It's been a while since I've been to a Christian church service... essentially, since I've found myself an atheist. But as I've gotten more involved in the North Texas Church of Freethought
, I've become more and more interested in "rediscovering" the Christian church experience, if only to find out if there are religion-neutral qualities to them that might be useful to the NTCOF.
To this end, I've spent the past few weekends visiting some Southern Baptist churches in my area. Southern Baptists, of course, being the predominant Protestant demonination in the state, outnumbering the next-highest demonination (Methodists) by 3 to 1. I've been to most other major demoninations in my time (Presbyterian, Catholic, Lutheran) as well as any number of non-denominational churches. But I've never really been to a good ol' Texas-style Southern Baptist church. Part of this is because I have some good friends that are members of this denomination- staying away from it has been partially intentional, almost like I would for a friend who desperately loves a movie that I find completely distasteful- not watching it means that he never has to hear me say how little I regard something in which he finds deep meaning.
But, these guys are pretty popular, so I thought that I would check them out to see if there was anything helpful they offered. I was somewhat surprised at how similar the services were among different churches- the basic formula went something like this:
I'll point out a few details that I observed, and the silver lining that could be applicable to my needs:
Worship songs: These were generic, upbeat, and repetitious. I suppose it's somewhat cliched to criticize the use of contemporary Christian pop instead of hymns, but I still felt queasy having to listen to them. Of course, having grown up on "A Mighty Fortress is Our God," "And Can It Be That I Should Gain," and "I Greet Thee, Who My Sure Redeemer Art," that may just be my own personal preference. Still, I couldn't help but notice that although their repetitiousness and simplicity is useful to help the (lazy? amelodic?) congregation sing them, they also lend themselves well to a kind of psychological... I'm not sure if I want to say "conditioning," but I'm not sure what else to call it when two hundred people repeat "He knows my name" time after time after time. This is definitely a big draw- there's almost always a multi-intstumental band, a choir, and a choir leader that seems to channel (to varying degrees) the Reverend Cleophus James- with the congregation clapping along and (horror!) applauding after each song. The last song tends to be a huge crescendo, both musically and emotionally, and once it ends the congregation is clearly excited, happy, and ready to hear anything that comes next.
Silver Lining Factor: I don't think that the content of the songs really matters that much. People just enjoy being part of a show- it was very much like being at a concert. This is definitely something that can be reproduced without supernatural content.
Sermon: These were all delivered by well-rehearsed, talented public speakers. The basic undercurrent of each was (in various ways) to provide a sense of meaning and purpose to life (by becoming better Christians, natch). There was also a recurring theme of distinguishing the congregation ("the church") from everyone else ("the world"). This made me a little uncomfortable, because (although I realize this recalls psychological conditioning practices) it struck me as the kind of in-group/out-group conceptualizing that has supported all kinds of religious and social problems throughout human history. Happily, I also heard an emphasis on doing good works as a congregation, particularly as a way to become a better person (by being a good Christian).
Silver Lining Factor: I don't think it would be difficult to have good public speaking skills, and I think it would make sense to emphasize meaning and purpose for Freethinkers and atheists. I also think that there are plenty of oppurtunities for the NTCOF to engage in more charitable activities, and these could give the congregation a stronger connection to each other.
Altar Call: There's no way that anything like this would be possible in a Freethought church, but I did find it fascinating nonetheless. The best pastors moved seamlessly from their sermon into the altar call, usually by carefully crafting the emotional content of their message to peak right before the altar call was made (although there is no altar, and it was not called such). At this point, a handful would march to the steps around the pastor, usually break down crying, and pray. I noticed that most of these individuals usually came from the front row, and was reminded that it tends to be the most pious who are most concerned with their sins. Invariably, the music returned just before this began, and was kept at a subdued level throughout, as the emotions flowed out. It seemed to me that the entire congregation enjoyed a collective cathartic expiation through those that did find the courage to prostrate themselves in front of everyone else... and this gradually waned as the music transitioned into a feature song to be used as an offeratory.
Silver Lining Factor: Clearly, it makes sense to ask for money at the end of the performance, especially after taking everyone through the emotional roller coaster ride of the initial worship songs, then the sermon, and then the resolution of the altar call. It would probably make the most sense to pair any request for money with whatever emotionally-variable content is is the service.
Given my outsider perspective, the psychological content of the average Southern Baptist service appears more clearly, and I'm not sure if I want to use the same kind of methodology in a Freethought context. Even though all supernatural content can be stripped out, it does seem to me to be unethical to use such a manipulative technique- even though it very well may be the most effective way to get a message across.
I'll put it to the readers here- how far is too far to go when borrowing techniques from a Christian church for use in an equivalent situation for Freethinkers?