Notes from Church (a college student's religious experiment)
I woke up last Sunday wanting some fire’n’brimstone so I went to my first Baptist service. Just some background: I was raised Catholic. By 16, I was comfortable openly calling myself agnostic. I played around with “atheist” but for anyone who was raised in a Christian household—that’s kind of a big jump, even if all your (lack of) beliefs fit the bill. Summing up my religious history in two sentences is kind of unreal; you’re not getting the full picture. Think: Catholic guilt. Also think: diagnosed depression.
That was highschool. Entering college I dropped the thought long enough for me to cool down and now I’m ready to approach the subject again. I’m tired of wordy God conversations over drinks and listening to makeshift anti-Christ preachers. Everyone seems weighted and biased and now I want to answer some of my own questions.
The church I chose this Sunday was huge. I found out the appeal of service. I sat there taking notes, listening to a preacher on stage talking earnestly in the mic taped to his face. I expected the sermon to be mostly Our Lord’n’Savior, but actually, surprisingly, pleasantly, He wasn’t mentioned that much. I sat there for two hours and didn’t get restless like I do in movie theatres or in classes. I watched him, I listened, I tried to figure out why people came here every week. I thought about all the atheists I knew. I thought about online atheist forums. I thought about the hatred for Christians and I remembered the Fag-Haters and Anti-BC; Procreation Advocators.
I thought about the financial backing it would take to run this beautiful facility. I thought about all the polished shoes and clean cut hair and the interracial couple to my right and the couple with full sleeve tattoos in front of me. I listened to the preacher—the honest, good, preacher. I heard him offhandedly mention to me how bad and trashy rap was, just like I heard him tell me to try and get my friends to come to this church with me, same as I heard him tell me that kids should be disciplined more. More than that, though? More than I heard “Baptism” or “Christ”, I heard how often he told me loved me. I heard the rhythm of his voice. I paid attention to the excitement in his voice and after he’d start talking fast or loud or if he stayed on one subject for too long I heard him break the intensity with genuine humor. Just as my attention started to waver, he’d make a gesture or vary his voice. He’d make jokes about kids or he’d tell a brief story about his actually interesting family life. He was an expert.
He focused on the unity of the congregation and the realness of human to human relationships. He told me he was my spiritual leader because he loved me. The sincerity in his voice was what held my attention as well as everyone else’s. Isn’t that what we want, anyway—to be loved, unique, wanted, whatever? While I was sitting there, even though he DID talk about God, I didn’t really feel that God mattered. I’m not ignoring the bible thumpers that were around me. The preacher even mentioned them—negatively. He lightly reprimanded the bible parrots during his segment on how we should focus on strengthening our minds. (strong mind = strong emotions; know what your talking about = know you have good faith) He preached on how we should read and actually know what we are talking about, before we talked about it to other people. I only wish he didn’t focus on only reading the Bible. While he did rightly tell us that we should keep in mind that the Bible was written by a radically different culture, he counteracted that with saying that everything that was true then is true now, too.
I sat there like, “wow I was so close to being completely on board!” Yes, please, people, read. Strengthen your mind! Read everything you can about your belief. I’m not talking about only the books that pet you on the head and tell you that you’re so right. Get all sides and try and figure out why you believe what you believe. It can either only make your belief stronger and provide you with better ways to discuss your religion to the secularists, or it could lead you on a whole different type of journey. Both are about improvement/self-growth and that’s the point of “faith” on a personal level. The actual church part of my experience is more important though.
I left after service and wanted to go back. Everyone felt that way though—why else do 300+ people drive there every single Sunday to listen to this man? I don’t think it was about Jesus. If all concept of God disappeared tomorrow, churches would still be full on Sunday. It was about the togetherness of the congregation. It was the fact that in the lobby there were signup sheets for youth groups or knitting circles or bible studies or whatever. It was the community and the human confidence of belonging to something big. The preacher even mentioned the social aspect of his church during the sermon. He said this when encouraging the “unchurched” (me) to join his fellowship: “if you find yourself alone with a tumor, boy you’re in trouble.” Excuse the blandness of the text. You have to realize I heard this over an hour into looking at his sincere face. Point is—if someone in his congregation went to chemo, it would look like Tuesday Morning set up shop in their house that day. On top of that, they’d have 300+ people thinking about them in the Sunday following. It’s about support. What would the average secularist have? I just feel like if you’re Baptist and you reached out to your megachurch for help, you’d be a Sunday morning superstar.
Asking why church exists is like asking why support groups are real. Why does group therapy work? Why does PTA exist? Why any book club? Why any organization? Even though I don’t believe in a god the way Christianity describes it, I enjoyed the Baptist sermon. I walked out of there wanting to go back just because the preacher made me feel like I was a part of something human, communal, if just for two hours. The service let me understand the Church Routine from an emotional and social point of view. So surprisingly, I didn’t reach any sort of spiritual clarity while holding my tiny dollar coffee and being squeezed between two perfume floral strangers. I appreciated the message of unity, unconditional love being real in the world and being golden to your neighbor. While I am not a Christian by definition, I think I will still try and “live like one” until I see something that makes me want to retract that sentiment. For now I’m ignoring the aborted fetus bus that occasionally rides through my town. I don’t know why the radically religious feel the need to be terrorists but I don’t even want to begin to think of that right now.
I have more questions now. Why do secularists seem to keep quiet? Why aren’t there, like, humanist sermons? Why don’t the science-minded meet and preach to lay people like me? Does it really take the idea of something divine and eternal to bring such a large gathering—are imperfect people not enough for each other?