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A tale of two churches

Imagine that on two successive weekends you attend two different churches.

At church A you arrive and walk up the steps toward two large, wooden doors stained dark brown that open to the sanctuary.

Inside it is dark, and you have to stop for a moment for your eyes to adjust. You receive a programme from the greeters, and then someone takes you down the aisle toward a pew. Everything is quiet. Everyone is hushed.

Filtered light comes through the delicate stained glass panels depicting scenes from the Bible. The altar is in the centre of the platform ahead, and when you reach the pew where you sit, you realise there is a kneeling rail at the foot of the pew in front of you.

People are alone in their thoughts. The organ begins to play and it is soft music, but rich from the depths of old metal pipes.

Suddenly, the volume of the organ increases and the pace of the hymn picks up. From the back the voices of a choir can be heard. You turn to see a procession beginning.

There is someone carrying a large Bible, another with a large crucifix on a pole, priests and attendants in robes, and then the choir.

As they walk past you can feel your heart beat faster. The sound of their voices is exciting, and it rouses you to sing with them.

You feel moved by the lyrics affirming that, indeed, God is a mighty fortress and a bulwark never failing. You feel hushed and more reverent as the choir takes its place up front and the priest comes to rest behind the altar.

He speaks the words of a collect for reverence, followed by several readings: one from the Old Testament Psalms, one from the Epistle to the Romans, and one from the Gospel of John.

The choir punctuates each with a chorus. The congregation stands for a responsive reading of the Nicene creed.

You sit and the choir sings a hymn that sounds very “classical,” and old. You notice that indeed it came from the seventeenth century.

The lyrics have several stanzas of mounting theological content, but the music is staid and not very rousing. Then comes the sermon, followed by another hymn and the offering.

Everything is done with solemnity, and it all comes and goes with precision, leading to a predictable ending one hour after beginning.

The choir and the priests go out as they came in, and from the back of the sanctuary, the priest utters the benediction.

The people leave quietly, not stopping to actually engage one another until they have exited the sanctuary.

At church B you arrive at a school gymnasium.

People greet you at the door with a smile and a hearty welcome There is no programme. There is no one to show you where to sit.

You wander into the expanse of the gym and notice chairs arranged facing one direction where a large sound stage has been created.

All the lights are on, and it's bright in there. Several microphones on stands, amplifiers, guitars and a bass wait up front. There is also an electronic keyboard.

Contemporary religious music is playing very softly over the sound system, but no one is paying attention to it.

They are all busy greeting one another and catching up with one another's lives. There is a loud hum in the room from all that chatter.

You see someone you know from work and wave. Suddenly, the soft music stops and a drummer begins with a loud, steady beat that echoes in the gym, and you can feel the bass drum shake your insides every time the drummer kicks it.

People appear behind the microphones and they are clapping their hands. Everyone joins in.

The guitars and bass start playing and the singers start singing a popular chorus from a contemporary Christian music artist.

The musicians and singers make it their own. It keeps going and the intensity swells, and then they modulate the key and move right into a different one.

This all goes on for about thirty minutes, and the intensity of the music is pumped up by the occasional praises of the worship leader who calls out directly to God and asks that the Holy Spirit come upon them all with power.

The people are standing for the entire time, clapping their hands, and as the intensity increases some of them start dancing, and they move out into the aisles for more room to do so.

The pastor is one of the musicians; at one point he walks from behind the keyboard and comes out front with a hand-held microphone. He starts praising God.

Four men pick up a small pulpit and move it to the front, and the pastor sings his way to a place behind it.

However, he doesn't remain there. He is moving constantly back and forth from one side of the sound stage to the other, looking into the eyes of the people close and sometimes smiling at this one or that one.

His sermon begins without notice; it simply emerges from the singing. After a moment the other singers and musicians realise the transition that has taken place, and they leave the sound stage to find a place with the other people.

The pastor preaches an expository sermon for an hour, and then he begins to come to a close. But he cannot.

Each time he seems to move toward an ending some new association, some new exhortation, some new point occurs to him, and he cannot stop.

Finally, at an hour and fifteen minutes into his sermon, he grows quiet. The room becomes still. Someone has taken over the keyboard and is playing a hymn very softly.

The pastor begins to cry. He is overcome with the beauty of God and the magnitude of God, and he keeps uttering the broken sentence, “I can't … I can't.”

Then someone comes forward to stand as if before an altar, but of course there is no altar.

The pastor puts his head together with the man and they are talking for a while. The music continues softly. The congregation sways, and you hear people praying out loud from here and there in the room.

Finally, the pastor looks up and he says: “I want you to receive our new brother.”

He mentions the man's name and says that he has just received the Lord, meaning he has just expressed that he wants Jesus to be his personal saviour.

The congregation breaks out in loud and spontaneous applause, the music picks up, and the pastor starts singing another chorus.

The whole place joins in with him and the room is once more charged with loud excitement.

It is now close to two hours since you walked into Church B, and the pastor raises his hand, the keyboardist plays more quietly, the congregation brings the singing down to the ground, and the pastor utters a benediction and wishes everyone a safe week.

The service is over, but people remain in their places or walk over to others and start talking with them. The music continues.

Gradually over the next twenty minutes people straggle out of the gymnasium. What kinds of meaning making goes on with the people in such experiences?

Perhaps the first one speaks of respect and awe or perhaps it speaks of deadness and irrelevance.

Perhaps the second one speaks of encounter with God through the presence and movement of the Holy Spirit or it speaks of emotional excess and disrespectful familiarity.

Is there a right and a wrong here? Or just difference?

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Published December 03, 2013 at 8:00 am (Updated December 02, 2013 at 7:15 pm)

A tale of two churches

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