Wherein the author plants his tongue somewhat firmly in his cheek and rants about an amalgam of experiences, because that is what the internet is made for.
I can’t pray in church any more.
It was one of those things that I discovered had subtly happened. This sort of thing doesn’t just slap you in the face but wears on you week after week, year after year, until one day you realize the truth.
I walk into the church building like any other weekend for a worship service. If it’s a newer church it has a name with ‘Community’ or ‘Grace’ or ‘Life’ or ‘Quest’ in it. Sometimes ‘Church’ makes it way in there, but sometimes not. I don’t know if these terms are meant to evoke anything in me, but a lot of times it feels like the only reason for a certain name is for market position, trying to stand out from the crowd.
Whatever, they’re just words. Right?
As with most newer churches, there often is very little that is ‘churchy’ about the space. If it’s its own building then the architecture is almost without fail painfully dull, the fruits of pragmatism taken to the extreme. The sacred and the secular should not be strangers, we are told, and thus we end up with such monstrosities as sancti-nasiums, wherein one can sing a worship song in the morning and then nail a shot from beyond the arc an hour later. No stories in glass through which the beauty of truth can paint in its freedom, merely off-white-colored walls that silently weep in their shame.
Of course, some churches want nothing to do with the churchy feel at all and do everything in their power to give off a vibe of something else. For some a coffee shop is not too casual, while a lecture hall is what is achieved in other venues. But even in the art that we make to cover up the walls or to paper over the lectern, there is that dreary breeze of the outside world, like a drafty window in the dead of winter.
For a faith that promises a glimpse into the mystery of God, the surroundings in worship too often feel all too familiar.
From the moment I enter the worship space (as we are fond of calling them, perhaps guilty from the secularizing of the project as a whole), I am greeted only with noise. The greeters shake my hand and welcome me in, thrusting stacks of information into my hands. If it’s the first time around it is utterly overwhelming, for the sheer amount of information makes me feel like there is something I should know but don’t. The more rational of us probably treat it like junk mail, only hazarding a glimpse if it looks interesting enough.
All around me I hear the whine of music through the sound system; either the banality of Christian pop music or- if the church deems itself edgy enough- the equally obnoxious droning of its secular counterparts. The experience becomes like walking through Wal-Mart and wishing they would turn it down. Everywhere I go I have to bear these sorts of musical invasions- is there no escape, even in the ostensibly sacred spaces? (Oh yes, how could I forgot about creating an inviting and welcoming atmosphere…)
Naturally, all of this assumes I haven’t been accosted by well-meaning members who wish to make me feel welcome. Apparently assuming that I am incapable of providing breakfast for myself, I often endure the unlucky event of being pressured into donuts and coffee, even though I hate coffee (and no, Bigelow tea is not tea), and rarely does anyone provide plain cake donuts. (Krispy Kreme is way overrated…) What was meant to be a time for prayer has now become a social event, kind of like an awkward Christmas party that you reluctantly attend. All I wanted was to pray, but I suppose I could have another donut hole… (and everyone already took the honey walnut spread for the bagels… you know who you are.)
Once the service begins, the obnoxious and unrequested music is replaced by louder and (often even more obnoxious) music. Sometimes one is fortunate to experience ‘worship music’ done well (or well done?), but this is a rare event indeed, in spite of the number of self-proclaimed worship leaders. In most experiences like this your eyes are fixed on this person the entire time, unless they project lyrics on some screens, in which case your neck will get a workout. It begins to feel very much like a concert, until people start closing their eyes and lifting their hands, singing to God like Romeo to his Juliet.
Then it just gets weird.
There are very few events in life where one sings with a group of people, and even fewer where most of those people are strangers. Church is the only place you will likely ever go where you are expected to sing songs you do not know with strangers you have never met.
This strangeness could be expected, for church is supposed to be a special thing. The odd thing is that the songs you don’t know and are supposed to sing sound quite a lot like the songs you do know but are not singing. The churches who deem themselves sufficiently edgy (we’ve seen them earlier) recognize this and will sometimes play the songs that you do know so that you can sing with them. I suppose it is meant to make you feel at ease, but it kind of becomes like listening to a mediocre cover band play at Wal-Mart.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve never intentionally sought that out.
The edgier churches often place a great deal of emphasis on the production of this worship concert itself, from the acoustics to the lighting to the stage design and everything in between. Transitions between songs are timed out perfectly and occasionally they even play everything on iPads. Sometimes it can even be kind of cool, so much so that you look at the whole thing and say, “that was kind of cool.”
After the worship concert there is usually (and ostensibly) a time for prayer, but the noise still hasn’t stopped, because the worship leader is sometimes still playing. Granted, it might be done tastefully and subtly, but if the performance was especially cool that week then it’s hard to get beyond that. Thinking about how the underscore seamlessly transitioned into the prayer probably does not count as a prayer, unless you are praying that the strings played too hard during the set would somehow miraculously tune themselves.
Next I get to sit down (finally!) and awkwardly exchange pleasantries with the people next to me. Then the pastor starts to talk. And talk. And talk. I was under the impression that church was a place to worship God, but if time is any indication, then I am really here to listen to this person speak. Most of the time I hear about 3 practical tips to make my marriage awesome or 7 steps to financial peace or some other enumeration of how the Bible is applicable to my life.
In other places a sermon series subsumes biblical teaching to an overarching theme, and sometimes there are graphics and videos and set designs which reflect that. If it is really well-done and really cool I might think to myself, “wow, that was really well done and really cool.” And if the messages are delivered eloquently or with the right amount of charisma or pathos, I might think to myself “wow, that was really good.”
Very rarely do I hear anything about God that I don’t already experience in my own, well, experience. If God is supposed to be, well, God, then it seems there should be a lot to say about the source of all being and the creator of all things. The Incarnation, the Trinity, the cross- all of these are things that are mysterious and challenging and force one to really think and struggle. But most of the time I don’t hear anything that makes me really struggle.
God loves me. Awesome, good for me.
Jesus died for me. Go Jesus!- also good for me.
The Bible can make my life better. Yay Bible!- also, yay for me!
After enough time at church I know that God really loves me (really really really loves me) and that the Bible has all these enumerated steps to a better life. And that you have to come a little bit early for the frosted donut holes. (You know which ones, you frosted donut-hole hoarders!)
As I get ready to leave I am bombarded with mountains of information to stack on top of what I have already received in the form of announcements. Programs and classes and events and mission trips and everything in between are just waiting for me to join and participate in. There are so many options available to deepen my spiritual life, and all I have to do is call this number or visit this website. Every week there is something that will transform my life, deepen my spiritual walk or connect me to the life of the church. The noise that starts up again after the benediction (you know, the background music from before) ensures that any temporary high I received in the previous hour lingers for a few more minutes.
Either that, or it really just makes me want to get to my car as fast as I can.
If I have attended church long enough, I probably have some friends there I know and whom I sit next to during the worship concert and the pastoral lecture. At the end of the worship service we usually say hi to each other and the question that inevitably arises is “what did you think of the message?” Or on the “that was kind of cool” weeks it might be expressed in a statement: “worship was really good this week!”
Or anything in between.
Sometimes we even go out for lunch afterwards and talk about the church service for a few minutes, until the conversations finally turn to other things, eventually leaving everything that just happened behind. As I drive home for the afternoon, the only reminder of the morning is a half-crumpled bulletin that Jason’s Deli gave me a free fountain drink for. As the light turns green I remember the music and the donuts, a fading recollection of a 30 minute sermon and the joke my friend made at lunch.
But in all that time, I never had a chance to pray.
And that’s why I hate your church.