Today I managed to wrangle a couple of co-heathens from my atheist/agnostic meetup group into going to church with me. We went to Trinity Baptist, which is affiliated with (among other groups) the extremely conservative Southern Baptist Convention. It was quite an experience.
Though the congregants had a wide range of ages and ethnicities, the church was also very, very conservative, and it appeared that they took the Bible literally. What I find fascinating about this is that, despite that fact that I took it literally at one point, the conclusions they reached about a lot of things were entirely different. I suppose this isn’t really all that surprising; Christians have been debating the finer points of doctrinal differences for centuries. But the differences weren’t entirely minor. For example, in the church I attended in college, we were taught that this was a fallen world that God had turned his back on, and that our only chance of salvation was to turn toward Jesus and away from worldly needs. “Mission work” had nothing to do with going to impoverished countries and helping people; it was entirely focused on spreading the gospel and ‘winning souls for Christ’. In this church, however, they felt it was important to nourish both body and soul. And though they do emphasize the idea that spiritual needs trump material needs, they recognize that material needs can be important as well. Their approach is to say that God will provide for any material needs, going so far as to say that they don’t need to worry about the recession because God will get us through. (Remind me not to hire one of them as a financial consultant.)
They seemed to be a congregation of global warming deniers. The minister made a joke about how this was “the year without summer,” and asked where Al Gore was this year. It was nice not to be the only one rolling my eyes at that; bringing friends along has its benefits.
The minister said a lot about what people should be praying about. He said that “God is not a go-fer”, and that our “external, felt needs” aren’t the sort of things we should be praying for – rather, that we should pray for increased faith and spiritual knowledge. That’s pretty convenient, really; if we don’t pray for tangible things, there’s no way anyone can say our prayers weren’t answered.
Honestly, the service itself didn’t intrigue me all that much. Their theology was your basic evangelical Christianity: Jesus is the only way to escape punishment in hell for your sins, all other faiths (they specifically mentioned Buddhism and Islam) are false and futile, and anyone who doesn’t know Jesus is ‘lost’. There were a couple of high points. For example, someone must’ve seen my ‘Atheist’ bumper sticker, and reported it to the higher-ups. They spent about five minutes praying for “anyone out there who doesn’t know the Lord”, asking them (me) to recite a Sinner’s Prayer (i.e. the whole “I admit I’m a sinner and I accept Jesus Christ as my lord and savior” bit), to give up my religion for a relationship with Jesus, and to empty the anger out of my hateful heart. He asked that the whole congregation pray for this, which was an interesting test of scripture, since Matthew 18:19-20 says:
Again I say to you that if two of you agree on earth concerning anything that they ask, it will be done for them by My Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them.
Apparently the combined prayers of the entire congregation don’t count as either two or three gathered together in Jesus’ name, or as “anything that they ask,” because… lo and behold… still an atheist.
The minister, in this little bit of targeted prayer, made mention of the idea that “[I] never knew anything about a relationship like [one with Jesus].” I couldn’t help but shake my head; the assumptions that they make in this sort of statement are mind-boggling. Behind the friendly, inviting faces we saw in the church was the idea that anyone who isn’t a Christian is still somehow afraid of their hell, knows absolutely nothing about Christianity, is angry and hateful, and believes in their God and his authority over things. What a weird mindset to work from.
Another high point was when a girl came up and told a story about how her parents, who had separated, got together again because of events in their lives that brought them back to Jesus. Her parents weren’t present; they apparently go to another church. Most interestingly, she mentioned that her mother was an alcoholic who was attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and that that’s where she had her moment of ‘revelation’. (AA, of course, is a strongly evangelical Christian – or, at least, evangelically theistic – organization, promoting the idea that the only way to overcome alcoholism is through submission to a higher power.) I was shocked that this girl was willing to say something so personal and embarrassing in front of this group of people, including (obviously) some people she didn’t know. It reminded me of the way the Church of Scientology keeps records on all the confessions people make during their ‘auditing’ sessions, so they can use them to coerce anyone who wants to leave. I was also unsurprised to hear the girl say that God had been behind the whole chain of events that led to her parents’ reunion; is she saying that she thinks it’s what God planned all along, or that God intervened and controlled people in a way such that things would work out? Neither sounds very appealing to me; it’s predestination versus the suspension of free will. One thing that gave me a chuckle was that she talked about how her dad was worrying for a long time about a lot of things, and then he heard a sermon about worry, and saw it as a sign. What a surprise! A sermon about one of the most prevalent elements of the common human experience. Must be divinely inspired.
After the service, my friends and I did a little “post-mortem” discussion of our experiences. Of the three of us, I was the only one who’d ever been deeply religious, so it was interesting to hear their perspectives on things. I’d spent much of the service thinking about their interpretations of scripture, and constantly coming up with other parts of the Bible that went almost directly opposite of what they were saying. For example, they talked about how you should love your life, but John 12:25 says that if you love your life in this world, you’ll lose it – you have to hate your life here to gain eternal life. My accomplices, on the other hand, were considering much broader concepts. One brought up that the friendly exterior they put up reminded them of grizzlies – they may seem cuddly and playful, but if you step out of line even the slightest bit they’ll disembowel you. She found it odd that in one breath they were condemning people for having a judgmental spirit and not being loving of their fellow man, and then in the next they were talking about how anyone who isn’t a Christian has a futile faith and will spend eternity roasting in hell. Our discussion turned to the subject of our various religious backgrounds, the influence of supernatural thinking on rational inquiry, ways we can work to promote reason and logic in society, why we think science is losing ground in America, and dozens of other things.
Then I went home, and I opened the ‘goodie bag’ the church had given us as visitors. It’s really pretty bizarre stuff. There’s a booklet about Awana, which I’d never heard of before, but from the sounds of it it seems to be a hardcore evangelical fundamentalist “camp” for kids. From the back of the booklet:
“[Awana] is built on rock-solid ministry principles: clearly presenting the gospel, focusing on Scripture memory, and applying the unchanging truth of the Bible to the changes and challenges of life.”
Some of the things the booklet mentions make me very uneasy; mostly the fact that it targets kids as young as two years old, but also that they play on a child’s need for positive reinforcement by rewarding different levels of indoctrination with trophies and awards. It talks about teaching kids about “God’s love,” which isn’t surprising. If you teach a kid that God’s love is really a sacrifice aimed at saving them from eternal torture, you’re going to lose them, but if you just give them the candy-coated, feel-good theology, you’ve got them in the palm of your hand. Hit them with the soft, nice, warm and fuzzy stuff when they’re young, then gradually dial up the crazy-nasty, and they’ll never notice. It’ll all seem like a natural progression.
The goodie bag also included a directory of local Christian businesses (the Shepherd’s Guide). It contains some absolutely hilarious ads, such as one for “Biblical Hygine [sic] for Health & Protection,” a Christian chiropractor (“Gentle Chiropractic Using Activator Technique”), some company selling “Earth-frindly [sic] cleaning products” (which is apparently a multi-level marketing scheme), and a “Christ-Centered Internet Network Data Center (Guaranteed pornography-free web hosting!):”
Nehemiah had a burden to rebuild the walls and post watchmen at the gates of Jerusalem to control invaders, prevent attacks on God’s people and provide security. The Christian Interactive Network has followed that vision to secure God’s data and ministry networks. Protecting God’s people and the Gospel from the digital warfare that we face today.
They also included a couple of daily devotional books, a list of church service opportunities, a bookmark listing (some) of the names used for God and Jesus in the Bible, a pen with their church’s name and address on it, a notepad and pen with a Bible verse on them, a booklet describing the plan of salvation (“How to Live Forever,” which I can’t seem to find anywhere online), and a votive candle.
All in all, the whole visit went really well, and our discussion afterward was easily as long as the service. I’ll have to plan this earlier next time, so more than just three of us can go.