This week I attended the Russellville First Assembly of God. According to the phone book and the signage on their building, they have an 8:30 am service and an 11 am service. Ben and I decided to go to the 8:30 this morning, since he had to be at work by noon. We stopped at the donut shop across the street, then ventured into the building about 8:20. Lo and behold, in the bulletin it says the first service is at 9. I just looked up their website- and the first service is listed as 9 there as well.
Now, let’s just stop here for a moment. As an outsider, I was seriously put off by this. Punctuality is very important to me (the fear of being late for appointments is actually a common symptom of generalized anxiety). So if I make it a point to be on time to the service time posted on your building, you really need to do me the courtesy of starting at that time or of updating your signage. Also, I think all visitors, atheist and theist alike, would appreciate clear, non-conflicting information about when to show up. If you want your church to be inviting to outsiders, don’t make us do the legwork to figure out when to show up.
On a positive note, that extra 30 minutes of church I got to sit through was the praise band practice, and that was quite pleasant. RFA has a rockin’ band! As mentioned in the Church of Christ post, I am not used to instrumental music in church, and I expected it to feel weird, but I actually enjoyed it. I understand a little better now why people want the instruments and praise teams; the music has a strong emotional appeal and it’s nice to let it just wash over you. I found myself swaying along to the songs, although I did resist the urge to throw my hands in the air.
Ben timed how long it took from when we walked into the building to when we got our “first greet”- 22 minutes. Granted, we came in a side door and we were early, but that did end up being the only greet we got. Quite frankly, I like flying under the radar; being social with new people is uncomfortable for me. But, if your goal is to bring people in to become full time members of your congregation, you have to build that human connection and I didn’t get that in early service.
First prayer was right before the offering plate went around and, I kid you not, it included the phrase “Lord, now we offer at least our 10%.” It amuses me when the pastor leading the prayer takes the opportunity to sneak a little sermon in there to remind parishioners how much to give.
The pastor also took a moment to mention their upcoming services- one of which is going to be led by a visiting female pastor. He said, and I’m paraphrasing here, “I can’t believe we still have to have this conversation, but she’s a great pastor. Don’t forget that the Assembly of G0d was founded by a woman (author’s note: this congregation in particular or the very first one, I don’t know. That wasn’t clear), and that god first gave the gospel to Mary to carry in her womb in the form of the infant Jesus.”
I have to admit that my former CofC-er reaction to that was “Hey! 1 Timothy 2:12! ‘I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.’ Why are you ignoring scripture?” But, the feminist in me was shouting “Anything you can do I can do better! Damn straight she should be allowed to preach!” So, I have to say, I still disagree with religion but AofG gets brownie points for not being hateful to the womenfolk. So, yay Assembly of God for that!
The sermon itself was quite the ramble. I really don’t know what it was about- something to do with behavior, character and doing what’s right based on the gospel. The pastor has an obnoxious habit of saying “Hello?” or “Can I get a witness” when he thinks what he just said deserves an “amen” but isn’t getting the response he hoped for. If you have to ask for amens…*shrug*…maybe you’re doing it wrong. I certainly wasn’t inspired by the sermon; I couldn’t freaking follow it. He was supposedly referencing Genesis 14, and he did mention Abraham and Lot once or twice, but scripture wasn’t the main focus of this sermon.
He talked really fast and kinda loud, so these are going to be paraphrases, but here are some quotes I jotted down:
“An AofG pastor, who wasn’t even my pastor at the time, saved my uncle from drowning and that was the defining moment that changed the course of my life.”
“I’m not against people having money, I’m against money having people!”
“Melchezidek might have been Christ that showed up in the Old Testament.”
“It’s about your character- don’t be a quitter!”
And then it was pretty much over. No speaking in tongues or laying on of hands or holy rollin’ of any kind. I was a little disappointed. Ben knows the drummer from the praise band though, and he told us that the 2nd service is where it gets lively. So, I took Ben back to my apartment so he could get his stuff and head to work, and I went back to the 11 am service. That’s how dedicated I am to you, dear readers, and shows how badly I wanted to see some tongue speaking in person.
The 2nd service had at least double the attendance of the first service, and I did end up meeting a few more people. The lady sitting next to me was very friendly- even invited me up front at one point to receive some blessings, which I politely declined. After service she introduced me to some of the other people sitting around us and, like I said before, it was a little awkward for me, but it was nice that someone took the effort to make me feel welcome.
This service did not disappoint. The pastor let us know that “at least 2 miracles, bona fide by doctors” have happened in the last 2 weeks. (cite your sources, please.) There was a call for attendees to raise their hands if they needed prayer, and people gathered around them, laid on hands and prayed in tongues over them. The pastor could feel that “someone here needs healing from a nervous stomach.” Surprisingly, god didn’t give him the feeling that someone needed healing from atheism. (Thanks for doing me a solid there, god. I really didn’t want strangers laying their hands on me.) People were going down front and praising in front of the stage, where many boxes of tissues were conveniently waiting. I have dubbed this in my mind a the Jesus mosh pit b/c there were quite a few people down there.
The song leader took a moment to give his testimony about Shadrach, Meshach and Abnego- the guys from the old testament who walked out unharmed from was was assuredly going to be fiery death for not denying their god, for those who aren’t up on their bible stories- “If god hadn’t decided to rescue them, he would still be god!” *crowd cheers* “But if they had chosen to worship a different god, like Ba’al, and then been thrown into the fire, they would surely be crispy critters!” Now, how come Yahweh could’ve let them burn and still be god, but Ba’al can’t? That wasn’t ever explained well enough for me.
Then the pastor delivered essentially the same sermon from the 1st service, although it made a little more sense this time, possibly just because it was my second go at it. Turns out his uncle did drown, but the AofG pastor was there to comfort him and his mother when they received the news, and it was his kindness that changed the pastor’s life. Not sure how I got that story so wrong the first time.
“I would to god, in my time of trouble, that no one says ‘well he deserves it, he made his bed.’ Well maybe I did, but I hope someone will still reach out.” (What a beautiful humanist message there!)
“Don’t judge! Be a defining moment for someone else!”
“Your last failure doesn’t have to define you or define your character.”
“What’s happening to you is not the issue, it’s what’s happening in you that’s the issue.”
“You are my family, and I won’t allow anyone to mess with my family.”
And then there was a little more praying over each other, and the service was over. That was fun! Seriously, I’m only being slightly flippant here, I enjoyed my Assembly of God visit. Yes, it was a spectacle, and yes, my main reason for going was to gawk at the people speaking in tongues. I’m still entirely unconvinced by the truth claims the church hands out. There wasn’t any citing of sources- even the attempts to reference the bible didn’t go so well- and I place a high value on real world veracity of what I believe. But, I get why people go. There was a huge emphasis on family and community, as well as forgiveness for the mistakes in your life. The music was kickin’ and the people were nice. They rallied around each other to pray for and comfort those who requested it, and it was obvious that they care for one another.
If I learned anything in church today, it was that community is important, and that’s a message I plan to carry back into my life as an atheist and humanist. And, for anyone who wants to see what awesome community we atheists have going on, and how to really give a message that will help people- check out JT Eberhard’s talk from Skepticon about mental illness and why we should care.