found something that was successful at some point, decided that this is how they would do it from that point on, and mediocrity set in. Their worship service has most likely morphed slowly to become the dry and irrelevant ritual that we experienced that morning.
Traditionally, people in this country have attended church for the spiritual encouragement they receive by participating in worship services. There was a time when people attended church out of a sense of obligation, regardless of any spiritual or communal benefits that may or may not have been derived from attending. I’ve heard complaints about the lack of commitment to the church and its programs. My question, after visiting this church, is “what does this church offer that would encourage people to attend regularly and support their programs?” In addition, for those who do attend, are their perceived or actual needs, physical and spiritual, being met? And finally, are the people we meet in this or any other Christian church a reflection of the Christ they strive to emulate?
I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.