Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Singing Unironically

I used to go to a Hip Contemporary Church. The idea behind this church was that if we sang songs in a style that fit with the music that's played on the radio (real radio stations, not religious ones), and if the pastor used Power Point slides and movie clips to give visuals to his sermons, and if we renamed Sunday School to Kidtricity, and if we had a church logo, and we put the logo on frisbees and polo shirts and coffee mugs, then people who would ordinarily never set foot in a church would come and they'd become Christians.

One time, I was driving my family to church in our big blue twelve passenger van. (Dad called it the "Purple Mountains Majesty.") I had to wait, as we entered the church parking lot, because a passel of people were crossing the street. Mom told me that just a couple of years before, none of these people were Christians, and now they're involved in our church; I suppose this idea works pretty well.

One time, at the Hip Contemporary Church, we sang "O God, Our Help in Ages Past." We started singing it in the style of the old hymn that it is; the keyboard was set to sound like an organ. Then, as the second verse began, there was a sudden style change, and the volume went up, the tempo quickened, and the electric guitar got turned on. There was head-banging and applause. At the time, I thought this was cool.

One time, I went on a retreat with my church, the one I go to now, the Hip Mennonite Church. The Hip Contemporary Church is hip as in congruent with our culture; my Hip Mennonite Church is as hip as a church can be and still be Mennonite, which is to say, not very much. We use transparencies, not Power Point, to show our song lyrics. Some of the women wear head coverings and dresses. Each Sunday I expect my thighs to fall asleep, because the pews are old and wooden and uncomfortable.

The speaker on our retreat was E Daniel, the father-in-law of our pastor, Todd, and the father of Todd's co-pastor and wife, Marita. E Daniel used Power Point, but his slides weren't very well designed; they didn't have pretty backgrounds. E Daniel didn't make pop culture references.
E Daniel is bald and old and portly. Before one evening session, E Daniel played Bang! with Richard and Michael and me and I forget who else.

In the evening session, E Daniel talked about how he was always a very religious person. When he got baptized, everyone else getting baptized with him was crying, because they were contrite for their sins. E Daniel didn't have any big sins to make him feel contrite, so, instead, he discretely pinched himself in the back of his thigh until he cried, too.

E Daniel then called Lee to the front of the room.

Lee is old and portly, but he has hair--it's silver. His granddaughter normally sits in his lap during church and pinches his nose and cheeks, and she smiles. I've never seen Lee in a shirt with fewer than two buttons; he is a polite, mature, generous, devout person, and someone we all look up to.

E Daniel told us that he and Lee grew up together. E Daniel asked Lee to tell his story.

Lee used to be a drag racer.

Lee had a fake-o conversion when he was a teenager; he says, he actually just cared about himself, and behaved himself well enough in church to not get into too much trouble. He wasn't truly a Christian. He got married to Ginny, a good Christian woman; she didn't realize that Lee's Christianity was a mask.

Lee hated revival meetings.

He hated how the preacher would yell at people and intimidate them, he hated the weird pressure, he hated how it was the same story every night, but if you were a church person, you were expected to not miss a revival meeting. Most of all he hated altar calls, which always used Just As I Am as the invitation. Lee hated Just As I Am--it's all sappy and the imagery is wimpy. We all laughed, because we hate Just As I Am, also.

Although Lee didn't like revival meetings, he would go to them anyway, every summer, "to keep up the façade." He was more interested in drag racing, so he would fantasize about that while was imprisoned in a pew. He would arrive late and try to sit in the back.

At some of these meetings, he would feel a compulsion to genuinely repent and become a Christian. He didn't want to walk the aisle, though, that would be cliché; he intended to convert at home. However, after he'd leave the revival meeting, the urge would pass.

For no good reason, in one of these revival meetings, Lee realized that he needed to change. Each time he went to a revival and felt compelled to salvation, God was calling him. He had an impression that this might be the last time God called him, after that, God might just let him stew in his stubbornness; God might let him get away with this stunt.

He wanted to do the altar call, but he was ashamed, so when it was time for the altar call, he asked Ginny to go with him, for moral support. The choir sang Just As I Am.

He said that this experience with God was a breath of fresh air. Before, he had been weighed down by living unforgiven, but after he fessed up, he was floating a foot above the ground.

Lee told us that the next morning, at work, he told his buddies that he wasn't going to tell dirty jokes with them any more. He made it clear that he still wanted to be their friend, but something had changed with him, and he felt like he couldn't tell dirty jokes any more. (I suppose Lee was changed in other ways, too, but this was the most concrete change he cited.)

After Lee finished his story, E Daniel asked us if anyone needed prayer, if any of us wanted to live a changed life. We sang Just As I Am.

One woman asked for us to pray for her for freedom from an addiction. Our pastors, Todd and Marita, were the others to come forward for the altar call; they felt overwhelmed and attacked and depressed, so we prayed for our pastors. I don't think I'd ever seen a pastor ask for help like that, before.


  1. Do you remember the Experiencing God curriculum? The only quote I remember (maybe the only part I would probably still wholeheartedly agree with) is that prayer is one of the hardest things you'll ever do. I have a terrible time praying. Although, at the time, I remember thinking that was an odd statement.

  2. I do remember that. That's a good statement, and I'm kind of glad that it's the only thing you remember from the curriculum.