Aug 8, 2006

A New Kind of Church, or
"I'm With Larry"

Larry and I went to church on Sunday. Isn’t that what “good Christian girls and boys” do on Sunday? If that’s the case, then I have been bad Christian girl. I hadn’t been to a church service in months. And I hadn’t missed it. The head of a Christian counseling service said the same thing to me recently: he and his wife hadn’t been to a church service in months. “We’re disenfranchised, disillusioned and disinterested.”

He spoke for a lot of us. Church isn’t working for a lot of people.

One of the last services I attended, I brought a friend I know through writing and yoga. She said the pastor should have been a hypnotherapist. Yes, he was that boring. And depressing. After the service, a guy tried to engage my friend in conversation. It went something like this
Church guy: so are you a Christian?
Friend: Well, I was raised Mormon --
Church guy: (interrupting) Eeeewwww!
Friend: Uh, well, now I follow more of a Hindu Path.
Church Guy: Ick! … Well, at least that’s better than Mormonism.

I haven’t been back to that church since.

Larry and I went to an Episcopal church for Easter. There’s something downright wonderful about watching a bunch of stuffy Beverly Hills men with their arms high up in the air shouting, “Jesus Christ is Risen today, Halleluiah!” I love the sacraments and the liturgy of traditional churches. It’s not based on the charisma or popularity of the speaker. It’s your own participation and making it real for yourself. But I don't think Larry and I would make long-term Episcopalians. That denomination isn't sure whether Jesus or not was divine. And if you don’t know if the God you’re worshipping is God, why get up on Sunday and go talk to him?

For the last few months Larry and I have done our own thing. House church I guess you could call it. We read the Bible or a book, we pray together, just the two of us, or a small group of friends. It’s nice, but I do miss some things about church. Like good worship music, sung by a lot of people. Worship music is like the girl with the curl in the middle of her forehead. When it is good, it is very, very good. And when it is bad it is horrid.

This past Sunday we attended a Four Square Church. This denomination came out of the Baptist tradition. Oakie Tent Revivals, organs warbling during the prayers, that kind of thing. This particular parish is very modern. The warbling organ was replaced by a rock-jazz band. Really talente, professional musicians. It had been a long time since I’d had some good old-fashioned “rock n roll for Jesus,” so I was up for it.

The musicians were great. The songs, not so much. Randall Wallace calls it "7-11 music:" 7 words repeated 11 times. These songs probably connect to some people; they just don’t connect to me. Maybe it has to do with sense memory: whatever music you heard when you had your first spiritual awakening. The first songs didn’t move me that much, but it was good for me to get my mind off of my boring self and focus on “how ‘awesome’ or ‘cool’ God is.

We stood through the first three songs (Modern churches always do it this way: three songs, the leader prays, then you sit and sing something mellow … and modern churches say they don’t have a ritual!)

We sat for the "mellow worship song" and they started playing one of my favorite old hymns: “Praise To The Lord, the Almighty.” Maybe I just associate it with my childhood, when faith and love came so easy for me, but the lyrics are deep and the music is complex. I love it.

Praise to the Lord who over all things so wondrously reigneth,
Shelters thee under His wings, yea, so gently sustaineth!
Hast thou not seen:how all thy longings have been
granted in what He ordaineth?

(Don’t you see? The things you long for, God already willed for you to have?)

Praise to the Lord, O let all that is in me adore Him!
All that hath life and breath, come now with praises before Him.
Let the Amen! sound from His people again,
Gladly for aye we adore Him!

I’m stuck in my chair, trying to mellowly sing “Let the Amen sound from his people again!”
I wanted to jump up and shout it. Then they did a modern worship song with great lyrics and melody.

No guilt in life, no fear in death
This is the power of Christ in me
From life's first cry to final breath
Jesus commands my destiny
No power of hell, no scheme of man
Can ever pluck me from His hand
'Till He returns or calls me home
Here in the power of Christ I'll stand

"No power of hell, no scheme of man can ever pluck me from his hand." Deep in my gut that truth was set long ago, and it reverberated through all the years until now: I saw myself in childhood, as a young adult, in silly churches and profound ones. I saw myslef drunk and lost and angry. I saw myself inching back, standing outside, afraid and distrustful. Still that same truth God spoke to me again: “no power of hell, no scheme of man can ever take you from my hand.”

I wept.

This is what I miss about corporate worship. The weight and momentum of sheer numbers. The sound of everyone together. And here I stood next to the love of my life, he’s worshipping too. I never had all of those together: good worship and a great man.

But then the sermon started. It was some young associate pastor doing Olde 45 Minute Sermon. He tried to spice it up with a few jokes. “I wonder if Mary ever chided Jesus as a kid: Hey Jesus, get off your Big Wheel and come in and set the table!"


It wasn’t so much the jokes. Or that he took 45 minutes to relate minutes of content. It was also his thesis: God has to interrupt our plans in order to do what He wants with our lives.

On one hand I agree with that: I had some puny plans for my life. God took a wrecking ball to them and gave me something far greater. But His plans weren’t 180 degrees different from mine. After all, he made me who I am with the talents and longings I have. His plans were just a far more profound and fuller version of mine.

But I spent years in churches that taught “whatever your natural desires are, God has to kill them off, and then he’ll replace it with something totally different.” I wasted so many years, waiting on God to get me a life. Years waiting for him to tell me or show me what I was supposed to do INSTEAD. Years I will never get back. Meanwhile my secular friends were following their bliss.

Is God some kind of sadist that he gives you desires for one thing, only to make you have to kill them off and go do something else? This is totally FUBAR.

“hast thou not seen how all your longings have been granted in what he ordaineth?"

Anyway, this young pastor went on, stretchying his 5 minute missive into a 45 minute tape loop. I scribbled something on my program and passed it to Larry.

"I am SO OVER church. This is SO Y1K!"

He laughed. He leaned over and whispered his agreement. Actually he whispered a lot: about how the church doesn't take into account the way we process information, and how this guy was repeateing himself, and how Larry was so ready for something new and substantial and involved community.

"Anyway," he concluded. "I'm with you ... Or rather, you're with me."
"Yeah, I’m with you" I repeated, in that Avril Levigne kind of way.

Larry wants to start a more postmodern kind of community.
So once the wedding and honeymoon are over and done,
I'm going to hold him to it.

Trying to figure out this life
Take me by the hand,
take me somewhere new

I don't know who you are
But I'm with you, I'm with you


Doug Perkins said...

I know what you mean about that associate pastor - if he spoke all of the time, I wouldn't go to this church any longer....BUT - sometime you have to give it another chance in the fall with the real pastor who is funny, can connect with the contemporary, and is totally genuine and not at all cut from the corporate cloth - he wears shorts as soon as it hits about April, surfs and overall ALWAYS says somethign that addresses my life as it stands that week.

As far as the music (yeah, you know I was in the band that week), they are among the best players playing churches in Los Angeles that tour and record with everyone you'd ever want to name, but WHAT we play varies week to week. The worship leader (whose name I won't mention here since you didn't identify th eplace or the people) writes most of everything that we play and is a fantastic writer, but there are a few different catagories of songs that he tends to write in. This weekend was all things from the "just a couple lyrics again and again" camp that so many have used in recent times, but the hymn that you heard was a thing he does where he adds a section that is always hip and really powerful to an old hymn that for me (and it sounds like you as well) really drives it home with both a traditional and a modern edge.

Anyways, it was nice to look out from behind my music stand and see you guys there!

Adrienne said...

I recommended your blog to my workshop at the Oregon Christian Writer's Conference. The workshop was called "Sharing God with the Next Generation." And this post about church is just perfect. Exactly what my class full of grandmas needs to read. :)

Ruth said...

Church music is a funny thing isn't it? After years of repeated praise choruses, I'm now singing mostly classical. At least, it's over 50 years old. Mozart's K192 was last Sunday, radical for Angelinos. Classical has its own repeated choruses, with lots more tied notes. However, Stuart Townend is truly one of my favorite writers now. I wish he'd do more.

Joy Kennelly said...

Hi Susan, Long time no speak. Cathryn was so funny when I bumped into her at Trader Joe's yesterday. After we spoke I asked her how you've been and she said, "You'll have to read her blog" which I thought was so mod of her. SO! Here I am. Catching up on you and your new husband-to-be.

I love reading what you write. I love hearing your thoughts and feelings. Just wanted to say hi and send you lots of love and good wishes as you get married!

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