Strumming his guitar, Pastor Jeff approaches the microphone stand and begins to belt out the first song, “Glory to God Forever.” The band behind him reaches full throttle.
I look around to see if I can catch smiles on anyone’s faces.
It’s Pearl Jam meets Jesus.
This is ironic, no?
John Calvin, the father of Presbyterianism, was famously opposed to displays of flamboyance and mirth. He considered dancing at weddings a vulgarity, as was providing too many types of food at dinner. What would he think of this?
But today’s congregants are extremely earnest. I follow them as they stand.
I’m holding the lyrics on a photocopied sheet. I can’t for the life of me catch the beat. I’m reminded of when kids sing a song they barely know, and they mumble along until they stumble upon a familiar series of words—but blurt them a tad too late. I’m the worst offender: my mangled version dangles from the other congregants’ slightly less mangled versions. I whisper-sing hoping my contribution gets drowned out. The pastor has an excellent voice, and a dynamic stage presence. If I could, I’d vote we all just zip it and listen. But I suppose that would run counter to the spirit of participation.
If this was anywhere else, I’d be swaying. I find it almost impossible not to move at least one limb to any music with the semblance of a beat. Everyone else stands still. They are redwood trees in a forest alive with exotic birds. It’s the strangest sensation, all this vibrancy electrifying the air, and they are as immobile as steel rods. Actually, this is precisely what I was expecting before I showed up this morning. The rock star pastor is a surprise, but the congregants fit right in with my preconceived notions of Presbyterians, who I associate with the early colonial settlers. Here are my puritans—it’s not that they don’t feel passion for God, just that they are more comfortable with the pastor expressing it on their behalf. I decide on a little unobtrusive foot tapping.
After a medley of opening songs, we settle into traditional service elements that include a Time of Silent Confession, Assurance of Pardon, New and Old Testament readings, giving of tithes and offerings, and the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer.
In retrospect, what’s funny is how ordinary the pastor’s rock performance turned out to be. I came to realize that many mainline Protestant denominations offer two versions of their Sunday services, one with hymns and the other with a drummer in a Plexiglas box. Sometimes I saw older people in the contemporary service or young people in the traditional service but, in general, the age divide was clear. I wasn’t sure who was making concessions to whom—whether the elders were accommodating current tastes or if new leaders were hoping appease their base of long-time congregants and likely best tithers. Each time I had to decide between services, I couldn’t help but note how meager the attendance usually was and how, if services were combined, twice as many people would be present. Because what seems to matter more than the style of music is that people bothered showing up; everyone sits elbow to elbow and at least tries to join their voices to whatever songs play.
Dividing services feels to me like one group or generation saying to the other, “I choose music over you.” Isn’t this just the sort of gap worship is meant to close?