Sunday, July 5, 2009

Heart Religion

So the other day, I get e-mail notification of several comments on one of the videos my church puts up on our rather significantly un-viewed YouTube page.  So far, our videos are pretty much for our own consumption.  Just getting more than a dozen views is unusual, so getting three comments in a row was worth me paying some attention.

The video is of our closing praise music session a few weeks back, in which a group of our youth pitched out some Contemporary Christian music.  I'm not the biggest fan of CCM.  It's just a bit too simplistic for my tastes, but it's what my mostly young and mostly Asian congregation prefers/is used to, so I've learned to live with it.  More than live with it.  Sometimes I'm surprised at how much I've come to enjoy and be moved by it.

The commenter, who is apparently a young evangelical Christian woman living in Singapore, was pretty harsh.  Our youth praise team was "lousy."  Their praise was so embarrassingly bad, said our Singaporean sister, that she had to close her eyes, but even then, the music still was terrible.  It was a sign, she thought, that these kids did not have Jesus in their hearts.  Any "unbelievers" who showed up at the service would be so turned off by this flaccid display that they'd never come to Jesus.  This got my back up, for two different reasons.

The first was because it was yet another manifestation of web-based incivility.  It's really, really common for folks to cast aspersions and generally dish out verbal smackdowns to others in e-media.  It's easy.  It's impersonal.  It feels good.   Way I figure it, blog-rants and drive-by-insults make up about 35% of the text on the web, and take up nearly as much bandwidth as the emails from Mrs. General Tunde Babangi asking for help transferring $2.7 million (dollars) from her frozen account at the First National Bank of Icantbelieveyoullfallforthis.

But all that angrily typed bellowing is desperately, hopelessly negative.  Wrong, even, if what Jesus had to say about how we are to treat one another means diddly squat.   So for a Jesus person to do it, particularly to my youth, well, it got my knickers in a bit of a twist.  Pitching aspersions at a group of kids is...well...seriously uncool.  Yeah, they aren't professional.  Things could be better.  But they're trying, dagnabbit. 

I called her out on it, bringing the Bible to bear, and after briefly resisting, she offered up an apology.  That isn't always the result, so I appreciate her willingness to say "sorry" to a total stranger.

The other button that presses for me is the presumption that "real" worship requires emoting.  Yeah, I know, I'm Presbyterian, and of the partially unthawed variety.  We prefer our worships to be the kind of thing that you might encounter in the First Presbyterian Church of Vulcan.  Sermons are logical discourses that examine a fascinating exegetical quandry that only surfaces when you've delved into the Greek.  Footnotes are provided, and in many instances, actually read aloud.  Our music is classical, preferably Bach, because anything from the romantic classical era (Faure?  shudder!) might cause a breakdown in the order of the service.  And as our worship has been carefully planned to run between fifty-eight minutes and 12 seconds and sixty-two minutes and four seconds, any expression of passion might cause a disruption to this well-oiled machine.

That somewhat hyperbolic stereotype is one of the reasons we're not the church brand of choice these days.  People want FEEELING in church, because if you're FEEEELING it, it must be real.  There's some truth to that.  We shouldn't seem bored.  We shouldn't not care or be clinical about our worship.  I struggle with that sometimes myself.  Like this Sunday, when I had nothing going into the worship.  I was dead in the water.  Zero.  I was forcing myself to go through the motions.  But at some point, I realized that the scripture I'd selected and the sermon I prepared were speaking directly to me.  I felt it, and it made the difference.  To me, anyway.  I'm not sure all those closed eyes just meant folks were deep in contemplative prayer.

But emotional affect can be simulated.  It's often simulated, because it's expected.  Just because you're up there bawling like Swaggart or weeping like Tammy Faye or shouting "GAAAAAAAAHD" into the air in your best Shatnerian bellow doesn't mean you're more authentic.  It just means you're a good performer.   Similarly, just because you speak with total conviction about what you're sure is true doesn't mean that you have a clue what you're talking about.  Sarah Palin, anyone?

Really having Jesus "in your heart" goes far deeper than the ephemeral to and fro of our emotional states.  It's a change in our nature, a shift in our sense of purpose.  It engages the entirety of our being.