Getting the most out of church service- take note(s)

So I realized that I’ve been sitting on something really valuable that I ought to share with my readership. Maybe this is obvious, but I’m going to talk about it anyway. I have gotten way, way better at absorbing the actual content of church sermons since I started taking notes. Things just sink in better if I write them down. The Catholic churches I was brought up in were formal to the point of assuming the ‘tweens and older would sit respectfully still during mass. Babies crying were expected to be rushed out into a hall or nearby room to minimize noise disruptions. This lent an air of not wanting to appear distracted. As such I never felt comfortable taking notes. With the advent of my project I became an observer. It freed me to be able to do things like dress in jeans, leave early, or take notes during a sermon. This has shown itself to be something of an unexpected perk. Because of this project I’m accumulating a much higher volume of information on religious topics. This comes not just from the sermon content but from the readings of scripture and even the songs we sing. There are so many things to notice. And I can write most of them down in my hard copy journal. I’m sure there are others out there not doing this who could benefit from note-taking. We do go to church to learn about God, don’t we? We shouldn’t feel weird about treating the sermons as lessons with the pastor or deacon as the teacher.

Which Christianity?

There is something that’s really beginning to bug me about some Christians. Namely the conflation of all types and flavors of Christianity as the same thing. I will eventually be reviewing a book that has been tending strongly towards this. Speaking broadly, all Christians only have one common feature: they all feel they are following Christ. Traditionally, most Christians have a number of other beliefs in common perhaps best demonstrated by the Nicean Creed. There are various iterations of this creed. Here is one I found from an Episcopal source:

We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
and was made man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified.
He has spoken through the Prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come. Amen.

Many churches use this or a variant of this to describe their beliefs. So all Christians are the same then, right? Sorry, no. Christianity extends beyond just these core beliefs. Take it from someone who’s seen 50+ churches- all the Christianites differ in ways that range from slight to major. Sometimes these additional beliefs remain unspoken, sometimes they are incorporated in the service each week. It’s been my experience that churches and denominations each have their own take on topics like; gay marriage, conversion and outreach, gender roles, environmentalism, the end times, prayer and more I haven’t encountered (or am forgetting). In short, although each church may have a very similar creed, they all have other beliefs too that differ from each other. What’s more, they all claim those other beliefs flow from their Christianity just as much as the creed does.

Because of these many differences, it is silly to make declarative statements like “Christianity promotes peace.” Which Christianity? Whose Christianity? Is that really Christianity’s focus as a whole? Is there anything that can be said to be Christianity’s focus as a whole? Even conversion to Christianity is not a focus for certain groups (in say, the Catholic Church for example). I contend that there is very little (if anything) that can be said of Chistianity as a whole. Anyone saying otherwise is either lying, being vague, or deceiving themselves.

Church #59, Reigning Life Family Church

Date: 7/6/14

Church name/type: Reigning Life Family Church/ non-denominational

Pastor: Fred Sanles

Style of worship: Musical praise first, followed by message

Intro:
This church visit elicited an interesting (and I might say confusing) mix of emotions and reactions in me. I experienced some strong negatives and strong positives.

Size and demographic: The church was small, around 20 people. It might be worth noting that this church has predominantly Black membership with White leadership. I don’t think any other churches I’ve visited have had this combination. Looking around the church website, I also noticed that the pastor and his wife specifically chose to locate and launch a church in Albany’s South End; they aren’t originally from South End or Albany. This may explain the unusual combination.

The vibe: This week I misunderstood service start time and arrived late. Because of this I didn’t get to talk with anyone before service began. After the service, I was immediately greeted and welcomed into a group of women sharing vacation photos. It felt like the weekly potluck dinners my friends host where you show up and you’re immediately ‘in’. I have to be honest here and say this doesn’t often happen at churches with predominantly Black attendees. Usually I am politely left alone or smothered with simple hellos and that’s the end of it. The fact that interactions in other churches of similar demographic have been limited was something of a mystery. The assumption I’d been leaning towards was that we felt the divide, culturally somehow and didn’t quite know how to find the similarities and just start talking, or when we did talk it became clear our lives were somewhat different. Whatever the cause normally, this week I felt like I was swept right into belonging.

After service I also tend to try to find the pastor and chat with her/him. Now, because I work to understand many versions of Christianity (and how they formed, church history, denominational differences, theologies, etc) I sometimes find I have much in common with the pastor. After all, most pastors go to school to understand things like theology and church history. This week however I found it very difficult to relate to the pastor and pastor’s wife. The pastor didn’t have very much to say to me actually. We had both been talking with other people and then spoke briefly, though it was mostly about the church website being unfindable. The pastor’s wife, however, tried to talk with me for several minutes. I say tried because she talked but it didn’t feel like we were making much of a connection. She showed me the church in a quick tour and introduced me to anyone who happened to be standing nearby. It all felt a little random. Then at the end of our conversation she told me she was aware the service wasn’t relevant to the younger generation. To fix this she said they were planning to have a weeknight service that was more ‘urban’. She added that the youth were more used to ‘rap and hip-hop’ and that they hoped implementing different music and technology would be better for the younger crowd. I asked her if she had gotten input from the youth with this plan and she assured me “Oh yes. This is what they want.” I guess I was hesitant to believe that was the case based on use of terminology. The terms she used: rap, hip-hop, urban, and technology are all very buzzy words that may sound good to some, but do they really convey anything relevant? Rap and hip-hop are musical styles. Kids today, as kids of every age, listen to different things. It’s somewhat naive to assume the entire younger demographic will be attracted by this specific change in musical genre and the addition of technology. Content is equally (if not more!) important. You cannot simply spruce up a message by using flashier effects and different music. You have to address topics your target age group is interested in. It also strikes me as misplaced to refer to these stylistic changes as ‘urban’. I know the word ‘urban’ is sometimes used as slang to replace the word ‘Black’. I also know technically ‘urban’ just means in the city. If the youth of this church are on-board with calling what they want ‘urban’ I guess that’s fine. It’s also fine with me if they have really requested rap, hip-hop, and splashier technology. It’s simply hard for me to ignore the fact that these ideas also happen to fit with stereotypes of what youth (and Black youth) are interested in. I seriously hope this doesn’t represent a disconnect between the church membership and leadership.

Useful takeaways:
Although it seems likely the pastor’s wife is out of touch with the younger generation(s), the attempt to relate to youth is at least admirable. I hope they can find a way to actually do it in a productive, respectful manner.

We heard that laughter releases good chemicals into the bloodstream. Laughter is something we should do more of.

I also thought the end of the message regarding unity was nice. We need to put up with one another. That sounds about right.

Problems/Improvements:
Well the bulk of the sermon didn’t really do it for me this week. I noticed some strong contradictions and a few disconcerting patterns. One thing that bugs me is when a message feels forced on the listeners. I mean, yes, obviously I choose to show up at these churches and hear what’s being said. What I’m talking about is when the message is spoon-fed to an audience who is then meant to regurgitate the words verbatim just so the speaker can be sure it’s been received. It treats the audience like children. While I understand a speaker feeling like he is speaking to a bunch of easily distractable toddlers, I don’t want to know that’s how I’m being seen. In this case I got a similar feeling from the repeating technique Pastor Sanles was using. He just kept giving us phrases to repeat back at him. It was weird. It was mildly humiliating. It was vaguely brainwashy. I don’t mind reading things collectively. Churches do this all the time with statements of faith like the Nicean Creed. But the repeating thing was done in small bites with no printed guide. I couldn’t be sure of what we were all talking about until the very end. At least with the Nicean Creed you can see the words you are about to recite and decide if it’s something you want to declare out loud.

Disconcerting bit number two was the assertion that worry is a type of sin. Already this creates it’s own problem. I mean- if it bothers you that you sin through worry, it will probably cause you to worry more. The pastor went on to say that worry would lead to fear which would let the devil in. Great, now we have to be concerned this little worry-go-round is going to lead us directly to the devil? Worry is definitely a problem, but calling it a sin that can lead directly to evil seems like a really unhealthy and unhelpful way to think about it- especially given the fact that there was no further elaboration. Can we at least have some strategies for avoiding worry (and therefore sin)? I think it’s a major problem that the sermon did not immediately stop and address this.

The third thing that struck me as problematic was an odd idea about prayer and healing. Pastor Sanles said we are praying over and over for healing but not being healed. The repeated prayers are (according to Pastor) precisely why we do not receive healing. He instructed us to stop praying and just have faith the work is already done. I guess on the one hand I feel like this is trying to say something helpful. It gives a reason prayers are not answered and offers a solution, albeit a strange one; stop praying. On the other hand it calls into question the faith of the unhealed, which is a way of blaming the suffering for their pain. I’m not ok with that.

Another little bit of negativity came while the pastor was describing his recent attempts to fix his washing machine. His point was something about how faith in God helped him achieve success. In the middle of the story he stopped to explain that he’d asked his wife to hold the flashlight for him as he worked. Then, she tried to tell him how to fix it! He laughed as if this was already a great joke and added, “I told her to go back to her garden!” Lest any readers think this was an inside joke on her personal skills (some individuals are better at gardening than mechanics after all), he then added, “and the husbands said AMEN!” So it was meant as a funny joke that’s only funny if you are sexist.

Finally I will mention a point that was made and later contradicted. Early to mid-sermon we heard that following God might require us to fight our senses and our emotions. Not that I think this point makes a lot of sense, mind you- but even if it did, the later part of the sermon spoke of needing to follow our instincts in figuring out what God has in mind for us. Call me crazy, but ‘senses’ ‘emotions’ and ‘instincts’ all sound rather interchangeable. Here we are being told to follow God by ignoring what we detect inside us but also to trust what we detect inside us. I hope every week’s sermon doesn’t contain this much contradiction.

Website: For whatever reason it’s virtually impossible to find the church website online. It just doesn’t turn up at all via google search. Here it is so you can check em’ out yourself Reigning Life Church

Overall:
I am very torn. I found a possible gap in the leadership vs congregation and saw serious problems with the sermon. If I was truly in the market for a “home church” I don’t think I’d return to hear more nonsense from the pulpit. On the other hand I was welcomed warmly by several members who even seem to be approximately my age. I guess I find this frustrating because I like friendly people; I just couldn’t bring myself to attend a church that preaches so much I can’t get behind.

Same-sex attraction- Catholic edition

I want to talk once again about the Catholic Church’s view on same-sex attraction. This is their terminology. In some of the literature they do not seem to recognize the term gay because it implies legitimacy. The idea here (which I don’t agree with) is attraction to your own gender is harmful because sex with your own gender is a sin.* The solution offered is a chaste lifestyle. I am thinking about all this because posted in this Sunday’s bulletin is a spot which reads as follows:

COURAGE: A support group for person(s) with same-sex attraction striving to follow the teaching of the Church, and EnCourage for parents & families of loved ones with same-sex attraction. For confidential inquiries, phone XXX XXXX

I didn’t include the phone number. You can easily find a public website describing the principles of Courage, but you don’t have to since I did it for you.
Courage

As I’ve stated before I do not hold with the idea that sex between same gender is sinful. Still what Courage is trying to do isn’t all bad. The idea seems to be for the individual ‘struggling’ to fill his or her life up with so much spirituality and so many good works, so as to push out all the sexuality. There are monks and nuns who manage to achieve this, assuming they weren’t simply asexual to begin with. Take a look at the five goals of Courage:

To live chaste lives in accordance with the Roman Catholic Church’s teaching on homosexuality. ( Chastity )

To dedicate our entire lives to Christ through service to others, spiritual reading, prayer, meditation, individual spiritual direction, frequent attendance at Mass, and the frequent reception of the sacraments of Reconciliation and Holy Eucharist. (Prayer and Dedication)

To foster a spirit of fellowship in which we may share with one another our thoughts and experiences, and so ensure that no one will have to face the problems of homosexuality alone. (Fellowship)

To be mindful of the truth that chaste friendships are not only possible but necessary in a chaste Christian life; and to encourage one another in forming and sustaining these friendships. (Support)

To live lives that may serve as good examples to others. (Good Example/Role Model)

I have no problem at all with goals 2, 4, and 5. Even the ideas of chastity and fellowship do not bother me. It’s this one-size-fits-all approach that I don’t like. It’s unhealthy to force someone into a mold that doesn’t fit them. Admittedly I don’t know everything about human sexuality, but I think individuals should get to make their own choices about sexual activities within the context of safety and consent. People with opposite-sex attraction can decide to be chaste or not as they please. It really seems hugely unfair to insist upon chastity for anyone with same-sex attraction, because what- otherwise they might find someone else with same-sex attraction to have a relationship with? I really don’t see that as a problem.

To the Catholic a Church’s credit, they seem to allow a separation between thoughts that come to us unbidden and thoughts we actively embrace and seek after. (And I’m talking about thoughts in general now.) This has benefits over churches with more evangelical leanings for two reasons. First it dispenses with the devil-blaming which, as far as I can tell, does nothing productive and can often lead those actually harming others to claim it’s really the devil’s fault. Second, it allows adherents to Catholicism to excuse themselves for problematic thoughts that they do not intend to carry out. For example: I may be super pissed off at my sister and imagine myself striking her. After the thought occurs to me I immediately decide this is a bad idea that I’d never really do and also don’t want to do. I find this type of of mini-conversation perfectly healthy- much better than becoming guilt-ridden over each small stray thought that may be negative.

I guess I’m saying the Catholic Church takes a more nuanced approach than I was expecting, but there are still problems.

*Yes, I’m conflating ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ a bit to make the sentences more readable. Apologies.

Church #58, St John the Evangelist and St Joseph

Date: 6/22/14

Church name/type: St John the a Evangelist and St Joseph, Roman Catholic

Pastor: most of the mass, including homily, was done by the deacon- Greg Mansfield

Style of worship: Shortened Catholic mass – it was interrupted by a double baptism

Useful takeaways:
I’ll start by describing the church, because I like doing that. This church has so much going on visually, but in a kind of balanced and subtle way. Upon entering and looking around, I noticed the space is tall and white with crests and domes that merge into each other gently at the ceiling. All along the sides of the church there are stained glass windows and raised, painted stations of the cross. If you glance up a little higher you note saint statues perched up of ledges. All around this same area are paintings of saints and biblical scenes. At the front left of the church is a large white Pietà-esque statue. At the front right is a life-sized, realistically* colored crucifix Jesus. Near the crucifix is a child Jesus statue clothed in a robe and holding an orb. (It is just like one my grandmother used to have in her house for which the robe was cloth material and could be changed! I forgot to note whether this was the case at St’s John/Joseph) Also impressive is the giant pipe organ over the entrance at the back of the church. If I had to guess I’d say it has maybe 200 pipes. Several more saint statues are at the back of the church. Surprisingly, it did not feel the same as the painted color explosion I felt at St Sophia’s, the extremely decorated Orthodox Church. The imagery wasn’t overwhelming and I was truly surprised that so much could fit so unobtrusively into the space.

The sermon was short, I suppose in attempt to make time for the baptism; so short in fact I missed it. I really thought it was a simple intro to something longer, then when church was over I noticed I’d written no sermon notes.

I did make note of a couple of my thoughts on the bible verses. I am finding I do this more often at Catholic churches and I think I can guess why. For one thing the readings are always separate from the sermon, allowing a little time for he to reflect on what I think about them. Another reason may be that the strict formality expected at a Catholic church lends itself to a very clear, crisp enunciation of the verses. A third reason may lie in the dialect at these churches being similar to my own.

This Sunday I was caught by a verse from Deuteronomy. God is talking to the Israelites who are suffering in the wilderness. He says, “I brought you here to test you. To see if you would keep my commandments.” Normally I don’t agree with a sentiment that suggests God plays games with us to make sure we will stay faithful. This time it occurred to me that maybe this verse is about the intersection of suffering and goodness. It’s easier for me to be good when I’m feeling good. If I feel hurt and angry I’m more prone to lashing out at others. This verse conveys the idea to me that we all need to remember to be good when things are bad. God expects us to behave ourselves even when other factors make it hard for us. It’s not easy, but we can’t stop striving for it.

Problems/Improvements:
With so many members, maybe they should staff more than just one door with greeters.

There was no after-church gathering time/coffee-hour.

I had very mixed feelings about the notice in the bulletin for a support group for those with “same-sex attraction”. I’ll talk more about this my next post!

*By realistically colored, I mean Jesus looks like a fair-skinned white person with dark hair.

Full Church List

It’s time I compiled a list of churches I’ve visited in alphabetical order by church name. The number after each church is NOT a ranking, it refers the order in which I visited them and it is meant to help you navigate my archive. I would link them all, but my website doesn’t seem to like that.

All Saints Cathedral (Episcopal) #33
aka under Cathedral
Antioch Christian Fellowship (unknown) #51
Bethlehem Community Church (Nodenom) #5
Bethlehem Lutheran Church (Lutheran- Missouri Synod) #11
Cathedral of All Saints (Episcopal) #33
aka under All
Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception (Roman Catholic) #25
aka under Immaculate
Community United Methodist Church (UMC) #16
aka under Slingerlands
Church of Saint Vincent De Paul (Roman Catholic) #26
aka under ‘Saint’ and ‘Vincent’
Delmar Full Gospel Church (Nodenom) #1
Delmar Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) #15
Delmar Reformed Church (RCA) #10
First Church in Albany (RCA) #39
First Church of Christ, Scientist (Christian Science) #17
First Congregational Church (UCC) #22
First Presbyterian Church of Greenbush (PCUSA) #53
First Reformed Church of Bethlehem (RCA) #19
First United Methodist Church in Delmar (UMC) #14
First United Methodist Church in Rensselaer (UMC) #57
aka under Iglesia
Glenmont Community Church (RCA) #4
Greater Saint John’s Church of God in Christ (COGIC) #50
aka under St. John
Historic Saint Mary’s Church (Roman Catholic) #36
aka under St Mary
Holy Spirit Lutheran (ELCA) #24
aka under Lutheran
Iglesia Emmanuel (UMC) #57
aka under First
Iglesia Pentecostal (Pentecostal) #38
Immaculate Conception (Roman Catholic) #25
aka under Cathedral
Jerusalem Reformed Church (RCA) #21
Journey United Church of Christ (UCC) #23
Kingdom Hall in Bethlehem (Jehovah’s Witness) #3
King’s Chapel in Glenmont (Nodenom) #2
Lutheran Church of the Holy Spirit (ELCA) #24
aka under Holy Spirit
Metropolitan New Testament Missionary Baptist (NBC) #37
Mother Theresa’s (Roman Catholic) #42
Mount Calvary Baptist Church (NBC) #40
Mount Moriah Church (Nodenom) #7
Mount Zion Missionary Baptist (?) #47
New Hope Ministries (Assemblies of God) #31
New Horizons Christian Church (Pentecostal) #48
Powerhouse City of Deliverance (Pentecostal) #44
Saint Andrew’s Episcopal (Episcopal) #32
Saint Francis of Assisi Delaware Avenue (Roman Catholic) #41
Saint Francis of Assisi South End (Roman Catholic) #45
Saint George’s Antiochian Orthodox (EO) #29
Saint John’s Church of God in Christ (COGIC) #50
aka under Greater
Saint John the Evangelist and Saint Joseph (Roman Catholic) #58
Saint Mary’s in Albany (Roman Catholic) #36
aka under Historic
Saint Matthew Lutheran Church (Lutheran-Missouri Synod) #18
Saint Michael’s Chapel (Catholic, non-Novus Ordo) #13
Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church (Episcopal) #43
Saint Peter’s Episcopal Church (Episcopal) #28
Saint Sophia’s Greek Orthodox Church (EO) #20
Saint Stephen’s Episcopal Church (Episcopal) #8
Saint Timothy’s Evangelical Lutheran (ELCA) #55
Saint Thomas the Apostle (Roman Catholic) #9
Saint Vincent De Paul (Roman Catholic) #26
aka under ‘Church’ and ‘Vincent’
Slingerlands Community United Methodist Church (UMC) #16
aka under Community
Solid Rock Church (UPCI) #6
South Bethlehem United Methodist Church (UMC) #56
Sweet Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church #52 (NBC)
Terra Nova Church #54 (Nodenom)
Third Reformed Church Albany (RCA) #30
True Witness Apostolic Faith Church (TCAF) #34
Union Dutch Reformed Church (RCA) #35
aka under Unionville
Union Missionary Baptist (?) #43
Unionville Reformed Church (RCA) #35
aka under Union Dutch
Vincent De Paul (Roman Catholic) #26
aka under ‘Saint’ and ‘Church’
Westminster Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) #27
White Couch Albany (Nodenom) #49
Wilborn Temple First Church of God in Christ (COGIC) #46

Key:
EO= Eastern Orthodox
NBC=National Baptist Convention
Nodenom= No denomination given
PCUSA= Presbyterian Church USA
RCA= Reformed Church in America
TCAF= True Church of the Apostolic Faith
UCC= United Church of Christ
UPCI= United Pentecostal Church International

**For further explanation of churches with no denomination, see individual church posts. I try to give explanation when possible as to church origin and philosophy.

*Notice lack of #12? For this one I attended not a public church but instead visited a religious community in Albany called the Bruderhof. The group has a house on Washington Park. They do allow visitors, but they like to be sent a request ahead of time. It is their home after all.

Unvisited Church, Grand Street Church of Christ

Today’s church report will be a little different. There is one church that’s been on my list to visit which I’ve been avoiding. I’ve decided I’m not going. It’s a church whose location appears to be someone’s house. Frankly that’s intimidating. A church building acts as more of a public space. One can enter without knocking or asking permission during a specific portion of Sunday and often other days too. But in someone’s home it feels different. Without being invited it seems intrusive. Without knowing anyone there it seems unsafe. So I’m attending from afar this time.

The church has a handful of videos on YouTube under MrPastorPeter. There is was a blog: Grand Street Church Pastors Blog
The last blog entry is from 2010. Ostensibly it continues at a new site…but the link doesn’t work. YouTube is much more current. The video on top is from 3/17/13.

The video is about 15 minutes long and of poor sound quality. It includes sermon of around 9 mins, an unintelligible message from a woman which might be prayer*, and the lead-in to communion with Lord’s Prayer by the deacon who is being advanced to pastor in one week’s time.

The content of the sermon was very simplistic. It compared the Christian life to running in a race. There only seem to be a couple similarities however; you have judges and they decide if you win. In this case winning equals going to heaven. We were also told that God loves us, we have to do our best, and that we are saved by grace which we do not deserve. I fail to see how both these metaphors can work. Winning a race and receiving a prize is more like the opposite of getting something undeserved. Besides the sloppy content, the delivery was halting, as if the pastor can’t read or speak well. He even mispronounced several words.

The church video ended with communion. The three members we already saw came up to take communion and two additional women also. If all members took communion this is a congregation of five adults- and the baby that the pastor was holding at one point.

Overall I found it to be definitely Christian but also extremely disorganized and amateurish. I probably don’t need to attend one for real if this is all I’d find there. Since I’m not even sure it still exists attendance might be impossible anyways.

*This isn’t a criticism of content. The sound is so poor I can’t make out what this woman is saying except ‘amen’ at the end.