Today, a cluster of small reasons converged in the decision not to visit a church this morning. But I will write about a visit I made some time ago.
I had heard several times of a church that met in a local movie theater. Since I’m interested in innovations, and in using movies/stories as both illustrations and even as texts alongside scripture or even as narrative pointing to scripture, and since the more I considered it, having church using such a pre-existing space (no new buildings to put up) that is pretty well designed for the purpose made sense, etc. etc. well, I wanted to go have a look. So I did. Now these movie complexes are intimidating enough when you step in on a Friday night and wade or waddle through or with the crowd in all the noise and lights, but it is equally intimidating to step into complete silence in the chasmic space and see only one person in the distance. I arrived 15 minutes before the time the service was to begin and once inside I did not know where to go. So I began to wander and figured out which hall of the two led to the unit in which the service was to happen. Halfway down, I met the person who was to become what I consider my ‘personal’ usher. I checked with him if I was going the right way to find the service, and he affirmed that, and led me right into the seating area and saw me to a seat of my choice. There was nearly no one in there, just a smattering of people, and very few had been visible in the hall either. I wondered if there would be some kind of last minute rush. My personal usher had noticed I had enough of a trickling nose that I was sniffling a bit, and he presented me with one of those small packages of tissues. He didn’t press for a lot of information from me, which I liked. So I sat and waited, and watched the handful of folks who were there conversing with each other quietly. There was a full set of band equipment set up on the stage area, with a drum set down and off to the side. The stages are not very large in movie theaters. There were several microphones and a few artificial plants. There were some words of welcome projected on the screen. But they were static, they did not change.
Well, just past the time the service was supposed to begin, people began flooding in. I gathered later that they have class time for an hour first, and them come directly to the worship space. So eventually certainly the front section was filled and there were a similar number of people in the second section. Then the worship team started. A lady spoke some words of upbeat welcome, and away we went. The musicians and vocalists were what I believe is called ‘tight’ in musical jargon, meaning they were working well together and clearly well rehearsed and everyone seemed to know exactly what to do when. Only after a while did I figure out that the lady at the keyboard would indicate things by small gestures, giving leadership and direction. They were good to listen to. With four harmonious vocalists who blended in a sound reminscent of ABBA it was a pleasure to hear. I did not know more than half the songs, and I became out of synch with the intenstity level of the musicians after a time. They were ‘immersing’ themselves in the music with great passion and enthusiasm, and that developed so quickly, I got lost. When I do these visits I try to take the perspective of a total newcomer, and I thought “If I as a person who has experienced a lot of different worship settings I am finding this a bit much, what would someone who was totally unfamiliar think?” Now it is entirely possible that they might find it neat and not far from a concert experience or something, but I was left behind by how quickly the worship transitioned to vigourous enthusiasm.
Since the visit was a while ago I do not remember much about the rest of the service itself. There were a few reports on missions work, there were a few announcements, and then the guest speaker came up. When he announced the text he was going to speak on, my personal usher appeared behind me and gave me his own bible, so I could read. I remember the message as engaging, personable, consistent with what I believed, practical, with a few challenge points that were good for me to consider.
As the service ended, I returned the bible to it’s owner, warmly thanked him, and was not spoken to by anyone as I left.
I had appreciated worshipping with this group, particularly appreciating the personal attention of the usher, the quality of the music and the style and content of the message, but I was surprised and disappointed that no use was made of the fact that there was all this projection equipment not being used. But that was my issue.
As I started writing the above reflection I did a search of “Live church service webcast” hoping to find a service to have on while I typed. The results led me to a site that had numerous services you can follow. The first one on the list had just finished, so after watching the organist play the postlude I went to the second one and followed (it was sound only) a very traditional Reformed service of the North European strain of the tradition. The church was located about an hour’s drive from where I live. It had organ only accompaniment, all in the plodding style of the songs I remember being sung in church as a child (most of the ones they sang were not familiar to me), the reading of the law, speaking of God as “far above us, looking upon us sinners” and so forth. There was a strong distinction between “the world” and “us” in the words used as well.
The pastor preached on a chapter in Jonah, and as the service progressed, I got a strong sense that I was hearing a student pastor who had not yet learned to speak the words he was reading in a way that would have you wondering if he was reading at all. It could even have been a reading service, the fact that the message was being read was that clear. It was an interesting message about the need for the church not to be asleep in the boat but actively explaining the spiritual reasons for the problems that are happening. It carried a consistent undertone of reprimand (which is not unusual in that tradition) and a way of challenging to greater gratitude that became grating after a while. I was puzzled that I did not hear the scripture read at all. I did not hear an explanation of that either. This was particularly striking because it was such a traditional church service. The message was 35 minutes or so long as well. I was about to switch it off and look for another when he suddenly finished. Then the pastor’s tone of voice was suddenly so human or normal again when he prayed afterward. Hearing this throwback was an interesting excercise. I wish I’d had video too. It all made me shudder, and not with pleasure or nostalgia or the Spirit but with fear and trembling that the gospel can be presented in such a heavy way.