Thursday, April 27, 2006

More on churches

As an addendum to my previous post/screed on trying to find a decent church in this area, I'll note that maybe this silliness in church services here is a desperate attempt to attract members in a region that's leaking its population. Maybe pastors and the congregations are convinced that people will only come to church if it's a "contemporary service" and there's all kinds of awful modern music and clapping and silly football cheers and high technology. Well, if so, it's not working, and it's turning off not only me, but others who grew up in the traditional Methodist church.

And I have a great counter-example. In addition to my church at home, I'm a member of Lovely Lane Methodist in Baltimore. It was the first Methodist church in this country, the "Mother Church of American Methodism," and the place where the famous Christmas Conference was held in 1784 to organize the newly-established denomination. Well, today a bad part of town has spread across the neighborhood surrounding Lovely Lane. The church can hold hundreds of people, but when so many people moved away to escape the crime and decay of inner-city Baltimore, the congregation dwindled drastically. By the time I got there, there were maybe 40 people on a given Sunday. I was one of maybe two or three people under the age of fifty, and there were no small children. The Methodist Church rotates preachers fairly often, and when the new preacher got there, she encouraged a lot of work on reaching out to find new members. It is working. The congregation isn't huge today, but it's bigger, and there are several families with children now, so we have a regular Sunday school for the kids.

We had long had too few people to form a choir, so we relied on voice students from the Peabody Conservatory. As a result, we got beautiful, classical solos and anthems. The organist is from Oxford (you can tell he's Episcopalian--he plays the music a tad too slowly for us Methodists--but he's good). The service and music are completely traditional. Nobody applauds the anthems and solos, and the hymns (hymns!) are sung from the hymnal, loudly and enthusiastically. It has gotten, in fact, a bit more high-church during this expansion, adding Ash Wednesday and Maundy Thursday services and such, which were unknown to me growing up in the country. I don't need a high-church service, actually, but such things do interest me. And we've gotten people coming to them. Nobody needed to have things dumbed-down for him to get him into the sanctuary!

Attitudes are different in different parts of the country, admittedly, and up here in Yankeeland, a student told me I'd have to look far and wide to find a church not using these stupid Powerpoint presentations. But I'm not convinced these new trends will help attendance at churches where the population is dwindling, and they might be hurting.

Robert Novak on Romney and "unconstitutional" religious tests

Robert Novak has an article on Mitt Romney's chances for the Presidency and the issue of his Mormonism. Novak is worried that a lot of people would vote against Romney because of his religion. That will certainly be an issue, I'd agree. Although I disagree with Mormonism's theology, I admire the character of so many of its adherents. It seems to build men of solid morals. The theology will still make some people on the Right uncomfortable, of course, just as Mormons' moral stands will put off some on the Left.

But Novak is wrong to call a man's voting decision "unconstitutional," if he bases it on religion. Yes, the Constitution prohibits religious tests for public office. But that's a prohibition on making it a legal requirement. We're a democracy, and each citizen can vote his conscience, no matter what he bases the decision on. If one wants to vote against somebody solely on the basis of religion, he has that right. Novak knows better, and he makes a logically sloppy argument.

But I'd still advise people to consider Romney's politics first. It's not bad to consider someone's religious beliefs in deciding your vote. Hopefully, a candidate's religion will affect how he lives his life, and will inform some ideas on his political philosophy. But I doubt that the details of Mormon theology (especially its differences with standard Christian theology or Judaism) are going to put his politics outside the mainstream of the rest of us.

But back on the first hand, again: I can, by the way, think of an example of Mormon theology affecting a politician's political stances. Orrin Hatch's ideas on embryonic stem-cell research are different from most of ours on the Right, and I have read that it's because Mormonism has different ideas about the beginning of life from what we in standard Christianity assume.

Finding a good church

I've spent a good amount of time looking for a good church in this place where I'm temporarily exiled. Not in the sense of a denomination, but in the sense of a congregation. This place has been going through a long-term economic and (I think) population decline, and it shows. There are lots of abandoned buildings in town, and though the city still has a much larger population than my county seat back home, this city is limited in the kind of businesses it hosts, while my county seat is bursting at the seams and has all the kinds of stores I could need. Even though it's a small town.

Similarly, the churches around here are feeling the crunch. There are lots of church buildings, but not all of them are occupied. Those that are are pretty sparsely attended and are feeling the pressure to merge with similar congregations. Several have merged, in fact. I went to one Methodist church when I first got here that was the recent sum of three congregations. Beautiful old building. And then when the service started, they fired up a digital projector and ran Powerpoint throughout the entire service! It was so absolutely cheesy, you can hardly imagine. Little animated text running around to summarize the sermon points. The hymn lyrics splashed up on the screen. Don't we have hymnals? Although the rest of the qualities of this church seemed OK, I was too turned off by the concept of a projector to consider coming back. It was simply ridiculous.

As a follow-up note to this, that church (which didn't come close to filling the pews it had then) has now demolished the century-old, beautiful gothic brick building it had inhabited. A parking lot (I kid you not) will be put on the site, while they have built the new church across the street. It is a block-long, modernistic, steel-frame warehouse monstrosity. The narthex alone is the size of the church across the street from me. And if the congregation is still the size I witnessed, they don't occupy but a tiny fraction of the pews available. Who comes up with these brilliant ideas?!

Oh, and they applauded after the choir anthems. I hate that. People, you are not an audience at a concert. This is not a "performance," for you to applaud the performers. It is an act of worship, and you are a participant. This ugly trend came to my church at home, back around 1990, give or take. As a little kid, well before then, my parents had taught us that were, in fact, specifically not supposed to clap in church. For the theologically-thought-out reasons I mentioned above. So I was brought up in the tradition of the church. We used to have a Christmas Eve service in which members of the congregation who sang or played an instrument would do solos. Really beautiful music, nicely done. And still no clapping.
Then when I was in high school, I and some friends my age started getting asked to do solos, too. Great! And about that time, a handful of people in the congregation started clapping after we'd done our solos. I was actually insulted. I felt like it was a condescending compliment: "Aww, wook at de widdle kiddies! Dey can actually pway music wike de big people! Idn't dat cute?" Sheesh! I wanted to be taken as just a normal part of the service, like any other soloist. I thought about talking to the others my age and seeing if we could get a notice in the bulletin that we'd ask not to be applauded, but I never went through with it. The trouble with clapping, too, is that one person can infect the whole congregation. One clapper can be heard across the sanctuary, and you know how people will clap out of politeness if it sounds like everybody else is, even if they wouldn't start it themselves. Soon after that year, you started getting applause at all of the solos, all of the anthems, all of the special music... Thank goodness they haven't started applauding the hymns! Who knows, maybe they will start applauding themselves eventually.

After that church, I tried the little Methodist church across the street from me. Not bad, just a little small for me, and there was no choir. And it was odd to find a full-immersion baptismal pool (painted blue) up behind the altar. Full-immersion is fine with me, but the pool just stood out a bit much, and the place seemed a little sleepy.

So I tried a third church, in the next town over. This was the product of another recent merger of two Methodist churches, but the pews were well filled here. A good choir. The building was traditionally designed, and there were no projectors in sight. Only drawback was the music. They had hymnals but never (And I mean that literally. Never.) used them, instead bothering to print the lyrics to every hymn used that Sunday in the bulletin. Without the music. Ugh. That wouldn't be so much of a problem (rather than just an annoyance), except that these weren't regular hymns. I'd never heard these "songs" before and didn't know the music. How does anybody know how to sing it, if there's no music printed? Maybe all of them had heard them before, but I started going back regularly and don't think they were repeated each Sunday.

My biggest complaint, though, was that most of the music just wasn't traditional Methodist music. It was this new wave of "praise songs," I think. These can best be defined as tuneless, meaningless ditties that repeat the same four words over and over, endlessly. They strike me as having fake emotion. They try to stir up some emotion in you, but it's so obvious and sappy that they utterly fail, in me. I can tear up, singing "Amazing Grace," which has straight lyrics. But these? They just annoyed me. Jesus already knows his name is Jesus. And our repeating it a half-dozen times in a row drives home a pointless point that was already known to me before I could read.

And this was another church where everybody applauded the music. Ugh.

Still, I had spent so many weeks trying to find a decent church that I just gave up at this point and decided to stick with this one. Then this church built a new building. There was some small leak in the roof of the old one--not exactly a big reason to move, but half of the congregation had been in the next town over and wanted to get back there. OK, fine. And then I found out that the oversized, shallow-roofed warehouse I'd seen being built by the highway was no warehouse at all, but our new church. Grumble. Fine. Inside, it looked OK, though, until I discovered that they'd decided to have a digital projector system built in! Well, they didn't use it during the sermon, at least, unlike that one place. It was just used to flash up the lyrics to the "hymns." Which were also printed in the bulletin.

They also used this opportunity to rid themselves of those stuffy old Methodist hymnals. No need for those silly things: we've got Powerpoint! There are no hymnals anywhere in the sanctuary. At least where the congregation sits. I don't know if the choir has smuggled some of the contraband up there in the choir loft, but I couldn't find any. Still, I'd gotten to know the people there for a while and didn't feel like leaving, just over that. So I white-knuckled it through the meaningless, tuneless ditties (I can hardly dignify them with the word "songs," much less "hymns.") and simply refused to sing them or look at the Powerpoint, and enjoyed the Sunday school lesson afterwards and generally stuck it out.

Until the clowns showed up. A few weeks ago, right before the sermon, they had...clowns... And mimes. Actually, they were clown-mimes. They did some pantomime in clown costumes for what felt like five minutes or more, to an instrumental version of (get this) "Send In the Clowns"! That was the last straw, and my last Sunday there.

Since then, I've found a better Methodist church within walking distance. Tiny, but pretty nice. Beautiful building. Refused to merge, so they're pretty small, with an elderly membership. No choir. Not much clapping, which is a relief. They use the hymnals, but I've begun to notice that it's not that often, really. Most of the music is printed in the bulletin, and it's again these tuneless, meaningless ditties that nobody knows the music to. And almost nobody can be heard singing them! (A direct result of our ignorance of them?) I was ambivalent at that point, but then on Easter was another one of these "last straw" moments. We got to church a little late and missed the first part of the service. Looking at the bulletin, I found, near the lyrics of the unknown ditties we'd missed, that there had first been a football-game-style cheer: "J-E-S-U-S...Jesus!"


That's almost as bad as the clowns, although it was over more quickly. I think that's my last straw for this one, too. Now what?! I think I've exhausted the churches in town, so maybe it's time to look farther afield. Thank goodness I'm a Methodist, and we're a large denomination. I have friends here who are Presbyterian (PCA), and they have to go to the next state just to find the nearest church of their denomination. If it were a congregation they didn't like, I don't know where they'd have to go to find another!

I'm baaaa-ack!

Sorry for the long absence. Been away from blogging for the last month because of all kinds of family activity to plan and execute. Now that we've gotten to enjoy that, I'm back to work and back to blogging. Stay tuned...