The first thing I noticed was 2 cops directing traffic. Butch commented on taxpayer resources being used for such a purpose, but they were definitely needed. This was a big church with lots of cars. The building looks more like a school than a church, if you ask me.
Here's where we went: Chestnut Ridge Church. None of us got a good estimate of how many seats there were. It was set up like a theater with a big stage, a 6 piece pop music band, 2 giant screens where they put the words to the songs and the bible verses from the sermon, and movie theater seating. The control booth is state of the art, like you'd find for a rock concert.Free coffee was served before people went in and each seat had a cup holder like in a movie theater. There were no crosses, no crucifixes, no representations of Jesus at all, nothing that made it seem church-like. It was very casual, very relaxed.
Everyone was very pleasant and nice. We had to shake hands and everyone made eye contact. Children were all well behaved and not too many babies cried much. The TV monitors counted down to the start, then they just basically began with a rundown of the schedule, then everyone said hi to their neighbor then 3 or 4 songs which people were encouraged to sing to, with the karaoke lyrics on the screens.
People seemed to enjoy the music which was very loud. The audience had very little lighting, just enough for me to see my notebook and for people to see if they wanted to get up. But the stage had concert lighting including a smoke machine. The babies didn't seem upset by the incredibly loud music and the bass was really cranked up on the drums. People seemed to enjoy it but no one got "into the spirit" or did anything crazy, just a bit of keeping time and singing, stuff like that, maybe a bit of clapping when prompted.
We guessed the seating to be around 1500 but that's a very rough guess. It was about 85-90% full, mostly young people (teens to 30's, as a rough guess), about 99.9% white. One of my heathen friends saw one black man in African garb in the parking lot when we were going in. Other than that, I only saw white people. Then again, West Virginia is very white if I recall the statistics, so it doesn't mean too much.
But remember how small our area is. Sure, Morgantown isn't too small, and the college kids are back for the fall semester, but this is outside of town, and I am just amazed that they had so many seats filled. One thing my friend Joe noticed was not too many older people. But we went to the 11 am service. Maybe the 9 am service catered more to older folk.
So there was about 25 - 30 minutes of singing, which was basically teaching everyone how unworthy they are without God and how much they need him to fill their hearts. And give thanks for Jesus sacrificing himself on the cross and having that bad weekend for us. The band was really good, actually. The two singers had great voices, especially the woman, and the guitar player had mad skillz. The drums were really loud but I think that was intentional to help "move" people.
Some of the songs. The words in quotes are actual lyrics from the TV screens:
- Your Grace is Enough: positive song reminding God to "remember your promise"
- We Cry Out: repent and ask for mercy
- Glory of it All: he came for redemption to save us all; he forgives.
- Unnamed song: a song about having secrets and fear. "his blood can cover us" (ew!)
After the singing, the pastor came out. Like the first guy who seemed to be the master of ceremonies, the pastor was rather unassuming, casually dressed and rather mellow. He seemed humble, in a way, but that might not be the best word to describe him. He preached for about 30 minutes and the message was generally emotional.
There was no substance or anything you could sink your teeth into with what he said. It was all intangible and boiled down to the fact that you're useless without Jesus, who came to save everyone so you don't have to bear your burden alone. Just ask him into your heart. He said that you'll probably still have the same burdens - which I found interesting - but that you'll also have Jesus. Gee, thanks. Now I have a freeloader and a burden.
It was all very wishy-washy and pleasant. Extremely watered down. Kind of like Christian Homeopathy.
Here are some of the things the pastor said. I wrote them down word for word to share with you:
- John 10:10 (NASB, NIV), Psalm 23
- Isaiah 40:30-31 (rest of bible from NIV)
- Matthew 11:28-30
- "I don't think life is supposed to be a burden."
- Galatians 2:20a - crucified in christ. I no longer live, but christ lives in me...
- "God wants to give you more than you can handle." (so that you'll let go of your burden and let christ into your heart)
- "When you put your faith in christ, you get a new identity."
- Luke 10:38-42 - the story of Martha and Mary. Moral of the story, don't be a Martha!
- "Christians are so busy working for christ, serving christ, they don't worship him anymore."
- If you're a Martha you're hard to live with. You've forgotten how to live.
- Colossians 2:6a - live in Jesus
- John 15:5-8 - the vine and branches parable. You can't do a single spiritual thing without christ.
- But Jesus' parables make one point, don't take them too far. When Jesus talks about the bad branches being cut off and thrown in the fire, that's not about going to hell. (This was his only reference to hell or any kind of punishment and he made sure that we knew that wasn't what was meant)
- John 15:7 (again, just so you get it)
- "The burden you carry might remain the same. But now you'll have Jesus."
- Homework for the week: Am I Striving or Living? Striving is struggling and judging others. Living is only done through christ and is effortless and happy.
- "There's a joy that comes when you get this." (when you start living and stop striving, when you accept Jesus into your heart)
In essence, I felt he was saying you have to hand over your responsibility to christ. You can't be a whole person without Jesus. And God will make your life harder until you crack and let Jesus in. But that's just me seeing it from my heathen perspective.
A few more things. When they asked for money, they actually passed around cheap buckets! The people sitting to our right put in a $20 bill, and one of our group saw someone else put in a check for $40. I put in my envelope of quotes, and Butch put his in too. A couple others in our group also did the envelope trick. They basically only asked for money from the regulars. They said if we were just visiting we didn't need to feel obligated to donate. See below for what Butch and I wrote. In the service the pastor mentioned that the church wasn't doing as well as they had hoped. But I think that was a lie. They looked like they were raking it in, and everything was top notch. On the website, I think they said the church cost $12 million. Tax free, though. Of course.
Only one short prayer, and no communion, I noticed. And no baptism or mention of either. But they have many other services, some where they "study" the bible, some for adults, college kids (we have a great university here in Morgantown - go Mountaineers!), teens, kids, etc. They also have counseling and an art program. They really do want you to feel like part of a community, it seems, although the service we went to was more like a rock concert. Their other services sound like they are tailored to connect to people.
After the service, there was something called the Mix out front. There was inflatable naked twister, a badminton net, hamburgers and hot dogs being grilled, a football to throw around, all for teens and college kids. Ok, it wasn't naked twister. But it was inflatable. lol.
I have to say, if I had to go to a church, I'd pick one like this. Everyone was so nice, but it didn't seem fake or forced. No one seemed too fervent or angry. It was just so damned pleasant. Of course, my little Grinch heart, blackened by years of godlessness couldn't handle it and I was itching to get out of there, but that's just me being me, the typical curmudgeonly atheist.
There was nothing negative, no hell-fire, no hatred or bigotry displayed, no fundamentalism. This church seemed to really focus on being a nice, casual place to hang out, be part of a community of like-minded people, and be a generally nice person.
While I didn't enjoy myself I am glad I went and experienced it. It was definitely interesting and enlightening. I can certainly see the appeal of a church like this over what I had when I was a kid.
Here are the quotes I put in my envelope and gave instead of a donation:
- I don’t want to believe, I want to know. Carl Sagan
- Scientia Vincere Tenebras (Science will defeat darkness)
- I have no need for a religion. I have a conscience.
- If God’s love is unconditional, then why does Hell exist?
- I would rather have questions that can’t be answered than answers that can’t be questioned.
Here's what Butch wrote:
Thank you for reaffirming my atheism. Sorry there's no money. From the look of things, you don't need it, so you've got that going for you. :)
Have a great life,