Church name/type: Reigning Life Family Church/ non-denominational
Pastor: Fred Sanles
Style of worship: Musical praise first, followed by message
This church visit elicited an interesting (and I might say confusing) mix of emotions and reactions in me. I experienced some strong negatives and strong positives.
Size and demographic: The church was small, around 20 people. It might be worth noting that this church has predominantly Black membership with White leadership. I don’t think any other churches I’ve visited have had this combination. Looking around the church website, I also noticed that the pastor and his wife specifically chose to locate and launch a church in Albany’s South End; they aren’t originally from South End or Albany. This may explain the unusual combination.
The vibe: This week I misunderstood service start time and arrived late. Because of this I didn’t get to talk with anyone before service began. After the service, I was immediately greeted and welcomed into a group of women sharing vacation photos. It felt like the weekly potluck dinners my friends host where you show up and you’re immediately ‘in’. I have to be honest here and say this doesn’t often happen at churches with predominantly Black attendees. Usually I am politely left alone or smothered with simple hellos and that’s the end of it. The fact that interactions in other churches of similar demographic have been limited was something of a mystery. The assumption I’d been leaning towards was that we felt the divide, culturally somehow and didn’t quite know how to find the similarities and just start talking, or when we did talk it became clear our lives were somewhat different. Whatever the cause normally, this week I felt like I was swept right into belonging.
After service I also tend to try to find the pastor and chat with her/him. Now, because I work to understand many versions of Christianity (and how they formed, church history, denominational differences, theologies, etc) I sometimes find I have much in common with the pastor. After all, most pastors go to school to understand things like theology and church history. This week however I found it very difficult to relate to the pastor and pastor’s wife. The pastor didn’t have very much to say to me actually. We had both been talking with other people and then spoke briefly, though it was mostly about the church website being unfindable. The pastor’s wife, however, tried to talk with me for several minutes. I say tried because she talked but it didn’t feel like we were making much of a connection. She showed me the church in a quick tour and introduced me to anyone who happened to be standing nearby. It all felt a little random. Then at the end of our conversation she told me she was aware the service wasn’t relevant to the younger generation. To fix this she said they were planning to have a weeknight service that was more ‘urban’. She added that the youth were more used to ‘rap and hip-hop’ and that they hoped implementing different music and technology would be better for the younger crowd. I asked her if she had gotten input from the youth with this plan and she assured me “Oh yes. This is what they want.” I guess I was hesitant to believe that was the case based on use of terminology. The terms she used: rap, hip-hop, urban, and technology are all very buzzy words that may sound good to some, but do they really convey anything relevant? Rap and hip-hop are musical styles. Kids today, as kids of every age, listen to different things. It’s somewhat naive to assume the entire younger demographic will be attracted by this specific change in musical genre and the addition of technology. Content is equally (if not more!) important. You cannot simply spruce up a message by using flashier effects and different music. You have to address topics your target age group is interested in. It also strikes me as misplaced to refer to these stylistic changes as ‘urban’. I know the word ‘urban’ is sometimes used as slang to replace the word ‘Black’. I also know technically ‘urban’ just means in the city. If the youth of this church are on-board with calling what they want ‘urban’ I guess that’s fine. It’s also fine with me if they have really requested rap, hip-hop, and splashier technology. It’s simply hard for me to ignore the fact that these ideas also happen to fit with stereotypes of what youth (and Black youth) are interested in. I seriously hope this doesn’t represent a disconnect between the church membership and leadership.
Although it seems likely the pastor’s wife is out of touch with the younger generation(s), the attempt to relate to youth is at least admirable. I hope they can find a way to actually do it in a productive, respectful manner.
We heard that laughter releases good chemicals into the bloodstream. Laughter is something we should do more of.
I also thought the end of the message regarding unity was nice. We need to put up with one another. That sounds about right.
Well the bulk of the sermon didn’t really do it for me this week. I noticed some strong contradictions and a few disconcerting patterns. One thing that bugs me is when a message feels forced on the listeners. I mean, yes, obviously I choose to show up at these churches and hear what’s being said. What I’m talking about is when the message is spoon-fed to an audience who is then meant to regurgitate the words verbatim just so the speaker can be sure it’s been received. It treats the audience like children. While I understand a speaker feeling like he is speaking to a bunch of easily distractable toddlers, I don’t want to know that’s how I’m being seen. In this case I got a similar feeling from the repeating technique Pastor Sanles was using. He just kept giving us phrases to repeat back at him. It was weird. It was mildly humiliating. It was vaguely brainwashy. I don’t mind reading things collectively. Churches do this all the time with statements of faith like the Nicean Creed. But the repeating thing was done in small bites with no printed guide. I couldn’t be sure of what we were all talking about until the very end. At least with the Nicean Creed you can see the words you are about to recite and decide if it’s something you want to declare out loud.
Disconcerting bit number two was the assertion that worry is a type of sin. Already this creates it’s own problem. I mean- if it bothers you that you sin through worry, it will probably cause you to worry more. The pastor went on to say that worry would lead to fear which would let the devil in. Great, now we have to be concerned this little worry-go-round is going to lead us directly to the devil? Worry is definitely a problem, but calling it a sin that can lead directly to evil seems like a really unhealthy and unhelpful way to think about it- especially given the fact that there was no further elaboration. Can we at least have some strategies for avoiding worry (and therefore sin)? I think it’s a major problem that the sermon did not immediately stop and address this.
The third thing that struck me as problematic was an odd idea about prayer and healing. Pastor Sanles said we are praying over and over for healing but not being healed. The repeated prayers are (according to Pastor) precisely why we do not receive healing. He instructed us to stop praying and just have faith the work is already done. I guess on the one hand I feel like this is trying to say something helpful. It gives a reason prayers are not answered and offers a solution, albeit a strange one; stop praying. On the other hand it calls into question the faith of the unhealed, which is a way of blaming the suffering for their pain. I’m not ok with that.
Another little bit of negativity came while the pastor was describing his recent attempts to fix his washing machine. His point was something about how faith in God helped him achieve success. In the middle of the story he stopped to explain that he’d asked his wife to hold the flashlight for him as he worked. Then, she tried to tell him how to fix it! He laughed as if this was already a great joke and added, “I told her to go back to her garden!” Lest any readers think this was an inside joke on her personal skills (some individuals are better at gardening than mechanics after all), he then added, “and the husbands said AMEN!” So it was meant as a funny joke that’s only funny if you are sexist.
Finally I will mention a point that was made and later contradicted. Early to mid-sermon we heard that following God might require us to fight our senses and our emotions. Not that I think this point makes a lot of sense, mind you- but even if it did, the later part of the sermon spoke of needing to follow our instincts in figuring out what God has in mind for us. Call me crazy, but ‘senses’ ’emotions’ and ‘instincts’ all sound rather interchangeable. Here we are being told to follow God by ignoring what we detect inside us but also to trust what we detect inside us. I hope every week’s sermon doesn’t contain this much contradiction.
Website: For whatever reason it’s virtually impossible to find the church website online. It just doesn’t turn up at all via google search. Here it is so you can check em’ out yourself Reigning Life Church
I am very torn. I found a possible gap in the leadership vs congregation and saw serious problems with the sermon. If I was truly in the market for a “home church” I don’t think I’d return to hear more nonsense from the pulpit. On the other hand I was welcomed warmly by several members who even seem to be approximately my age. I guess I find this frustrating because I like friendly people; I just couldn’t bring myself to attend a church that preaches so much I can’t get behind.