I have a friend who is the weekly organist at a Protestant church up in Glendale, a small city in the San Fernando Valley near Burbank. In my occasional attendance this church overwhelming reminds me of how many American churches attempt to make religion hip, not stuffy, and generally more appealing to the masses. This church does it all, from Christian rock music to casual dress; this is a major relaxation of traditional means of worship. As you can imagine, this not only effects how people behave during church, but also the experience of 'going to church' and what that's supposed to signify. Seeing a worship service without rules or structure raises some important questions for me about why people come to church and what makes a person's religious experience meaningful.
First, let's talk about the dress and behavior code---or lack thereof. When I showed up for the first time in a conservative sun dress and heels I looked like a bridesmaid standing in the middle of a Burger King. People don’t dress up here, not that anyone on the West Coast does either, but because we were at church it seemed so much more out of place to see everyone wearing jeans, t-shirts and flip flops. Men kept their baseball caps on during the service and my organist friend has even seen people sit in the back and start chowing down on the fast food they brought. I guess that’s truly “have it your way.”
It also seems that quite a few church members have concluded that the service is a vocally interactive medium. Not only do members randomly interject comments during the service, but they’ll also interrupt to make social event announcements. This will happen during any part of the service, including scripture readings or even sermons, and this isn’t call and response, “can I get an Amen!”-- this is about stupid stuff like Crop Walks. I was there one Sunday when a woman chose the first gospel reading to remind people about one such Crop Walk. There’s also an older gentleman who consistently shares his “when I was a young man” stories aloud and usually does so at inopportune times, like right before a hymn is about to start. Another lady fancies herself a professional musician and has decided that my conservatory-trained friend plays the church hymns too slow. So, she’ll pipe up with “don’t drag!” right before the offertory, or yell “speed up!” or “you’re dragging” while he is playing. Of course no organist would appreciate this sort of thing, but either way their behavior makes me wonder why these people think it’s appropriate to yell out and interrupt a religious ceremony. Are these people there to worship or do they see the congregation as just a captive audience for their own 2 cents?
There’s lots of little things too that make me wonder about this church. Whomever has been selected to read scripture aloud usually hasn’t looked through the it beforehand, which you can tell by the butchering of Biblical names and fumbling through the text. Parents don’t seem to encourage their kids to stay quiet or pay attention; usually the kids are doing their own thing, running around or sitting up at the front and flipping the altar curtain back and forth. It's just odd.
This church also chooses to not sing the ritual hymns by Bach or Haydn, etc. that have stood the test of time and have been a part of worship services for centuries. Instead, their hymnal is filled with 1960’s Christian rock music. Great. So are the classical hymns really that much of a drag? I personally would take Bach any day over that mediocre hippie music, but still there’s one glaring question I have to ask: does using music from the 1960’s rather than the 1860’s really do that much to engage the masses? It’s still outdated and I feel that church music is either old, so you honor it because of its age, or it’s totally modern and brand new. 60’s music isn’t in either category, it doesn’t have either an archaic or contemporary appeal, so nobody in the congregation's going to relate to it. Sounds like a pretty good formula for indifference.
Communion here is downright weird. First of all, it’s taken every Sunday like the Catholics-- it’s not a big event every once in a while like what’s done traditionally in most Protestant churches. And, despite this place being Protestant, they do another pseudo nod to the Catholic Church by having everyone get up and stand in line for communion, just without offering wafers or wine. My first time at this church I chose not to take communion—I’m not particularly religious, I don’t even belong to this denomination and I don’t believe in communion for the fun of it. I guess this was too upfront because after the congregation had finished, the communion ladies walked over to my seat and handed me the tray. This was of course, with a “you know, we allow non-members to take communion.” That’s subtle.
Now you know I’m not religious, but I still feel communion is a very private, intimate interaction between you and God, not a social activity put on by the church where everyone gets a snack. So not only do I think it’s something to be taken very seriously, I also see it as 100% my business. If I don’t want to participate this should not be questioned. It’s obvious that I am perfectly capable of walking and if I don’t get up for communion that means I’ve chosen not to take it. Just leave it alone.
My friend the organist has had similar odd experiences there with communion. After the congregation is finished, those ladies can be counted on to come over and chat with him while he's taking communion. And they’re not saying a sacramental prayer, it’s stuff like “Oh, I really love this music.” I feel both of these instances say a lot about how this congregation sees communion. I think for them communion is less an individual practice than something that the church community does together, sort of like coffee hour or a pancake breakfast. That’s all well and good except for when you think about what communion is supposed to be: a sacred recognition and remembrance of what Jesus sacrificed. Is this a casual chit chat or a religious ceremony? You have to pick one. It cannot be both. Communion is either going to represent something meaningful or let's cut the crap, it's just Hawaiian bread and grape juice.
It seems overall that this church has chosen a “come as you are” approach. This sends a message of welcoming and acceptance, which is fundamental for a church, but what happened to the notion that before God you try to better yourself? That’s why you dress up, why you do different things at church than on other days, because you’re shedding who you are in your everyday life to become something greater, something more.
Am I too focused on the procedure of the service and not its substance? Well, the sermons are usually very good. The pastor picks thought-provoking topics, he’s very insightful and tells it like it is— being from the Midwest, I appreciate this. But he can’t do everything to make the service an actual ceremony. The church members have to be respectful and be there to worship God. What have we given up to gain membership? The idea of sacrificing tradition to boost the bottom line is hardly new, but I never expected to see churches go this far. In our efforts to get people to show up, by paring down all the procedure, tradition and rituals, have we stopped worshiping?