As previously mentioned, I have been thinking for years about doing a survey of local churches. I can read all day about what each denomination believes, but the best way to really get a feel for it is to go experience it first hand.
Today I, along with my boyfriend Ben and our new friend Richard, went to the Westside Church of Christ. For me, it was the comfortable decision- I was raised in the Church of Christ, so I viewed this as a way to ease myself back into church attendance. It’s somewhere I already know what to expect; I’m not sure I’m quite ready for snake handlers or speaking in tongues, you know? Also, since my childhood church experiences are undoubtedly going to color my view of all the other churches I visit, I thought it would be good to provide a little background information on the Church of Christ.
CofC seems to be mostly known by outsiders as being that one church that doesn’t use instrumental music; it’s all a cappella. I find it a little funny that it’s the one thing that stands out to those not familiar with the CofC because it seem so normal to me. I can see how instrumental music could have it’s advantages, of course- you don’t have to worry about song leaders being off key, or dragging the music too slowly or totally messing up the rhythm. I’ve suffered through some renditions of Amazing Grace that sounded depressingly like a death march because the guy up front decided to go at a leisurely pace. But, a cappella is nice sometimes too. This morning we had a beautiful bass voice sitting near us, and it was lovely to be able to hear the harmonies without them being drowned out by instruments. And, as Ben pointed out, it’s nice to sing in a group. Instruments or not, the singing is certainly one of the finer points of a church service.
This particular Church of Christ was on the large-ish side. Their program states they had 400 in attendance at last Sunday morning’s worship, and I would estimate a similar number today. It also says they have a weekly budget of $16,226, with contributions last week at $16,713, which blows my mind! That’s more than my net pay for an entire year!
Based on my previous experiences with the Church of Christ, this one falls toward the liberal end of the scale. Of course, by liberal I still mean all a cappella singing and only men leading the worship. But, there was a surprising amount of audience participation- people saying “amen” and group scripture reading. There was even one person in the back quietly clapping along to the music. I know, it may seem weird that those are the liberal things to do, but that should give you a good idea of what the CofC experience is like. It’s pretty calm. (CofC would be one of those churches the little girl in the movie “Jesus Camp” so non-judgmentally called a “dead church” that God doesn’t like to go to because it’s too calm.)
Ben was intrigued by the custom of passing the communion plates down the pews and everyone taking a little piece of cracker and cup of grape juice. Again, perfectly normal to me. People do it other ways? Guess I’ll find out in the weeks to come. I got a good chuckle when Richard took one of the grape juice cups just because he wanted to taste it. The former CofC-er in me had a brief, visceral “you shouldn’t do that!” reaction, and I think that says something about the strange importance people place on religious rituals. It’s pretty irrational to think an atheist shouldn’t taste the juice if you take a step back and remember that it’s just a bit of juice.
Today’s sermon was titled “Children of the Most High” and was about the importance of being generous and living in a way that non-Christians will think they’re wonderful people and want to know more about Jesus because of the example they set.
1st Timothy 6:17-18
17As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. 18They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share.
32 “If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. 33And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. 34And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to get back the same amount. 35But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. 36 Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.
Overall, a pretty innocuous subject. It’s good to help others, be kind, be giving, etc. But, I couldn’t help but be a little cynical. Ben mused that it seemed the preacher was pushing for a very extensive welfare state, but yet CofC-ers tend to vote Republican and dislike government welfare. In the end, what I gleaned from the sermon was to be kind to those around you and give a lot spiritually (only somewhat monetarily), so that “your reward will be great.” Quid pro quo. It left a decidedly non-altruistic after taste.
There was also a little story about an Henri Matisse artwork that hung upside down in a museum for weeks before anyone noticed and corrected the mistake. How would Matisse feel if he had walked into that museum and seen his hard work being displayed incorrectly? He’d probably be hurt, and feel that no one cared about his work. That’s how God feels when He sees how upside down our world has become, and we need to do our best to make things right. The preacher was vague about which artwork it was, and we were a little skeptical if this was based on a true story or not. Ben googled it, and it seems to be a true story. However, when you look at the actual artwork “La Bateau,” you really can’t blame the museum for getting it wrong. I imagine that Henri Matisse would be understanding, and probably get a good laugh out of the mistake.
I’m finding it harder to write about my trip to the Church of Christ than expected. It’s tough to give a brief overview of this one visit when I have so much past experience with the CofC. I could wax poetic for a long time about CofC doctrine and which parts of it I like and which parts I really dislike- but that’s outside the scope of what I’m wanting to do with this atheist in church adventure. Hopefully this was a good overview for you of today’s experience, and will help explain my background a little as I venture out into churches with which I am not familiar.
Also, if you’re interested, Ben tweeted his reactions to today’s church visit – @bbarrow68