Yesterday was my first Sunday off work for several weeks, and I was looking forward to going to a church service. We strolled over to a local Lutheran church for its 11am service only to find they were all out doing good works in the community - extremely admirable, but we rather wished they hadn't chosen that particular Sunday. So we settled for a megachurch we'd been to before, which has several "campuses" around the DFW metroplex.
The trappings are certainly impressive: state-of-the-art sound system, huge screens, slick video sequences, funky banners reflecting the theme of the latest sermon series. Which on this particular Sunday turned out to be about politics. OK, not my number one topic for a sermon, but it's obviously topical right now, and the Bible certainly has plenty to say about kings and leaders. Could be an interesting talk on our responsibilities as Christians and how to interact with our government, and I know the preacher is a good communicator.
That was the worst sermon I've ever heard. And I don't say that lightly. He went for every crowd-raising button-pushing topic you could think of: homosexuality, abortion, benefit fraudsters, drunken louts, terrorist immigrants... and moved it all along with a few way-out caricatures of relativism as a test with no right answers or a hospital where you go in with an inflamed appendix and they decide to cut off your nose... and finished up by labelling socialism as unbiblical and the cause of half the country's problems (the other half being caused by relativism, of course). No, I'm not socialist, nor am I relativist, nor yet do I condone people committing benefit fraud or blowing people up. But the whole thing was designed to whip everyone onto their "the world's going to hell in a handbasket" hobbyhorses without taking any responsibility for the current state of the USA or giving any idea what we might do about it. With a couple of Bible verses and a little prayer at the end to give it a Christian veneer.
As for the rest of the service, we were treated to several songs by the beautiful young musicians, which most of the congregation either didn't know or found difficult to sing, or both; a slick video presentation encouraging us all to go straight to the church shop and buy their newly-released worship album; and a list of notices (again, very well presented). No prayers. Have you ever been to a worship service where they just don't talk to God? It's weird.
Through a somewhat convoluted series of events, we found ourselves, later that day, standing outside a cafe in a small town named Justin where a church service was about to start. We hadn't intended to join them, but a man carrying an amp inside insisted so strongly that we were welcome that we felt it impolite to refuse. He introduced himself as Brother Massey and led us through the door, where we were introduced to various other brothers and sisters and ushered to seats in the centre of the front row. Although the music consisted only of electric guitar, keyboard, sax and electric drumkit, the ceiling was low and the congregation enthusiastic, and the effect was rather like being dropped in the middle of a gospel choir! It was fantastic. It was utterly crazy, of course, but it was just great.
There were about 30 people of all ages and widely varying beauty packed into this tiny cafe. The preacher interjected "Praise the Lord" after every other sentence, which rather made us wonder if he did that all week or just on Sundays ("That's $2.57, praise the Lord! Thanks to God, have you seen our special offer today?"). Healing was prayed for fervently, with laying on of hands, speaking in tongues and anointing with oil. A lady of 25 told us how her cancer tests had recently come back clear, just as it was looking like she'd have to have a hysterectomy. The sermon was entitled "Why eat lunch with the devil when you can eat dinner with your daddy?" and was about how the devil can't touch us in God's house, but he's desperate to drag us outside of it and get us to make a mess of our lives. Not an interpretation of the parable of the prodigal son I've heard before, but I could kind of see what he was getting at. It was full-on Pentecostalism with added enthusiasm, which isn't something I've been exposed to much, and I wasn't at all sure what Graham would make of it, with his very limited experience of Christian craziness.
But however mad it looked and sounded, however uncomfortable we felt at suddenly being made guests of honour in the middle of it, however much we wouldn't normally express ourselves like that: there was something real in that church. Something that wasn't in the megachurch, with all its 20 000 people and slick presentation. These people had faith, and were excited about it, and it showed. And if God was anywhere that Sunday, I reckon he was with them.
(Graham, in fact, said he felt surprisingly comfortable there, and seems to have rather taken to hand-waving and "Praise the Lord"ing. Maybe I've married a Pentecostal...)