The good news

Dearest readers,

I have some exciting news. A version of the journey I’ve been sharing on this blog will be coming out in book form! I’ve just recently signed a contract with Columbia University Press. I could not be more humbled and grateful that the publisher is willing to take a chance on a first-time book author like me.

I don’t know the timing of publication, but I will post updates here. In the meantime, I would like to express my deepest, most deep heartfelt thanks to everyone who has read and participated in this strange and beautiful experience. To all those who have shared, nudged, and been present as this blog unfolded: I am indebted beyond words.

If you are inclined, I would love to learn more about you. Even if you’ve been commenting along the way, it would be nice to have your responses to some or all of the questions below. If you prefer sharing your thoughts privately, please send them to me via email at Nicolaouc@gmail.com.

Questions for you:

If you were to fill out a religious affiliation survey today, what affiliation would you choose and why? Has this affiliation changed?

Do you attend any type of religious services? If so, what and how regularly?

Do you have any thoughts about the future of religious affiliation that you’d like to share? What do you think the religious landscape of our cities and communities will look like in 50 years?

 

A giant, heartfelt thank you to all!

Corinna

The Biggest Question

A big question requires a knowledgeable reply, but “The Biggest Question” necessitates the explanation of three men by hour-long video.

The DVD was sent to me by a friendly young minister in Texas who must have read my op-ed when it was reprinted in the Dallas Morning News. His return address revealed him to be Baptist, but the video itself makes no denominational claims. I imagine its producers reside somewhere on the current Christian frontier where such distinctions are downplayed. The accompanying card explained that the minister hoped the DVD would answer my questions from the “evangelical/protestant point of view.” I thought that wording was nice: he wasn’t saying it was right, just another perspective.

The video’s main narrator is a guy named Todd Friel who is apparently a popular evangelical figure. He hosts a daily two-hour Christian-themed radio show called “Wretched” that streams from Wretchedradio.com. The website offers videos and podcasts, all brought to you by Burning Bush Communications. You can sign up to join the Wretched club and receive your Wretched news. You may also buy a T-shirt and baseball cap and save by purchasing them as a “Wretched wear combo.”

Friel is a tall, skinny guy with the vocal stylings and over-the-top enthusiasm of a morning rush-hour DJ. He may be a few years older than the evangelicals I’ve seen in person, like Jackson and the Christian boy band members, but not by much. The backdrop “set” for the DVD (and the other videos that stream on the site) looks like an industrial warehouse loft filled with old-timey furnishings. I imagine it’s someone’s idea of where Shakespeare might live if he rose from the dead and took up residence in a former factory.

Friel wanders around the loft talking into the camera. Intermittently, the video cuts to two other men who help him explain stuff. The first is Kirk Cameron, a former teen heartthrob (he was on a popular TV sitcom called “Growing Pains” in the 1980’s) turned evangelical actor/spokesperson. He does his explaining from a leafy yard setting. The second is a young minister who goes by the name of R.W. Glenn. He speaks earnestly into the camera while walking the streets of an idyllic-looking suburban “downtown” devoid of pedestrians. In the alternate reality of the DVD, women seem to have no presence. If they exist, it is only as implied by the wedding bands on the men’s fingers. As such, their most lively moments come when the men use their hands to make a particularly important point.

Does what they have to say answer the biggest question, as its title suggests?

Most of the DVD is dedicated to explaining what they call the “Doctrine of Imputation.” Embrace this doctrine, they explain, and experience freedom. Never again must we feel lacking in goodness.

The detailed thesis, to which each man contributes, is this:

We are criminals and an enemy of God with nothing to offer but our filthiness. Ours is an infinite debt of sin. We can do nothing God requires. We are bound for the eternal torment of hell. Put in academic terms, we all have failing grades.

Luckily, Jesus lived the perfect life and then died the death we deserve. Because God loves people who recognize their deep badness, He—in His mercy—is willing to substitute Jesus’ grade (A+) for our own.

This swap is something Friel calls “Jesus as our propitiation” and serves as the heart of the Doctrine of Imputation, which can also be called the “Imputation of Jesus Righteousness.” It occurs as the result of an actual transaction, the specifics of which are also spelled out…

Sacred spaces

Jackson, the young minister of the Buzz, and I talk for almost two hours, sometimes like inhabitants of different planets meeting for the first time and at others like old friends. He confides that he and the other Buzz leaders have agreed not to build or buy a building to officially house the church. He says, “You put all this money and energy into raising the funds and then…” He trails off. I nod, understanding exactly where he’s going with his thought: the struggle for permanence may hurt a congregation whose mission, in part, is stay abreast of current trends. I think back to Vibrant Belief and the amount of creative energy the church leaders must have poured into funding and planning their elaborate building. Did that effort displace their original motivation and message?

For now, the Buzz will continue to rent. Just in the few weeks since my visit to the Buzz, the worship services have moved to an auditorium with built-in seating that accommodates more people than the previous event center. The congregation was able to up and go like a tumbleweed. But if they owned a building, they wouldn’t be able to adapt so easily. They’d be the church on Main Street or at 5th and Elm; they’d be the church with a cavernous space or a square space or a small space or a round space. People think the building is the church. But it’s not: the church is the people inside. The relationships. The ideas. The voices combined in song.

In his talk on Nehemiah, Jackson explains that when Nehemiah comes to Jerusalem he takes a deliberate approach to the enormous task he’s assigned himself of repairing the city’s destroyed walls. In the middle of the night, when everyone else is sleeping, he rides around the perimeter and surveys the damage. He takes an unflinching look at the problem. He acknowledges how bad it is before taking steps to make it better.

As a former servant, Nehemiah may have been an unlikely person for the job, but he was engaged in an unlikely job. His efforts weren’t focused on the most obvious target: the temple, which had also been wrecked. His idea of sacred space was much broader. It encompassed the areas where everyday life took place. Today, it might include the grocery store, the post office, or the sidewalk. Perhaps, too, it is the cyberspaces we occupy: Facebook, websites, and blogs. Nehemiah seemed to understand how everything that surrounds and supports the inner life is worthy of attention and protection too.

The temple may not have been the only thing worth salvaging but, for many, it was still the most important. A physical location for worship or prayer—a designated place where people gather to commune with each other and acknowledge something greater—remains a powerful draw. It seems the effort to build and maintain these structures, as energy-depleting as it may be, continues to be worth it. Even if we are only on the outside, driving past on our way to the grocery store, they remind us of life’s less material aspects.

The buildings that house places of worship have spoken to me my whole life. Not one in particular, but each whispering as I passed, “Why don’t you come inside?”

The okay-ness

I’m surprised when Jackson tells me that officially the Buzz is Baptist. After seminary, he was struck by polls showing the abundance of people lacking a religious affiliation in the Pacific Northwest and, with the financial backing of a national Baptist organization, relocated here from Texas. At first he worked as the youth minister at a local Baptist church before striking out on his own about five years ago. Today, the ties to the national organization have loosened. It pays only a part of his salary and, of the 20 or so people on his staff, each one is responsible for securing his or her own funding, which comes from multiple sources. I wonder what it means about the future of denominations that I’ve had to work so hard to find one here.

When he asks me why I started my church-going mission, our conversation turns to the less material. “I’m trying to better understand spirituality,” I tell him. I’m surprised to hear myself admit this out loud, much less to someone I hardly know. Before I started this endeavor, I thought of spirituality like I think of ghosts—a phenomenon somewhere between fascinating and frightening, but of which I had no first-hand experience. When I imagined what it might be, I always pictured some object—chimes, trees, fabric—swaying in the breeze.

“What does spirituality mean to you?” he asks.

How to put it into words? I rarely have this kind of conversation. My None friends and I—we tend to lack the language. When we attempt to talk about these issues we turn into frustrated apes; we thump our chests and open our hands to the sky.

I know the official Christian answer would be something like “accepting Jesus as God and my personal savior” but I’m not sure if I can do that just yet even if I understood exactly how.

I tell him, “I think it’s being more like Jesus…like how he was day to day.” I feel as wobbly as a fawn taking her first few steps. “Jesus was aware of ordinary life and responsibilities, but he always kept something bigger in mind…an awareness that he’d be gone someday too, and an okay-ness with it that made the everyday more precious. It’s the awareness and the okay-ness…” I catch Jackson looking at me in a way that suggests I’m either saying something profound or profoundly incomprehensible.

I want to keep going because it feels good to try to talk about this stuff even if I’m not good at it. I need to say something about compassion because I know that’s a big piece of the spirituality puzzle, and the okay-ness is key because if we can be okay with the being here—and the not being here—then we might even be able to love ourselves and whatever force brings us here and then snatches us away.

I think about the atheist slogan: “I can be good without God.” I had thought I didn’t need help with that because the goodness they are referring to is about not breaking laws and making the right choices morally and ethically. But maybe it refers to something much more subtle, being “good” as in being “okay”—learning to be good to ourselves and others, gentle and kind, accepting of our own and each other’s foibles. The okay-ness is the root of this love, which we can only extend to others if we first possess it ourselves. I want to say all this and more but forming such abstract ideas into actual words suddenly feels too daunting. They dissolve into a sweet puddle like a clump of cotton candy on the tip of my tongue.

Neat packages

 

“What stood out most about your visit to my church?” Jackson, the young minister of the Buzz, asks me.

“The young, good-looking crowd,” I say. I realize that’s probably not the answer he was looking for, but it’s the truth and I’m relieved when he laughs. Apparently this youthful congregation has posed some challenges.

When I was visiting, before he started his talk on Nehemiah, Jackson mentioned his previous sermon series, which had addressed the topic of love and dating. He briefly reiterated to the congregation that while romantic relationships are healthy and good, the search for one shouldn’t be their motivation for attending church. Once he said that, I had to admit I was picking up a certain vibe I’d never considered: Jesus as matchmaker. The fact that services are held in the early evening may add to the romantic ambiance.

“…besides that, your literature is so….” I search for the best way to describe the difference between the leaflets at the Buzz versus those from many other churches.

I was struck by how artfully they were put together. It’s not just that the church has its own logo, it is how the text and the graphics were presented in fresh fonts and interesting colors on glossy cuts of paper in varied sizes with just the right amount of white space to make it all “pop.” Many other churches cram black words on a white 8.5 x 11 page folded in half. In fact, it’s the quality of the Buzz materials that made me think they must be backed by an organization with deep pockets.

“Slick” sounds too derogatory.

“….well designed,” I decide to tell him.

He explains that one staff member has a background in graphic design. It seems almost a requirement these days for an “emergent” church: minister and graphic designer. People who have grown up since the 70’s have such a keen eye. Almost no aspect of our lives isn’t tastefully presented, from websites to wine labels. Today’s average Joe is a sharp-sighted consumer—of Christianity and anything else.

But it’s more than just aesthetics. So much content is available to us in both design elements and words. We prefer it filtered and arranged. We want the main point, but we also want the option for more. We’ve grown accustomed to the way the internet works: stay with the headline and synopsis or click to go deeper. We decide. As consumers, we have grown accustomed to the ability to navigate the information and, in some way, to participate in its presentation.

It’s a new way of moving through the world, one that can permeate even the smallest tasks—like singing. At the Buzz, the band played one of the same Christian rock songs I’d heard elsewhere, Your Love Never Fails, but in a slightly different way. They branched out to more complicated verses, but they returned to the lines of the chorus—Your Love never fails/Your love never changes/You stay the same through the ages—so many times that even I was able to sing along easily. Depending on knowledge and comfort level, a person can dive into the verses or just stay with the simple refrain to which the band returned until we were all of singing it over and over again, in an endlessly comforting loop.

Yet, I wonder about the downside of information that’s presented in such neat packages. Does having the path you tread prepped and prettied diminish the sense of discovery? Are we singing along on autopilot?

The Buzz

Out here, at the tail end of this leg of my religious journey, denominational differences have faded, church names have gotten creative, and the music has grown a steady beat. I’ve just left a rented event center packed to the brim with mostly young, good-looking college students. The music was played by five guys, each more adorable than the last, like an angelic boy band on the brink of fame.

The name of this congregation does not tie it to any kind of Christianity that came before. It’s christened for a sound and news too good not to share. I’ll call it “the Buzz.”

The cavernous auditorium was filled with studs, jocks, and even handsome hipsters; so many young women had clear complexions and long silky hair. A sprinkling of stylish middle-agers and mature high-schoolers rounded out the crowd. These were the kind of worshippers who don’t believe in wearing business casual to honor the Lord so much as the right wash on their denims.

The lighting during the services was dim and moody; I felt like Jesus might appear on stage at any moment with a big digitally re-mastered halo around his head. I had the impression of Jesus as the ultimate celebrity: all the boys want to be like him and the girls want to date him.

After attending the service, I find the website for the Buzz and click a link to send an email message to the head minister, Jackson, asking if he’ll meet me. Weeks later, I’m still thinking about the sermon he gave, which was not at all what I expected. With all those young people in expensive jeans as his audience, I imagined he’d talk about something generically positive like the power of love or manifesting abundance in your life. Instead he gave a detailed lecture about Nehemiah, a lesser known character in the Old Testament. I knew nothing about Nehemiah, whose claim to fame was rebuilding the destroyed walls of Jerusalem—hundreds of years before the birth of Jesus. Nehemiah had never even been to Jerusalem or seen the walls before he decides his life’s mission. He was an unlikely candidate for the job. He was working as one of the king’s servants miles away when he asks permission to go.

I also realize I have no idea what denomination the Buzz is, or if it even has one. No mention is made of it on the website or in any of the literature from my visit. I go back and scour the local newspaper’s Worship Directory, but the church’s name isn’t listed. I search the phonebook but don’t see it there either. It’s managed to fly completely under the radar. Its members must learn about it by word of mouth. Come to think of it, that’s how I first heard of it. A teenage daughter of a friend of mine said I should check it out.

Jackson agrees to meet me at a coffee shop a few weeks after the semester ends. The girls working behind the counter know him by name. Others in the café say hello. Suddenly I feel like I’m meeting a member of Jesus’s entourage. Maybe Jackson will be the next mega-preacher superstar like Joel Osteen. He certainly has the camera-ready looks: friendly blue eyes and a full head of sandy blonde hair with just a touch of grey starting at the temples. Maybe he’ll head up a popular mega-church like Saddleback in California, providing sermons to hundreds of thousands both in person and online. He’ll write a Jesus-centric bestseller like Rick Warren’s the Purpose Driven Life.

We sit in a pair of cushiony chairs facing each other. We are roughly the same age and his easy-going and open demeanor makes him feel familiar. I tell him a little about my background: that I’m a None whose been attending church for more than a year now. I have my notebook on my knees, ready to take notes, but he wants to hear from me first.

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.