Billboards: What Would You Attempt…

Driving from St. Louis to Springfield this morning I passed a billboard that I’ve passed many times before and that has always brought up questions in my mind. It goes like this:

“What would you attempt for Me if you knew you could not fail? -Jesus”


A similar billboard in Kansas City.

Undoubtedly the billboard text draws from Matthew 19:26 which states, “with God all things are possible.” Naturally, I got to thinking about this proposition and some things immediately came to mind. If I knew I could not fail, I would:

Fly
 

Have Olivia Wilde’s babies
 

Start a business
 

Climb a mountain
 

Enter (and win) motorcycle races
 

Swim to the bottom of the ocean
 

I know, all of those things are stupid. But if I couldn’t fail why wouldn’t I at least attempt them? Of course this completely misses the point. The billboard isn’t asking what you would do for yourself, but what you would do for Jesus. So let’s examine this proposition in greater detail.

First, what does Jesus need? Since Jesus is supposedly god that means he’s perfect. Since he’s perfect he doesn’t need anything. And since he’s god, anything I could possibly do for him would be so pitifully insignificant it wouldn’t matter anyway. For that reason I can’t even imagine why Jesus would ask a silly question like this.

Second, if the only thing Jesus wants me to do for him is to tell my friends and neighbors (and little tribal pygmy people in the jungle) about him and win their souls for god and Heaven then why didn’t he make sure I didn’t fail when I was witnessing to everyone as a teenager? Why was it that every time I witnessed to someone out of love and concern for their eternal soul, I was met with failure? Why did they never accept Jesus when I said everything I could think of saying after having prayed over it and asked for help? Apparently even the small stuff like talking to people isn’t guaranteed to succeed.

I can only assume, therefore, that this is an empty promise from a book that is full of empty promises and the billboard is just another attempt by Christians to parade their air of superiority in front of the largest number of people possible. This billboard isn’t the only one along the Interstate between St. Louis and Springfield so I can only imagine how many more there are all over the U.S. (let alone the rest of the world). I’ll review others as I come across them in my travels.

One last question: since there are so many Christian billboards along the Interstates and I have yet to see a single atheist, Muslim, Mormon, Hindu, Buddhist, or Scientology billboard why in the heck do Christians get so bent out of shape when they see an atheist bus advertisement? Are Christians really that shallow, petty, and selfish? Grow up!

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All Aboard the RV (Rapture Vehicle)

Everybody knows by now that Family Radio has pinned the rapture down to May 21 and the official end of the world to October 21 of this year. Led by Harold Camping (89), a man who failed in 1994 to predict Jesus’ second coming, the organization has launched a “Project Caravan” crusade wherein teams of believers drive across the country proclaiming the end of the world and the need to repent. Several members of the caravan have left behind jobs, family, friends, and responsibilities to drive these RVs until Jesus comes back to whisk them away to be with their Heavenly father.


CNN’s story on the caravan

Even while these faithful followers are so certain of their Biblical knowledge, other Christians (who read the same books) talk about them like they’re lunatics. They cite Matthew 24:36 where Jesus says nobody knows the time and place, not even Jesus himself. This gets me thinking:

If Bible-believing Christian “A” can call Bible-believing Christian “B” a lunatic (or, in kinder forms, “flat-out wrong”) for believing Biblical numerology and Christian “B” can call Christian “A” a lunatic for believing that the Great Flood was allegory and never happened, then what makes one crazy and the other sane? Are they both out of their minds?

I, of course, have my opinions on the matter but I can’t claim to know for sure whether or not Family Radio is wrong about the end of the world. I only know that I’ve seen absolutely no compelling evidence, nor have I heard any compelling arguments that would make me believe that this is probable. And while I would side with Christian “A” in the above paragraph it certainly doesn’t mean that I think Christian “A” is any more justified for believing what they do than the lunatics in the RVs. I only know that I fear for the safety and well-being of these people’s families that have been abandoned in order to spread the far-fetched news about something that was foretold to happen 2,000 years ago, didn’t happen, and hasn’t happened since. I hope god is taking good care of them.

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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

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Creation Museum Lunacy

According to the Creation Museum, T-Rex ate coconuts.


Mmmmm, coconuts!

Yeah, that’s right, the gigantic, serrated, flesh-ripping teeth lining the mouth of the T-Rex were used to crack open the tough shells of coconuts. Will creationists ever realize how stupid they sound? Will they ever give up their cartoon-worthy apologetics of outdated, ignorant views of the world? Will I ever stop laughing at them? Not likely, on any count.

Having heard this news I have to wonder if the shark ate seaweed with its rows upon rows of death triangles? Perhaps the lion enjoyed bamboo alongside the panda? All I know is that the people who make this crap up and the people who eat it up like candy are deluded. If you’re one of them, I’m sorry to be so blunt about it but seriously…this is insane. And so are you.

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Facebook Hypocrisy

On a daily basis I see things like this in my news feed:

I’m not sure what my friends typing these things are trying to accomplish. As far as I know, god doesn’t actually have a Facebook account. It’s nice that they want to share their prayers with the world, but why?

Anyway, that’s not even the reason I’m posting this. It doesn’t really bother me that religious people put religious stuff in their FB statuses because I put irreligious stuff in mine. I’d be a real ass to complain about their statuses. What bothers me is that this is considered by them to be the epitome of normalcy and carries some kind of implied protection that doesn’t extend to anything else on FB. If I comment on these types of posts it invariably comes down to “stop attacking my beliefs!” or something similar. For that reason I’ve stopped making comments on things like this.

What really gets me is that if I post a link to a video or a news story or a quote by a famous atheist, it will immediately generate comments from my religious friends about how I should just stop talking about it or how I’m wrong. For instance:


GrapplingIgnorance’s video here.

I had to fire back on this one. It’s patently ridiculous to propose that everyone in the world must respect your beliefs while continually chiding others for their views. If you want to have the privilege of voicing your opinions then you must extend the same courtesy to others. Also, if you you post something publicly on FB then you have to assume that somebody will have an opinion on it. With that in mind, you are inviting comment by posting it and must therefore be ready to defend it without getting your panties bunched up.

Seriously, stop being such hypocrites, FB people!

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Legislating School Curriculum?

Kentucky State Senator Joe Bowen has resurrected a bill that was killed last November that “sets the foundation” for offering Bible classes in Kentucky schools. Admittedly, nothing prevents public schools from offering comparative religion courses now. This begs the question as to why the state government would feel the need to even introduce such legislation in the first place.

I can think of one answer: Bowen is a Christian who feels that the current school curriculum is too secular and that Kentucky children are being led astray from core Christian principles. This is another push by religious zealots to have their view spread to everyone by any means necessary.

Now, to be perfectly clear, this bill would not require that all Kentucky schools offer a Bible class as a requisite to obtaining a high school diploma. The classes would be electives and that, I think, is their only redeeming quality.

First question: why isn’t Bowen pushing for Qur’an classes? Why not Bhagavad Gita classes? Or Buddhavacana classes? The answer is obvious. Bowen doesn’t want to educate children about world religions. He wants them to learn about his religion.

Second question: since when does the State Senate dictate school curriculum? Isn’t that the job of the school board? Kentucky’s department of education organizational chart is here (PDF). It steams me that the state government (even though it’s not my state) is wasting time and resources fighting battles in which it shouldn’t be involved.

Third question: aren’t there Sunday School classes every Sunday in Kentucky churches? If a child wants to hear about the Bible in a classroom setting they already have ample opportunity! Keep your religion in your church and we’ll keep logic and rational thought in the schools.

Can we please stop our lawmakers from spreading this kind of arrogance and ignorance across the entire country? Please, people, let’s do something about this!

Using the first link (“resurrected a bill”) you can vote in the news channel’s poll. Not that it’ll mean anything, but go vote this down. As of the time of this posting there’s an overwhelming majority voting YES for these antics.

Bowen photo courtesy Facebook.

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Cain Wasn’t Abel to Please God

Moving on to Genesis 4, we learn about Adam and Eve’s two sons: Cain and Abel. As if the story of the “fall of man” didn’t seem like it was written by an underachieving sixth-grader, we’re now going to dumb things down so all you fourth-graders out there have something to read. As expected, this story has problems and I’ll tell you just exactly what some of them are.

Problem 1: Reproduction
As you may or may not recall from my last blog post, Adam and Eve were damned and thrown out of paradise because they were purposely created too ignorant to understand what disobedience and sin were. Along with being banished, they were commanded to make more of themselves! Yes, that’s right, the most perfect being in the universe was so angry with these two sinners he told them to immediately go out and start breeding like rabbits. I’m not making this up. So Adam and Eve started breeding and popped out two sons: Cain first and then Abel. Presumably, the boys made it to their teens without any more brothers and sisters (or the documentation was pretty shoddy at this point).

Problem 2: Favoritism
Cain was a gardener and Abel was a shepherd. At some point, the boys got to talking and decided to bring the best of their best offerings to god to show him just how much they loved him. Cain, of course, brought fruits and grains in this bundle of healthy, fiber-rich hippie food. Abel, on the other hand, brought leg of lamb and a big tub of lard that would clog the arteries of even a deity who worked out at the YMCA every day…and took Lipitor regularly. I’ll tell you something: god is not a vegetarian. So god, who loves everyone equally, told Abel that his offering was awesome and Cain’s sucked. That’s bound to piss anybody off, right?

Problem 3: Divine Nonsense
Cain was mad. He had put a lot of work into gathering his hippie food for god and got the cold shoulder. So god, in that incredibly sensitive way he has of comforting people, told Cain to suck it up and stop being such a goddamned baby. Not only that, but he told Cain that if Cain did what was right then he’d always be accepted. So…was offering the best of what he had to give not “right?” Silly carnivorous god!

After he imparted that glaring contradiction, he told Cain that sin was crouching at his door (the Bible doesn’t mention that these people had made houses at this point, so I’m not even sure if Cain knew what a door was) and he had to “rule over it.” Cain, at this point, was probably like, “OMG, WTFSRSLY?”

Problem 4: Murder?
Cain asked Abel to go chill with him in the fields and was still so angry (and confused from what god just told him) that he killed his brother.

Now, here’s where things are a little fuzzy for me. Christians keep telling me that our moral code is derived from god’s 10 Commandments and that without them we’d be raping each other and stealing each others’ baseball cards and eating too much. I don’t agree (I will always eat too much regardless), but if we granted them this premise then at this point the 10 Commandments didn’t exist. How is it then that Cain, without a moral code, should have felt guilty about killing his brother or should have been punished as though it were a sin? After all, he was really pissed off. God never told anybody that killing was wrong. In fact, god’s plan was to murder anybody who ate the knowledgeberries. Remember those? What kind of example does that set?

So while this is an issue for Christian sticklers of 10 Commandment-based morality, let’s take a humanist approach and say that we all inherently know that killing other humans is bad. Cain murdered his brother and god found out (again with this “finding out” stuff! Doesn’t god already know this?) and cursed Cain and took away his gardening skills. Bad Cain, no granola for you!

Problem 5: Spontaneous Humans!
God told Cain that he would drive him from his home and he would wander the Earth restlessly (can you restfully wander the Earth?). Cain felt overwhelmed and asked god for mercy because everywhere he went, people would try to kill him.

Wait!

What people? So far as we know, Adam and Eve were the first humans created and when they got kicked out of the garden, they had two sons and one of those was now dead. There are three friggin’ people on the planet. Of whom is Cain afraid?! Nobody knows, not even god, because god told Cain that he’d put a special mark on his forehead so nobody (whoever this “nobody” was) would kill him and Cain started his restless wandering…restlessly.

Problem 5: Sex With Your Sister
Cain went into the land of Nod and made love to his wife.

Wait!

I think I just skipped something, let me see here: Genesis 4:16 says Cain wandered into Nod and Genesis 4:17 says Cain made sweet love to his wife. From where in the frick did this woman come? Where is Nod? How many people lived there? Were they all Cain’s brothers and sisters or were they magically conjured up from dirt? The Bible doesn’t say.

We have to assume that these people were all products of the original mating pair of humans but there’s a problem with that:

Problem 6: Timelines
Adam and Eve had another son and named him Seth. When Seth was born, Eve said that god had given her another son to replace Abel since Cain killed him. It seems to me this is still a fresh wound and this verse would suggest that Seth was born while Cain was wandering. It’s perfectly reasonable to assume that not that much time had passed between Abel dying and Seth being born. However, just for sake of argument let’s call it a full generation (~30 years). If that was the case, then Adam and Eve would not have had time to have enough children between Abel and Seth for them to have grown up, migrated, and started settlements (like the land of Nod). This means that Cain would have entered the land of Nod prior to its being inhabited. Do you see the disconnect, kids? I do.

Conclusion
What have we learned from this story? That god is a meatatarian? No. We’ve learned that god’s purposeful creation of ignorant beings with no moral compass led to the first murder and incestuous relationship ever recorded and that the Bible was unfortunately written before the invention of clocks and calendars.

Now, again, some may argue that this story is allegorical and that we’re merely supposed to learn a lesson about not killing your brother and sleeping with your sister or something but no matter how you slice it, it’s got problems from a moral standpoint.

First, god says he loves us all but he clearly shows favoritism. That’s bad. Second, god purposely created ignorant knuckleheads and never told them not to beat each other to death and was surprised to see that one of the knuckleheads beat the other knucklehead to death. That’s ridiculous. Third, god’s punishments always seem disproportionate to the crime – not only was Cain banished from his home but he was cursed so that he’d never be able to grow any food again for as long as he lived. That’s cruel, although it doesn’t seem to have affected Cain much since he went right out and made whoopee (does anybody say that anymore?) with some spontaneously-generated chick. I’m amending “cruel” to “bull crap.”

Stay tuned for the next installment! New blog time, same blog channel.

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I’ll Have the Garden Salad with Damnation Dressing

The Christian story of the “fall of man” is a tale of magnificent power, poor decision-making skills, cunning linguists, and problems…lots and lots of problems. I’ll give you the ones that immediately spring to mind. This takes into account the literature from the Bible in Genesis 1:26-31, Genesis 2, and Genesis 3:1-19.

Problem #1: Ignorance
God creates human beings with free will – although he never gave us a choice as to whether or not we wanted free will or even to be created at all. As Christopher Hitchens says, “Of course we have free will; we have no choice!” What god does not create humans with is the knowledge of good and evil – that is to say, they had no sense of right and wrong and no way to tell if disobedience was a sin – or even what “disobedience” or “sin” were. I doubt their vocabulary included such complex words. They were completely innocent.

Problem #2: Temptation
God creates the “Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil” (sounds like a metaphor, right?) right smack dab in the middle of the ignorant human beings’ living space. This tree produces delicious-looking, aromatic fruit (not apples though, they’re more like “knowledgeberries”) so – of course – god tells the humans not to touch it. In fact, it would probably be best if they didn’t even look at it. Perhaps just forget it’s even there…even though it’s in your living room. Oh, and it’ll kill you.

Problem #3: Clarity
God instructs the humans not to eat the fruit and tells them that the day they eat the fruit they’ll die, right then and there. He didn’t give them a definition of “die” and from everything I’ve heard, the humans at this point had no experience whatsoever with death because everything was perfect in the Garden and nobody ate meat…not even the meat-eating predators. One could argue that telling someone who has never seen or heard of death that they’re going to die doesn’t really have the impact that you’d expect. Anyway (SPOILER ALERT), the point is we’ll see later that god bent the truth on this one because the humans didn’t die the same day they ate the fruit and, in fact, lived on to bear many children.

Problem #4: Outside Influence
God creates a talking, ambiguous serpent and sets it loose in the Garden, fully aware that the paths of the humans and this serpent would cross and that the serpent was a tricky little guy who derived pleasure from messing with people’s heads (or at least, it would seem). Now, one could argue that setting up a scenario like this is a test. I would argue that this scenario is nothing short of a masterful chef’s no-bake recipe for disaster. Either way, it displays a woeful lack of foresight on god’s part.

The talking serpent convinces the woman (oh, of course it’s the woman because they’re weaker than men, right?) to just have a taste of the knowledgeberries because she’s most likely misinterpreting what god is saying and should actually be listening to what his words mean. Now, I don’t know how things worked in the Garden but if I were confronted with an eloquently-spoken Gecko accosting me with persuasive arguments, I’d be inclined to buy his insurance.

Problem #5: Nonintervention
Anyway, the woman exercises her (coerced) free will by eating the fruit and convinces the man that he also misinterpreted what god meant so he eats it as well. God is chilling somewhere else at this point. Maybe he was in the shower or something. Of course when god gets back and finds out (didn’t he already know?) he damns them and all of their descendants for all time. That includes you, bub.

Conclusion
What have we learned from this story? It’s best not to make decisions on an empty stomach, right? No. We’ve learned that god is a sadist who intentionally created humans ignorant so that he could have the pleasure of damning them forever after laughing at their decision to save 30% or more on car insurance (they didn’t even own a car!).

Now, the creation myth is said to be allegorical by some and literal by others but no matter how you slice it, it’s got problems from a moral standpoint.

For one, god gives humans free will but keeps them completely ignorant of right and wrong and therefore the consequences of their actions. That’s pretty bad. To make things worse, he puts the innocent-looking device that will cause their destruction within their arms’ reach. That’s horrible. Let’s not stop there though, because we haven’t yet introduced the cunning serpent who gets created with the powers of speech and convinces the humans (who don’t know right from wrong) that it’s OK to set the doomsday device off. That’s detestable! But wait, there’s more! Next we’re going to damn the humans for making a choice that was a product of their god-given free will combined with their god-induced ignorance. That’s disgusting! Don’t stop there, though. While we’re damning people we may as well extend the punishment out for eternity, applicable to every descendant of the humans without exception. That’s just pure, unfettered evil.

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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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