I am going to do this in 3 separate posts, because it is rather lengthy. it covers my 2 visits to a big 'ol church somewhere in the Western U.S. Out of respect for the pastor, who has been nothing but nice to me, I will let the church remain anonymous. Here goes....
I went to a big box church twice in February. I had never been to a church like this. It was, well, kind of surreal, a little bit disillusioning and quite a bit sad. The building is huge. I had expected this as I had seen its massive frame being built a few years ago. But it is still a little intimidating since the only other churches I have been to have been small, local churches and a friend’s Jewish temple. I walk up and am greeted by smiling people and handed a flyer for a women’s group that says, “Want a friend? Want to be a friend?” It was all very welcoming even though the place is a bit big.
Everything about his place seems to welcome you in. It practically screams, “You belong here!” A visitor card I am handed says: “We want you here. We love you. You are accepted here.” I can see the appeal in that. Signs on the wall say, “let God love us …. and love others through us”. I suppose this is what people mean when they say the church is what keeps people together. It allows a common thread to run through stranger’s lives. Humans, being pack animals (“pack” as in wolf, not donkey), are very much social creatures. We all need to feel like we belong to a group. If I could just turn off my reasoning and allow myself to think in the magical way that followers of religions do, I could forego the smaller groups I know and easily be part of this huge, loving group.
Yet there is also the darker side of pack animals. The one where if a threat is posed by outside animals it must be dealt with. The side that ostracizes or outright harms a member that is disruptive. The side that demands nationalism and loyalty. The side that does not allow questioning of the pack’s leaders, just obedience.
It is with this reality that I sit in this foreign place. A mega-church that smells slightly of vanilla and flowers. This is like the Starbucks of churches. It is large and impersonal, but generic enough to be non-threatening to the average Christian. It has the sort of feel of a church about it: the belonging, the acceptance, the supposedly unconditional love. But it lacks the personal, closeness of a real church, where you know everyone there and you are truly part of a community. I suppose, though, the anonymity has its appeal, if you miss a Sunday or 3, no one will notice.
The place is set up with amphitheater seating with a stage at the bottom. The seats are like those in a movie theater. The stage is decorated in a pseudo-hip fashion with mock buildings and a chain-link cage around the drum set. Apparently this is a common theme in these big churches. They all have a house band. The music is very loud and rather bland and appeals to most people. It is very safe music, nothing surprising or original. And, of course, the music is all about God. Apparently, insipid rock music has replaced the hymns of old.
One thing I notice about this place is that a child coming here would have little chance to escape complete indoctrination. I have always found it a bit repugnant to force ones beliefs about any god (or no god at all, for that matter)onto a child with no capabilities in logic to sort out myth from reality. And, here, with the light show, the live music, the 10 foot video screens, a child would be entertained and awed. A child would likely find no need to question any of it. It is just as real as anything they see in their living rooms on television and just as powerful.
They use clips from movies to supposedly demonstrate God’s role in communication with a spouse, although I see no connection between the clip (a scene from the movie “Mr. and Mrs. Smith”) and God’s supposed message of talking to your spouse. It is however, entertaining. But I wonder if they had to get permission to use that clip or is they figured it was for the greater good to ignore copyright.
When the worship leader (a title keeping with the generic atmosphere of this church) speaks, a soft, flowing new-agey music begins. It is like he comes with his own soundtrack. It makes the experience that much more emotional. However, this worship leader is somewhat lacking as he cannot even name the passage in the bible which tells of the last supper as he says we need to think about communion. He says, “In Luke 22 somewhere between 20 and 30”. (The actual passage which communion is based on is from Luke22:17-20.) No blessing said over the eucharist, just a little plate passed around with squares and tiny cups of what must be grape juice. I have also been told that many of the people who come here care little for what is actually in the bible, and rarely read it. This is again keeping with the generic feel of the service. It seems there is no real ritual here except that people stand for songs and sit back down when they are told they can be seated.
At this point I start to wonder what the heck I am doing here. I feel like an intruder. I feel sneaky, underhanded and a bit paranoid. Can believers smell atheism? If so, will it be like in Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, where one of them will stand up and point at me until they are all yelling in chorus at the one person in their midst who has not been converted to a brainless alien? Did I mention I am a bit scared of large groups of people? I am. They freak me out when they are all in a mob mentality. I know that I am supposed to feel comforted by all these loving Christians, but as I watch them waving their hands in the air with the song, gathered for a single purpose, clearly believing (or wanting to believe) everything the worship leader says, I can’t help but feel a bit intimidated and bit scared. I feel a bit scared because I know about the fear that rises from someone questioning another’s beliefs. Especially if those beliefs are not backed up by reality and are therefore pure emotion. I have seen it when my 6 year old son was harassed by three other 6 year olds and told he WILL believe in Jesus as he was backed into a corner at his public school. I have seen it when a friend’s child was kicked and punched by another, smaller child when my friend’s child said he did believe in god. But those were just kids, you say. They are kids who are learning young how to get their meaning across. Those kids learned from home and church that you are not allowed to question or deny god or Jesus. And one day, those small kids will be large adults.