Monday, March 1, 2010

Day 133: Getting My Praise On

Some of the first ideas I had when I started the blog involved trying different religious experiences. Go to a synagogue, go to a Buddhist temple, attend a predominantly African-American church, they're all on the list.

Day 133's thing I've never done before was to attend services at a Pentecostal church. Atlanta West Pentecostal church, specifically. I credit Scott for this idea, since it was he who sent me an email saying, "Who knew we had the 'Best Church Choir in America' right in our backyard?" He included a link of one of the choir's performances. I definitely didn't know there was a competition for Best Church Choir other than in the movie, Sister Act, but I watched the link and I was impressed. They were good.

Plus, a spirited church service like this one is definitely something I’ve never done before, so such an experience would be perfect for the blog. I didn't realize I would have such a difficult time writing about it, however. Not because there wasn't anything to write about. Quite the contrary. We were there a total of two hours and I witnessed enough to fill multiple blog entries.

But religion is extremely personal. And while there were a lot of things that I experienced at this Pentecostal church that I don’t necessarily understand, but I don’t want this project to be my judgments on anyone’s religion or the way they worship. I'm still very much a work in progress when it comes to my spiritual life and I'm still searching for the right fit when it comes to church and religion. So I’m going to try (emphasis on try) to just focus on my personal experience and not make judgments on how people choose to praise God.

On our way to the service, Emily (Scott’s wife and my friend) said matter of factly, "Now, I just want you to know that my attention span for church is about an hour, so..."

She didn't complete her thought, but I laughed, because I'd say my attention span for church is about the same. Like it does in yoga, my mind tends to wander during church and I'll end up making lists on the back of offering envelopes of the things that I need to get done during the next week instead of focusing on the sermon. Emily, Scott and I never reconciled what we were going to do if the service lasted longer than an hour, but I was glad Emily threw that out there, because I felt the same way.

"Time to get our praise on," Scott said as we walked into the service. He also googled “Pentecostal” on his Blackberry and read to us, “Pentecostalism is a charismatic renewal movement within Christianity that places special emphasis on a direct personal experience of God through the baptism in the Holy Spirit."

Having now experienced this Pentecostal church service, I would argue that "charismatic" is an understatement.

When we arrived and took our seats in a pew, I noticed immediately how large and diverse the congregation was. I had never seen so many different races and ages all together worshipping together. I liked it.

We attended services on Boy Scout Sunday, so there was a presentation going on when we arrived demonstrating the benefits of scouting. Their presentation included props like a fake camp fire, tepee, and my personal favorite, a canoe with a younger Boy Scout inside, that was carried out down the church aisle by two larger Boy Scouts.

After the Boy Scout presentation was over, the choir stood up to sing. They were a fair representation of the diversity in the congregation. They were also very soulful and very entertaining. I have no idea what their competition was like, I can say with confidence that they deserved to win. They were amazing.

I did not appreciate, however, that every time they would stand to sing a song, seconds into them singing a song, half of the congregation would stand up and join in. Perhaps it was the Holy Spirit moving them to stand up and participate or maybe it is a testament to how good this choir is. Regardless, I did not like it. I wanted to hear them, and watch them. I wanted to shout to the people standing up and joining in, "Please sit down! You're blocking my view. If you wanted to be in the choir, you should join."

The congregation's involvement with the choir was just the tip of the iceberg. They were pretty much involved in every part of the service. Very involved. Dancing in the aisles, waving their hands to the sky, shouting "Praise God" out loud kind of involved.

I grew up in a Lutheran church, which is more formal, and rooted in ritual (think Catholic). Lutherans only speak when spoken to in the church context, so there is a lot of talk back, but it's guided by the pastor. Pastor says something that he says every week, and you repeat what he said or answer with the same words spoken every week. And when it's time to pray, silence befalls the sanctuary. At Atlanta West Pentecostal, when it was time to pray, everyone prays out loud, so there is a hum throughout the congregation of everyone's individual prayers.

Though I was raised in a more traditional church setting, as I've grown up, I have experienced and enjoyed other worship styles. The church I attend most in Atlanta is definitely more progressive and teaches a modern-day application of the Bible to regular life. I still have a hard time with the service's rock 'n roll take on hymns, but I think it's more of a world's colliding thing. Let me have rock 'n roll and let me have Jesus, but let them be separate. It’s also a case of whatever is familiar is comfortable; not a case of one way is right and the other is wrong.

Still, though I've given many churches a try, this one put me so far out of my comfort zone I had a difficult time relaxing. I fidgeted a lot and continually thought about how I was going to honestly, but politely, write about it. Trying new things is always difficult, but I couldn't tell if it was just the fact that the church was different or if I was turned off by what I feel is a fundamentally different approach to God that is taught at this church.

I tried to picture my own family at this church. My mom, who is pretty open-minded and loves a good choir, would probably have had an easier time. My dad and brother would have lasted five minutes, tops, before they would've been looking for an exit. They are both pretty laid back guys, but any showy church behavior like people talking out of turn or clapping with the choir would have made their palms sweat. I resided somewhere in the middle. I was feeling weird about the fact that it felt like a lot of what was happening was more of an advertisement for the Pentecostal movement and this church specifically, and less about worshiping and praising God. So I tried hard to focus on the positive and what I did like.

The excitement and the energy of the church was palpable and I noticed quite a few children sprinkled throughout the room. At most of the churches I've attended, parents drop their children off at the nursery, not wanting the playful tendencies of a toddler to disrupt anyone's worship time. At Atlanta West Pentecostal, there is so much interaction that children are able to sit among the adults and engage in the worship as well, or at least be exposed to it and not have to worry about being shushed. If a baby was crying or a toddler was throwing a tantrum, I would've never heard it over all the praising of God.

Church can be so stuffy, but these worshippers really seem to be enjoying themselves. For them, going to worship isn't about checking "God" off a list of things to do. They were really being lifted up and they were into it.

The service started at 10:15am, but the sermon didn't start until 11:15am, a fact Emily pointed out to me by holding up her watch with wide-eyes. I didn't know what to say, but I felt like what we came for was about to go down and I didn't want to leave. Sure enough, when he did start the sermon, I felt like I had just been put turned on television to one of the Evangelical pastors on Sunday morning television.

He used the phrase "Why Not?" quite often to make a point about the power that God has over our lives. "If," he shouted, "he can turn a small choir from Atlanta to the best church choir in the country to appear on Good Morning America and Fox News, then why can't he raise the dead?! WHY NOT?!"

There were people repeating back to the pastor as he spoke, "Amen!" and "Praise God!" I was impressed at their ability to so quickly comprehend his sentences of words strung together. He talked so fast, that there was a 15 second delay on him completing a thought and me actually understanding what he was saying.

"I feel like I need to shout an, 'Amen,' just to get the full experience," I whispered to Emily during the sermon.

She nodded enthusiastically. And when the preacher said something I believed in, I did it. It felt good!

At the end of the sermon, we bowed our heads to pray and the three of us were eyeing each other as to how we could wrap up this experience as quickly as possible. That's when what I had been both dreading and expecting the entire time happened. Over the hum of everyone's personal prayers, someone shouted out what sounded like stream of consciousness babbling, a language I didn't understand.

According to the preacher, this man was speaking in tongues, and he called on someone else to interpret what the man had just said. I've talked to Christians that I know since then who tell me the Bible does say that speaking in tongues is a real thing. Perhaps it is, but I'd be lying if I said it didn't freak me out a little. A lot. It freaked me out a lot.

I wish this wasn’t the case, as I think I could've used some direct talk from up above.

After the last prayer, we shook hands with all of the nice people around us (one of whom works in my building and I see at least once a day) and headed out. Before we made it to the door, Scott was stopped by one of the members and offered a visitor’s packet. He talked to us about returning and possibly joining the church. We all politely nodded and listened to what he had to say, but I felt badly because I was pretty certain we weren’t planning on ever returning.

We went to have lunch and ordered Bloody Marys to decompress. See, I told you I need some spiritual guidance. Who needs a drink after church?

Scott, quoting the preacher said, “Why not?”

We were all unsure of our experience, but fairly sure this type of worship is not for us. I am glad, though, that I got to see the Best Church Choir in America.


  1. this is definitely not nothing. I think I need a drink after watching and reading this.

  2. We (being white) went to a 'black church' in Louisiana. I really enjoyed it, and I think mostly because I used to listen to black church services on the radio after I'd been to my 'traditional' service. It was easy to join in the Amens in the privacy of my own living room, and not as difficult as I expected it to be amongst others. Yep, Preach it Brother!, Thank You Jesus!, Hallelujah!, Praise The Lord! all feel good to say! :)