I don't go to church often. But when I do, I expect quality preaching.
Alas, that attention is more the attention of the theater director, the speech coach, and the social critic, not the eager seeker of cosmic truth. I feel pretty settled in my worldview. My secular humanism functions pretty well. My worldview helps me make practical sense of the world, provides a reasonable basis for my dad and teacher actions, and keeps me from setting off bombs in large crowds. So when a wedding (this weekend's rainy-snowy roadtrip) or funeral or pastor's installation draws me into a house of worship, I observe from outside the event, present but not politely participating, listening for good and bad theology, and noting performance elements that make the service more or less effective.
(Performance note on Saturday's wedding: the pastor spoke too extemporaneously, too quickly, and with sloppy enunciation. If in the beginning there was the Word, pastors need to take time to plan and pronounce every word crisply and clearly. John capitalizes that W for a reason.)
But there was a youthfully earnest time (the 1990s) when I would occasionally visit a church service and think, "Maybe it'll hit me!" You know: It. The Jesus whammy.
I paid one such visit to Praise Fellowship church here in Spearfish back in the late 1990s. That church has since renamed itself The Summit. Spearfish's new mayor, Dana Boke, goes there. Her husband is VP on The Summit's corporate filing.
A friend of mine went to Praise Fellowship. She spoke of speaking in tongues and other manifestations of the Holy Spirit. Frankly, all the shibboleths and mysticism my friend spouted had me worried. But I was also curious: if the supernatural was at work in that building in downtown Spearfish, maybe it would work on me. Maybe if I stepped up to where the fire burned brightest, maybe that warmth would finally sink into my cold, cold heart. (I think that's the bit of my friend in my heart talking, not me.)
So on a nice Sunday morning when I could have biked Spearfish Canyon, I went to a Foursquare (my friend told me that's the affiliation Praise Fellowship claimed) church. And I stayed cold. I didn't see any pillars of fire or speaking in tongues or quaking and shaking and rending of the veil. I saw a two-hour emotional make-out session.
Think about your last really good make-out session. You put on some romantic music—today, you can put on a long, uninterrupted iPod playlist, but in the old days, you had to find a really long album, or hope KELO-AM would play .38 Special and that you'd be into each other enough to ignore the commercial messages and the weather update. You know you're headed toward some objective, but you don't follow a strict structure. You close your eyes, you do some physical stuff, you throw in the occasional exclamation, and you tire yourself out. In your sweaty and earnest exertions, you chase that rapturous feeling around in your own misty depths, projecting it out onto the person you're with and the car and the slough and the moon above until you convince yourself that this isn't just your own RNA hoping to propagate; this is cosmic!
That's what church at Praise Fellowship felt like. Emotional manipulation replaced liturgy and rational theology. For two hours, everybody stood, often with arms raised, a good way to increase physical exertion, to make people a little more tired and more open to suggestion. The music played non-stop, one gooey contemporary praise song merging into the next in airy, ecstatic transitions while the pastor (I can't recall if the man was current CEO Dennis Allender) urged the faithful on in their emotional communion. The pastor offered no organized sermon. He just talked about opening hearts and feeling the Lord. He peppered his prayers with the predictable just—Dear Lord, we just want to thank You—that little faux-humble tag that you will hear multiple times any time a fundagelical talks to God. The pastor's purpose in the service was not to speak the Word or teach the flock, but to keep them flowing down a river of emotion, to make the service an emotional experience.
If I want an emotional experience, I can listen to Snow Patrol in the Epic trailer (or, more appropriately to the time I visited Praise Fellowship, play Fumbling Toward Ecstasy really loud). If I want to learn how the universe works and what a certain really old Book has to say about it, I need an educated, organized, and articulate preacher to lead me through the theological weeds and engage my brain along with my heart, not to put me through emotional calisthenics for a couple hours.
Before my visit to Praise Fellowship, I had trouble taking seriously churches that pick these cutesy marketing names instead of straight-up denominational names that tell us who they are and which theology they throw in with. Since that church service, I view such names as emblematic of a deep problem. A church that changes its name for popular appeal may do the same with its services, striving more for an emotional experience than rigorous theology.
I'm not shopping around for a conversion experience. My current worldview shovels the snow (what, again? It's April 22! Jesus H—oops, sorry!) well enough. But if there's conversion to be had, I'll find it in honest conversation and preaching, not the Sunday morning make-out I witnessed at a Spearfish church one long-ago Sunday. 25 comments