An Atheist Goes to Church: Episode 2

Preface
Aurora, a town of around 7,500 people, is the home of Aurora Baptist Temple (ABT). The church sits off of a well-traveled route through town in a tall but unpretentious building with a smaller gymnasium and activity building across the parking lot. Pastor Nathan Burch leads the congregation in a down-home, friendly atmosphere that is fairly typical of Baptist churches in the Midwest. The congregation is made up of people from all walks of life and nobody makes a fuss over who’s wearing what. Visitors to the church are greeted at the main doors by kind ladies and gentlemen who smile, shake your hand, and encourage you to fill out a visitor card. As a bonus, I got to keep the pen I used to fill out my card. Yay, schwag!


Now I can write letters to Jesus!

The large auditorium is just inside the main double doors to the right. A stairway to the left leads you to the Sunday School hallway, where coffee is available. The church has its own Web site (linked above) which offers downloadable sermons, although none seem to currently be available. ABT supports over 70 missions abroad and a local pregnancy care center whose statement is that life begins at conception.

My friend, Joey, attends ABT and invited me to come and visit with him and his family on February 27, 2011. I met him for the main service which begins at 10:15. Looking around I could see that the age range was wide, with a good number of young people mixed in with a good number of people who were only young-at-heart totaling somewhere around 250 in attendance.

Chapter One: The Music Service
The praise band consists of a piano, drums, three guitarists, a brass section and a saxophone, and about four female vocalists. I was pleased when they started playing traditional hymns and could sing along from memory, although two large projector screens up front and one in the back prominently display the lyrics for everyone to see. The band is coordinated well and sounds good although the acoustics of the auditorium are not that of a concert hall. Some of the vocalists seemed somewhat bored at times but it could have just been that the music we were singing wasn’t super peppy. Regardless, there was only one song I didn’t know and I really enjoyed being able to sing along and harmonize during the music service.

Between the first two songs everyone was encouraged to shake hands and greet those around them. Some of the people eagerly sought out people to hug while others, out of ritual, turned to the people in their immediate vicinity and shook hands while waiting to be able to sit back down. This was always my experience in church growing up and it doesn’t seem to have changed much.

Chapter Two: The Offering
Prior to the offering being taken, the pastor spoke to the congregation about giving. ABT has what they call a “Faith Promise,” which is a member’s weekly or monthly (maybe even quarterly or annual) pledge that the church can budget. The pastor encouraged those who had made these pledges to keep their promise to ensure that the church’s work can continue. He spoke at length of the missions they conduct abroad (they have at least two families that they send to at least two countries every year) and here I registered my first objection.

The pastor said, “There is no better way to spend the church’s money than on missions.” I disagree. If the church’s goal is simply to win the world over to Jesus Christ then I can see how the pastor can hold this view but there’s so much work that could be done locally that could yield tangible, immediate results. People are without jobs, without food, and without homes in this area. There’s obvious need for assistance right under your nose. I’m not saying that ABT doesn’t do these things; I’m saying that if ABT does these things, then I’d more likely agree with a statement like, “There is no better way to spend the church’s money than on ensuring the livelihood of the people in our community.”

In conclusion the pastor said, “God isn’t after your money but he wants to reward your faithfulness.” I have to ask…would god reward your faithfulness if you didn’t give any money at all but helped people in your community instead? This is a point on which I’d like to get clarification. It seems to me, with the standard offering plate ritual in every church across the country (and around the world) that there is more of an interest in money than actual contributions. But that’s only my opinion.

Chapter Three: The Message
Pastor Nathan delivered his sermon over Hebrews 10:19-21, focusing on the power of Jesus’ blood. He emphasized his distaste with some churches for diluting the message of sin and salvation through sacrifice, saying that the message goes soft if you tiptoe around people who are offended by the concepts of sin and blood. He said that Christians need to be bold about the message of Jesus’ sacrifice and that Jesus’ blood gives believers that boldness. He added, “God is not a wuss.” He said that Job had that boldness in his trust in god, but here I again disagreed with what he was presenting.

Job didn’t know about Jesus’ blood…or even Jesus. The blood wasn’t the source of Job’s boldness or his faith, so the example seemed a bit awkward and tangential to me. Regardless, everyone can concede that Job was bold in his faith in god.

The pastor then said that Christians are set apart by the blood. Christians are consecrated by the blood to be as close to god as the High Priests were in the Old Testament. He spoke of the Holy of Holies and about how the only people allowed to be in god’s presence were the High Priests and I got a chuckle out of the next part because I had fallen victim to the apparent urban legend involving this Old Testament knowledge (I believe it was my dad who told me this when I was a kid): it was not the custom to tie a length of rope around the High Priests’ waists or ankles in case they were struck dead.


Kinky.

Anyway, the new High Priest is Jesus Christ and believers have a direct line to god without any ropes or curtains. Having spilled his blood for us as the ultimate sacrifice, Jesus did away with the Holy of Holies and now intercedes on our behalf.

The pastor then said that our sins are covered by the blood. He maintained the standard Baptist line of reasoning where we are to turn away from sin but that in the event our weak human nature gets the best of us, god provides forgiveness through Jesus. However, he then made a statement that I wasn’t prepared to hear:

There is no sin too great to be covered by the blood; not a single one.

What about intentionally deceiving and leading people away from god? What about denying the Holy Spirit? What about rejecting god’s gift of salvation? Presumably, the point is that the blood will cover everything only if you’ve already accepted Jesus as your savior and ask for forgiveness. It is, however, possible that someone could be a born-again Christian (I asked Jesus into my heart when I was four years old) and still reject Jesus later or cause other people to reject Jesus by your words or actions. So what happens to them? Are they covered? I need clarification on whether ABT’s doctrine is that of once-saved-always-saved.

I could tell when the sermon was winding down because of the typical lowering of the voice and the segue into talking about acceptance of Jesus’ blood. This was something I always listened for when I went to church as a kid because it meant it was almost time to go home, eat my mom’s delicious cooking, and run around the woods for six hours until the evening service. Mmmm, now I’m hungry for pot roast!

Chapter Four: The Invitation
The invitation was given to the traditional invitation hymn, Softly and Tenderly, which I love to sing. It brings back memories. Plus, it has great harmony parts! Anyway, as is the custom, the pastor urged those who don’t know Jesus to come forward and accept him and those who feel like their walk with Jesus is slipping to come forward and renew their commitment. After the music played out, a prayer was said and the service was dismissed with the pastor and his wife heading to the main doors to shake everyone’s hands as they left.

Epilogue
Going to ABT was a good experience. Everyone was very friendly and the service brought back memories for me because it was so much like the churches in which I had grown up. The music was nice and the building was clean and orderly. I had intended to have a sit-down with Pastor Nathan after the service but there were scheduling conflicts with some church activities and I was told that he’d love to talk to me but it would have to be some other time. I’ll be in touch with my friend, Joey, and Pastor Nathan to see if I can set something up soon. That makes two interviews I need to schedule now. When am I going to get the time?

My thanks to Joey and his family for having me along. Stay tuned for episode 3!

Archive:
Episode 1

Check this out:

22 Comments

  1. Curiously once-saved always saved, does that mean if you sin and sin and sin and DON’T repent, you will still be saved, although you love Jesus?

    It’s curious.

  2. @haloed – There’s a lot of debate about this issue in the church. My dad falls under the “once saved, always saved” category, but, he also believes that accepting Jesus at four years old doesn’t count. You have to have a clear KNOWLEDGE of the decision that you’re making for it to have an effect on your life… make sense? I myself accepted Jesus into my heart at four or five, but I did it AGAIN around 15/ then walked away from God, and came back and did so again at 19ish. That was it for me, never again. It’s my decision for life now.

    My ex-pastor falls into the “you can lose your salvation” category.

    I fall into the “I don’t know, but God does, so I’m not going to mess with Him,” category. 🙂

    lol  

  3. The focus during tithing on money is just that, focus. If they put an emphasis on contributions of another nature during that time they would yield less money. Others can, and do at most churches, contribute their time and effort to their community in other ways but there is a time and place to discuss things of that nature. There’s a difference between single-mindedness and best practices. 

  4. @striemmy – Yes, agreed. Obviously at offering time you’re not going to say, “Instead of giving money when the plates come around, go out and feed someone.” I was focusing more on the practice of passing the offering plates itself. If god doesn’t care about your money and only wants to reward your faithfulness (which can be expressed without money) then why pass the plates around at all?

  5. @CoderHead – Because it’s a choice and hands down the more logical choice. Most people are more attached to their time than they are to their money and money is more useful to any organization than your time is. It’s useful to the cause of helping humanity in a capitalist society. if we lived in a society without money they wouldn’t ask for it.

  6. There is no sin too great to be covered by the blood; not a single one.

    The bible says that blasphemy of the Spirit can never be forgiven.

    @haloed – 

    Yes, that is called Calvinism. There are a lot of Christians that don’t believe that though. They either believe you can lose your salvation or that if you live like that, you were never truly saved in the first place.

  7. @striemmy – If it’s more convenient to just give money then you’re really not making a sacrifice, are you? Isn’t that the point of an offering: to make a sacrifice for/to god?

    That being said, if all you do is plunk a check into the plate when it’s passed around, I wouldn’t expect god to reward you too much for your faithfulness. Give until it hurts, right?

  8. Oh, no. God doesn’t need money. It was made explicitly clear to me in every church I’ve ever been in that the collection plate helps support the church in what it’s doing and goes directly to certain causes, like scholarships for individuals within the church, food for people in need, etc. 

    Give 10%.

  9. In regards to your question in chapter 3, nearly all Baptist churches do believe in “once saved, always saved.” This is descended from Calvinist doctrine since Baptist churches have historically been Calvinist. Most of the Baptist churches in the U.S. today are no longer purely Calvinist, but they still maintain many Calvinist leanings, and OSAS doctrine is one of them.

    Different OSAS churches would probably have differing explanations for what happens if a saved person rejects Jesus. Some would say that the person never completely rejected God. He or she may have doubts and act like they have rejected him but still maintain some degree of faith. Other churches would say that if a person did reject Jesus, it meant that the person was never “saved” in the first place (i.e., the person never truly had faith in Jesus).

  10. @Crono09 – I figured it would lean more toward “you were never a True Christian™ in the first place.” But I find it hard to accept that some random person can presume to tell me what I did and didn’t believe at various points in my life.

  11. @CoderHead – I think allot of people are skeptical.  I think that person just means that if you aren’t just yanking chains.  Some people do that kind of thing you know.  But I think that kind of thinking is just a defensive mechanism.  Probably not meant quite the way it sounds.

  12. So are you planning to go to a bunch of different churches? How do you choose what churches you go to? Is there a particular reason that you’re doing this? I was raised Catholic although now I think I’d fall under a sort of spritual agnostic label. I’ve been tempted to go to different churches just to see what they’re about but I’ve been a little intimidated.

  13. @TheCheshireGrins – Yes, I’m planning to go to a lot of churches in my area and just write about the experience – not to ridicule or call names but to understand the types of beliefs and doctrines being taught. So far I’ve attended a couple of churches to which my friends have invited me. Once I’ve exhausted those resources I’ll start inviting myself to churches. I think it’s an interesting topic.