Internet Goosing the Antithesis

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Borrowing the Silver Lining

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:
  1. Worship songs
  2. Prayer
  3. Announcements
  4. Sermon
  5. Altar Call
  6. Offering
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?

Post a Comment


At 10/03/2007 11:18 AM, Blogger mcrumiller declaimed...

This is an interesting post, and it brought me to wonder something I hadn't previously thought about: we all know that southerners are, generally, more conservative and susceptible to the Christian brainwashing that you so well described. This is mostly blamed on the fact that, in the Northeast (and California I suppose), people are taught to question everything, take a critical and objective approach to mysteries, and to think for themselves. But one other thing this post made me notice is how boring Church in the Northeast is compared to the South. I grew up, like many others, attending church every Sunday, and like almost everyone else I knew--I hate d it. Sunday school was boring, the sermons (for a child at least) were unbearable, the hymns were typical, repetetive, and lame--there was nothing "uplifting" about the experience. The whole "shivers of ecstacy" deal is probably a large contributing factor that we (I) missed out on.

At 10/03/2007 5:24 PM, Blogger Zachary Moore declaimed...

That brings up another interesting question, actually: are the distinctive qualities of different demoninations more a function of their own particular cultural context, rather than doctrinal disputes?

In other words, is the Southern Baptist Conference more than just a Baptist confederation that happens to be based in the South, but rather a cultural expression of particular Southern idiosyncrasies?

Anyone who grew up in East Texas can feel free to chime in.

At 10/04/2007 11:17 AM, Blogger David B. Ellis declaimed...

For a freethinkers group I would be more inclined to draw on Buddhist practices (more toward the zen than the tibetan end of the spectrum). Buddhism just seems more amenable to dropping the supernaturalist content and still working than christianity does.

And, reflecting the freethinking rather than authoritarian attitude, following a "sermon" I would hold a group discussion of the ideas presented in it.

At 10/05/2007 5:12 PM, Blogger Chris declaimed...

I grew up a Southern Baptist, and remained so until I was mid-twenties (I'm 37 now). I did flirt with other denominations during that time, MANY others. One commentator above notes that he/she hated the worship services growing up. So did I. Sometime around when I started college, the predominant format seemed to change in quite a few of the SB churches FROM the standard boring format to something much like what Dr. Zach has described. Maybe it was just my selection of churches at that time.

The semi-megachurch I last attended had somewhat of a superstar preacher, a production-quality orchestra, paid entertainment, thousands of members, and an incredible selection of activities and programs. Side note: This preacher actually went on after I left to become the President of the Southern Baptist Convention, and has since founded a new megachurch in the Atlanta area.

Anyway, my commentary on the new format: While I was a Christian, the psychological effect of the whole thing did keep drawing me in, quite a contrast to my memory of church as a child. I suppose that "uplifting" environment had something to do with why it was my mid-twenties before I abandoned membership (realizing my atheism at 28 or so) rather than years earlier when cognitive dissonance was already nagging at me.

So, bottom line on what could be replicated without compromising our ethical sensibilities. The music could work. No real manipulation there, and it can be good for building group cohesion. That would depend heavily on having someone with ample skill to function as a music director, and to select in the interest of the group. As for lectures, a frequent focus on life meaning and ethical considerations is also valuable. I think much could be lifted, less the manipulation gimmicks.

Our local freethought group (Atlanta Freethought Society) usually has excellent lecturers on a variety of topics, but the focus of the meetings tend to be the lecture. Other activities do include some charitable work such as highway cleanup and such, which is worthwhile (and maybe I'll participate one of these times). Dan Barker visited on one occasion and sang some of his own tunes. That was a real hit.

Keep us posted. If you do successfully integrate any of what you've observed, please do a follow-up. A working format that accomplishes what some of these elements could provide would be of real value to other freethought societies as well as your own.

At 10/08/2007 7:26 PM, Blogger breakerslion declaimed...

Chris said: "So did I. Sometime around when I started college, the predominant format seemed to change in quite a few of the SB churches FROM the standard boring format to something much like what Dr. Zach has described. Maybe it was just my selection of churches at that time."

Nope. This was a deliberate and well-documented trend toward what the Southern Black churches had been doing for at least a century. Quiet dignity flew out the window in favor of attendance and revenue.

"The music could work. No real manipulation there...."

Are you kidding? The response to tribal drums is almost instinctive to humans, and repetition is hypnotic ("For He is Lord, He is Lord, He is Lord! Everybody!"

"Get on your feet and do the Funky Alphonso" - Frank Zappa

As for borrowing, borrow away. None of the ritual forms are original to the Christian Church, just the content. Hucksters of get rich/feel good/lose weight schemes and other snake-oil salesmen have adopted this format. As long as everyone is having a good time, no harm done. The minute it becomes manipulative, coercive, lucrative, or affirmative of a power heirarchy, you have let power over others corrupt you.



Create a Link

<< Home