An Atheist Goes to Church: Episode 1

Preface

Nestled on a quiet road in Republic, MO just off the main thoroughfare is a 13,000 square foot warehouse that houses the operations of Destiny Church.  Pastor Chad Blansit, a young and trendily-dressed man leads the congregation which is made up of what I call “real people.” The people that come to this church aren’t dressed pretentiously in an outfit they save only for weddings, funerals and church on Sundays; these people come as they are, knowing they’ll be greeted warmly and accepted into a community of like-minded believers. The church itself puts on no pretense with its storefront windows and corrugated aluminum siding. One doesn’t seem to need to jockey for position in the parking lot since the church’s two Sunday services probably split the congregation into manageable sizes. Through the front doors you’ll find yourself in a foyer with a coffee bar, information center and bulletin board. The auditorium is straight ahead and is furnished with rows of chairs instead of the traditional church pew. Lighting in the auditorium is controlled by a board in the sound booth and an overhead projector displays a presentation throughout the service. Destiny offers a Facebook profile, a blog, a podcast (available on iTunes), and several “Life Group” programs tailored to age, gender, and marital status.

My friend, Vicki, attends Destiny Church and invited me to come along when I had expressed interest in attending churches and blogging about my experiences. I accepted the offer and met up with her bright and early to make the drive out to Republic, my 24-year-old NIV Bible in hand.

When we arrived at the church, she pointed out the pastor and some other staff members to me and after I got a cup of coffee we headed into the auditorium and sat down in the chairs, which are padded well enough to be comfortable for the duration of the service. Looking around, I could see that the median age of the congregation was probably somewhere around 30 with not too many children younger than middle school. In attendance I estimated about 60-65 people (but my estimation skills are woefully lacking sometimes so I could be off by 200, for all I know).

Chapter One: The Music Service

The eight-person church band – five men (three guitars, drums and a keyboard) and three women (all vocalists) – took the stage up front and the lights dimmed as the timer on the presentation screen expired. The auditorium exploded with an energetic, contemporary anthem at a volume that was, in my opinion, appropriate for a rock concert but a little overwhelming for a church auditorium of this size. The acoustics aren’t great. The lyrics of the songs were displayed on the screen. The band plays well together and their voices blend into a smooth harmony. The music, while foreign to a “traditional” church-goer, makes you want to tap your toes.

I have mixed feelings about music in churches. While I feel that the traditional hymnal music tends to be a little boring, it’s easy to harmonize and fun to sing along because everybody knows it. After all, the hymnals have contained a lot of the same songs for hundreds of years. One of the things I enjoyed about church when I was a kid was singing with my family in four-part harmony. Ah, the good old days.

While the contemporary music is more energetic and up-to-date, it always leaves me feeling flat because I don’t really feel like I can participate as much. By the time I’ve figured out the melody and whatever lyrics may be repeatable the song is pretty much over. However, I can see where people who attend regularly and become familiar with these songs would find them immensely enjoyable. In fact, one man in attendance was belting out his version of the songs from the back of the auditorium with glee.

During the music service everybody stands, although nobody explicitly asks you to and it doesn’t appear as though anybody would care if you remained seated. Unlike what I’ve called “yo yo churches,” you are not asked to sit down and stand up over and over between songs.

Thankfully, this isn’t one of those churches where people are convulsing in the aisles and jumping around. That stuff makes me nervous. However, there were quite a few hands raised in the air for the duration of a song which I’ve always found to be a sort of strange practice. I’m not entirely sure what the people with raised hands feel they’re accomplishing (because I don’t know of a scriptural basis for the gesture). Perhaps they have a question?

Chapter Two: The Introduction

When the last song had been played (I remember four songs total, none of which I knew) the outreach director, Keith, took the stage and addressed the congregation with an introduction that I feel was a bit rambling but ultimately served as a segue into the pastor’s message. Keith illustrated god’s accessibility to humans by telling the story of the temple veil that was rent from top to bottom when Jesus died on the cross (Matthew 27:51). He said that prior to the veil being torn, nobody could stand in god’s presence because they were sinners and god’s presence would kill them instantly. Here’s where I registered my first objection.

God made mankind in his image and loves them. Sure, they’re all sinners and god doesn’t associate with sin but he really wants to commune with humans. Now, this presents two issues for me:

  1. Priests were allowed into the presence of god in the Holy of Holies behind the temple veil. Priests are human and therefore sinners. Why didn’t the priests instantly die? To somewhat counter this issue, the Bible does speak of ropes being tied to the priests’ ankles so they could be removed from the temple in case they were struck down but it doesn’t address the core issue because I would presume (safely, I think) that not 100% of the priests who entered the Holy of Holies died. Could you imagine the shortage of priests?
  2. God appeared before Abraham (Genesis 17:1), Moses (Exodus 6:2-3), Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel (Exodus 24:9-11) but none of them were killed instantly. It’s obvious that humans can stand in the presence of god without dying, so I’m not sure what the temple veil business is all about. Maybe god just really dug on fabulous window treatments.

Anyway, the point was that when Jesus died god tore the curtain down as a symbol of his new fatherly relationship with humans, who now benefit directly from communion with the Holy Spirit. So now we’ve posited god as a really great father who is there for us. This registered my second, perfectly irrelevant objection. Doesn’t “God the Father” destroy what Christians call the traditional family by being a single-parent household? I mean, I hear objections from Christians all of the time about unhealthy upbringing when there’s no mother or no father in a child’s life. Doesn’t it seem weird that Christians claim to have a Heavenly father but no Heavenly mother, and that’s perfectly healthy? That’s a total sidetrack! Bad ADHD, no cookie for you.

So when it came time for the offering, a brief explanation was given as to how the church uses a little bit of the money to pay bills but puts larger amounts toward programs in the community (programs which are documented and seem worthwhile, like food banks). Two ushers carried cloth-lined wicker baskets down the aisles without lingering too long at any one row and before you could sing a whole verse of “I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts” (which I’m prone to do spontaneously from time to time) it was over. Very painless, no begging involved. Kudos to Destiny Church!

Chapter Three: The Message

Pastor Chad took the stage – well-spoken with good projection and a warm humor – and briefly recapped the series he’d been presenting for the last few weeks: “MASQUERADE.” The series deals with how our imperfect world and sinful nature lead to us having problems in life like alcoholism, abuse, unintended pregnancies, addictions, etc. He tells us that we’ve all developed ways to hide these problems and mask the pain by putting on a façade. The goal is to strip away this mask and hand our problems over to Jesus.

Now, here’s where I register another objection: he says we ought to hand our problems (all of our problems, big and small) over to Jesus because, “We’re not smart enough to fix our problems on our own.” Now, I can think of plenty of problems in my daily life that I’m smart enough to fix. Some people choose to pray for help finding their car keys and I guess that’s fine, but what happens to your argument when someone finds their car keys without praying? What happened there? Some people overcome addictions after praying but other people do it without prayer. I’m not objecting to this because I find it offensive that he’s saying we’re not smart. Rather, I’m objecting because I know it to be false because I’ve seen how things work in various circumstances for various people.

The next point he wants to make is that these problems we’re having are ultimately our own fault because of our sinful nature. He illustrates his point by saying, “God didn’t make evil in the garden.” Again, I register an objection. First, god created the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (a.k.a. The Tree of Death!) with beautiful, tasty-looking fruit and planted it right smack dab in the middle of the humans’ home where they’d walk by it every day. Second, he created a talking serpent (it’s been debated among theists whether or not this was actually an embodiment of the devil or if it was just your everyday, run-of-the-mill talking reptile – I submit that it was Barney. That’s an evil, talking reptile and I would disobey god just to shut Barney up!) and gave it free roam in the humans’ home. Third, he expressly created the humans without the knowledge of good and evil, which means even if they were to do something wrong they wouldn’t have known it without someone telling them after the fact that it was wrong. Keep in mind, god knows everything so he must have foreseen the calamity waiting to happen – kind of like giving a redneck a case of beer, a gas can and a lighter. So yeah, I disagree with his assessment.

Continuing on, Pastor Chad reads the scriptural basis for the message, Psalms 34:18-20,22. Right away I’m put in a position where I’m not sure if he’s taking this scripture literally or figuratively. The Destiny Church Web site says the Bible is inspired, infallible, and inerrant and I’m assuming this includes the Book of Psalms. I’ve always taken issue with using Psalms as the basis for any kind of truth because it’s (presumably David’s) personal, emotional poetry. I don’t have a problem with poetry, but I don’t try to use it to prove anything (see my blog post on Psalms). Anyway, if we’re taking this scripture literally then it already fails. Verse 20 says, “he protects all his bones, not one of them will be broken.” Do Christians break bones? Yes. It’s one thing to wax poetic on how god can heal your heart, but to claim that a righteous person will be spared all injury is pushing it. Perhaps – and I’m just speculating – this gets explained away because Paul says, “There is no one righteous; not even one. (Romans 3:10)” Well, of course you can get injured, you’re not righteous! If that’s the case (and again, this is just me thinking out loud) then there’s absolutely no purpose to even include Psalms 34:20 in this message because it doesn’t apply to anybody listening.

If we’re using Psalms figuratively then we have an illustration as to how god can help us overcome our woes…if we’re righteous…which we’re not. Yeah, I’m not even sure where this is going. Moving on!

Next up is an explanation as to god’s love for us. Pastor Chad uses Romans 8:39 to tell us that nothing can separate us from god’s love – and in this case, he’s talking about our problems that we’re hiding. The verse says that absolutely nothing, nothing in all of creation can separate us from god’s love…but what about sin? Or rejection of the Holy Spirit? Or Hell (which is an absence of god)? I’m not sure this verse is as dead-on as I’d personally like my scripture to be. But that’s my opinion, we’ll move on.

Chapter Four: The Invitation

Wrapping up the message, Pastor Chad invited everyone to use the back of the bulletin to write down the hurt they’re hiding. He urged us to “expose those wounds and expose that hurt” to turn it over to Jesus.

This is where I started to get a little uncomfortable with the tactic that I perceived was being put into play. As I looked around the auditorium I noticed some people crying and I’m thinking, “This isn’t the way you conduct a psychiatric trip down trauma lane.” I got the idea that Pastor Chad was preying on people’s pain and insecurity to elicit a strong emotional response. One of the ways in which you can instill dependency in people is to break them down and tell them you (or Jesus) can rebuild them. Anyway, he suggested to us that writing down our hurt and getting it out would be a good start to healing. I tried to think of something and honestly couldn’t. Honest, I’m OK. I promise.

He told everyone to look at the people next to them and look into their eyes. “You can see their pain,” he said, “and you can see that they’re wearing a mask to hide it.” I didn’t see anybody’s pain. Well, except the people that were crying but that wasn’t even a challenge. I think they forgot their mask, because they were pretty much broadcasting the pain. I’m not making fun of them, I’m just saying.

After citing various examples of hurt (child abuse, sexual trauma, obesity, love of country music…OK, I made that last one up) Pastor Chad asked everyone to close their eyes and in a soothing, hushed voice asked those people who are hiding hurt to raise their hands. Guilt, anyone? Do what the nice man says and raise your hand – you know you’re hiding something. Then he asked all of those with their hands raised to come down front while he led the congregation in prayer. Several people went to the front and waited while Pastor Chad finished praying. Then he asked the rest of the congregation to come on up and pick somebody and comfort them while he made his way around the semi-circle of hurting people to pray for each of them one-on-one. It was a touching display, and it reinforced the idea that the biggest benefit people get from religion is comfort and community. I could tell just by watching these people that they genuinely cared for one another. It was pleasant.

When all of the praying was done the band got back on stage and did a closing number, which was one of the songs they had already played at the opening. I don’t know its name. It was contemporary Christian music and therefore forgettable.

Chapter Five: The Bonus

Throughout the service I had a visitor card with me that I had filled out with some basic contact information. There were some questions to be answered like, “Which of these most describes your current situation?” The answers were all things like, “I don’t feel strong enough in my walk with god” or, “I’m looking for a new church home.” Since none of the pre-printed answers applied to me I had to pencil in my own:

  •  Χ  I’m an ex-Christian atheist.

I put my e-mail address on there and would be more than happy to be contacted. Anyway, the bonus is that I was told to take the card to the information center after the service and I would get a free gift. I’m thinking a pencil or a bookmark (which are cool when they’re free) but I wasn’t prepared to get a $5 Starbucks gift card. Score a raspberry white chocolate mocha for Jon!

Epilogue

Going to Destiny Church was a good experience. The people were friendly and real, the facilities were nice and the audiovisual presentation was helpful. The community programs the church runs are worthwhile and from all indications the church’s finances are transparent for anyone who cares. Because I intended to go to a Springfield Freethinkers brunch afterward I didn’t stick around to chat with the staff so I feel like I kind of missed out on an opportunity to raise some of these concerns directly (and it’s probably not entirely fair that I merely blog about it) so I’m thinking I’ll definitely have to get in touch with Destiny and see if I can schedule a time to go in and have a sit-down with Pastor Chad. I’m sure it would be insightful – Chad seems like a great guy.

My thanks to Vicki for allowing me to tag along with her. Stay tuned for episode 2!

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7 comments

  1. Interesting to hear your experience. I’m glad it wasn’t too bad. I went to their website and could see that they are a Charismatic type church, which does tend to more on the emotional side than non Charismatic churches. Look forward to hearing about other churches you visit. What type of church did you go to when you were a Christian? How long have you been an atheist and what led you to that?

  2. @musterion99 – I had gone to Independent Bible and Congregational churches growing up but spent the majority of my religious years in a Southern Baptist church. I’ve visited a Pentecostal church as well, but it kind of freaked me out.

    My journey to atheism was long and painful. I think what sparked it was hearing a Bible study teacher take the Bible as inscrutable fact and then turn around and say (about scientific evidence of dinosaurs and dating methods), “How do scientists know? Were they there?” I remember thinking, “How do we know god created the world, or Jesus rose from the dead? Were we there?”

    I stopped thinking of myself as a Christian when I was 19 but I only started identifying myself as an atheist about 8 years ago.

  3. @musterion99 – I consider myself an agnostic atheist. That is, I don’t make a positive claim that there is no god/gods – for all I know, there could be one or millions. However, given my life experiences and my current understanding of the world I don’t see any compelling reason to believe any exist and even less reason to worship any of them. This is a position I’ve finally settled on over the course of the last eight years.

  4. @musterion99 – Agnosticism to me seems more like a stance on knowledge, not god(s). I suppose you could say I’m agnostic, but in addition to not knowing for sure whether gods exist, I take it a step further and explicitly reject all current claims for specific god definitions (Jehovah, Allah, Vishnu, Krishna, Odin, and the FSM equally). Because of this, I would be considered a “weak atheist” or an agnostic atheist.

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