Wednesday, October 31, 2012
The first was an old-fashioned downtown church with a congregation that had been raised on post-war community feeling and 60s radicalism. We sang with gusto from a hymnal while the organ drowned everyone out, and we took communion together, and we listened to a teaching about the blind beggar whom Jesus had healed on the Jericho Road. After the service, we met in groups. My group had a lively conversation from which I took away a renewed confidence in my personal experience of the divine.
During the service and after, several people shared with me about how they served the community. One young woman had organized a letter writing campaign asking senators to support legislation that brings food to the hungry. (Would I please write a letter?) An older woman gave me papers to read about the needs of the mentally ill who, she said, were cast aside by our health care system. (Could I come to a meeting?) In this church, the homeless are housed and the hungry are fed. I left feeling connected, uplifted.
But, I also love to worship with my hands raised, so afterwards I moved on to a megachurch where I had heard that the music was grand. Before I got to the doors someone approached me and gave me a church tee-shirt and a DVD. Then, I walked through glass doors into a sparkling lobby filled with young people and young families, with a cafe in one corner dealing lattes and pastries and a shop in another corner selling books and CDs, and a comfortable lounge with a crackling fireplace. TV screens set here and there showed a variety of church-related video. Down the hall, a multilevel children's area was bursting with eye-candy, like a kids' science museum. Everything was new and classy, but the auditorium (I don't think they dared to call it a sanctuary) beat all that.
The stage was set for Broadway, and when the band came onstage, lights flashed and smoke machines poured out pretend smoke, and giant screens brought us close up to the drummer and the bass was so intense, I thought my heart would give out.
There's more, but I'll skip it. What hit me hard was when four people got up on stage and said they were going to share how they served the community. I was all set to hear more about caring for the needy and poor. One of them said he worked in the church nursery during services. Another directed traffic in the enormous parking lot. The third was involved in the church's theater group and the last one managed music production on Sunday mornings. They served, not Jesus, not the community, but the church.
The people on stage said that Jesus had led them to this service, that this was what Jesus wanted them to do: work for the church. Their church's stated mission is to make converts. The people who go there serve the church. I should have known better, but I'd almost been suckered in by the glitter and I left feeling tainted and sad.
It had been dark in that auditorium. We couldn't see one another once the stage was lit.