etting saved through Jesus Christ and receiving the Holy Spirit sounds like it would be a really big deal. I mean, the sheer mechanics of opening up one’s heart and having the Holy Spirit move in like a college kid moving into the dorms is difficult to wrap your head around. Oddly enough, Christians seem to think it requires nothing more than the ability to repeat phrases told to you by another person. This applies mainly to children who are too young to formulate a sentence based on the premise that a person died for you thousands of years ago so you won’t go to Hell when you die. It goes something like this:
Heavenly Father, I know that I have sinned against you. I want to be a better person. I believe you sent Jesus to die on the cross for my sins, that you raised him from the dead, and that he hears my prayers. Please forgive me and let Jesus come into my heart and life. I give my life to you, Lord. In Jesus’ name I pray, amen.
hen you grow up in Christianity, one thing is made very clear to you over and over: you are a horrible sinner and deserve to burn in Hell forever. This sentiment rears its head pretty early on, as soon as you’re able to understand and repeat the name “Jesus.” The adults begin to prime you for the doctrine of salvation through grace. In order to do this, you must first accept that you are undeserving of anything but the worst punishment imaginable. Just to clarify, this punishment can be presented in a number of ways. My family subscribed to the “lake of unquenchable fire, eternal torment and darkness with weeping and gnashing of teeth” doctrine. Other sects of Christianity view Hell as simply the complete lack of the presence of god. Still others view Hell as obliteration (which, Heaven aside, aligns quite nicely with the atheistic view that once you die you simply cease to exist).
o there I was: a kid spending every Sunday morning and evening, Wednesday night and every major (and some minor) holiday in church. At this point church was still fun because I was doing arts and crafts, seeing flannelgraph stories and singing those great children’s songs that virtually everybody knows. Oh, the songs! They’re catchy, they’re cute, and they’re memorable. Regardless of how I may feel now about religion I can still sing all of those songs on demand.
Song is arguably one of the most effective ways to drill ideas into a kid’s head. There’s a reason you teach a kid the alphabet in song before they can read. When you want to remember something it helps to put it to music. For instance (and I can still sing this one too), children are taught to memorize the books of the Bible with this little number:
he stories you hear in church as a child make the Bible seem so sensible and happy. You’ve got a man and a woman created perfectly just for each other, talking animals, big boats full of kangaroos and penguins, babies in baskets, guys rough-housing with god, trumpeters blowing down walls, Jesus the meek and gentle shepherd who loves you so very very much, and a wonderful gift that you can keep forever and ever. Isn’t it all so wonderful?
You know what they don’t tell you when you’re a kid? Incest, murder, unfair punishment, intentional ignorance, violations of free will, genocide, slaughtering of the innocents, more incest, more genocide, slavery, oppression of women, more slaughtering of the innocent, more slavery, more oppression of women! When does it end? It’s enough to make you vomit! And the people preaching this book are the same ones who get indignant when a television show portrays two men kissing.
was indoctrinated into Protestant Christianity from birth and accepted Jesus as my Lord and savior at the ripe old age of four. I don’t remember much about my childhood but I still remember that evening and the place of worship in Panama we called “The Home.” It wasn’t a formal church and I imagine it was more like what you would have seen in the Apostle Paul’s day where believers gathered in homes to praise god together through song and prayer.
A quick aside: on my blog I’ll never capitalize the word “god.” It’s not a proper name. If I use a proper name like Jehovah or Jesus or Allah I’ll capitalize it as per English grammatical rules. However, since I commonly refer to “god” you can assume I’m speaking of the Biblical deity known as Jehovah or Yahweh.
I just received in the mail a hand-written letter from Aurora Baptist Temple regarding my visit to their church on Feb. 27. I don’t know about anyone else, but I place a special significance on hand-written letters. The practice of actually writing on paper represents an investment of time that you don’t often see these days when it’s so much easier to type out an e-mail or send a text message. To that point, not that many people make phone calls anymore. I know I’m guilty of it myself.
Anyway, it’s a very nice letter and I’d like to transcribe it here, at the risk of presuming falsely that ABT would be happy to have it shared.
Thank you for visiting Aurora Baptist Temple. We hope you felt “at home” and experienced the presence of the Lord. We believe God has commissioned us to reach out to touch the hearts and lives of the people in this area with the Love and Gospel of Jesus Christ. We hope you will come again when you can.
Sincerely, [Name Withheld]
I’ve sent an e-mail (not a hand-written letter) to Pastor Burch asking if he’d be willing to do an interview to talk about (not debate) his faith and the church’s doctrine. I’m hoping to hear back from him soon.
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.
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!
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:
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?
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!
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!