Vibrant Belief

I’ve always looked up at the hill and the Vibrant Belief’s towering building, so standing in front of the church looking out in the other direction offers an entirely new perspective. From here, the sky is big and I can see a chunk of town, including a car dealership and an Arby’s just down the road and, beyond that, a strip mall. The atrium reminds me of a hotel trying to be fancy or perhaps a cruise ship. I pick up the program and a brochure that shows a faint image of guitar superimposed over a shot of the surrounding hills. A young man standing at the door to the sanctuary sees me studying the brochure and explains that the church pays a fee for the rights to use an entire catalogue of Christian rock songs.

The sanctuary is enormous, designed to seat many hundreds, though it’s not even half full. The stadium seating and my spot toward the back gives me an excellent view of the stage and all the rows in front of me. The band opens with a medley of Christian rock songs: “I Surrender to You” blends with “Count Me In,” fusing with “Take my Life.” Some of the younger audience members rush to the stage, and dance in the aisles. They sway and hop. One overweight fellow bounds and twists like a faux ballerina, his pants losing their hold of his ample backside. A row of sorority girls in front of me look on, exchanging glances, their eyes growing wider with his every leap, sucking the straws in their frappuccinos to keep from snickering.

A man’s voice booms from the loudspeaker, authoritative and deep. I look around to identify its source. It takes me a moment to realize it’s meant to be the voice of God. We are his children and he commands us to love one another. I created the cosmos and the earth, God bellows. Video screens display hundreds of points of light that fade in and out, like fireflies or stars being passed at high velocity. I start to feel a little nervous tingle in my toes, a panicky sensation caused by this unexpected reenactment of hurling through the cosmos.

The microphone is being passed through the congregation. It stops on a woman who says into it very seriously, “I sense someone is experiencing blurry vision.” I squint to check one eye and then the other. A hand goes up in the front and everyone around that person places a hand on or near her, other members of the congregation reach their hands in her direction. For a moment, the audience looks like a big sea anemone stretching towards a floating morsel. The microphone moves again, and another lady says, “I have a feeling of a stiff neck.” I pull my shoulders down and stretch my head in both directions as someone else claims the ailment and the tendrils stretch in that direction. Technically I wasn’t the one suffering, but my eyesight feels crisper, my neck looser. When the healing session is over, I see an older gentleman with a mop of white hair leaving an audio booth to the side of the stage. I think to myself: “That must be God!”

After his brief sermon, the minister announces the presentation of a short video. The big screen comes down again from the ceiling above the altar/stage. Someone has shot footage of the installation of a new of a new digital display board. I noticed it that morning as I passed through the intersection: at the street corner, a wide monitor sat atop two poles with freshly moved earth around their bases. The time lapse video shows the sign going up at warp speed. Everyone applauds at the freeze frame of the finished product. This morning it flashed a screen of the service time with the words, “Everyone’s invited!”

The new sign seems to soften the hard edges of the hillside, or at least draw focus to a more welcoming sight—it appears to be an attempt to present a more inviting image to the community at large. Though is it too superficial an effort? Something about it feels like collagen injections into the face of a movie star who’s lost the bloom of youth. Not that she isn’t lovely in her own way or can’t be great again in the right role, but first she has to accept that time has marched on. Otherwise it’s just uncomfortable watching her.

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The carpenter

 

Change happens, intentional or not. Time does that. The protesters become the establishment and a new wave of rebels rise up.

In the 1970s, before rock and roll had been integrated into many Protestant services, after the explosion of youth culture in America claimed its first and second wave of devotees, some within this emerging youth culture began to feel disillusioned by churches in which they grew up. They did not favor the dying Jesus or the risen Jesus or even the God Jesus. They were drawn to the real man who walked the earth in dusty sandals. They wanted to emulate his humility and simple desire to love and help others. Some were in the “hippie” counterculture when they began to gravitate toward a Christian message; others were Christians drawn to the counterculture. They saw Jesus as the ultimate hippie, and they aspired to be like him. They got labeled “Jesus people” or “Jesus freaks.”

One church in my town links its founding directly to the 70’s Jesus Movement, and I’ve been anticipating my visit there all year, wondering what it will be like to penetrate the invisible barrier that seems to separate its congregants from the rest of the community. Their building sits in stark contrast to what I know of the group’s humble origins. The founders of this church began as a ragtag group of college students who met wherever they could—in living rooms and borrowed spaces—until finally, 20 years down the line, they raised enough funds to construct their own building.

The building watches over one of the busier intersections in town, the impression of its size magnified by its position at the top of a hill. The church is a modernist structure, all right angles and glass. Large beams protrude above the entrance, one on either side, each bent in the middle, supporting a long thin cross. They look very much like enormous arms holding a sword poised to stab hapless bystanders. The hillside leading to the church is covered in hundreds of juniper bushes with sharp points like enormous shards of green glass. No path leads to the church’s door, the only entrance is a driveway for cars.

Despite the flashy building, and its lack of consideration for pedestrians or anyone who might approach on foot, the emphasis is still on the Jesus who walked. Every member is encouraged to take the “foundation course” called the “Carpenter Series” to help students build lives more like Christ “whether you have never heard much about Jesus…or have been walking with Him for years…”

The denomination is listed in the newspaper Worship Directory under a category called “Interdenominational Charismatic.”  It’s a label that downplays denominational divisions while focusing on the extraordinary works—“Charisma” means “gifts” in Greek—faith can bestow. Such gifts may include spontaneous healing and impulsive displays of joy. The name of the church alludes to the burning conviction in such works; it’s called something like “Vibrant Belief.”

So large does this church’s insular reputation loom in our community that my None friends use it as an explanation for anyone who seems to minimize contact with them. If a coworker or neighbor barely speaks to anyone but seems normal in every other way, one explanation is always that he or she is “probably Vibrant Belief.”

Even though this church’s distance from my house is walkable, I drive there and park in a guest spot…

Plexiglas box

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?