12 May 2009

'I'm Going to Church'...The Review

On the way to the church I asked my 2 female friends if they could be themselves and try to ignore the fact that I was there as I wanted them to be their 'normal'.
The building was old with arched stained glass windows and inside the seating was on 2 levels. The downstairs section was crowded and so my friends suggested we head upstairs as the loud rock-style singing belted out.
As we took our seats near the front I was struck by the racial makeup of the congregation - a place that seemed to have almost every different race and mixes present. The black female singers on stage wore denim and high heels and had a slight air of indifference.
My eyes wandered around, darting everywhere as I noticed the peeling paint on the wall across the atrium.
The congregation sang loud and as the song almost came to its natural end a man in a suit with a microphone appeared on stage and said, "Lift your hands high...say, 'Lord, touch my life, I want to be changed, transformed, I give you all the honour and glory' - In Jesus' name."
The people clap and shout praises, waving their arms above their heads. The man starts to mumble and then gets louder and I realise he is speaking some kind of gibberish - 'speaking in tongues' and the people do the same. The murmurs get louder and louder and I watch people around me and a few have tears streaming down their faces. The singers leave the stage and the music stops.

The 1st suited man leaves the stage and another one appears, this time in a darker coloured suit. He tells us about how successful their recent missions have been. He has just returned from Mali where he saw over 500 people give their lives to Christ. (I notice my friends quickly glance over at me at this point. I don't meet their eyes. I don't want to convey my thoughts to them, although they surely know.)
The 2nd suited man continues, telling a story about the old man he met out there who couldn't see and God opened his eyes. And that a little boy was brought to him at the end of the service out there who couldn't speak and Jesus opened his mouth - 'Amen!'. The people said 'Amen!'.

It suddenly dawns on me that my friends had failed to let me know that the church they attend each and every Sunday was a place where they carried out 'healing sessions'. A 'charismatic ' church. I am in shock.

The man tells us to 'prepare for the battle - the final battle'. He hands over to a 3rd man also with a suit and a microphone but this man says he is going to sing a song about the mercy of God. His preamble prior to his song had 'Allejuiah' at the end of each sentence. He starts singing to a backing track. The crowd seems a little bored. I notice a man sitting on the ground floor directly below me with a large Bible open across his lap and he's using a bright orange fluorescent pen to highlight passages. He seems so focused on his task. He's probably mid- 40s. The man on stage is still singing and during his song ushers walk around distributing leaflets. The song comes to an end.
Then a 4th man arrives on stage, someone younger, who talks about the money raised so far to repair the roof and also there will be some a course available over the next few days which will help 'you to disciple to others so they can be led to Christ'. Also they are setting up a group to bring together all the creative members of the congregation so that they can help to 'drive the message forward'.

The Pastor arrives and the 4th man leaves the stage. The Pastor is an older white man who talks about how 'God's blessings' helped a woman to get a rebate of her Council Tax. He then talked about the CDs and DVDs which were available for 14.99GBP and 24.99GBP but could be downloaded for free. He emphasised the benefits of paying for them rather than downloading as they were in beautifully presented cases. He held them up and showed them around, telling the crowd they could buy them on the way out. He calls to the ushers to distribute the 'offering envelopes'.
He tells the crowd that 'god has not forgotten about your physical needs...Ezekiel 36...I will put my spirit in you...you will live in the land...I will save you from all your uncleanness...I will increase the fruits of the trees'. He continues, 'As we give we'll pray. It's like sowing a seed. It's sowing a seed. God knows your needs and gives when you give. The God of abundant supply. How much will your heavenly father provide for you? All these things will be given. He always provides. Amen. Allejuiah!' The crowd shout 'Amen' and 'Allejuiah'. The band and the singers arrive back on the stage and stay in the background.
He tells the crowd that if they complete the information on the envelope they have been given then they qualify for the governments Gift Aid scheme where the church can claim back 29% more than they give. As the ushers make their way around the church handing out the envelopes he asks for the crowd to pray: 'We thank you for people seeking jobs. Those who are struggling with issues, financially and we commit our offerings. Let us sing as we receive the offerings. Let us give and receive your offerings with joy!'
As the band starts playing the congregation stand and sing. A young boy a few seats down from me jumps up and dances wildly to the music. The crowd seems slightly subdued. The Pastor thinks so too and waves his hands at the band who lowers the volume of their playing. 'I don't think you feel it. This song says 'love came down and rescued me, I was once blind and now I see'!' The crowd took the hint and somehow managed to crank it up to a level that was acceptable to the pastor. He smiled. And clapped.
At the end of the song he asked the crowd to be seated. The ushers did the rounds with the envelopes and yellow plastic buckets.

Another man, a new person, arrived on stage - a man with a Northern accent and wearing trainers. He tells the congregated that 'Religion will try to bind you up, but Jesus will set you free' and 'God is not natural, god is supernatural! Amen.'
He talked about how god healed a man 5 years ago who had Parkinson's disease and a twisted spine. No one prayed for him he just was healed. "I get so excited that god wants to bless me with being able to heal through me.' 'You can leave here free cos my yoke is easy.'
He walked around the stage in an excited manner. 'Some fantastic miracles are taking place here tonight. I could jump off a doll's house!' The crowd applaud.
'When you die are you going to heaven? Jesus paid the debt for our sins at Calvary by grace - this was a gift from god. He had a crown of thorns on his head...' (he became choked with emotion at this point) '...he was was dying for YOU! and me...'
'I used to be a gambler and went to the best casinos and had the best cars, stayed in the best hotels but there is no buzz like Jesus! I used to leave nightclubs with pains and I didn't even know where I was. When I found Christ indescribable things happened to me. The Gospel can transform England and the world. This God is a supernatural god and people will be healed.'
He said a prayer for all those who wanted to repent of their sins and receive Christ. He asked for those who had prayed with him who had not yet received Christ to raise their hands. He acknowledged them and thanked them. He asked if there were other people who had not raised their hands but wanted to to do so. A few more people raised their hands. He asked them all to come to the edge of the stage.
He directed his next comments at those people had not come forward, 'You are going to burn in hell if you die tomorrow. This is your final opportunity to receive Christ. Christ died naked in front of his mother for you. Leave your seat that the Devil has you super-glued to right now.'
Turning to the 7 people gathered below him he said, 'I'm going to pray for these people' and he called on the Pastor to join in the prayer. Each person had an usher assigned to them and the the ushers and the new Christians walked off into the back area of the church.
The 2 men were joined on stage by 2 other guys who stood off to one side. The man with the trainers appealed to those who had any pain in their bodies to come up to the front. Along the front edge of the stage were church aides who would greet those people and talk to them. Several people lined up down an aisle. A woman usher assigned each person presenting themselves for healing with an aide. Each aide touched the person and spoke to them in their ears. Some people, after discussions were passed down to a group of men who lined them up near the stairs to the stage.
An elderly woman was ushered up the stairs towards the middle where Mr Trainers man stood with another man. The man asked her where she had pain and she said she felt pain in her foot. She was a woman from Portugal and her English was not fluent. She answered the questions he asked as if she was bewildered by the whole experience. She said she had pain for about 6 months but she hadn't seen a doctor. Whilst she was speaking a 3rd man came up and stood behind her with his hands out - no doubt expecting her to fall over at some point. Mr Trainers Man placed his hand on her head and blew puffs of air 3 times towards her head and shouted, 'Lord, set her free! Loose her from this pain, oh merciful God!' She was asked if the pain had gone. She hesitated and then shook her leg, hesitated again and then said, 'Gone.' The man turned to the crowd and shouted, 'The pain has gone! The pain has gone! The merciful Lord has set her free! Praise God! Allejuiah!' He punched the air. The crowd clapped and shouted, 'Allejuiah!' 'Amen!' 'Jesus is Lord!'
An elderly man limped onto stage and explained that he had fallen down 2 years ago and now suffers from severe arthritic pain. He was supporting it with a bandage but the pain 'comes and goes'. He was a black man with a strong accent from somewhere in Africa. The Trainers man bent over and grabbed the man's knee shouting gibberish/speaking in tongues and exalting the higher power to heal the man and rid him of the knee pain. The 'healed' man was encouraged to walk up and down to show he had been healed. He limped away down the stairs to clapping and whooping. There were another 2 encounters and I think at this point my friends nudged me that they were ready to leave.
I stumbled down the stairs and on the way to the exit had to pass the table of books, CDs, DVDs, brochures, etc. for sale. I collected as much free information as I could.

As we got into the car I was asked what I thought about it. My brain was scrambled at this point. They both wanted my initial views and I stated that it is a money-making con which preys on the weak-minded and the ignorant. I felt violated and angry and sad and so confused that all those people were so sheep-like and pliable.

For me being atheist is so obvious and valid and I had not been in a church situation for years. I had not witnessed these charlatans close up. It was shocking and tragic.
The people commandeering this con weren't clever and yet what did that make those handing over their money and whooping with joy?

One of my friends told me that she has her doubts about the healing and that the church seems to have less crowds each week. Small comfort that things may be changing.Yet the so called healing session was not the issue for me. Some churches have a few prayers, some people pray at home in private - if you put it all into a bag it is all a belief in the supernatural. The differences are are all about degrees and it is one and the same. The people are being fed a line and they believe it. They suspend all forms of rationality and avoid critical analysis of the information presented to them and swallow the con whole.

I have tried to record the events as I saw them, through my own eyes and in a later post I will write a commentary. Please share your thoughts.
P.S. I do know that not all churches are like this one but the point is they all believe. I don't.


Mel Avila Alarilla said...

Belief and faith are graces from God. We may not appreciate the things other people do since we do not feel what they are feeling. But the thing is, you have been exposed to the word of God and the Bible says that God's words will not return to Him empty handed but will accomplish the very purpose for which they were sent. You may ask yourself the question whether you have peace of mind, joy in your heart and that overflowing love for others that only God can give you. If you want these things and eternal life as well, then you can come to Jesus and be healed from hardness of heart and insensitivity to God's words. Thanks for the wonderful post. God bless you always.

Jan from BetterSpines said...

Fantastic post. Doesn't sound like church to me, though! I think that type of hype is so much bs. Church is a whole different experience!

Karen said...

I'm sorry you get comments like the first one above!

Anonymous said...

BWT, thanks for your post. I was brought up in this kind of church. These churches talk a lot about grace and faith and love. However the reality is fear, self-righteousness and gullibility.

Mr Alarilla, my family and I have known far more peace, joy and love far from the prescribed kind the church offers.

Robert said...

Thank you for the post Zee...many of your readers empathize with you completely. However, I feel compelled to address Mel's comment. It's probably a waste of time...but I'll try. You see brother Mel, there is probably no amount of evidence that would make you question your belief. On the other hand people like myself that doubt the existence of any god or gods, would probably change our minds if we discovered evidence to support the claims of believers. Believers speak of faith and faith is not evidence. Believers offer their "holy" books but that is not evidence either. If I claimed to be a surgeon Mel and I persuaded you to come to my office for a consultation and while you were in the waiting room you noticed that all of my posted diplomas and certifications were from universities that shared my name, i.e., Dr. Robert Roe was a graduate of Robert Roe University, I think you'd raise more than a skeptical eyebrow. Most rational people require independent verifiable evidence whenever people make claims. You cannot use the bible as its own source of verification. A few questions...When you speak of "God" which god are you referring to? You must be aware of the other "Gods" that are revered and worshiped by other people. Are these folks worshiping the "wrong" god and consulting the wrong text? Look, I know that this is a Kobayashi Maru scenario Mel and the truth is I don't want to "win." All I would like to know is can folks like you that believe stop talking about what you don't know as though you do? Whatever created the cosmos, if it is a "who" and not a "what" or a process, does not and cannot need imperfect, finite human sales people. Remember, "he" is all powerful and "he"did not need any of you to set up the cosmos. Why would he need you to do this most important of all works? Perhaps it is you that needs you. Go in peace, always.

Au Naturale said...

wow I see why u were traumatized! It pretty much confirmed what you already knew/felt/suspected about church

EntrePod - Mama ASID said...

wowww.. paying for blessings on earth. such a racket in the name of the creator.

Zee, I understand your distaste for the theatrics. I myself think it's deplorable that people are preyed upon for their faith.

it's just plain wrong.
Great Post, as always.

Bent Society said...

Because the "con" - the indoctrination of children not to question the existence of their God "who always needs more of their money - no matter how all powerful he is and poor and feeble they are" - is cruel then I advocate expanding the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster ...perhaps parody will help break the "con" and let Christians and other sheeple try to argue that there is more evidence for the existence of their God than there is for the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Here is the link to – its worth a visit: http://www.venganza.org/ Mad of course – but that is the point.

Innit said...

I have evidence that "His Noodles" - The Flying Spaghetti Monster exists: here: http://reducing-crimes.blogspot.com/2009/05/church-of-flying-spaghetti-monster.html

All bow and fight the anti-pasta

Anonymous said...

Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster - heehee! I want a FSM t-shirt!!!

Janelle said...

Yeah, I grew up in a church with some pretty fanatical stuff. The theatrics weren't quite the same, but it got the point across. My parents aren't very skeptical thinkers, and my dad especially has a difficult time dealing with reality. I've stopped talking to him altogether, only because it's impossible to get beyond simple concepts. We think he might be mildly autistic, or have aspergers. Unfortunately, religion tends to prey on precisely those people who are already not rooted in reality.

Holly said...

Wow, the first comment here is ridiculous. I, too, am sorry that you receive this close-minded bullshit. I get emails like that all the time--Pretty much any time I put up a post about how I reject the supernatural and religion and the whole "church experience." I also cannot get over the fact that everyone believes that their church is the one to go to--That their church is the church that will open your eyes and let you see god again. It's ridiculousness. Atheism is something that a believer will just not ever understand and it's the same with atheists not being able to understand believers, but for a different reason--Most of us were raised in religious families. Most of us attended church and it is for that reason that we reject it. Cannot wait for your commentary.

Ann said...

Hi Zee,
I'm so glad you stopped by my site.

This post was so well done. I actually felt a bit of panic!

I'm glad I have found your site.

~Ann Again

C Woods said...

A wonderful post. Now I have to go back to read what led up to your attending church. My first thought was, "Are you out of your mind?" FOr me one advantage of being an atheist is getting to sleep in on Sundays.

When I was in high school, I dated a guy who was my "dream" boyfriend, except for his family belonging to the Missionary Alliance Church. After a few dates, he invited me to attend a Youth for Christ rally with him. I told him I had to check with my parents ---who I knew would be fine with it, they being very religious --but I really wanted to check with a friend who had been to such a rally. Much of what you described ---calling people up front to be saved, lots of shouting, singing, hand-clapping, for example ---sounds like what she described to me. When I turned the guy down, honestly telling him I thought I'd embarrass him when I laughed out loud, that was the end of our grand romance.

I wonder what makes Mel think only those who believe in his god can have peace of mind, joy in their hearts, and overflowing love for others. I'm an atheist, yet I feel all of those things, and I also know a few very mean-spirited Christians who probably don't even have hearts.

Lorraine M. said...

Hi Zee,

What a whacked-out, creepy experience--whoa, happy mother's day!! lol!

Seriously, had I been in your place I could not have gotten out of there fast enough, and the sights and sounds of the naive and the desperate being so heartlessly conned would have depressed me for days, I'm sure.

My experience with church-going has been rather different (at least in volume and tone) in that I was baptized in the Catholic faith. My grandmother, the family matriarch, was devoutly Catholic, a longtime member of the church choir, and very involved in church activities of various kinds. All of her children went to Catholic schools, though not as many of her grandchildren.

Somehow I grew up skeptical of religious dogma in general and frequently questioning my grandmother's belief system. WHY did she believe, I always wanted to know, and HOW in the face of all the misery she'd known in her life, the deaths of beloved children, the cruel end of her marriage, all the crippling setbacks and disappointments? But for her that was somehow the point of her faith. It kept her going in the face of so much pain, or so she believed.

These days I remember St. Thomas the Apostle Church with enduring fondness only because of the family gatherings there for mass, especially Christmas Eve Mass, which bewildered and fascinated me as a child--the huge, wonderfully gothic building and the lovely stained glass windows like something out of fairy-tale book, the truly beautiful singing (and the eager straining for any sight of my grandma in her majestic choir robes), the strange hypnotically sing-songy Latin chants, the ritualitstic kneeling in wooden pews and group prayer, the odd business of joining others in line to receive the sacrament, which I was assured was the body of Christ, and then... the trip to the neighborhood tavern directly afterward to drink and party! (We kiddies were given glasses of sparkling 7-Up, of course) Of course by the time I was in my middle teens I refused to participate any further in this bizarre nonsense and never really did again... but as a small child it all held a certain mystical comfort. I sometimes wonder how many perfectly grown-up people stay in the church, or return to the church with new children in tow, because of long-ago memories of family?

BTW, I'm a newcomer to your blog (found my way here via Wrath's excellent essay on black atheism and his godlessandblack site) but have enjoyed reading your thoughts and insights. Bravo, Thinking Black Woman!

Mr. Salaryman said...

Completely unrelated to the post; just wanted to say thank you for the link! Noticed a few visitors dropping in from here.

Will link you back later on (I can be a bit slow though, apologies in advance!).

Stay out of church!

Ralph Dumain said...

I don't know why you would subject yourself to this dumb shit. I didn't even have the stomach to read about it all the way through.

Reminds me a line from an old Bob Dylan song: "There's no use in trying to deal with the dying . . . "

Au Naturale said...

hey Z, just passing thru hon :)

Lucy Lopez said...

Gosh, I am a little hesitant about starting this comment because I know how long my comments can sometimes get... :-)

I've never attended a 'service' such as the one you've described although I have on mindless occasion caught something similar on tv while channel hopping. My response has been one of distrust but also one of curiosity.

I am generally fascinated by the way people think, speak, act, make decisions etc. I often look for the underlying reasons why they do what they do because I notice that similar reasons motivate me too though not necessarily to do the same things.

Anyway, what I am more keen to share in this comment is something of a documentary I watched the other night. It was about a group of 6 people who went on a 10 day retreat with a Sufi-inspired teacher. A few people in the group were Muslims. One in particular, a young lass called Aisyah (I think), was particularly resistant to the activities that were being run, one of which included singing/chanting the names of Allah. She found this and a number of other things so incongruous with her traditional Islamic practices.

As I watched, I couldn't help feeling how much she was shutting herself off from new experiences that had the potential of helping her grow in her spirituality.

Being a mentor and facilitator of workshops and retreats myself, I often invite people to do things they may not have done before because I have found these activities to be capable of triggering change.

Very occasionally, a person might decline to participate. The thing that I do try to impress upon all who attend is this: You have brought yourself here so why not give yourself the freedom to experience fully whatever there is on offer.

To get the most out of a new experience, to experience fully, one must be truly open. It really is a waste of time to be present while holding rigidly onto one's preconceptions and beliefs for they sake of having them confirmed or re-confirmed. At least, for the duration of the time spent there, there is far more to gain than to lose by remaining open.

This was clearly evident with a couple of the other participants in the Sufi retreat, one a traditional Muslim and the other a young atheist scholar.

Ralph Dumain said...

Lucy, this is BS. One should only be open to things worth being open to, and disgusted by things one finds disgusting. Your comment about shutting oneself off from spiritual growth is itself disgusting. Ignorance, superstition, and deception of self and others do not constitute personal growth. Perhaps a different type of religious service would contain some elements of a positive experience, say music; however even there the association with backwardness and ignorance may be too much to take for those who have been subjected to excessive doses of same.

Andrea said...

I can understand why you were traumatized by this experience. As a child, I was once taken by a neighbor to a similar kind of church and it scared the pants off me! I hope you've since recovered!

~My Autism Insights

heidi said...

I am so sorry for you. I would have been traumatized too. I am a very spiritual person and consider my relationship with God wonderful but am very wary of organized religion for the reasons you just discussed.

uglyblackjohn said...

Mel's comment is perfectly valid.
Just think of it in a Julian Jaynes kind of way.

Sans the floorshow - church can be a relaxing and productive experience.

MtnGrl said...

This post reminded me of an experience I had at a church I visited. I was about to head of to college, and was encouraged to go up front and have the minister pray for me. She put her hand on my head and starting saying things about lesbian spirits in the city where I was headed to college and she would emphasize certain points with a hard push on my forehead. By the time she finished, I'm sure we stood a good two feet away from where we started. That's when I realized I'd missed my cue. Perhaps all the people before me who were said to be slain by the spirit, were actually pushed down by the preacher! You might like Hank Hanegraaf's radio show or books. He's a Christian but atypically, deconstructs a lot of the "peculiar" stuff that gets passed off as "Christian". Counterfeit Revival and Christianity in Crisis are two of his books, and his radio show might be available at www.equip.org

Lausten North said...

Great post, frightening that it still goes on. I hope your relationship with your friends is maintained and you can all come to an understanding. That we can hear each other and avoid more holy war is what is important to me. I don't exactly agree with Mel or Lucy, but I really don't like the way Robert and Ralph responded. I understand the feelings behind it, but it just doesn't help.

Now a story like MtnGirl's, that's excellent. I always wondered what would happen if someone didn't play along and fall back and say Amen! Kinda like the kids in Baptist churches, when the whole church sings and the kid is supposed to feel the spirit come in to them. Most kids figure out that they just say "yes" and they get to sit down, but every now and then one just shrugs their shoulders and says, "I don't feel nothin".

I had a different church experience recently, love to hear your comments: http://winter60.blogspot.com/2009/06/build-caring-community.html

Anonymous said...

Have you ever seen people shout? I am just as confused as you are! I haven't been to church since last Easter. I had work this Easter and I was very happy. Its hard to tell people you love half of the time that you cannot believe what they believe. Its a sore spot for me when people bring it up. I've been told by people my own age 19-21 not to curse and to come to church. God, died for your sins. I think the Bible was made for their time and not ours. I love your post by the way. I don't know many black atheist.

Whitney said...

Wonderful JESUS! Touch and agree in Jesus' holy name! // Re: Mel Avila Alarilla said... Belief and faith are graces from God. We may not appreciate the things other people do since we do not feel what they are feeling. But the thing is, you have been exposed to the word of God and the Bible says that God's words will not return to Him empty handed but will accomplish the very purpose for which they were sent. You may ask yourself the question whether you have peace of mind, joy in your heart and that overflowing love for others that only God can give you. If you want these things and eternal life as well, then you can come to Jesus and be healed from hardness of heart and insensitivity to God's words. Thanks for the wonderful post. God bless you always.

Tim said...

great post, you described what's happening in remarkably unbiased deatail. I used to be one of those in the congregation, and at the pulpit, but moved from church to church after realizing that the church might be a scam. It took me many years of discovering fraudulent pastor after pastor before I began to question the foundation. People can be manipulated into the strangest of places. Some are subtle like most faith communities, and some are more demanding like Charlie Manson's faith community where he was able to manipulate his women to do almost anything in the name of faith. My stomach is sick just to read the article, the years I wasted in illusion are regretful, but hopefully your post helps some people find the strength to question, and the courage to walk away.