Today I went to a local non-denominational Christian church service. It’s been several years since I went to church on my own — i.e. without it being an event on my family, for my own spiritual growth. It was on a lark — or rather, I was open to the idea of joining a community again, and perhaps getting off the bar / coffee shop circuit in looking for suitable women.
I have been to some Christian churches before, so I was expecting the Jesus-heavy environment, and the mild glad-handing at the front door. Walked in. Found a seat a few minutes before the service. Watched the mostly younger crowd file in. The stage was set up in modern church fashion, with a Roland keyboard, drum set, Orange Amps, a couple Fender guitars, big screen backdrop, and light racks befitting a small concert hall (which is what it is). This immediately verified (although I’d expected as much from the church’s website) that this church was in fact an entertainment company clothed in Jesus.
The crowd was mostly younger (under 35, and many in early 20s), white with a few hispanics, and no observed Asians or blacks. Demographically, the church seems to be going after the Target crowd.
The service kicked off with some worship-rock stylings – a couple songs with the thumping bass, traditionally Christ-Rock-type lead singer, a call to worship, etc. Following the songs, a spastic, skinny fellow came out, introduced himself as a pastor, and launched into an informercial-esque call to donate money to the church for the end-of-year holiday gift, 50% of which would go to “church expansion” and 50% to a clean-water project in Haiti and India. The fellow cited stats and emphasized heavily that 2 million children die every year because of dirty water (or 5k / day). I assume that he was citing this information from UNICEF.
My immediate reaction was that as far as charity projects go, this one sounds great but is probably going to be more feel-good than effective. It’s a hook to get the congregation to feel better about donating–like at the supermarket, when the checker asks you to donate some money to breast cancer research or whatever. Dirty water in Haiti and India isn’t due to lack of funding or effort; it’s due to fundamentally broken governmental and political systems which prevent or hinder effective infrastructure emplacement (the Ganges, anyone?). There’d probably be better bang for the buck in buying malaria treatments, or doing local charity work, or just about anything except doing infrastructure-heavy charity work in notoriously foreigner-unfriendly environments.
But sure, if it takes bundling a superficially appealing charity cause to the church to get donations going, whatever, get after it folks. After all, church is big business, and pastors have to get paid too, right? At least we’ve gotten off of selling indulgences.
After the infomercial and exhortations that Jesus wanted everyone to give in order to remove focus from the Self, there was another rock anthem, a reading for Advent, the Gospel (although not named as such, merely referred to as “The Word”), and the main pastor came out. I could tell he was important even before he spoke because he had a sport jacket on.
The main pastor framed his sermon in terms of an emphasis on Peace. He spoke about how Peace is only found through Jesus. He spoke about how everyone, even though they might feel that they don’t need Jesus to find peace, actually needs Jesus to find Peace. All fairly standard Christian preaching orthodoxy, but it made me think.
First, saying that inner peace is only found through Jesus is a strong statement. It’s saying that anyone who does not believe in / through Jesus cannot achieve peace (peace defined nebulously and variously as the feeling you get when watching a Hawaiian sunset on the beach, the Job-like acceptance of horrible life circumstances, etc). This can be empirically tested by surveying the 2/3 of the world that is not Christian to see if any are truly happy.
If any are, then obviously this line of argument is false, although I suspect the counterargument would be a variant on a “No True Scotsman” fallacy. This is one reason I like Catholicism — that stodgy religion (and some of its offshoots) has thought this stuff through, and hence has the concept of Grace. Non-denominational Christians are rarely so rigorous in their theology, preferring to stick with the saccharine and feelgood proclamations of “love” and “saving” without bothering in the details.
The pastor illustrated his point with his own story of coming from a broken family and having done drugs “before Christ (BC)” and how his conversion caused him to find peace. He pointed out that his buddy — who had a good job, from a solid family, etc–had told him that people like him needed Jesus. The lesson was that it’s not only messed-up people who need Jesus. I personally couldn’t help remembering that many of the hard-core evangelical types in these churches (that I’ve encountered) do tend to have some sort of personal background that indicates an addictive personality, which Christianity fills a void in after the bad stuff burns them enough.
And his argument was non-falsifiable, which I suppose was the point: If you know you need Jesus, you need Jesus. If you think you don’t need Jesus, then you need Jesus. Airtight. I appreciate the tautological soundness of the argument, but I wonder whether it really gives the congregation any foundation upon which to build. Belief and faith are not givens, but must be sustained through rigorous inspection. Poorly laid beliefs are vulnerable to attack and disruption and corruption. The cotton-candy worship and thought that was presented here hardly prepared anyone in the congregation to wrestle with real questions that might arise on the finer points of how to live. And if you can believe anything (Dalrock nicely points out that biblical teachings can be corrupted, and that modern faith has become a faith in feelings and the self) then you believe nothing, and are not prepared to engage your faith outside of your comfort zone. To paraphrase.
Anyway, after about 30 minutes of preaching, I got bored with the lack of practical, logically consistent, or actionable spiritual guidance or anything genuinely though-provoking, so I left. Probably won’t go back again.