Church #51, Greater St John’s COGIC

Date: 3/9/14

Church name/type: Greater St. John’s Church of God in Christ (COGIC)

Pastor: McKinley Johnson Sr.

Style of worship: sections for: song, offering, bible verses, praise, sermon, and prayer

Overall Impression: Seems ok

This church was predominantly black; I was one of a couple white people there. I was greeted a number of times, but not overwhelmingly. Those who said hello were friendly and warm. The building is brand new and set to be officially dedicated an upcoming Saturday. It seems to fit the congregation well.

Citing the praise and singing we were having (and foreshadowing the praise later) one of the praise leaders talked about ‘crazy praise’. She explained how it seems crazy to praise at certain times. She said maybe the devil told you to be alone, to go in a corner, don’t get out of bed- BUT he is a liar. I felt like she was talking to me. I don’t believe as literally as some do in forces such as demons and angels. But I understand the feeling of being crushed beneath a weight you cannot explain. Depression is cruel and evil if anything ever was, and it does keep me in bed and alone at times. If I can pull myself out of bed to do something like go to a church, walk, see the sky, or just take a shower, it helps. If crazy praise means getting out of bed even when I don’t know why, I’m all for it and I say do it.

Later in the service the real crazy praise happened. If I’m not mistaken, COGIC is a variety of pentecostal. This means worship can get a little rowdy. At this church some people were jumping and dancing fast. A few were actually jogging around the room. No one fell down, (yes I’ve seen this) but amid the chaos there were some screaming babies. At that point I wondered if it wasn’t all a bit much. I’m torn because venting by making a lot if noise and dancing until very tired seems like it could work well for some people. But babies are intuitive and cry when others are crying. Since they don’t know English yet, you cannot explain what’s happening. So I felt bad about the babies.

The sermon was actually kind of interesting and unexpectedly thought provoking. It was about Moses and Pharaoh. I think I may have missed the central lesson though. It was about the plagues God unleashed on the Egyptians and how each one was meant as a direct blow to an Egyptian god. Example: Blood in the Nile River was against Hopi the river god. Moses keeps trying to get Pharaoh to listen to words but he will not, so Moses has to resort to deeds. This made me realize something. In this story God is something of a terrorist. I guess I should be more startled at a revelation like this, but Old-Testament-God is shown as kind of a brutal jerk. This time at least it’s directed at the enemies of Israel rather than, say, punishment of a citizen for saying ‘God’ aloud.

anticlimactic: After the service I kinda hung around a bit to see if anyone would engage me further. No one did though, which was a bit of a letdown.
During the service visitors were asked to sign visitor cards if we felt comfortable. I didn’t see them anywhere or I definitely would have done one. Someone should perhaps tell the pastor or lay leader to make them more obvious or announce their location.

Church #49, New Horizons Christian Church

Date: 1/26/13

Church name/type: New Horizons Christian Church, a full gospel pentecostal church

Pastor: David Traynham

Style of worship: Praise first, talking (prayer and sermon) after

Overall Impression: I’m very torn. The people all seemed warm and friendly. The message from the sermon was a little off the deep end.

I liked the music. The taking-your-seat music is just prerecorded game-show-sounding worship music. But the actual praise music was much better. One rather talented praise leader played keyboard and sang. At the same time he directed the congregation what lines to sing before they came up. The music was also displayed on screens at the front of the room. I used to hate those screens, but they are definitely an improvement over nothing, which is what I’ve been getting from churches lately.

Everyone who said hello to me before service, after, and in between was very friendly and huggy. No one seemed clingy and a few people even asked about my project; the usual lead-in of course was ‘How did you find us?’ I gave out several website cards. Pastor David also noticed I was new and said hello.

When it was time for the sermon things began to take an odd turn. The title was: There’s a War Going On. Well ok. Based on the title this could be about several things: actual war, war in ourselves to do right, war to find the resources to help those in need… But no, this was a sermon mostly about the end times. The end times are happening now! Or so I was told by Pastor David. We are aware that the end times are in progress because of all the floods, earthquakes, tsunamis, and the danger from the Olympics. And the shootings at schools, on the streets, in churches, and in malls. And all the laws being passed that are anti-God. I gotta admit I am sooo not with pastor on this. Natural disasters happen all the time. Shootings happen pretty often as well, except in places like Australia where gun restrictions are tighter. I guess I really have no idea what anti-God laws are being referenced here so I cannot speak to this one. My biggest problem with all the descriptive world ending talk is that it felt more like fear-mongering than anything else. Some of the descriptions of people killing and maiming others were pretty graphic. I came to church unafraid, was made to understand I should be afraid, and then was told I did not need to be afraid. But for someone listening and believing it all, how would they not be afraid? We heard that the end times are already happening, that everyone will be marked with a number in order to buy and sell. Good Christians who refuse would then starve. And if they did manage to not starve they would face beheading by a gillotine or some type of laser. I don’t have to make this up, it was all in the sermon.

In addition to thematic scariness, there were a number of stand alone statements that I found dubious. I’ll list them out and respond.

1) The anti-Christ will come from the office of the Roman Catholic Pope. The current Pope is just so liberal after all.
(I strongly disagree that the new Pope is problematic. He reaches out to the marginalized, making headlines doing so. That actually seems very pro-Christ.)

2) Religion has sent more people to hell than heroin or prostitutes.
(This statement was in a message about backsliders. Does this mean atheists have the advantage over churchgoers because they can’t slide back to anything?)

3) The world argues with the bible not by good arguments but by loudness of voice.
(This sounds like a stab at either biblical scholarship or non-Christians pointing out the bible’s contradictory nature. Guess what? The bible is contradictory.)

4) I don’t agree with them, but I have no problem with Hitler or Saddam Hussein. God has an end time plan.
(Just because God has a plan doesn’t mean we can forget about anything happening on earth. We still have to live here.)

5) People say – ‘Jesus has been coming back for years and isn’t back yet? Let’s live it up!’
(Does anyone really say this? I am skeptical that this is the way it works inside anyone’s mind. This also feels like a very weird statement to make given the fact that Pastor David’s advice to his grandson regarding death was not to worry and just enjoy life.)

And finally there were some dichotomies that I felt needed to be presented as much grayer. Pastor David contends that all was chaos for the Israelites before Moses came down from the mountain with the ten commandments. Similarly, all is supposedly chaos within us before we are saved. I see that as too simplistic. It does not account for any kind of conscience until a person is introduced to Jesus (or Moses?). I know people who are and were capable of knowing right from wrong before being told about Jesus. We also heard from Pastor David about people who hurt others- killers and shooters. Pastor says they are selfish and suggests selfishness as the primary and perhaps only motivation for these events. This ignores many other factors including: depression, desperation, and mental illness -just to name a few. We heard how the current generation is the “un-generation” because of all the things they are not. Listed in 2nd Timothy 3:2-7 are these descriptors: selfish, proud, boastful, disobedient to parents, unthankful and unholy. This paints youngsters with pretty broad strokes. Should I assume those in church (like the pastor’s grandson) are exempt from these descriptors? We also heard that ‘flesh’ would love to blow someone’s brains out or sleep with someone’s wife. I have never thought either of these things. I am sure there are people who have never thought these things. We are not barely restrained animals keeping from murdering others because of Jesus. There is no reason to frame our impulses this way, even for those who deal with strong impulses. It seems like simply more scare tactics. To me that is a horrible way of bringing people to Jesus.

Any good stuff?: There was a portion of the message that reminded us that we are not here to judge others. We were told to remember that others belong to God and they have a purpose. Just because we do not know their purpose, we don’t get to treat them badly. So I guess that’s. Something.

Church #45, Powerhouse City of Deliverance, part two

So this church had so much going on I decided to put it in two installments. I will now continue.

Beliefs: This church did not mention or claim a bigger group that they are a member of, such as a denomination. Instead they read a series of faith statements before the sermon. Here are the ones I managed to write down:
We believe the bible is infallible.
We believe in the trinity.
We believe Christ will return.
We believe repentance and faith save us from sin.
We believe the Holy Spirit is needed for salvation.
We believe in baptism with the Holy Spirit.
We believe in the ministry outlined in Ephesians. (Anyone know what this is?)

In addition the church recited the Apostles Creed together, so they must believe in that.

Pre-sermon: After a call for ‘testimonies’ several people came up and shared positive news. At other churches this section might be called praises or joys.

Sermon: So I had some trouble understanding parts of the sermon, mostly because of the acoustics in this church but also partly because I had some difficulty with the dialect of the pastor and copastor. The church membership is mostly Black, and the some of the speech patterns are less familiar to me. Properly stated, this is an probably example of African American Vernacular English, which has usage differences as well as pronunciation differences from what ever dialectic category I fall under. Now that you’ve had your linguistics lesson for today, let’s continue with the parts of the sermon I was able to catch.

The sermon started with 2 ways evil/problems may enter your life. The first is by God, the second through sin. The example for God causing evil is the story of Job. I have mixed feelings about blaming God for problems. I’ve encountered the idea before in the following form; God tests us by giving us hard things to experience and it is through this that we grow. I get that it’s mechanism for people to understand their problems by, but I’m not sure it squares well with the how I feel about God being all about love.

The second way for evil to enter your life is through sin. This does make some sense to me. Making mistakes in life can lead to a string of problems. Saying sin leads to evil is another way of saying this. Explaining the two reasons for evil are better than a single blanket reason. If the explanation doesn’t go too far into specifics this leaves it up to the individual to decide if there are changes that need to be made or if it’s an opportunity for growth. Of course I’m interpreting very broadly here about both these interpretations of sin. The nice thing about this sermon was that it wasn’t that specific about what falls into the categories, so I could be more metaphorical in my interpretation.

The only other things I wrote in my notes were a couple of statements that spoke to me. The first went, “Don’t look at me like I’m God, I’m human.” This is a great thing to put in a sermon. Pastors have whatever power leadership brings. It’s a good sign when a leader, especially a religious leader, acknowledges their own humanity and propensity to failure. Sometimes the opposite happens and a religious leader claims exclusive access to God and them runs with it, convincing others to follow into negative stuff. Looking at Jesus, who did claim access to God, I notice even he empowered others to access God. I’m thinking of the times he told his disciples to heal others, pray for miracles and give money to those in need.

The second cool thing that was said was, “God’s gonna free you from religion.” This was a week in which I felt God nudging me, and this was one of the bits that drove that home. I do feel like we are constricted by religion. I do feel that what I’m looking for, what I’d really like to find in my project, is less religion and more of a feeling; a sense that this is ok and I can be myself with those who will not care about my quirks or find my thought processes too odd. I want something indescribable. When I think about the word religion it feels like a thing that is all too often filled with rules and gestures that are empty. Pastor says God’s gonna free me from this. Well, I sure hope that’s right.

Church #45, Powerhouse City of Deliverance, part one

Date: 11/17/13

Church name/type: Powerhouse City of Deliverance, Pentecostal

Pastor: Pastor Evan and Copastor Patterson

Style of worship: Loud fun music with lots of dancing and jumping. The sermon was interrupted by spontaneous song several times.

Overall Impression: actually I liked it

History in Brief:
This church was in neither the phone book or any websites I could find. Digging around online I did find a bit about the building’s history. It was originally the German Evangelical Protestant Church. At some point it was referred to as just Evangelical Protestant Church. (The sign outside still bears this name and old, incorrect times of worship.) Later it was used by a UCC group. Currently it is used by the Powerhouse group, which is Pentecostal.

I arrived at the time advertised on the sign; 10:30. Instead of a church service about to start I found people inside serving breakfast. They invited me to eat so I did. I took a seat and asked about church. I was told church starts at 11:30 with prayer and 12:00ish for the actual service and that breakfast is served to anyone who shows up between 9am and 11am. I had a bit of conversation with some ladies who were sitting around having breakfast. We spoke a bit about my project and they asked me what I was looking for and what I’d found. During the conversation I said that I was disappointed with some churches for failing to show me friendliness or take much notice of me at all. This was notably the case in my visit to the Catholic Church closest to my house. One of the women told me I shouldn’t look for friendliness per se because:
“You don’t know where they’re coming from or what they’ve got going on.” Which I think I can agree with in general. If someone is hurting I can’t expect friendliness to be the first thing on their mind. I don’t expect this would ever be true for an entire church, but I get what she was saying. The other woman (who turned out to the copastor) said we need to be the ones who reach out to others and make what God wants a reality.- “It’s all on us to show that love,” she told me.
I also talked for a few minutes with some guys who wandered in for breakfast. They were trying to decide what to do with their morning and whether to include church or not. They seemed nice. While I was there one woman I met offered first me and then the three guys help if we needed it. That’s a huge blanket statement to make and she did seem sincere. Clearly this church wants to be able to help others. One visit isn’t enough to tell me how much help this church is really able to give, but the free breakfast seems like a nice way to go.

Praise portion:
So the service starts with something a woman told me was “intercessory prayer”. Instead of a formal prayer this felt much more like a preparatory space cleansing. Church members walked up and down the aisles and sides and front of the church chanting words and phrases and sometimes clapping. Most of what they said was in English but I noticed some of it was in tongues. (Those unclear on tongues: it’s a spiritual language some Christian groups believe in. The words don’t mean anything in any earthly language and those unfamiliar with tongues may perceive it as gibberish.) The chanting went on for at least twenty minutes and sometime rose to a modest shout. I was unclear on whether the prayer was meant to be participatory for everyone so I stayed in my seat.
After a while the band started to strum a little and a group of people assembled up front began to sing. The instrumentation was drums, guitar and keyboard and the music…if music rocks do you call it rock? I’m not a genre expert but it was very intense. The first song was one I recognized, so I sang along. After this I was unfamiliar with the music, but I did some clapping.
The acoustics in the room were rather bad, giving the music a blurry quality. I had great difficulty understanding the words of songs I didn’t already know. Also the sound was cranked right up to eleven, so it permeated my entire body from all sides it seemed. I did enjoy the music, and being unable to hear the lyrics left me free to think whatever thoughts came to me. It was weirdly relaxing and I found myself wandering about a string of ideas regarding secular music, worship, prayer, and God’s existence.
The most unusual part was the frenzy of the worship team. They sang loudly when there were words and at other times danced; quite fast sometimes. The dance involved a lot of stomping and shaking. The floor was moving and everything was full of energy. One woman actually collapsed on the floor. This must happen occasionally because no one made a big deal about it and someone brought a white cloth and placed it around her.

Part two of this church description will be up next week.

Church #38, Iglesia Pentecostal


Church name/type: Iglesia Pentecostal, some type of Pentecostal I imagine. This was a Spanish speaking church. Iglesia is the Spanish word for church BTW.

Pastor: I’m not actually sure of the pastor’s name. She was a non-English speaker and we only interacted a little.

Style of worship: first prayer, then scripture mixed with song, sermon, and more intense prayer- The entire thing took a little over three hours. The songs were repetitive and with breaks for short witness-type explanations (God put this in my heart). The sermon was also something like an hour.

Overall Impression: Actually was a pretty short three hours.

Thoughts: Admittedly I was terrified of this particular week’s church. The door says 11am – 2pm; that’s three hours potentially all in Spanish. I took some Spanish in high school but it’s been a long time. However, from the start it actually felt pretty comfortable. People smiled at me and tried to accommodate me in English as I spoke my bad Spanish at them. The music was loud and fun, as well as repetitive enough to catch onto the words eventually. This church also had a nice range of diversity in its membership. A few of the members probably identify as black; from that all the way to the little blonde girl made a wide variety of brown shades. I fit just fine in that respect. There was English translation of the service by a bilingual member. She really impressed me. Translation on the fly is hard, and it’s not like she was a professional translator or anything.

Much of the service was fun, comfortable and interesting. There were, however parts of the message I don’t think I can get behind. Some of it was the usual ‘we have the truth and no one else does’ type stuff. And there was an odd amount of focus on demons. We prayed to expel demons at the start of worship and we learned that demons can mess with you if you aren’t wearing God’s armor (faith and love). The story of Daniel and the cloud of demons around him was referenced. So many demons were surrounding him, it took God’s angel a week to get to him- if I remember the story correctly. Also there was a heavy focus on God being behind bad things that happen. We heard that story from Acts where Paul tells a couple to give money to the church. Paul knows they are withholding cash from the church. When they act surprised, Paul scolds them and they fall down dead one after another. Am I supposed to believe God will strike me down dead if I lie? Chilling. Although it is hard to get a complete sense from another language how closely this is actually believed.

Would I go back?: Maybe. The friendliness is a strong positive factor. And this place probably had my favorite music so far.

Church #31, New Hope Ministries, South Campus

Date: 5/26/13

Church name/type: New Hope Ministries South Campus- based on something the pastor said during the sermon, I believe this church is either Pentecostal or following a Pentecostal tradition.
9/22/13 Update: This church is a part of a Pentecostal denomination called The Assemblies of God.

Tag team of pastor/elders includes:
Keith Davey
Joel Schaperjahn
Randy Hall
Doreen Harding
Christopher Brantigan

Style of worship: Jam band style worship followed by sermon

Overall Impression: Mixed

I’ve had a long break from the new places, and surprisingly this doesn’t get much easier. I was nervous. The church is small; several rooms together including worship space and childcare but apparently little or nothing more. As a ‘south campus’ it’s clearly part of another church which may be bigger. Walking inside I was greeted cheerfully by several youngish people. The entire demographic was rather on the young side. I tend to like that, as it gives exuberance and life to a place. I also noticed that I’m suddenly part of a Caucasian minority inside a church full of Latinos and African Americans. It was kind of nice to see such variety. It’s not like anyone there made me feel out of place. I had a couple of the leaders wander over to greet me, having seen that I was new. They welcomed me and asked a question or two then left me alone. If you follow my blog then you know I’m a big fan of an appropriately short welcome. I like to be noticed, talked to briefly, then let alone. This way I know the church pays attention to its members and recognizes newcomers, but doesn’t become clingy and desperate after meeting you. So the welcome was right on target.

I don’t normally comment about the jam style music anymore because it’s so similar from place to place. In this case I liked what the keyboardist was doing. He had the keyboard set to a very convincing synthetic ‘string section’ and was using it to fill out the sound a bit. Other than this, it was your standard praise session. There were lots of claps and shouts, but no speaking in tongues that I detected. I’ve never been entirely comfortable with all that shoutiness, but I know it works for some people, so I guess that’s good.

After singing and praying for a while, we got to the sermon. It was also somewhat shouty. It was an examination of Genesis 20. Abraham and Sarah meet a king named Abimelech. Abraham claims he and Sarah are just siblings and as a result Abimelech decides to marry Sarah. Before he can consummate the marriage, God shows up in his dreams and tells him to back off. Abimelech says, ‘But God, I didn’t know she was married.’ And God says, ‘Yeah, I know. You still have integrity in your heart. But didn’t you wonder why you hesitated having intimate relations with her? I stopped you. Now go hand her back to Abraham.’ And he does.

So the pastor had several takes on various parts of this story. Integrity was a major theme. It was often equated with honesty. Integrity is important but hard to keep. You have to get everything right and build up a great reputation. There was also a focus on taking responsibility for sins we didn’t intend. Some of the laws in Leviticus also support this. Actually the idea of unintended sins or mistakes was one I touched on a while back in my post on repentance. I think it’s hard to admit mistakes, and perhaps more so if we are aware that we only meant for good. But we still should try to fix things when they are bad. Dunno what Abraham’s deal is in this story- lying and whatnot. Or God’s deal. He didn’t just use his supernatural powers to protect Sarah. For some reason he also made all Abimelech’s household barren for the duration of the sham marriage. Seems a bit jerk-like.

Early in the sermon before the stuff from Genesis, something else strange happened. The pastor spoke about God being ill-pleased with our worship. Something about exalting God with only half a heart was the problem. This criticism confused me. We weren’t exalting hard enough? To reiterate the importance of exalting, the pastor gave us instructions on when to exalt God. (Hint: it’s all the time) Exalt God when we are sad. Exalt God when we are lonely and heavy. Exalt God when we aren’t sure he even exists…ok so this one seemed odd to me, more and more as I thought about it yesterday. On one level it sounds stupid to exalt someone who might not be there. But what else does this instruction imply? Was it how the pastor himself was feeling on Sunday? And is it sanctioned as allowable for church members to feel this way? I would think yes, if its worked into a sermon. This church is saying it’s ok if you aren’t sure. It’s ok to have less than 100% certainty God is out there. It may even be the case that salvation is extended to those who don’t know if they can believe. Because who can believe this stuff all the time? Some of it is pretty wild after all.

The last thing I noticed was a lack of after-service fellowship time. They seem to have weekly activities which perhaps take the place of this custom, however, I still feel it’s lack whenever I find it missing. I might have stayed longer to chat if there had been food, somewhere to stand, something to do with my hands, something to compliment, etc.

What are you doing for the community?: Several things actually. They are trying to set up a men’s home- presumably for men who might otherwise be homeless. There is a women’s program providing emotional support and skills training. They also have teen and kid programs that include activities and food. It sounds like they try to involve themselves where the need is.