The first thing I noticed was the style - very "new evangelical", complete with the praise band (including guitars and a drum kit), the progressive songs, the clapping and dancing, the raising of hands to heaven, the moderate-conservative message, and the big projection screen that displays the scripture and song lyrics. There was a response card in the bulletin that asked you to let them know if you've been saved, as well as a guide to the "ABCs of Salvation" (admit you're a sinner, believe in Christ, confess your sins).
There was a very relaxed atmosphere. Most people were in jeans and polos, though a few people were dressed up. The congregation of about 70-80 people was relatively ethnically diverse, and very vocal - lots of people would speak up in response to scripture, saying "amen", "yes lord", "thank you jesus", et cetera. They were very warm and friendly to newcomers. It was definitely not a fundamentalist church. The service was pretty open-ended; though the bulletin gave an outline of what was going to happen, the details weren't set in stone, and they did a lot more than just what was written.
Near the beginning of the service, they spent about ten minutes discussing an upcoming mission to the Dominican Republic, ending with a laying-on-of-hands prayer for the people who would be going and lots of requests for the ongoing prayers of the congregation.
The scripture reading was the story of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery, which I found incredibly ironic as it's widely agreed to be nothing more than a forgery added after the original text was written. The entire sermon, in fact, was based on this story, and the minister talked about how Jesus had to preach "A simple sermon for a hostile audience" (the name of the sermon). He tried to allude to modern Christians having to give the gospel to people who want to hear it, but he didn't really make that point, instead spending a lot of his time talking about an apocryphal myth about how Charles Wesley brought the gospel to a hostile crowd (complete with the throwing of tomatoes) by changing the lyrics to bar songs so they talked about Jesus - making it a point to say "That's true! It's a true story!" (Oops.) He also talked a lot about the situations Christians live in around the world, never really drawing any parallels to modern America - apart from saying that a city with a big gay and lesbian community was a hostile environment.
Here's a note I took while listening to the sermon, on the subject of the forged story which the minister took as a good guide for moral judgment:
John 8:1-11 talks of Jesus ignoring people's accusations against a sinner, then acting like the people were never there! How does ignoring a problem solve it? Where, in this, is justice? The person who was wronged has no satisfaction. How do people accept a moral standard based on ignoring the real victims and forgiving the sinner?The minister actually had the gall to say that "Jesus was willing to address the tough questions." Sorry, no. Jesus avoided them completely, or just made something up that sounded wise. The minister also said that, when it came to Jesus and his message of forgiveness and love, "his whole life was an illustration of his message." Does this guy even know anything about the Bible? There are several years of Jesus' life that are eerily absent. How can he claim to know anything about them? Also, how did Jesus' attack on the moneychangers in the temple show forgiveness and love? How about his order that his disciples go out and buy swords?
Also, in the story, Jesus stoops twice to write in the dirt. Why was this important enough to mention, but not what he wrote? A bunch of pointless speculation on what Jesus drew - twice suggesting that they were depictions of miracles.
The sermon was a mixture of shallow thinking on the concept of morality and a bunch of platitudes, such as "leave your burdens at the cross" - which is nice and all, but it doesn't get anything done and doesn't solve anyone's real problems.
He mentioned seeing a kid with an "Outlaw Straight Marriage" sign and said some silly thing about how his heart broke for the kid. (Why are these people incapable of recognizing humor?) This led into a discussion of the recent appearance of Fred Phelps' crew in a nearby town. The projection screen displayed some photos - one of Phelps' signs reading "God Hates Fags" and another reading "God Hates Hateful Christians." The minister equated the two, and made a point of calling Westboro Baptist Church a cult. How ironic. He also talked about how the New Testament means Christians don't have to follow the laws of the Old Testament, quoting the verse about Jesus not coming to abolish the law but to fulfill it. He conveniently left out the very next verse, in which Jesus says - surprise, surprise - the old laws still apply, and will apply until the second coming.
The minister said something to the effect of "Before you go around saying God hates someone, you better make sure he doesn't hate you." Then he later claimed that anyone accusing Christians of un-Christian behavior is doing the devil's work. Clearly he doesn't think the WBC are Christians, but who is he to judge?
Here's a bunch of other notes I took, which I can't form into any kind of coherent narrative...
- Said that a sermon is successful if just one life is changed - "Just one more... at any cost!" So what's the limit of "at any cost"?
- "they are all sinners, and they are all dying in their sin, and they are all going to spend an eternity away from God if they're not born again." They think ANYONE would find this positive??
- (speaking of kids on a college campus) "Look in their faces, and they're empty, and you can see the lostness." Wonder how many of those kids were Christians? He said this about college kids in general because of the trend toward liberalism in college. Nothing like good old fashioned Christian prejudice.
- Conscience is evidence of the knowledge of the truth of your sin? i.e. Feeling guilty is evidence of being worthy of eternal separation from unconditional love? Wow.
- He compared natural gay tendencies to "natural" tendencies to drive off the road or try to jump off a building and fly. *What*? "I have a desire to sin. But I know that breaking that law of God has consequences." More whispered prayer - yes yes, that's right, yes it does, amen, praise god, etc.
- We're all sinners, so we're no better than anyone else (... you just called WBC a cult.)
- Some inane comment about how the three crosses of Calvary were symbols of the three step salvation process (ABC)
I'm simply astonished that these people don't realize how polarizing their message is, and how utterly incapable it is of attracting nonbelievers How many times must they try to convince me that I'm a terrible, evil, sinful, unworthy person? Have they never heard the adage about attracting flies with honey instead of vinegar?
What I found most interesting about this service was that people didn't really seem all that into it unless they were singing. They were most "praiseful" when the music was playing, which makes me wonder if they equated the singing and dancing with worship, and if it isn't just the beat and rhythm making them move instead of the "holy spirit".
I also couldn't get over the feeling that, if they knew I was an atheist, the "friendly neighbor" mode I saw the congregation in would quickly devolve into a "convert the infidel" mode. Part of me felt the old indoctrination stirring, but now that I'm able to recognize it for what it is I can ignore it.
After the service, I couldn't help but think about how much more I knew about the Bible and Christian traditions than even the minister appeared to. They truly, deeply believe, but they clearly don't give any serious critical thought to their beliefs (nor do I think they would ever want to). Though the service was invigorating (inasmuch as the music made me want to dance and the people were warm), I don't see any reason to return. The message was nothing but how disgustingly unworthy of God's love we are, but how he's such a nice guy that he's going to love us anyways.
I'm not a fan of that kind of emotional abuse.