Monthly Archives: October 2013

“Open Door” – Closed Minds

If I was younger and had a lot of money, I would go back to school and become a shrink for people who are messed-up by religion.  For now, I am writing a blog while trying to work some things out with you.  To that end, I have written about news stories that are perceived as religion but aren’t.  Well, not today because there are some truly dreadful clergy out there.  (Here’s a link to an all-time awful list posted in 2008 by Foreign Policy.)  My new favorite worst clergy are the type that are up front nearly every Sunday spewing bad theology, usually accompanied by bad psychology, and frequently laced with acidic politics.

 “The Worlds Worst Religious Leaders”

Initially I started visiting churches because I came to wonder why people went at all.  If you are atheist or agnostic and patient enough to read this blog (thank you), then you may still be wondering why and I’m not sure this column will help.  Regardless, here are links to the two prior columns on the weekly worship visit project.

 All Things Religious: “Real Estate, Happy Hour and Weekly Worship”

All Things Religious: “The Dying Church

To accompany these visits I’ve been reading the Diana Butler Bass (2007) book ButlerBassChristianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church is Transforming the Faith.  She did her own research, far more in depth (and better financed) than mine.  She looked for and found successful mainline Protestant churches and took a close look at what made them vital.  I decided to drive to one of the churches she wrote about, to which I will return later.

I have biked past another church many times and when I was a server, waited on a couple that went there.  (As I recall they said something homophobic and tipped 15 percent.)  Since I intend to visit every church, mosque, or synagogue within two miles of my house, I went.

A word about context, if you are inexperienced with Christian churches.  What used to be called the “Old Testament” is now referred to as the Hebrew Bible, though there are variations in content.  The “New Testament” has the Jesus stuff, as well as writings from early Christianity.  The “Gospels” tell about Jesus life and allegedly quote him.  In my recent visits to Baptists, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, and UCC churches, it was common to have multiple readings from different parts of the Christian Bible (as with Roman Catholics).  So when the independent “Open Door” church had only one reading from the Hebrew Bible, it was odd.  That is was the book of Ezra, was especially unusual.

One other word of context, this time regarding “independent” churches; “independent” meaning they are unaffiliated with any larger church group or denomination, though you should not assume they are independent thinking.  In fact they are a theological island without ecclesiastical oversight.  In other words, the guy at the pulpit (and it usually is a guy) can say anything he likes.

The primary message that this pastor extracted from Ezra, for which he had PowerPoint slides, was threefold and I think might be used by the CIA to teach agents not to trust anyone.  He warned church goers about the “mask of support, the menace of temptation, and the misery of advice.”  In his 50-minute performance he repeatedly talked about spiritual battles and “Satan’s bag of tricks.”  In other words, just because people appear to be supportive, doesn’t mean they aren’t being used by the Devil.  I interpreted this as don’t trust anyone.  I sat there wondering why any of them chose to trust him for advice.  To me, he seemed to have a lot of issues.  He was nurturing fear and distrust.  If they took him at his word, every human interaction is suspect.  This kind of paranoia is no way to live, and neither is it a Christian way to live.

In the sermon that seemed to never end and the pastoral prayer that was also long and meandering, there were four sarcastic political comments.  Yet in all this time, not one mention of Jesus or reference to the Gospels.  There was no talk about the love of God or Jesus’ ministry of social justice.  There were snide remarks about the NAACP and Palestinians.  Though I doubt that there was much political or economic diversity in the congregation of nearly 200, I estimated racial diversity at three percent.

With this guy, I kept wondering, why is he so angry?  Not his delivery, exactly, but worse, the content.  I do understand that feeling angry and self-righteous attracts a lot of people to religion.  But that clergy should nurture fear and anger is egotistical and irresponsible.  In fact, this is exactly how terrorists are cultivated.

Fortunately, I had taken my Kindle.  I’m sure the locals thought I was following along in my Bible.  Actually I was reading Butler Bass because I desperately needed to remember there are some normal compassionate folks out there.  But I do have 50 Shades of Gray loaded on the same Kindle and could have just as easily been reading that – and it did amuse me to think I might.

Not surprisingly, other than the formal hand-shaking in the service, not one person spoke to me or invited me back.  I thought I saw someone I knew so I even hung around in the lobby for an extra five minutes, and still not a word from anyone.  (Did they know I wasn’t one of them?)

The Church of the Open Door and Closed Minds experience was unlike my field trip to Virginia.  It was 11 hours travel (round-trip, same day) for about a one-and-one-quarter hour service.  I was greeted by several people and invited back.  Even though St. Mark’s was about the same size as “Open Door,” the atmosphere inside was different, even before the service.  Folks were really mixing it up in the large, open interior courtyard.  There were several displays for service projects and they have a “café” that serves full meals twice a week.

In the St. Mark’s sermon, which was about 15 minutes, what I took away was hope and “You are the presence of heaven in this world.”  I think they take this seriously because they listed over 30 areas of service in their weekly bulletin.  (There were none unrelated to proselytizing in the Open Door’s bulletin.) The children’s story at St. Mark’s was about helping kids across the globe.  It was goofy, but sweet with an old guy acting the part of a kid from Ecuador.

I could go on, but I want to emphasize the contrast in these two experiences.  At St. Mark’s there was an atmosphere of welcoming outsiders, a theology of hope and love, and the action of serving the needs of the community – locally and globally.  It is hard for me to understand how these two churches could even be the same religion.  Though really, they are not.  The Open Door-Closed Mind “Church” is the religion of Rev. What’s-His-Name, building distrust, validating judgement and encouraging petty politics.  St. Mark’s participates in a religion of compassion.  I wish it could be said that for every Open Door-Closed Minds church there’s a service oriented community of faith like St. Mark’s.  Not likely, but I’m glad I found one.  – J.B.

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