Wednesday, March 30, 2011

An Atheist in Church-The Beginning

So I am officially living in the United States again. The past month and a half has been very busy getting everything done that I needed to in order to be able to leave Korea and move back home without any problems.

Now a lot of things went into my decision to leave Korea rather than continuing to teach there but the main thing that led me to come back was my girlfriend. I wanted to give our relationship a real chance and I knew that wasn’t going to happen if I stayed in Korea so I moved to California so I could be with her. Her family offered me a room to stay in so that I could actually afford to come back since I wouldn’t have a job when I got here, which was just over a month ago, and I accepted. Now this room didn’t quite come free of charge the fact is that in order to stay here I had to agree to go to church every Sunday. As a freethinker (includes atheism but not just atheism) this was a fairly hard thing to accept. The family knew this about me so they knew what they were asking of me. Now I was told that I could go to church anywhere I wanted, I didn’t have to go with them to their church but due to the fact that I don’t particularly care about church anymore I figured I would just go with them as it would be the easiest option. I also thought it would offer a lot more opportunities for interesting conversations if we were all listening to the same sermons.

I have now been to three services and before I went to the first one I felt this could turn into great material for my blog. So I’m attempting to begin a series in my blog that will document my experiences as an atheist in church. Of course the fact that I used to be a Christian and went to seminary allows me to feel relatively comfortable in church and know enough to be able to fit in and not create problems…unless of course I want to.

Since this is my first entry I wanted to provide some basic information about the church I am now attending so as to give people the opportunity to better understand the type of information I will be hearing and thus responding to. The church is part of the Assemblies of God denomination. For those who don’t know the Assemblies of God denomination is firmly in what is called the Pentecostal movement, originating in the early 20th century. Each church functions autonomously from all other Assemblies of God churches but they are united by certain shared beliefs. Most Pentecostal denominations are best known for their emphasis on the “gifts of the Spirit” which often include speaking in tongues and diving healing. Like all Protestant denominations the bible remains central as the source of authority in all theological and practical matters. Now again since each church functions independently of each other none of them will be exactly the same. Like most Evangelical Protestant churches the church is greatly shaped by the pastor or minister who is in charged as he/she is the one who directs what is taught and thus believed in each church. I grew up in an Evangelical church myself but it was an Evangelical Presbyterian church. Now I have been to many different types of churches and participated in multiple inter-denominational services so I had a pretty good idea of what I was about to get into before I ever stepped into this church.

My first Sunday I got to the church early due to the fact that Angelina (my girlfriend) helps with the multimedia stuff and has to be there to set up all the necessary things for the service to work. Now the media/sound room was over on the side of the stage near the corner, which brought me immediate joy as I saw I would be able to distance myself from the action in the middle of the congregation. As people began to filter in I noticed the church was pretty ethnically diverse. As I met people I found the term “God bless you” was used as a form of hello particularly by the older congregants. I of course did not return the blessing saying “hello” or “nice to meet you” instead.

The service began with the worship leader praying. I was fairly used to the style of prayer. It was meant to sound very spontaneous as if it were being led by the Spirit. The word “God” or “Jesus” was used quite often and basically functioned as a filler word like the word “um”. Then the worship began. I knew most of the songs that were played though they played a few of them a bit more up tempo then I was used to. The worship was very active. One man utilized dancing flags, tambourines and a shofar (ram’s horn) that he chose to blow at various times during the worship. There was a lot of clapping and the raising of hands. The phrase “yes Lord” was repeated numerous times. It was a lot of “follow the leader” type of worship. By that I mean the worship leader would say something like “praise Jesus” and then the congregation would repeat the phrase. This type of listen and repeat style was placed into every song.

After the worship one of the members of the congregation performed what they called a “human video.” Basically the man dressed up and acted out a scene (silently) based on a song that was playing during his performance. The song was sung from the perspective of Simon the Cyrene, the man who the Synoptic Gospels say carried Jesus’ cross. (this differs from the Gospel of John, which says that Jesus carried the cross all by himself the entire way to where he was crucified-John 19:17) There was a lot of reaction from the audience during the performance, which swelled till the end when everyone broke out cheering and applauding for the performer.

It was then time for the offering. The lady who took the stage told everyone to stand up because people don’t give when they are comfortable. Needless to say I decided to stay comfortable and did not stand. The woman then used war metaphors, which I found fairly repulsive to describe people’s offerings and why they must give to God (meaning of course her church). She then went on to explain how it is not enough only to give to God but one must give for the right reasons. “There is a difference between people who give because they must and those who give because they want to,” she said. I found it a bit funny that this came after her discussion of why they must give to God. She then prayed for everyone’s blessing, particularly their financial blessing and then the offerings were taken while a song that had been previously sung was repeated.

It was then time for the sermon, which was the time I had been both dreading and anticipating the most because it was the time I felt I would be the most engaged both good and bad by what was happening. The pastor continued a series he had been doing that focused on the theme of “climbing mountains” by looking at various stories in Genesis (Abraham, Moses, etc.). Now instead of really getting into the topic of the day I want to simply discuss the preaching style of this pastor. I admit it was a style I was not overly used to. During the sermon the preacher relied heavily on repetition for his points. He constantly repeated various sentences getting louder and louder with each repetition. He constantly moved around on the stage, utilizing his movement (constantly stomping on stage) to emphasize his points. Similar to the worship leader he often called for the congregation to repeat various things he said. It was hard not to feel like members of the church merely became parrots during the sermon repeating whatever they were told to repeat rather than actually thinking about it and weighing it against their own studies. The sermon really did not feel like a time of teaching rather it reminded me more of a motivational speech relying on emotional tricks to gain the desired response from the audience. I know it was the type of a sermon that I would not have enjoyed even back when I was a Christian because after almost 35 or 40 minutes of the pastor talking I felt I had not learned anything about the actual passage he was supposed to be discussing. Now in many ways this sermon was not that different than most sermons one will hear in any church in that it was focused completely upon a devotional view of the scripture and did not present the congregation with any true critical analysis of the text. People didn’t walk away with any new knowledge about the text rather they walked away with new feelings about the text, if anything. Again in that aspect the pastor was no different than the vast majority of ministers and pastors in this country. But with that said I felt this pastor did not even pretend to teach his congregation new information about the text but rather merely played on their emotions to illicit certain responses from them. I have now sat through three “sermons” and nothing has changed. It has honestly felt like the last three weeks has just been the exact same sermon over and over. In reality he has not provide much information for me to even react to and it is getting fairly boring.

After the sermon finally came to an end the pastor moved right into the alter call where he asked people to come forward to accept Jesus or to renew their relationship with God or to seek God’s blessing. The sermon was really meant to get as many people to come forward as possible. I felt the alter call was needlessly elongated as he kept trying to get more and more people to come down. He kept finding new reasons for people to come down (renew relationship with God, fix broken relationships, your job, money issues, family issues, etc.) Again if felt more like a time of manipulation then genuine spirituality.

So I have now been to three services and I have still not quite figured out how I am going to organize the entries in this series or if this will even be able to work as a series. Here I merely tried to give an over-all picture of what the church service is like by describing each part (Prayer, Worship, Offering, Sermon and Alter Call) but I will not do that every week since the parts of the service don’t really change. I will likely spend most of my time sharing my reactions to various parts of the service. I have found as I’ve sat there that many, many different ideas have been sparked for me but they have not all fallen into some nice pattern that would make one good piece in fact they often have not really connected to what was actually happening in the service, instead someone would say something and it would make me go off on a tangent in my head while they continued on a different track. So moving forward I really have no idea what this will turn into so we will just see what happens.


  1. Hey Zach - I've been reading your blog ever since you decided to move back to the USA although I've never commented before. That was a really interesting view of church. Having sat through a lot of sermons like that, it was fascinating to see it through someone else's eyes. (I actually enjoy those types of emotional services. Especially if the music is good) Just a thought, maybe it will help stave off boredom. A lot of what you write is waaay over my head, and I don't think there are many people, even pastors, who would be capable of analyzing the Bible on your level and presenting it for a sermon every week. So maybe if you think about people's different levels of experience and understanding or some similar complicated social/psychological thing, it will keep you entertained. Good luck! -Suzanne

  2. Suzanne,

    Thanks for the comments, forgive my delayed response. Now first I have to say I don't think you give other people's intellect and capacity to learn enough credit. If a minister only ever panders to people's emotions then one will never know what those congregates are actually capable of understanding. And I'm not expecting the pastor to teach some seminary level class but at least TEACH something.

    I am not saying I've never been part of emotional services or that emotion and education are mutually exclusive but this church in particular seems to give little to no effort in actually teaching anything to it's congregation. It really is more like attending a pep rally at a high school where you get psyched up for the big game and talk about how awesome your team is and how bad the other team is, which I have to say is not only noneducational it's boring

    Now I will keep going to church (yes because I have to) and I will keep watching and hopefully more things to write about will come up.

  3. Hey Zach – I agree with you that people are capable of learning more. I just wanted to point out that your level of analysis is quite high and you probably won’t find that in a community church. That said, even as a practicing Christian, I find some of the platitudes hard to swallow. For example “God will never give you more than you can handle.” I disagree with that statement on more than one level. So yeah, things like that bother me, too. I still want to be part of a faith community though, so I have found a service that is more to my liking and beliefs. The pastor’s messages are well thought out and well organized. They talk about world events, and in my opinion, are more realistic about life. I’m not advertising, just saying there are as many types of churches as there are style and content preferences. (Now I’m going to go read your devil post again and think about that for awhile. You make some really good points)

  4. Sound like you're in a tough spot, dude. Requiring you to go to church so that you have a place to live? I'd have all kinds of negative reactions to that, but it also presents an interesting opportunity. It seems obvious to me that a Pentecostal church is not for you. Any thoughts about attending a Unitarian church? I'd imagine they'd be much more welcoming with regard to atheism, though I'm not sure if that would qualify as your landlords' definition of "church..."


    PS Part of the conversation seems to involve the emotion vs reason thing. You clearly, as well as me, get much more out of a church-like context if it appeals to our minds, and Pentecostalism is geared more for those who speak in the language of emotion. I noted it as just something to think about as you go forth looking for a different place to go on Sundays. (Seriously, though Unitarians are pretty good at this!)

  5. Again I appreciate the comments guys. Like both of you suggested I am looking around at other churches in the area to see about going somewhere else. Even if I can't find a church I "like" it might just be more interesting to travel around a bit and see a lot of different churches. it may provide me more interesting material for my blog.

    Jeff, I did find a Unitarian church near by that I will definitely check out soon. I had actually been wondering about that type of church for awhile now. I looked at their website and it looks like it could be a place I could find some far more engaging ideas.

    And Suzanne, know I do look forward to hearing any of your thoughts on my devil piece. I wrote that one pretty quickly compared to most of my pieces and I haven't looked at it again since I posted it, though I probably should.