Monday, March 12, 2007

The worship experience

The first time I attended a charismatic church some 15+ years ago, the thing I liked the most was the praise & worship. It was--well--alive! I could understand it and enjoy it. I could close my eyes, raise my hands if I wanted to, and not worry about what anyone else in the room was doing. For me, that was the very definition of freedom. I loved the worship, and even when I was unfamiliar and uncomfortable with other aspects of Pentecostalism, it was the worship that kept me coming back.

I guess I ought to make a distinction between the worship and the music. The worship was great. The music was OK. The musicians were (by and large) not professionals, just folks who loved God and (kinda) knew how to play a few chords. They hit wrong notes sometimes. They tripped over the words. They couldn't always stay on pitch and the harmonies were often less than harmonious. The songs themselves were simple... and looking back, some of them were just kinda silly or even downright embarrassing.

The music has come a long way since the 80s. Most churches today have paid worship leaders who are accomplished musicians. Larger churches even pay other members of the band. If you visit a contemporary-style American "mega church" today, you're guaranteed a quality show complete with all the staging, lighting and multimedia that you'd find at a modest concert.

In more recent years, I wound up attending a pentecostal mega church. It was a very good church--no scandals, no major conflicts or controversies, respected in the community, etc. Everything they did was very high quality, including the music. It should have been everything I wanted and more, but before long I found myself wishing I could go back to the worship I had known in the early 90s. Something was missing. I couldn't pinpoint what it was, but I was certain that I'd know it when I found it.

I started visiting other churches. I went to special services and conferences. I even enrolled in a worship school! I found a place where the services were nearly identical to the style and atmosphere I had loved so much in the 90s... but even though I had found exactly what I was looking for, it was a short lived and empty victory. Maybe time had skewed my memories of "the good old days." Maybe I had grown older and less open-minded. I just couldn't stomach some of the stuff I was hearing. It was easy to avoid asking the tough questions when I was in a less "extreme" pentecostal church, but now I was being confronted with large doses of things I had never been entirely comfortable with in the first place.

Monday, March 5, 2007

Evangelistic license

Sometimes, it's so easy for things to just roll off my back. They don't bother me. I never give it a second thought. Other times... I can't seem to let go. I replay the situation over and over in my head. I get angry.

An advertisement for a Pentecostal "crusade" hit one of those hot buttons for me recently.

I'm used to seeing a lot of "pull-on-your-heartstrings" stuff, so much so that maybe I dismiss it too easily. It doesn't bother me so much when ministers are promoted as larger than life heroes who do everything from build orphanages to raise the dead. I'm not phased by emotional clips and soundbites from past services (even if I have good reason to believe that the lady who got up out of the wheelchair at the fall 2002 conference was the same one who got up out of the wheelchair in another minister's spring 2003 conference and who knows how many other places). But this one promotional video in particular just made my blood boil. It hit too close to home.

I'm originally from the New York City area. Images of 9/11 are permanently etched in my mind. The fact that some people have tried to profit financially from the losses of others is just about the worst kind of ugly I can imagine. The fact that some of these people are ministers is downright disgusting--and I would feel the same way no matter what "flavor" of minister they were.

The offending promo video was produced sometime last summer. It featured clips of the minister at a conference in NYC in the 90s. He was warning them to get right with God, what if a missile were to hit Manhattan? Images of the 9/11 attacks flashed across the screen. The implication was that this minister had predicted the 9/11 terrorist attacks. That's outrageous enough in and of itself. I've been around ministry long enough to know that most itinerants preach the same basic message wherever they go. I wonder how many other cities had been warned of impending attacks that never happened? Even a stopped watch is right twice a day.

OK, so maybe that could be chalked up to "Evangelistic license." After all, he did say it, and something did happen, and perhaps his staff was just a bit too zealous in promoting him.

But what they were promoting was a new series of meetings, and they were seeking financial support to make them possible. They used images of people dying in NYC to raise money for their ministry.

I felt like screaming: If you're such a good minister, if you have such an "in" with God, why didn't you intercede for the city and make it stop? If you believe that your prayers are answered, what the heck were you praying for??

It was horrible the first time I saw it months and months ago, it was still horrible when I saw it again just recently. It makes me a little sick just thinking about it.

It also makes me wonder about what I believe and what I used to believe. What do I do with all that supernatural stuff? Is it really supernatural at all? Is it just luck? Is it fake? I think I've seen some genuine miracles, but I know for sure that I've seen a lot of fluff and attention seeking and outright fakes. I wanted to believe in divine protection, but I didn't want to be in a church where every time I got sick, had to fix my car, or had something happen in my family, people were wondering what sin I had committed to get outside of God's favor.

I've heard a lot of so-called "Words from God" or prophetic words... and often wondered how much of that was God and how much was an expression of that person's desires. I've seen them horribly misused. If your pastor has a "word" and you disagree with it, you're either disagreeing with God or challenging the pastor's relationship with God. If you say nothing, but don't do what the "word" directs, you're rebelling against authority. That's a terrible spot to be in.

What if I wasn't from NYC? What if 9/11 was just an impersonal tragedy to me? Would I be cheering that minister on, contributing to his crusades?

For now, I guess I just have to put this whole mess on the back burner.