Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Religion on the Ground, Sunday Service

I learned something about religion this past Sunday. Or, if you will, I gained a richer and subtler appreciation for things I’ve know for some time, thing’s I’ve known because I’ve read them in books and articles, many of them quite good. But even the best of them must necessarily abstract away from concrete reality, and concrete reality is what I experienced on Sunday.

I went to church for the first time in years and years. I had a specific reason for going to church, and to THAT particular church. I wanted to check out Rev. Smith—not his real name, BTW. While I wouldn’t be violating any confidence by using the man’s real name, nor by telling exactly which church I went to, the fact is that I didn’t go into that church telling people that, as a reporter, ethnographer, or some other kind of thinker-about-religion, I would be writing about the service on my blog. Thus I DO feel that it would be ever so slightly out of place for me to name names.

I’d met Rev. Smith a week and a half ago at an emergency meeting of three neighborhood associations. Two bus lines were about to be discontinued, leaving many in the neighborhood without access to the outside world. So the leaders of these three associations called a meeting. Rev. Smith spoke briefly during that meeting, saying that he was starting up a new organization for empowering people in various neighborhoods. He only spoke for a minute or two but, oratorically, he went from zero to sixty in about 4.3 seconds. Zooom!

I chatted with him after the meeting, as did several others, and gave him my card after expressing interest in his new venture. I also figured I ought to check him out on his home turf, which is why I went to his church this past Sunday.

Yes, to the extent that I had expectations about his preaching style, the sermon he preached satisfied those expectations. Rev. Smith didn’t deliver the sermon from a raised pulpit. He put a lectern front and center, level with the pews. That was his home base. He had a Bible on the lectern, seemed like another book as well, and perhaps some notes. But he mostly winged it, referring back to scripture every once in awhile. He had a wireless mic so he could move freely, which he did.

I’d say he spoke for 45 minutes, possibly less, more likely a bit more. I wasn’t timing him.

If you saw a video tape in which the words had been rendered unintelligible but the prosody and music remained, you might guess there was some hellfire and brimstone in the sermon. Rev. Smith reached that level of demonstrative expression many times. But he wasn’t condemning his parishioners to punishment if they failed to do this that or the other. Yes, he was admonishing them to beware of the Devil, and he was urging them to find in themselves the capacity to be and do more than they thought possible. Through Christ it WAS possible.

“Get up, stand up, stand up for your rights”–those weren’t Smith’s words—they’re Bob Marley’s—but that was the message, one of them. And, as often as he crouched, paced, and exhorted, he also stood tall, smiled, and beamed: See, like this.

Every once in awhile he asked “can I have an ‘Amen’?” and he got one. Here and there people would shout, wave their hands, and the organist would play a few chords, as though he was pacing the sermon. In various ways here and there Smith would acknowledge the length of the sermon. I’d almost bet that was a feature of his preaching style.

As he built up a good head of steam he’d walk down the center aisle, and then return. Calm and collected, again. As the sermon went on, and his heights got higher, he’d walk a bit further down the aisle. Toward the end he even did some quick turns. He WAS a performer.

At the very end half or more of the congregation joined him down in front of the altar. Then he marched them up the aisle to the back of the church and delivered the benediction from there.

But that wasn’t the whole service, which lasted roughly two hours. The service involved singing—by the choir and the congregation, responsive reading, announcements, the offering—everyone paraded down front to put their offering the basket, and there was five or perhaps ten minutes where people were urged to move about and greet their neighbors. At one point visitors were asked to stand up and be recognized (I did). It was a varied and satisfying service.

You know what I learned from those two hours? The way to judge a minister is by the quality of his congregation. Perhaps that could even be pushed a bit further: It takes a congregation to make a preacher. Rev. Smith couldn’t conduct a service like that unless his congregation allowed him to do so and participated in the doing.

That’s Sunday, one day out of seven.

I don’t know what the Rev. Smith does the other days of the week. Of course, he has to run the administrative affairs of the church. I assume that, in various ways, he ministers to the needs of his parishioners. Some of that would be through Bible study and other education. There’s committee work; for example, there’s an 80th anniversary celebration coming in early November. Much of his work, I assume, involves counseling.

It’s the fact of this ministry that stuck me so forcefully as I thought about the service. Ministering to the congregation, that’s a concrete day by day job, and calling. Part of the job, and only part of it, is to lift their spirits on Sunday so that they can go through the week more effectively than they otherwise might.

If the church weren’t there, how would that happen?

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