Today’s Church Experience

Today I attended Sunday morning services with four other atheists from the Secular Student Alliance at the University of Louisville. For an explanation of what we were doing in a church, see my post immediately before this one: I am going to church tomorrow and here’s why. If you haven’t read that one yet, I recommend it for the back story before you continue with this post.

The church we attended was Walnut Street Baptist Church in downtown Louisville, Kentucky. The service was very typical of my experiences both growing up in the Church of the Nazarene and in visiting Baptist churches when I was looking for something different. The sizable sanctuary was well filled with mostly white  but also a scattering of black middle-class families, mostly dressed in casual and semi-dressy clothes. As far as looks go, our group fit right in. No one would have known we were not typical church-goers unless they recognized us or heard our post-service conversation.

wsbc

This is the view from where we were sitting. This photo was taken while the choir was singing.

The order of the service was as I expected, except that the taking of the offering happened at the end just before the benediction, and not right after the congregational singing. Otherwise the service was pretty much identical to the ones I had grown up in. The call to worship (the opening song) was “Because of Who You Are,” and it felt surreal to me to sit and listen to it because I used to be incredibly moved by that song but now I was just rather bored and waiting for it to end. I thought the same of most of the song service, which was a mix of contemporary songs and hymns. The one song that I enjoyed was “It is Well With My Soul.” It is a pretty song and was always one of my favorites. It started out with a trumpet solo and then the congregation joined in and I sang as well. It was the best part of the entire service.

The sermon was about worry and anxiety, and drew from Matthew 6:25-34. It started with an anecdote about distraction, namely the distraction of the pastor himself when he was a young child on a baseball team. As we all know, very young children are very distractible. He transitions into the rest of the sermon by saying the things that distract Christians the most from following Jesus are worry and anxiety. Without reproducing the entire sermon, which was fairly well organized with three sets of three points each, I’ll jump straight to the main point. According to this sermon, anxiety is experienced by Christians who forget to keep their focus on Jesus and instead worry about making preparations for their future. The point of the passage is that we should not worry about what will happen tomorrow or what we will eat or wear, since God will take care of all that. And Jesus is good and doesn’t want us to be anxious. Given that everyone in that congregation looked pretty well fed and clothed, I doubt that this pastor was making points about basic sustenance (like Jesus was) as much as about desiring the best clothes or the best food–things not necessary for survival and a basic level of sustenance and personal security.  I assume that at least the adults in the congregation are not so naïve as to think that they should not therefore store up provisions for the future for themselves and their children. After all, even the bird of the air starve to death when there is a drought or overpopulation or other such misfortune. In part because, as the Bible says, they don’t store up in barns. Perhaps we should be more like the squirrels of the trees than the birds of the air…but now I am getting off topic.

The part of the sermon that bothered me the most was the pastor’s response to the obvious objection to his message: What about when God is NOT providing for me what I need? After all, there are a lot of starving people in the world, and some of them are Christians. Here is his answer: “God will provide what is sufficient to do what he wants us to do.” In other words, if you are praying and begging and not getting what you need, it’s all part of God’s plan. He will reward you in the afterlife. Oh, also “your definition of good is not the same as God’s.” Well then. Stop complaining and trust the one who is invisible and inaudible. Just don’t worry.

I was also disappointed to not hear him mention the real things that any person, Christian or not, can do to help deal with anxiety: taking to friends, journaling/blogging, not procrastinating, avoiding negative thinking, and even seeing a therapist and taking medication in extreme cases. If all you knew about anxiety and its causes came from this sermon, the take away message would be that the reason you are anxious because you do not have enough faith in Jesus. It’s long been my problem with preachers that they are very good at times at pointing out real problems, but their advice usually misses the mark by so much that it would be laughable if it was not so sad. I always got frustrated with sermons because I have expected them to give a rational and persuasive case, but most church sermons are not persuasive speeches. You just either just believe what the pastor says, or you don’t.

It was an interesting experience to see church though the eyes of a total nonbeliever, as an open atheist. As expected the people were precious and I would have no problem associating with any of them. But (most of the) music and the doctrine and sermons are clearly not for me. But I don’t mind attending to raise money for a worthy cause. :)

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5 thoughts on “Today’s Church Experience

  1. Well written Mikel. I agree that this pastor and most I have heard misinterpret that and similar passages in scripture. If all people are doing what people should do and care for their neighbors, there is seldom a need for concern. A charitable person, Christian or Atheist, will do what they can to help when they see a need. So we need not concern ourselves with today’s provision if we all follow the precepts taught in this sermon by Jesus. It is a mistake to take a single passage out of context and attempt to make a point based on that passage alone. It will almost always be incomplete at best or just plain wrong at worst. I would take away from that passage and the broader context, that we can and should store up things for our future, but the important thing is not what or how much we store up. The important thing is our motive for doing so. Just saying.

  2. Thanks Harvey, I think that is a very good point. I’ve heard many a sermon that I thought went against the intended meaning of a Biblical passage. It seems that way too many preacher get away with messages that are basically incoherent or out of touch with reality so long as it is in line with their church’s doctrine and what their congregations expect to hear, just because those preachers claim to have a calling from God to be preachers. Critical analysis of sermons is not normally expected or encouraged in churches (at least not the ones I have attended, which were quite varied). It’s a shock to me that I didn’t do this sort of analysis a long time ago, though looking back I can see it was not something I was ever really encouraged to do in church. Just so long as it didn’t contradict what I was supposed to believe, it was all good.

  3. “Critical analysis of sermons is not normally expected or encouraged in churches”
    I find that is most often the case, I was raised in the Baptist church but around the age of 18 realized that it was not for me and by 22 I was a total atheist. I am amazed that some of the most educated people I know in my family, who six days a week are so grounded and practical in their thinking, will throw it all out the window on Sunday and worship a Deity, and they presume that things in life happen because of “god’s will” I just cannot wrap my head around that. As far as the critical analysis goes, the preacher is hoping nobody does that, they want to wow the congregation, not dwell in the realm of the real world, but rather show you what god has planned for you and how all problems can be erradicated with some faith!

  4. This is my FAVORITE part of your blog: I was also disappointed to not hear him mention the real things that any person, Christian or not, can do to help deal with anxiety: taking to friends, journaling/blogging, not procrastinating, avoiding negative thinking, and even seeing a therapist and taking medication in extreme cases. If all you knew about anxiety and its causes came from this sermon, the take away message would be that the reason you are anxious because you do not have enough faith in Jesus. It’s long been my problem with preachers that they are very good at times at pointing out real problems, but their advice usually misses the mark by so much that it would be laughable if it was not so sad.

    Here’s my story:
    Years ago, I was watching the 700 club and pat robertson said if a person is depressed that they should not need medicine- that they should get up in the morning and take in natural sunshine, and that they needed to get into the bible. He didnt say anything about real world interventions, or medication for the people who really really need it. When I was going through my divorce years ago- no faith in anything could have helped my anxiety or to sleep- so I went on medication. It wasnt long term, but it helped me sleep in a period where I would lay up and worry and cry. It was unbearable.

  5. Great blog entry. To tell people that if they are feeling anxious it is because they are not Jesus-centered enough in their life seems to me like it would cause a Christian even more anxiety. Also, *which* teaching of (which) Jesus are they supposed to center on? ‘Cause he said some pretty nasty and contradictory things at times. If he even said them. I wonder if the pastor ever examined any research at all about the history of Jesus and Christianity–I mean, likely not for there is little proof that Jesus even existed. Those Gospels were written hundreds of years after the supposed guy died. So how can they be “gospel-truth”?

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