Wednesday, November 26, 2003

You Call This Worship??

I am posting a modified version of a church visit I did for my corporate worship/liturgics class at Wesley. Out of some modicum of respect for privacy, I will not use the church's name. I visited an Assemblies of God church in Cumberland, Maryland (far, far western Maryland), and there are a number of Assemblies churches out there. If my description rings true for any particular church, then use your best judgment. If you don't like what I'm saying... in the words of a dear friend, "a hit dog will holla."

"Assemblies of God" Church-- Cumberland, Maryland

I can honestly say that this is one of the most distasteful experiences of worship I’ve ever endured, and experiencing this, I can see why people turn away from religion. I chose to attend this service in Cumberland, Maryland to expand my own horizons, but I almost feel like they have retracted. Thankfully I have some sense of ego defenses and sense of self-worth, otherwise I personally would have left the service theologically devastated.

I realize that this is less an issue of worship style than it is theological content; while often worship and theology are conjoined, in this case I can refer to the two distinctly, and discuss those parts of the church’s worship separately from its abhorrent anti-pastoral teachings. Unfortunately, it is hard for me to really focus on the worship style without thinking of the message being preached. I realize I am being judgmental – but I am simply returning the favor. In my 90 minutes there, I heard theological sideswipes against: gays (three times, including the preacher’s sense of despondence at the Episcopal ordination of a “defensive practicing homosexual”); the Amish; the Jews; environmentalists; animal-rights activists; adulterers (the viciousness of this commentary was the antifeminism of it: “you ladies out there having affairs…” – clearly men don’t adulterate); humanists; people leaving five minutes early; people sitting in the back pews (sinners only half-heartedly embracing God); and the ill (the line went something like: “when God removes his blessing from you because he has given up on your stubborn and sinful ways…and you become ill…”). Oh yes, and the devil blocked up the preacher’s kitchen disposal to keep his mind off godly things. Pity, that.

Theology. Somehow, buried beneath multiple strata of human hate, bigotry, and judgment, there was a message that God loves and Jesus is not angry at humanity. God loves us, as is evident by his soteriological action in history – in spite of our own unworthiness. The emphasis really was on human lack of righteousness. Even though at communion the preacher announced that all were welcome, the message behind his sermon was really the church wasn’t very welcoming. At least I didn’t feel terribly welcome.

Anthropology. Humans are unrighteous. Clearly (in the mind of the preacher) this “great nation has at least ten righteous people in it”, or it would have been destroyed by way of Sodom and Gomorrah. Sadly, the unrighteous love to tempt the righteous away from their godly ways, and seducers are everywhere.

Comparison & Surprises. The only thing that pleasantly surprised me – and this is tied to the church’s Pentecostal theology and worship – was the real emphasis on praise and worship. I personally don’t take to a place where someone will caw out “I worship you Jesus”, but at the same time I respect that worship was not a cerebral activity for these people: it was truly heartfelt.

Order of Service. I guess it follows a very basic Finneyite progression of praise – preaching – altar call. Communion was tucked away in the first fifteen minutes, as part of the praise and worship. I expected some weekly flyer indicating what people would be singing, if there was lectionary (or other) reading, what the sermon would be, instead I got a color flyer all about the church’s pastoral staff, with some room for notes.

Congregational Participation. Very involved. Although there was a choir and a band, a lot of the congregation sang along with them. People stood up and exhorted spontaneously, though people were mostly silent during the sermon.

Sacraments/Ordinances. Communion was held, although I don’t know how often it is done. It was less anamnesis or prolepsis, and more lugubrious meditation on the bloody broken sacrifice of Jesus. (I quote: “That cracker broke like Jesus’s body did…”)

The Role of Scripture. Many people brought their Bibles, and as the pastor preached, making frequent scriptural allusion. (Given the tenuous – as well as tendentious – interpretation of his message – see below – I am tempted to call it scriptural illusion).

Service Theme. Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God? The pastor announced that he was tired of the six months of happy sermons and he wanted to get back to his true calling, conviction. (Apparently this means yelling everyone into disenfranchisement). The sermon was about how we repeatedly fail God in our relationships with the unrighteous (the preacher cleverly turned a few scriptural passages into a puerile five-step developmental “phases of failure”, giving it a veneer of legitimacy). The music was entirely praise-oriented (e.g., singing the words “Praise God” endlessly to the tune of “Amazing Grace”, with the real words occasionally tossed in for variety.)

Being a Stranger. I didn’t really know what was going on, and there seemed to be a lack of order (I am using traditional Protestant or even Roman Catholic worship as a baseline, so my comment is admittedly biased), but I never felt completely lost.

Hospitality. People were friendly, though I am sure I did not quite fit in. I was definitely unknown to the congregation, and I was nicely dressed but probably looked more like something out of “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” than your average resident of Western Maryland. Perhaps I’m projecting but I thought I caught people giving me the once-over if I walked past them and as I entered. I do not know if there was a coffee hour; none was mentioned, and frankly I fled at the very end of the altar service.

Something to Take Home. Compassion to people who have been burned by religion. Now I really understand why.

And, (I’ll try to end on a positive note) a real sense of Joy in worship. It’s too bad that the church could not have maintained that Joy with a different theological anthropology.

Closing Note: I tried my best to be respectful (a polite visitor) in spite of an apparent disrespect towards me and many things important to me. But I did not follow multiple temptations, including: standing up and arguing with the pastor; simply standing with my back turned to him during the sermon; or storming out entirely. I also managed to control most of my nonverbals, but I admit I rolled my eyes vigorously a few times.