At one point in my life, church was everything. Choir, youth group, bible study, mission trips, I did it all. When my family moved to North Houston, we joined a small church called The Woodlands United Methodist. My sister and I used to sit on the end of the front pew, while my parents looked down on us from the choir loft. Their friends always commented on how well-behaved we were. We were always dressed in our “Sunday best”. My dad wore a suit and tie, my mom wore dresses.
Church on Sunday was a given. If you missed church on Sunday, it was only because you were either very sick or out-of-town. Even then we usually attended an out-of-town service. My mom directed children’s choir and taught Sunday school for the kids. My dad taught Sunday school for adults and served on the Pastor Parish Relations Committee. He helped interview and hire many of the pastors still at that church, who helped to build the mega church that it is now. My parents circle of friends all went to our church. My social circle was comprised almost entirely of church kids.
Youth choir sang in the service prior to “big people’s” church. I think that was at 10AM. Most of the time I would go to Sunday school after singing in my service. Sometimes I sang in more than one service, usually on Holidays like Easter, but mostly I ended up in Sunday school. We would go home at lunch time and I would be back on Sunday afternoon/night for choir practice and youth group. Throw in mission trips and bible studies and small groups and special activities, and it quickly became all-encompassing. I was a church kid.
Youth group for me was primarily a social experience, I’ll admit it. I’m sure it was for a lot of kids. Youth choir for me was just a chance to sing more, because I was already heavily involved in school choir, plus my parents sang in adult choir. It was in my blood I suppose. When we were out-of-town and attended a different church, sometimes my folks would sing in the choir to “help out”. On the rare occasion that my dad wasn’t in the choir, he was notorious for singing as loud as he could in the congregation. It’s funny to look back on it now, but man it was a challenge when my peers would turn around and stare at him in shock. I think that it really just encouraged him to sing louder.
So ya, church for me was primarily a venue for my social agenda, even though saying that I had any kind of agenda would be a genuine stretch. Mostly I just wanted to stare at cute girls and talk to my friends.
I did think though that I had a legitimate relationship with God/Jesus/Christ, whatever the right word is. I though that I was pretty close with the guy in the robe and Birkenstocks. I prayed when everyone else did. I sang the hymns and praise/worship songs with enthusiasm and “feeling”. I listened to the sermon and took communion. I went on the mission trips and was a good representative of the church. I did the foot washing ceremonies and tried to learn how to be a witness. I even stood up and gave my “testimony”. I gave the testimony of a zero drama teenager from the suburbs, even trying to get emotional during it, so that I could “fit in”. Seriously.
On Facebook a while back, there was a post from one of my friends from that time about the songs that we used to sing every Sunday in youth group. One was called The Party’s Over, by Kenny Marks. It was about a teenage couple (Jeannie and Johnny) who had premarital sex at a party, got married and then Johnny divorced Jeannie and left her with the kid. The chorus was “The party’s over. It was fun while it lasted, but it ain’t no fun no more. The party’s over. Now they wondered what they hurried for.” It never dawned on me how brainwashing those songs were attempting to be. I remember harmonizing with my choir friends to them, NEVER once stopping to think about what I was actually singing. There were countless praise and worship songs just like that one. The Facebook comment thread eventually included my old youth minister, admitting to how awful and ridiculous those songs were. The weird thing is that in the moment, everyone seemed to be very moved and connected to the message. I remember that around my senior year in high school, I started to notice the developing trend of raising your hands and swaying back and forth during particularly “moving” times. I also noticed that there was an increased frequency of tears on Sunday nights. The more emotion that was shown, the more the leaders would talk about the spirit being in the room. Everyone seemed to be competing for who could feel the it the most.
I didn’t think much of it at the time. After all, like I said, I was mostly interested in girls.
I think about it a lot now though. You see, as soon as I graduated and headed to college, it was all over. As soon as my social circle had gone their separate ways, I joined a new social circle. I found the non-believers and was easily swayed to their way of thinking, because the truth is that I had never been a true believer. Their message was that church goers were sheep, blinded by a false message of hope and eternal life. I thought that I was a deeply christian guy and that I had this great base of moral superiority, but it was all a facade. It all crumbled so easily.
I remember driving to church on Sunday mornings and playfully yelling at the people who were out walking and exercising on Sunday morning to “go to church!”. It was strange, but we felt like we were doing it right. We were making the right choice. We had it figured out and we felt sorry for those who had apparently chosen a different path.
Disclaimer : I love my family to pieces and I support their beliefs and faith with all of my heart. This is one hundred percent about me. I was given an amazing childhood and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
Back in February this year, a quote was posted on one of my social media feeds that read:
“Being privately spiritual but not religious just doesn’t interest me. There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself. What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on your stuff or, heaven forbid, disagree with you. Where life with God gets rich and provocative is when you dig deeply into tradition that you did not invent all for yourself.” – Lillian Daniel
That quote stood out to me and really defined the struggle that I have had for the majority of my adult life. I’m not going to speak for any of my peers, but for me, centering my childhood and formative years around the church taught me a lot about how to be a giving and thoughtful person. It taught me how to be a good and decent person. I had great friends and had a lot of memorable times. I have a lot of fond memories of time spent with my family. I’m thankful to have spent so many important years in a safe and supportive environment. I’m thankful to my parents for that.
The church gave me so many things, but it didn’t give me religion. It didn’t give me a relationship with something bigger than myself, and I have been haunted by that for too long.
As far as the quote by Lillian Daniel referenced above, here are my thoughts. The church isn’t a comfortable place for those who are disillusioned. If you’ve lost your faith or if you feel like you never really had it, bringing that fragility into an environment where you are called on your stuff or disagreed with can be a very daunting prospect. Granted, there may be congregations out there where one could feel comfortable in their doubt and be allowed to safely grow in their faith, but you shouldn’t have to drive two hours to find it. You shouldn’t have to try churches on and hopefully find one that fits you just right. It’s easy for the church to have the perspective that true faith is only found when you dig deep into tradition and join the community, because it helps to fill their pews. The message of “Hey you, staying at home and trying to figure this out by yourself, that’s not how it’s done. You need us to show you the proper way. Without us you don’t stand a chance” only serves to perpetuate the guilty feeling that unless your faith fits into the churches defined parameters, then you’re “doing it wrong”.
Once I quit attending church on a regular basis and began to experience the “real world”, I of course started to question what I had known for so many years. When I looked down to confirm a solid foundation beneath my feet, I realized it wasn’t there. I realized that a lot of what I thought I knew, I didn’t relate to it at all. I started listening to music and going to shows. I hung out with people who were similarly disillusioned and trying to find their own way. I stumbled a lot and made a lot of mistakes, but I also experienced a lot of things that changed the way I saw the world and more importantly, how I felt about church.
So all of that brings us to music, of course. A little vocabulary lesson first though.
a notional entity consisting of a large number of people who share their knowledge or opinions with one another, regarded as producing either uncritical conformity or collective intelligence.“he has become one of those celebrities whose online presence has made him a favorite of the Internet hive mind”
(in science fiction) a unified consciousness or intelligence formed by a number of alien individuals, the resulting consciousness typically exerting control over its constituent members.“there is a Borg Queen who controls the hive mind”
Ian Svenonius was/is in a band called The Make Up. They are from Washington DC. They wear matching, tailored suits and play a self-proclaimed style of music called “Gospel Yeh-Yeh”. Ian is a master showman, a professor of the concept of the Hive Mind. The Make Up want the crowd to be their fifth member, taking their inspiration from gospel choirs, who use the congregation as their fifth member, in order to build emotion and help people “feel the spirit”. Ian isn’t a preacher, but he understands the power of a unified consciousness. He knows how to create a rhythm hive, as he calls it. I can barely remember the first time I saw them, but I remember how I felt. See for yourself. This wasn’t the show, but you get the idea.
I’ve thought a lot about this band over the years, and I am still amazed at how profound an impact they had on me. Going to see them was a revelation for me. It spoke to me on an emotional, even spiritual level. I think. See, The Make Up had emotionally manipulated me, but they did it on a level that I understood, that I needed. It was genius. It was theater. It was performance art. It was church.
You see, what I realized is that religion has become a business first. A hugely profitable business at that. Faith has been bottled and packaged as the energy drink to end all energy drinks. The achievement of a unified consciousness moves the church forwards and makes the members feel alive. The crying, waving of hands, emotive and repetitive singing is all a brilliant sales tactic for selling the good word. It’s marketing at its best. The cadence and rhythm of the preacher, and the range of emotional dynamics throughout the message is all carefully calculated to build emotion and make you “feel the spirit”. Dopamine, Oxytocin, Serotonin and Endorphins are activated and released, making you feel euphoric and spiritually high. It’s kind of like this.
We used to talk about how going to church on Sunday would carry you through the week, sort of on a cloud. It felt that way. The problem though was what happened when you would come down. After eighteen years, I came down and found that nothing was there.
Is that why people keep going back week after week? Is religion the ultimate drug? Is the church the ultimate dealer? Are we all just feeding the monkey, or is there actually something real behind all of the pomp and circumstance. When people would ask me if I believe in God, I would always tell them that “I believe in love”. I was in love at the time, so I thought that was a clever thing to say. The truth is that I couldn’t answer that question, because I’ve never really known God. I’ve only ever known the idea of God.
So what do I do? I absolutely believe in something bigger than myself, but if church doesn’t speak to me and tells me that going at it alone is a fool’s errand, what do I do? The church makes those who have lost their way and question what they are being told feel like they are bad for business. You just have to believe they say. Give your life to Christ and your sins will be forgiven. Read the bible and put God first in all things and eternal life will be yours. Easy, right? Simple.
I went to see St. Paul & the Broken Bones a couple of weekends ago. Paul Janeway (singer) was at one time working towards becoming a preacher. Eventually he left the profession and went to worked as a mechanic’s assistant and attended community college. When asked about how he integrates his past into his performance, he stated that “you learn a little bit more about how to interact with the crowd — feeling momentum, just feeling that intensity — and it’s not a whole lot different than what we do now.” When I saw them play, I remembered The Make Up and James Brown. Janeway was working for that unified consciousness, that hive mind.
When asked about what drew him away from the ministry, Janeway said this. “Not agreeing with what is predominantly taught growing up the way I did, I had a lot of animosity toward the church,” he says. “One time there was a woman with cancer, and they were telling her, ‘All you need to do is say you’re healed.’ And she tried to so hard, and tried and tried and tried, but she eventually died of cancer, and she died thinking that she didn’t have enough faith to be healed. And that really resonated with me. I still think about that to this day.”
As I was standing there on that Saturday night next to the woman I love, I was thinking about how much faith is enough, or what type of faith is the right faith. A guy in front of me kept yelling at Paul Janeway to “PREACH”, while holding his giant beer and acting like the concert was just for him. In a nutshell, that’s what church has become to me. It’s just a concert, a flashy robe, a bunch of people caught up in the power of a great performance.
Deep down I hate that I feel that way, but it’s something that I have to learn to move on from. I’m tired of being haunted. I want to be able to build my own faith and trust that if God really is there waiting for me at the end of this life with open arms, then he won’t care how I choose to get to him. If Ian Svenonius and James Brown and Paul Janeway can conjure the spirit and speak to me in a way that the church can’t, then I’ll turn them up to eleven and i’ll let them stir my soul. I’ll surround myself with love and I’ll have faith in the beauty and hope of this amazing life i’ve been given.
SONG(S) OF THE DAY 9/25/2018