Wednesday, July 05, 2006

An atheist goes to church

This past Sunday, I went with my friend Matt and my wife Ginny to attend a late morning church service.

It was Matt's idea; I just went based on a whim. Matt was looking for new material for The Atheist Experience, so he called me on Saturday afternoon and told me he was thinking about going to church. I immediately said "I'll go!" The truth is, I've been thinking about giving it a try for years now - just walking in on a service to see what it was all about. I don't think I've ever just "gone to church" before. Being of Jewish heritage, I've been to plenty of temple services. I've sat through Christian weddings in church, and sung with various choirs in cathedrals that have some great acoustics. But I've never actually sat in on a Sunday preachin' session.

So really, I was ready to go and all I needed was an excuse. Having Matt along made it sound that much more fun; if it was boring, I wouldn't be bored by myself. Ginny wasn't going to go originally, because she goes hiking with a friend every Sunday. But the hike was rained out, so she drove back from whatever remote location she'd picked and showed up just in time for us all to get seats together.

Matt already talked about the experience on the 7/2/06 episode, and if you already saw or listened to that episode then much of this will be simply a retread. But I like to write things down.

Matt decided we were going to the Gateway Church, a location Matt picked primarily on the basis of a massive advertising blitz wherein they presented themselves as a very laid back, hip, young people kind of church. There's one billboard featuring a blue jean-clad pair of legs, with an electric guitar next to them, and next to that is one of their slogans like "Come as you are." For the sake of getting the FULL experience, I might have preferred a full on fire-and-brimstone Baptist church, but this is what Matt decided on this week.

The church was a great big auditorium with stadium seating. There was a big jumbotron type screen overhead, and before things got started, there was a countdown to worship time. There were three cameras to capture all the action. The show opened with a live band, and then there was a rock hymn with the lyrics displayed on the overhead screens, karaoke style.

Then IMMEDIATELY after the opening music, the collection plates came out. The lights went dim and some guy started playing a rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" on his bass guitar. He was a good guitarist, or at least Ginny thought so. I was a little too distracted by the blatant manipulation of patriotic fervor while they were collecting money. In addition to the song selection, the screens were displaying a big ring of stars on a blue background, superimposed on a waving flag. Needless to say, we didn't contribute any money.

The lights came up and a skit started. The skit involved a cranky, bitter young woman who feels that her life is empty. She comes home and talks to herself. It seems that she's got everything she wanted when she was young: marriage, kids, a good job, a nice apartment... so why does she feel so empty??? She doesn't feel satisfied with her life, and she makes herself depressed by looking at women in magazines whose body she'll never have, and she doesn't feel satisfied with the fact that she achieved some goals.

Then some more music played. Part of the conceit of the skit was that the woman lives next door to one of the guitarists and yells through the walls about how much her life sucks, so he soothes her with pretty music.

Then finally we got the pastor. The pastor was a young man in his twenties. He was casually (but hiply) dressed and his arms were covered with tattoos. He had a good crowd voice and generally came across with the air of an accomplished motivational speaker.

The theme of the sermon was "sand castles." It's based on a Bible verse that says, in a nutshell: "Build your life on a foundation of Jesus. Because if you build it on anything else, it's like building a castle on sand." ("The other kings said I was daft to build a castle on a swamp, but I built it all the same, just to show 'em! It sank into the swamp. So, I built a second one. That sank into the swamp. So, I built a third one. That burned down, fell over, then sank into the swamp. But the fourth one stayed up!")

So the pastor started by telling an anecdote about building sand castles when he was a little kid. The ocean washed it away, so he built the next one on the hood of the car. But at the end of the day, they had to drive away and that castle fell down too. The way he told it was very cute and entertaining, but the whole story was so contrived that I had a strong suspicion that it didn't really happen to him, even though he told it very earnestly in the first person. It seems more likely to me that there are books of these sermons that pastors are supposed to "borrow" but personalize.

Anyway, the sermon continues the theme of the whiny woman in the apartment: all your accomplishments are irrelevant, because life sucks without Jesus. To drive the point home, the pastor went through a checklist of some things from which people might derive pleasure and satisfaction, and proceeded to knock them down and ridicule them. "What should you build your life on? The approval of OTHER PEOPLE? Huh? Well guess what, other people aren't always gonna approve of what you do. My wife doesn't even approve of me all the time! But God will always approve of you!"

Wait a minute. Now I may not be up on my salvation lingo, but I thought the whole point of the Jesus story is that God DOESN'T approve of you. God FORGIVES you, because Jesus covers your sins through his sacrifice, but you're still a sinner, and that still pisses God off.

And no, as an atheist, I don't seek approval from all people all the time. However, I do find it consistently more rewarding to be on good terms with most people, some of them being close friends, most of them maintaining a basic level of civility, and nearly all of them just agreeing not to kill me thanks to social order.

To continue: "What are you gonna build your life on? Your ACCOMPLISHMENTS? Huh? Well I've got news for you, your accomplishments are a waste of time. You think you'll be happy if you get that promotion, or buy that big TV, or lose that weight. But you won't! Because when you accomplish something, you're left with an empty feeling... you mean that's ALL?"

Again: that's not my experience. The problem is that this mentality assumes that there is an endpoint to happiness. There will be a certain pinnacle you reach where you are absolutely happy, and then there's no need to strive for any accomplishments ever again. This makes no sense. Striving to accomplish things is part of what makes life fun. When you reach a goal, you search around to find a new goal for yourself. I enjoy getting a new goal. I enjoy working towards that goal. And I enjoy the satisfaction of looking back and seeing that goal completed.

Just because I'm pleased with what I'm done, doesn't mean I'm in some state of ultimate, final happiness. But nor does that mean that I am miserable and my life sucks. Things just are the way they are. You can enjoy things the way they are, or not enjoy them.

My problem is that the sermon was clearly intended to steer you towards the "not enjoy" category. It was a subtle encouragement to look on your own life and find things to get depressed about. Like any good sales pitch: create a void in the customer's life. Then state that the void can only be filled with all-new better-tasting Jesus soda. It was a very cheerful, bouncy, and upbeat presentation. But the message is an astoundingly negative one.

Another amusing point is that while the pastor was talking about empty accomplishments, he said "Now just because your accomplishments don't have ultimate significance doesn't mean that you should just give everything up. If you're the CEO of your company, I'm not saying quit today and walk away." At that point Ginny leaned over and whispered, "Yeah, because they need your money!"

Unlike some churches, there were no Bibles in the seats. Instead, every time the pastor referred to a particular verse, the passage would appear on the overhead screens. Except that the language in the Bible verses was unusual. They were using some weird translation, like the "New International Hipster Version." There was all sorts of modern lingo. Jesus is referred to as "driving" while you're a "passenger". Paul apparently talked about something being like a "house of cards." And there was one verse about a smart carpenter and a stupid carpenter, which I'm quite sure isn't how it goes in King James. Overall, nearly every verse sounded slightly jarring and anachronistic in some way.

It was clear that every aspect of this church was meant as a marketing gimmick to pull in 20- and 30-somethings. The pastor's speech was just larded with references that kids from the 80's would get. At one point, he referred to three or four movies in one quick analogy: 16 Candles, Top Gun, and The Breakfast Club are the ones I remember.

It's a marketing ploy that delivers. The audience was all very young; I would guess that I was in the top half of the age range at 31 years old. And they were all quite casually dressed. I dressed up a little bit nicely, not knowing what to expect: black slacks and a button-up blue shirt. I was clearly overdressed.

I'm not really complaining, as such. If I actually wanted to go to church, this is probably something that I might like and not be intimidated by each week. Then again, the friendly atmosphere doesn't change the fact that the message is so profoundly negative. You are miserable, everyone is miserable, and you are doomed to always be miserable until you accept this meme and start believing in things that can't be shown to exist.

Of course, another interesting question that the new hipster churches raise is: what about Pascal's Wager? Is it actually good enough to go once a week in your grungy clothes, sit and watch a rock show, a skit, and a kid who gets you jazzed up about the 80's? If it is good enough, then why do so many churches bother with the stuffy atmosphere and the fire and brimstone "believe or die" mentality and the behavioral commands? And if it's not good enough, then won't all those so-called "Christians" be surprised when they find themselves in hell, or left behind at the rapture? Hmmmm...


  1. Thank you for the excellent post. I really enjoyed this one. I was forced by my parents to attend church with them for several years, but it was a more traditional church. I have only recently started hearing about churches like the one you described here. Fascinating stuff. It is clear that they are intentionally marketing their delusion to a specific audience. Evidently, they have decided that diluting their message by turning it into a show is an acceptable sacrifice if it prevents people from dismissing Christianity as irrelevant or obsolete.

    Personally, I would not attend church any more than I'd attend a Klan rally. However, I am grateful to you for putting yourself through the experience so I can learn something.

  2. Anonymous5:04 AM

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  3. The sand castles thing makes me think of the song Castles Made of Sand by Jimi Hendrix. That song can be applied to the falseness of the foundation of Christianity.

    By the way I have a blog now "gross anachronism" So far I am writing a story in serial form. who nows what it will develop into.