Church #54, Terra Nova Church

Date: 4/13/14

Church name/type: Terra Nova Church in Troy, seems to be a nondenominational variety of Evangelical

Pastor: Ed Marcelle

Style of worship: not overlong, sermon bookended by praise, communion is possibly every week

Useful takeaways:
I liked the way we were given the option to choose either juice or wine as the sacrament. The individual holding the cup actually held two cups. They were clearly labeled ‘juice’ and ‘wine’. No big deal, no explanation needed, take the one you prefer. Perfect!

Crowd- This church has a mostly young demographic. This is important because it helps the probability that the church will stay vital and alive. I’ve seen churches struggle with aging membership. To not have to worry about it on an immediate ongoing basis is nice.

Problems/Improvements:
I had some real issues with several of the things said in the sermon. I tried to write the pastor’s words down as faithfully as possible, but in many cases I’ll have to paraphrase. The sermon was in regards to verses from Luke 13: 18-21 and 22-30. The first bit is a couple of metaphors about the Kingdom of God. First it’s compared to a mustard seed which grows to an enormous tree that birds may roost in. Next it’s compared to a small bit of yeast which makes a ball of dough rise. Neither metaphor for growth is really a problem as such, but it becomes important to know just what the Kingdom of God means. I always took it to mean heaven. In my interpretation, heaven is given an expansive quality. Maybe it keeps growing as more people enter? Heaven will never be full!

The pastor seemed to go in a different direction. Eventually it was clear he saw the Kingdom of God in terms of people on earth who are getting it right- the correct type of Christians bound for heaven. He went on what felt like a tangent about how important it is to get the Christian message out. Conversion. He seemed adamant that we basically become obsessed with our Christianity, that we need to never lose sight of it and always seek to spread the word to others. He even used the metaphor of a virus spreading from person to person, which, is a little weird, right? Should we really think of Christianity as something that invades us without our permission and makes us ill? But it sounds like what we actually want isn’t important. The pastor made a point of saying we need to stop shying away from the word submission. He then immediately followed up by reminding us that “Men are called to be the head of their household.” These two things are both issues that deserve their own posts, but I’ll try to be brief. The idea of submission is tricky. Who or what are we submitting to? Anyone can claim we ought to submit to them. Anyone can claim it’s because God says so. But submission is another way of saying, stop questioning. That’s just not something I’m in favor of. Maybe as a theme there’s a good way to use submission…but I haven’t found it yet. This coupled with the immediate reminder that wives submit to husbands suggests a hierarchy common to Evangelical and Fundamentalist churches. Namely that women answer to men, who answer to the male pastor, who answers to God. It is foolish to suggest that all men will know better about spiritual things than all women. At least with a pastor there is some training that had to happen first.

Taking things back to the Kingdom and it’s growth, pastor said this is hard for us to see because the Kingdom in Anerica is not that big. He said- there’s maybe 1%-3% Evagelicals here? So right away that excludes me, as I don’t self identify as Evangelical. Thanks for leaving me out of the kingdom, dude! The pastor went on to describe incorrect ways of looking at the Kingdom, including pluralism and universalism. I found his descriptions of pluralism and universalism to be rather shallow. He described people who say all religions are right and that there’s no difference between a Christian and a Muslim or a Buddhist and a Christian. Then he challenged us to put these pairs of people together and tell them they are exactly the same, to see how well it goes over. That strikes me as a very flawed understanding of what is meant by universalism and pluralism. I don’t place myself in either category, so maybe I can’t speak to this fully, but as I understand it, neither of those schools of thought claim that everyone is identical. It’s about where the focus lies. Is the focus on our differences or our similarities? Pluralists and universalists seem more about seeing similarities and understanding that decent people can come from any religion, not just one special brand of Christianity.

And finally there’s the assertion the pastor made about an inclusive heaven. He said that there are people out there who think everyone gets to go to heaven. Ok, that’s true. But he followed by saying, “if all go to heaven, there is no good and evil, no consequences.” This is blatantly false. Does this pastor actually think that God is the only thing stopping humans from killing and stealing from one another? Does he see all atheists of incapable of self-restraint? Of course there are consequences for evil here on earth. If I punch someone in the face, I can’t just tell people, “I recently became an atheist so it’s fine!” I’m going to need to face an angry bruised person and probably the police. There are actual secular reasons for the things we do on earth, and I’m surprised the pastor can ignore this so nonchalantly.

The entire sermon was one I had very little use for. It seems like the pastor hasn’t actually met any of the groups he criticized. If he has then he clearly hasn’t gotten a true understanding of where they are coming from. That strikes me as an important piece of knowledge for one who wishes to convince others.

Overall: Actually this was one of my favorite weeks. I met someone through the blog who invited me to this very thought provoking church and then stayed around to talk with me afterwards. It’s clear we don’t agree about some stuff, but the talk was good. I like meeting people invested in their faith, and hearing what they have to say.

Project Adjustments

So, you might have noticed I slimmed down the format for posts about churches. I’m shortening the amount I write in the hopes this will save me a little time. I’ve split the section usually called ‘thoughts’ into two categories: 1) useful takeaways 2) problems/improvements. I really want to drive myself to find useful stuff in attending these churches. Sometimes there is a lot of great stuff in the direct message. Other times I find myself branching off from the actual message and discovering something useful in what was unspoken. Then there’s the occasional unintended positive message a church is broadcasting without really being aware of it. On the flip side, churches also give direct and indirect messages I may find unhelpful. When this is the case I say so and explain why I’m thinking improvement is needed.

Another thing I’ve been changing recently has been church visit order. I had planned to keep a strict itinerary in terms of which church I’m visiting next, but a number of circumstances are making that less feasible. The biggest one being, working Sunday afternoons interferes with late running services. In some cases I have to pick a church I know will have a shorter service or mass. In other cases it’s related to start time of the church. Since I’ve started making this adjustment, the order I had carefully figured out is getting a bit mixed up. So I’m deciding to roll with it. With the relaxation of (but not total loss of) my church pattern, I am more free to bump a church to the beginning if I so choose. The next few churches I visit will be those I’ve been recommended and those I’ve been intensely curious about. It should be interesting.

The importance of doctrine and church governance

One of the topics that came up over lunch a couple weeks ago was the importance or unimportance of doctrine. I’ve been thinking about it ever since and attempting to pull my ideas together on this.

Doctrine describes what a church group believes. Of course there’s no written agreement church members must sign that states they also believe what church leadership sets forth. This creates a dichotomy I call doctrine vs practice. Case in point: the Roman Catholic Church considers it wrong to take communion unconfessed of certain sins, however, membership is rarely (in my experience never) expected to answer for their status prior to taking the eucharist. If no one is really checking you believe what church says you must, is doctrine really that important? This is a hard one for me. If I checked every church’s doctrine to see if I believed all parts of it, I’d never go to a church. (I do question the very existence of God at times, which is kind of a keystone for Christian churches.) And if I rejected churches on that basis, I’d miss those with other qualities I seek. There have been several churches whose focus onĀ saying you surrender your life to Jesus* has been overwhelming. But at the same time, these churches showed me a new quality of worship, or a willingness to accept those with differences. If I’d narrowed my requirements I never would have seen immersive, shouting, falling-down worship. I never would’ve felt connected and alive and elevated by such worship. I would have missed out.

Yet doctrine is important. It sets the tone for how we live our life in the faith that is ours. It is a written copy of something outsiders can look at and say, “This is what they believe.” If there are gaping problems in that doctrine, it becomes harder to reconcile oneself to identifying with the organization. It is easier for me to handle this because so far I still callĀ myself my spiritual home. If I were to join a church as a permanent, frequently attending member, things would get more difficult. I suppose at that point the question changes. I would need to ask how doctrine is set and maintained. Churches like the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox churches have more rigid heirarchy with doctrine and rules being set by the top levels with little to zero input from the membership. In such a structure, changes happen less frequently. Some Protestant churches (Episcopal comes to mind) have mechanisms in place for doctrine and rules to be determined by leadership at a mid-level, with leaders coming together from around the country to meet and discuss proposed changes. This means changes can actually happen from time to time, after discussion and agreement. Some churches have an even higher level of participation. Congregationalist churches are designed to be run by the membership of the individual congregation. In theory at least, this means numerous changes could happen quickly, should the congregation all agree.

Each of these models of church government comes with good and bad. I’d argue that if a good idea was part of the doctrine of a heirarchy-heavy church, it would stick for a long time. But, problematic ideas would stick around too. Alternately a church that allows for doctrinal change very quickly could be changed for good or worse. It would be easy to weed out bad ideas, but just as easy for the church to be hijacked by negativity. I guess I’m glad I don’t feel the need to join a specific church because it means I don’t yet have to navigate this type of complexity. I may have to revisit the topic though if I get to a place of wanting a permanent church home in the future.

*I have some issues with the idea that just saying some words will change our lives now as well as our afterlife destination, not to mention the heavy salesman-like pressure this is most often accompanied by.

Church # 53, First Presbyterian Church of Greenbush

Date: 3/30/14

Church name/type: First Presbyterian Church of Greenbush (in Rensselaer) recently merged with West End Presbyterian Church/ PCUSA

Pastor: David Moore

Style of worship: A more compact format than I’ve been to in ages, closer to an hour in length, all the parts were written out in the bulletin/program so anyone can follow along. The peace and announcements were done very casual and open.

Useful takeaways:
Church appearance-
A lot of older churches struggle with the falling-apart look, but I was impressed by this church’s clean and fresh interior. I gather they’ve painted recently, and it definitely makes the place look current.

Sermon-
The sermon was about the story in John chapter 9 of the man blind from birth. There were two big takeaways for me. First the question put by the disciples to Jesus was, “Who sinned? Was it this man or his parents?” Jesus tells them it is neither. Then he gives a strange answer. He says the blindness is an opportunity to show God’s works. I like this first because it works against the old-school (but not dead) notion that problems in life directly correlate to how good or bad we have been. I’m not talking about things with an obvious direct correlation (drive drunk-> lose license, for example). I’m talking about the idea that God punishes transgressions by harming people. There are various forms this notion can take, ranging from blaming poverty on immorality, to believing mental illness is caused by demons who got into a person compromised by sin. The idea of consistent direct correlation of sin and earthly punishment leads us to ask wrong questions like the disciples did. What was the sin? How did this person deserve their problem? Jesus tries to give the disciples a new way to look at this. He tells them (and us) to treat it as an opportunity instead of playing the blame game. And this was my second big takeaway: we are called to help if we can. Jesus doesn’t show us a light show, or a musical number, or a dance routine. He does something actually useful for the blind man. I think it’s an important point highlighting outreach. And in this case Jesus reached out to someone who everyone expected deserved the problems in his life. We need to be reaching out to people. We especially should not hold back our efforts based on who we think deserves our help. We can be wrong about things, just like the disciples were wrong to think sin caused a man’s blindness.

At the end of the sermon we were encouraged to look at things with new eyes the way Jesus tried to get the disciples to do. Pastor talked about a person from an older generation who was a closeted gay man with no hope of being able to come out. The state of the church at the time would never have been ok with it. Now we are starting to look at things differently. We are seeing with new eyes. Acknowledging different sexualities as ok is a big deal. Some churches and denominations are turning themselves inside out over this issue. It’s nice to see PCUSA taking a reasonable stance on same sex relationships.

Problems/Improvements: This place needs a website. I mentioned it to them as well. It’s just so important today because that’s how the younger generation gets information. For all the internet can tell me, this church doesn’t exist.

Ask and you shall receive

About two weeks ago I was wondering if this project would allow me to make connections with people that felt actually meaningful. Today I was invited to lunch by a delightful couple I met at this week’s church and had some engaging, thought provoking conversation with them. I’m psyched that this happened. Turning over thoughts in my own head can only get me so far. It’s nice to have some other minds to interact with over religious topics. I think I’ll have plenty to think and write about during my upcoming travel weeks.

Church #52, Sweet Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church

Date: 3/23/14

Church name/type: Sweet Pilgrim Missionary Baptist- affiliations include: Hudson River Frontier Missionary Baptist Association, Empire Baptist Missionary Convention of NYS Inc, National Baptist Convention USA Inc

Pastor: Reverend Elgin Joseph Taylor

Style of worship: Formatted but in a way that seems mildly flexible.

Overall Impression: Good!

Thoughts:
I actually have a lot of different things to say about this one. I guess I’ll start by giving my general impression. I liked this place. The people greeted me but didn’t overdo it. One woman named Penny greeted me before service and then spoke to me at length after service about the church. I don’t mean to say she was pushy- I was driving the conversation by asking about the church. She told me the pastor was new(ish) and had only been at the church about four years. I asked about the push or lack thereof to get current attendees to join either the church or Christianity. She told me the church and pastor are relaxed enough that one can show up frequently and not be hassled. That squares with the vibe I felt on Sunday. I didn’t get either a desperate “please stay!” or a high pressure “give your life to Jesus or Doom!” This might actually be a place I could show up again and feel comfortable.

Now, I’d like to describe the building. The outside looks in good shape, the sign appears new. Once inside you must ascend a somewhat daunting staircase to the sanctuary. The steps are just a little steeper than they need to be and this makes the trip a bit slow and ponderous. Just as you’ve despaired of finding anything special at the top of what seems an ill-designed stairway, the sanctuary swings into view. The space is bright and sun-kissed, lit by large but simple stained glass windows the color of watermelon candy. The floor is gently sloped downwards toward the altar as you might find in a concert hall. The benefit to this is twofold. First, you can easily see the altar area from wherever you decide to sit. Second, this design makes it easy to approach the altar as the gradient gives you a boost, almost like some combination of God, gravity, and the building designer want you at the center of the action, down near the altar. Above the altar are the giant, decorative pipes of a pipe organ. Above the pipe organ the ceiling is white, but highly detailed with lines and flat pieces like shingles. The whole effect of the ceiling is like that of a cake with lined and woven icing. The sanctuary is thus, very inviting.

Memorable bits of the service were the guest welcome and the liturgical dance. During the welcome they simply asked guests to stand and acknowledged they were glad we joined them that morning. The church was well-filled with people, but I didn’t get that- all turn your eyes on the newbie- neck turn that happens sometimes. I have not talked before about liturgical dance. So, in the same way we reach out to God through song, there is dance that is meant to be more prayer than performance. Liturgical dance is usually a slow series of movements that correspond partially or minimally with a piece of music suitable for church. The variety of liturgical dances I’ve seen are set to taped music, presumably to keep them uniform and keep the music from distracting from the dance you are seeing. This day’s liturgical dance was no disappointment. Four individuals took up places along the altar and performed. Meanwhile dancers stood in the aisles with long fans covered in fluttering fabric. Their motions were soothing and beautiful, and did feel holy in a way. I very much enjoyed the liturgical dance.

There were some other things I noticed as well ranging from intentional messages to subconscious messages this church was sending. There was a youth near the front making random movements and sounds, but bigger by far than a toddler. I imagine this young person was challenged in some way and the noises were not meant to be disruptive. What’s more, no one around was shushing or stopping it or acting annoyed. I tend to see this as a positive thing. If a mom or caregiver feels comfortable bringing an untypical child to a place, it speaks to the environment being one of welcome. In a broader sense I wonder if a church like this one (that encourages more noise from the congregation in general) is a better choice for someone with similar difficulties over, say, a church where silence is encouraged. It’s probably easier to have crying baby in a more vocal congregation as well.

Something I liked from the direct message (before the actual sermon) was the mention of fasting. I don’t remember if the term lent was used.* However I’m always happy when nuance is used, especially in defining ‘fasting’. Not everyone should be fasting from eating food. I’ve never done a food fast on purpose and my health issues dictate I should never do one. The pastor mentioned that we ought to fast, but he included the important qualifier that fasting need not be food. We can fast anything as a way to get closer to God, make us realize we are lucky, or just gain insight into ourselves. It’s not like it’s the first time I’ve realized this or written about it on this blog, but it’s so nice to hear from the pulpit. One good point from the sermon itself (most of which I liked) was the point that sanctuary is not the building we worship in, but rather the presence of God we meet with. This was as from Psalm 73 verse 17. The gist of the verse is a man complaining that evil men reap good rewards. He wonders why, and can’t figure it out. Then he enters the sanctuary and finds peace. If we can find this place of peace, that’s good. I don’t mind someone having this and I think we all find it in different ways.

*The Catholic Church I was raised in pays an awful lot of attention to lent, but some denominations do less so. They may even drop the term altogether.

Church #51, Antioch Christian Fellowship Center

Date: 3/16/14

Church name/type:
Antioch Christian Fellowship Center, I didn’t check for any affiliation.

Pastor: Usually led by Pastor Donald Stewart, this time we were led by Minister Tolliver

Style of worship: Casual structure with the usual songs, scripture, sermon, and prayer

Overall Impression: I like it.

Thoughts:
I was really dubious regarding this church at first. The building isn’t very new, and the sign out front looks like it hasn’t been changed in about ten years. But it’s accurate! There is church at this building at 11am and people are there. On entering I found my way upstairs to the sanctuary. About 15-20 people wound up showing up for service. I gather this is usual. I was greeted in a casual way by the speaker up front. The atmosphere of the service was very open, such that changes in the format were easy and acceptable. I felt like the lack of formality was the way to go. No one shied away from reaching out to me during hymnal sharing or bible verse comparison. Yet at the same time they didn’t go out of their way and make me feel like an outsider. I was there and that was just fine. It’s nice to get that, especially in a small church.

The sermon was a nice collection of ideas following the instructions: Stop, Look, Listen, Obey. Much of it was about how to listen to God and let his presence guide us. We have to stop, because uttering the first thing to enter our minds is often a bad idea. Settle your heart first and think before you speak. Listen and look means we need to notice what God is telling us. Jesus lived a life full of love; one we can follow. Obey means deciding to follow God. We were told it’s a choice and that it’s either God or not. I tend to look at things more broadly, I suppose. We choose things every day. And if something we do is a mistake, there will be chances to make better decisions in the future. I see following God more as a process than a single choice.

At the end of service things were relaxed and we were closing with announcements in more of an open forum. The speaker thanked us all for coming and me for deciding to walk in the door. She said ‘If no one else tells you this today- I love you.’ This is probably my favorite interaction at any church. Minister Tolliver had a real sincerity and concern in her. This day I felt it towards me, but I imagine this is something other people have felt from her as well. Last week I was wondering if I’d be able to feel any real connections with people from single visits- apparently I can. And it’s really a nice feeling.