Thursday, July 31, 2014

A Test of Faith: Small Town Church Worship and Inevitable Changes: When the Charismatic Ceases to Lack Charisma, the Journey of Faith Continues

Can I Get an Amen?
That was the question from the latest senior pastor to his audience, err congregation, in an old-time church of grand tradition in my east Texas town. He was the guy who started the whole shebang with his seemingly innocuous comment, "Can I get an Amen?" The first Sunday he asked it, a few among the audience, er, group of worshipers, looked at each other, left and right, and sort of shrugged because they weren't sure quite what to do about the question. A few apologetic "Amen's" were offered in lilting sotto voce but nothing you'd call a groundswell of affirmation. But one man emerged from the crowd, destined to make a difference, to lead the way to showing the senior pastor that he was right there with him, he 'got it' and he was all about it. Every week. Every sermon. Every minute, in fact, "Amen."
Acculturation to a Leader in Need of Affirmation
It must be daunting to be a new pastor in a congregation when the prior leader reigned supreme for almost a decade. His predecessor had divided a once-family-like congregation into the veritable Hatfields and McCoys, so you put yourself into the shoes of the new guy in front of the church. You understand he's in search of those willing to follow his leadership. Slowly, the march of the sheep to the shepherd began, step by step, week by week.
Pastor Offers Personality Plus to Preach the Word
Each week his sermons changed, it seemed, beginning with the length. The first few out of the box were long, overflowing and worthy of admiration, but irritating to the seniors who kept being last in line for lunch at the retirement complexes, the best offerings having long been picked over by the Baptists, who'd released their people a good 45 minutes prior. It's hard to hold a heart full of love when you know you're doomed for scraps when you get to the buffet lines, except at Luby's where there's no waiting at all, because the food is so bland and cold there, no one is fighting to arrive.
Those close to the senior pastor had already informed him that worship should conclude at noon straight up, as in the fall, football games began on CBS and well, "is there something he could do?" they asked. He ignored them, for a long time. Then he began singing from the pulpit, and though a little unsettling to have your senior pastor singing, we were not surprised. After all, his predecessor was also unsettling, to say the least.
We only thought we'd seen it all until the new guy showed up. Visions of Chuckwagon Sunday, Bones on the Altar Sunday, the singing "setup" prior to each sermon, pastoral garb from the "Rick Warren Saddleback Church" couture collection and a propensity for "huntin' and fishin'" stories featuring himself as the hero (every single time), we were already numb. However, we became dumbstruck to hear the new guy a-singin' along, over the radio (if you were homebound and listening), and through the microphones, loudly. Sometimes he even sang (quoting Barney Fife) "acapulco." You have to give him credit-the new guy sounds one heck of a lot like George Beverly Shea, from the good old days of Billy Graham television broadcasts and Crusade appearances.
The delivery of his sermons grew louder, and the requests for affirmations more frequent. Easter about blew the roof off the place, as even those in neighboring downtown churches couldn't miss the message of the day. He'd shouted it three times in a row. Not sure about scaring the little cherubs nestled in their mothers' arms, but it sure scared the heck out of me. I jumped in my pew a little. My 98-year-old favorite churchgoing companion, the ranking senior member of the congregation, merely scowled and cocked her head ever so slightly with disgust. Holy, holey, wholly unacceptable. "Frustrated: party of two? Right this way."
Pleas for Affirmation, Please
If I'd had a nickel for every time I heard, "come on people, can I get an 'Amen'?" over a few months' time, I could buy a Lexus. Disgruntled and confused at what had happened to transform our sweet, little old-fashioned congregation into a shot at creating a quasi-charismatic operation (in my mind), I decided to be gone for a few months, and set about visiting other churches in town. Wondered what I'd find.
The Nomadic Wanderer in Search of Worship Alternatives
It seemed as though every church in town received visits from me, in search of a place to belong that resonated with the permanent DNA embedded in me from early more worshipful (than this) faith roots. The senior pastor of my childhood made it virtually impossible for any pastor to measure up, to be sure, but I'd moved away from the more worshipful to these other folks 30 years ago, with occasional changes to the other faith platforms. Still, I'd been lucky enough to have been part of churches with tremendous ministers, most all my life now. I missed their respective (and respectful) ministries to our church so much that I couldn't believe what was going on in "the church today."
Folks in town were confused for a while to see me popping up in their sanctuaries. They knew I belonged with my so-called "people." I knew a few congregants in the "other" churches, so everyone was welcoming and their doors were wide open, too. Those open doors were not a copyrighted trademark of our church's big kahuna after all. Who knew?
Even the Baptists only managed one "Amen" per worship service, if that. Maybe those were a few low weeks when I was going, but a faith well known for affirmation was so far behind the my downtown church's style that you'd have thought them "behind the curve." Finally, convinced that not everyone expected you to play the audience-participation game, I decided to return to my home church, the new guy still in reign, concluding his first year there.
Basso Profundo
On my first Sunday back, I was treated to hearing more than I'd bargained for, from one of the newer but brightest spots in the leadership of the church. I didn't actually speak to him; I just heard him, loudly, a lot, during the sermon. He'd emerged from the crowd and was distinctive by being known mostly by all if not by name, by the general descriptor, "The Amen Guy." Whenever you needed him to affirm what you said, he was there. The senior pastor, just like the pastor before him, asked the congregation "Can I get an Amen?" Before, the "old guy" would let you know when to chime in with the precedent, "And the people said, ____" and then you knew when to come in, "iffn' you wonted to" (accent implied).
The new guy was so pleased for affirmation that he'd often thank "The Amen Guy," by his given name, from the pulpit, each time he heard the solo basso profundo holding forth. I figured this was my test of faith for daring to question the right of individual spirituality to potentially be bottled up and not released in glorification of wisdom emanating forth in the sense of faith and respect. I was ashamed of myself every week, for daring to grumble, but I wasn't alone, not by a long shot. Others volunteered privately that it drove them nuts, it drove them out of the worship service, and it even drove them to go to early service, just to avoid having to hear that.
But then, "The Amen Guy" began to expand his repertoire, and he went from just an "Amen" response to "Right." Those "Rights" would come when you least expected them. Then he got braver. "Yesssss!" he'd affirm, even when the senior pastor hadn't asked for affirmation. One fine Sunday morning, he held forth with a "Hallelujah!" Took me all I had in me not to roll my eyes, outwardly. Inwardly, I was steaming. This was not a Benny Hinn revival and this guy was just one note short of reminding me of Rev. Hinn's long "Alleluia" songs on television (don't ask).
Was This What the Founding Fathers of Our Faith Had in Mind, Really? Really?
I thought each week it would be different, but my biggest problem was the proximity within which I sat to "The Amen Guy," and I was trapped by loyalty to my 98-year-old friend, who'd logged exactly 74 years in that church as a member and at least 60 or so in that very pew. If anyone in church knows her, they know which one is "her pew." Each week I'd drag myself to church, and often arrive five minutes late, because I was home listening to the message of First Baptist on television and being enthralled as they didn't have interruptions during the message! Woo hoo!
Counseling the Weary
I asked to visit with the senior pastor to discuss my concerns. He graciously granted me a meeting to discuss what was on my mind. I told him. I thought for sure he might cut back on asking for congregational 'Amens' when I shared that his predecessor, not beloved by at least half the church, had done exactly the same thing, but I was wrong, so wrong. If anything, he upped the ante and asked for more Amens the very next Sunday. And, call me paranoid but I was sure he was looking directly at me as he was calling for them. Uh huh. I got it. I knew that his needs for affirmation were greater than mine for solemnity and worshipfulness. By the time it was "Laity Sunday," guess who was the lay speaker on deck?
I Said, "Amen!"
That's right, the lay speaker was... "The Amen Guy."And, because the church's air conditioning system was being overhauled, Laity Sunday worship was held in the gymnasium of the Christian Life Center. The lay speaker prepared for the occasion. As the media tech watched for his cues, when he said to the audience (not congregation because it's all about the media these days), "Can I get an Amen?" the media tech hit the switch and then the biggest font of "AMEN" came up on the screen. People seemed all caught up in the effusiveness of the speaker, his sincerity, his true spirit, but I was a holdout, probably the only one, because I missed the old, old days so much...never moreso than that day.
Back in the sanctuary, each week for the last six months, I've been regular in my attendance and yet not faithful in worship. It's impossible to worship when you are continually being interrupted from paying attention to what the senior pastor is saying when "The Amen Guy" is all wound up and ready to roll out his best for the pastor's requests.
Doing the Math
A good nerd who finds comfort in statistics, I had long since given up paying attention to the senior pastor's message or even trying to remember it. There was no way that I, a seasoned multitasker, could recall a sole thought from a sermon that was long and interrupted all the livelong day. So, I put my church bulletin to good use. Grabbing a pen from my purse, I began charting the various flavors of commentary from the party of one in the nearby pew. At the end of worship, I'd divide the total number of interruptions--because that's what they were--by the length of sermon and get the final stat. The tally had been running typically as one basso elocution per each 1.4 minutes.
One of his fans shared a sweet thought, offered in "fair and balanced" counter to my one-person's opinion. This very morning a longtime and faithful church member acknowledged me as I prepared to enter the sanctuary. I said, "I'm late arriving to begin my tally of outbursts from 'The Amen Guy'." She smiled like an angel would smile and said, "Oh, I find that so endearing." "What?" I replied. "Are you serious?" "Yes," she said, "You never know when it's coming; you miss it if he doesn't do it. You sort of wait for it," and then she smiled as an angel would surely smile. I mumbled my admiration for her truly gifted spirit of faith and said, "Perhaps I should pray for more of your sweet spirit to be imbued in me so that I can emulate your unconditional affirmation." And I meant it. For about 14 minutes, until the new guy preacher began his sermon.
Steeled for the Long Haul
In previous weeks, I'd celebrated quietly if "The Amen Guy" was sitting up in the balcony. Oh, you'd still hear him all right, but it was not a sonic boom-it was a sonic styling, but still I'd make another mark on my tally sheet. Every time you thought you'd gone a minute or two without an interjection, you'd wind up paying for it by hearing two, one right after the other, in rapidfire succession. "Right, amen" or "Yes, hallelujah"...but then one day he threw me a curve. "Come on" he interjected, as the senior pastor begged again for affirmation. "Come on, indeed," I thought to myself, but with an entirely different emphasis.
Traboccare il Vaso-The Final Straw
This morning I had steeled myself away for the inevitable. We'd been running around one interruption of affirmation every 1.27 minutes, and a total of 19, 20 and 21 total interjections of approval in the past three weeks. But today, we hit a trifecta. It was a Communion Sunday and that usually means a (slightly) shorter sermon, but it was part of a multiweek sermon series about doors. Not The Doors, with the late Ray Manzarek and Jim Morrison. But the kind you open to allow faith to come in. The perfect sermon series that would undoubtedly please any church's big kahuna, even the overly obtuse grand leader of our flock, the one with a penchant for doors, whose trials at assigning pastors to our church likely featured a dart board and darts, accompanied by cackles of glee and delight. "I'll get you my little pretties" might be the theme song of what is done "for our church," at least in one person's opinion.
He started it. The new guy senior pastor started it. Calling for affirmations, "Can I get an Amen,"; "You're going to hear a lot of opportunities to say 'Amen' in this sermon, so get ready"; and, "Come on people, you can do better than that!" when enough were not chiming in with the solo voce basso profundo leading the way. A few folks had had enough Kool-Aid and were beginning to chime in. I kept staring at the stained glass window and measuring the potential sinfulness of humming the REM song, "Losing My Religion" to myself to keep from screaming.
Instead, I bothered to check my silenced cell phone, just like the teenager down the pew who spends the entire sermon doing that every week. Smart kid, if not irreverent. I'd received a text message from my Baptist buddy who'd already been long gone from worship, free at last, and all. I replied, "I'm tracking "The Amen Guy"-really setting a new record today." The reply came back, "You only still go there to sit next to your (98-year-old friend), right?" "Yes, that's right."
I replied, "In 8 minutes, so far, 8 'Amens,' 6 'Rights'." "Oops, there's another one, 9 'Amens'," I texted. The reply came back and sent me into virtual giggle fits, "You just jump up and scream 'Hallelujah'. That ought to do it." I didn't consider it seriously but I determined to keep close tally because I couldn't pay attention to the sermon. Peter, Rhoda, didn't open door, I forget. The sermon was overloaded with PUSH: "Pray until something happens." I have been praying, pushing if you will, for understanding and peace with the situation at large, at hand, and in my ears. No resolution, but the answer is in the numbers.
At the end of the sermon, I clocked it, 24 minutes in length, exactly 10 minutes too long to ever get out on a Communion Sunday with sufficient time to let the seniors enjoy anything but what used to be today's lunch buffet. And the grand total was: 28 'Amens', 11 'Right's', 2 'Yes's', 5 'Come On's' and 1 'PUSH!' for the 24-minute sermon. A total of 47 interruptions in 24 minutes, or one every 30 seconds.
I dare anyone in that sanctuary this morning to share what they took away from the sermon entitled, and I'm not kidding, "I Hear You Knocking, But You Can't Come In." Perhaps that is what St. Peter will tell me one day upon attempting to enter Heaven. And he'd be fully within his purview to deny me safe sanctuary as retribution for my sinful impatience and lack of understanding about the need others have for affirmation and a flock full of people who are as characteristically patient and eager to please as the day is long.
It's been quite the journey, this test of faith. It's all gone multimedia anyway. For every beautifully proffered formal choir anthem, there's an obligatory praise "na-na-na" tune to balance it out. We've got videos, two motorized screens suspended from the ceiling, so you can watch the same guy on TV who's standing right in front of you in the pulpit. Oh, and he makes sure all his main themes are displayed in bullet points on slates on the video screen because he's sure you're not going to listen to him, so you need some infotainment as a take-away. Someone ought to find the person who designed those background slates with the puffy white clouds against a weird blue sky as the "theme du jour." It's been "du jour" for about two years now and frankly it's getting old. And Mitch Miller's bouncing (often misspelled) lyrics in slates on the screens just in case you don't want to use a hymnal. We're making all kinds of ch-ch-changes to bring you in and make you feel right at home.
If I had to pick a theme song for this morning, it wouldn't be Fats Domino's "I Hear You Knocking (But You Can't Come In)" nor would it be anything by The Doors, though I was tempted by "Riders on the Storm." Instead, it would be a little something by Emerson, Lake and Palmer, "Welcome to the Show." It's from their "Brain Salad Surgery" album. But of course.
Although the preceding was written for Yahoo Voices and published on July 11, 2013, many things have changed in "the little church on the way" in the year plus 2 weeks to the day. For one thing, Yahoo voices is discontinued as of July 31, 2014, and all rights to the publication revert back to me and I'm reposting it here on my own blog. 
Now, "the little church on the way" is not really's one of the biggest churches in downtown but I love that old hymn about the church in the Wildwood and, well, you know how it goes.  But something so spectacular happened this past weekend that this article demanded a revisiting of the topic and sharing of what had changed. 
As much as I hated to admit it, my reason for attending my home church had changed--my little 98-year-old friend had encountered health issues and had to move from her own independent living apartment (yes, seriously, she didn't need much, if any, help) to an assisted living facility and beyond that to a nursing care facility and was no longer able to attend so I found it so much easier not to attend worship in the church that has my name on the roster. The nomadic journey continued.
Several weeks with the Episcopalians reminded me that the order of worship, the litany of prayers and the liturgy brought comfort with familiarity but it wasn't enough to want to erase my name from one role and add it (back) onto another. The Baptists gave me two weeks of sermons with my very favorite (and theirs) interim visiting pastor, so those were two super-D-duper Sundays, but then he went back home and I was back on the road again. I had even grown so complacent in my lack of interest in my own home church that I vowed that any time the Senior Pastor wasn't preaching, I'd go. And then a miracle happened.
The senior pastor decided to take a sabbatical, sooner than you'd expect him to take one, and presumably to reflect and perhaps even write a book, which left the pulpit open for a month. Yippee! Lightning bolts are already en route to find me, with their express disappointment at my glee. One Sunday it was this guest, another Sunday it was that guest, but last Sunday was the guest to end all guests: the new District Superintendent or Regional Director to governance who spoke on a topic of greatly needed content.
I went to the early service (to avoid having to hear the Amen guy at the late service) and was thoroughly enthralled by her message. She even suggested it would be appropriate and acceptable to "Amen" at such points of the sermon where one felt moved. I didn't mind entertaining that concept at all, when she suggested it and a few minutes later I almost did say "Amen" and I stopped myself short with just a vigorous nod of the head.  What was nice to hear was a respectful chorus of "Amens" coming in unified voice, from somewhere in the back of the church, by many different people, but they were gentle and welcoming. I noted that in my memory bank as "when" I felt it was a good thing to chime in. I still kept silent on the subject but without a scowl on my face or resentment in my heart. The speaker deserved the affirmation, earned it through her message, and she had us all going along in the same direction, in my "just one person's opinion."
The speaker's message was so inspired, delivery so uplifting and her entire demeanor was that of a person who is truly spirit filled that I just kept listening in amazement and appreciation. Tears streamed down my face to hear a 'real' sermon from a 'real' pastor, who believed what she was saying. At the end of worship, though I thought I'd been surreptitious in wiping away the tears flowing down my cheeks, I was wrong. People came up to me and grasped my hands, offering condolences on my apparent pain and shared how much they agreed that it was the best sermon they'd heard in, well, years. I wasn't in pain. 
Just the opposite, I was so grateful to have been treated to one of the most wonderful messages, to not lose heart, that was perfect for that day. They, too, understood my tears as they'd so long awaited the return of "their church" to real worship, real sermons and truly faithful preachers who believed what they said. The contrast of watching the regular pastor sitting, every Sunday,  in an air sickness bag stance, hunched over his knees, in visible pain, brow furrowed, praying for relief of burdensome problems, every single week, was anything but uplifting nor confidence-in-God's love inspirational. He needed to check his issues at the parking lot and come in and try to believe the verses he was preaching from. It seemed to me that "that guy" just didn't get it, which made it disconcerting to sit there.
Then, the  "Amen" guy was the other reason to stay away from the home church. I don't even have a good reason for why I stayed on the rolls except I still held out hope that this latest guy would be transferred when an opening came up or perhaps he'd realize that he had a great future anywhere but here, likely not in church service but somewhere he could make an important contribution. Neither had happened yet. But I held out hope.
The second service of Sunday morning arrived and after a cup of coffee and a glance at the morning's headlines, I returned to hear her sermon again. It was as magical as before, but not a carbon copy of what she'd said the first time, yet 98% the same feeling of uplifting of just the hours before. The presence of "the Amen guy" in the second service was less painful as he must have been sitting in the balcony ("Yeah!) and his mumbling interruptions seemed muffled and less frequent. So I was able to sit and enjoy the worship service without basso profundo offensivo destroying it.
The coming Sunday marks the return of the pastor who has lost hope and faith and thus I will put gas in the tank and be traveling in search of a worshipful service in which to say my prayers of thanks and share my gratitude until our church gets a new senior pastor who I would feel comfortable presiding over my funeral when that day should come. Were I to go too early for my expectations, my friends and relatives know to bury me out of the funeral home rather than my "home church." But for one morning, for two hours, I knew a great sermon when I heard it, and I appreciated it. And I won't give up looking for a church where that's a weekly event rather than an annual fortuitous happenstance, because it was real. And I am grateful. Amen, and amen.

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