What I heard – me, the “church girl”
“I don’t like that church.”
Her words were unexpected and final, breaking the easy silence we were enjoying over lunch.
“Huh?” I replied questioningly.
“It feels like a social experiment – that church you took me to,” she explained. “I’d rather go to a traditional church.”
I thought back to the mega church we had been to last – one of the more popular churches among my same-aged peers in New York. Whenever my friends and I wanted to slip anonymously into the crowd, and worship alongside a bunch of fellow young adult Christians to bolster our own faith, we went there. It felt safe, and fun, like being moved forward by the strength of a crowd at a concert. You didn’t have to feel strong, or anything, for that matter. She wasn’t one of my regular church friends though, but the opposite – a long-time friend who normally slept in on Sundays and only acquiesced to coming to church with me after much persuasion – “Girl! You need Jesus!”
As if she heard my thoughts, she added, “I don’t know how you got me there a second time but I’m telling you, I’m never going back there.”
What she saw – her, the “unchurched”
There was a palpable buzz of excitement as young adults milled outside, waiting for service to begin. There were so many of them yet they all seemed to know each other. Girls with enviable afros stood comfortably in heels and sported printed tees with cryptic phrases like “Worth the Wait.” Every once in a while, there was a loner or two, darting their gazes nervously, shifting from foot to foot, and looking as lost as I felt. What is this, exactly? Someone in front of me tapped their foot to the music that blasted from someone’s boom box. It had nice rhythm, a good Katy Perry cadence. Shaloma suddenly pulled my arm. “C’mon, the doors are open!” I scuttled behind her and the running crowd, unsure of why we were rushing but not wanting to be left behind. We plug the entrance of the church. As groups of friends break free, they dash to rows of seats only to stand and hover over them, grinning and beckoning to the back of the church with their hands. I come closer to one group, unsure. Their smiles falter and I quickly realize they’re reserving the seats for the friends who hadn’t yet made it through the throng. I step back, embarrassed.
“We can sit here.”
Shaloma was already settled in her seat – she hadn’t even noticed the snub from the pretty girls in front of us. Why are all the girls here so pretty?! Before I could mull that over, the church exploded in sound.
“We wanna see Jesus lifted high!”
Half a dozen people with mics had just run across the stage and belted out these words in perfect harmony and unison. Cued, the crowd leaps up and responds, “A banner that flies across the land!”
“I don’t know the words,” I shout over the music to Shaloma. “How does everyone know the words?”
She shhhs me and points to the front. I squint past the flashing colored lights that had just started to strobe and pulse with each beat. I see them: two large screens with scrolling words. Karaoke? In church? I stand dumbly, fascinated with this new knowledge. The song changes to a softer tune, gripping me with its amazing solo. I turn to Shaloma to comment but she now has her hands raised and her eyes closed; I doubt she will hear me. It’s a nice song, and feels familiar. I sway with the sound. Then fear unexpectedly grips me. What if gets stuck in my head?? I don’t really believe in God! I’m starting to feel weird now.
By the time they collect money from everyone – no thanks – and pray (I never know when to close or open my eyes), I’m stifling a yawn. I catch Shaloma staring at me with knowing gentle eyes.
“Are you overwhelmed?” she asks. I shake my head and turn away. White men and black men in tunics and skinny jeans laugh together on the pulpit. More perfectly manicured girls give me hugs after the preacher does what’s called an altar call. The large church feels small, bearing down on me. I feel like I’m levitating – like I did at Andra Day’s last concert – but also like I’m suffocating because it was about Jesus. I don’t believe in Him, yet I can’t separate the experiences.
It ends and Shaloma looks at me.
“What a blessing.”
I smile, weakly.
The gospel truth
I questioned my friend when she told me she wasn’t going back. Why not? An exploring Christian now, she shared her first church thoughts with me, years after it happened.
“The second time I went to church, I was only there 5% for Jesus, and 95% because I felt like a fish drawn to bait,” she explained. “With all that extra stuff, how do I really know that I’m there for the gospel of Jesus, or to serve him?”
Her words blew my mind…and my heart. I was humbled. In our modern-day churchy lives, how often do we question our motives? I’m not necessarily suggesting we downplay our music and ambiance. Nor do I command that we give up the saved seats for our like-minded fabulous friends…though maybe we should.
Her experience taught me that the gospel has the power to stand alone. She recognized her need for the pure unadulterated word of Jesus. We don’t have to dress it up. It stands in truth, in might and in time. It has the power to free people who leave their perfectly synchronized concerts in search for something different – something that will fill their empty hearts. They are searching for a truth that will resonate past the undulation of their heartbreak playlists, and climb beyond their career ladders that lead to nowhere. May we have the courage to point them to it. May we give them the gospel.
Jesus said, “I am the Way, also the Truth, also the Life. No one gets to the Father apart from me. (John 14:6 MSG). This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life. (John 3:16 MSG)…I’m leaving you well and whole. That’s my parting gift to you. Peace. I don’t leave you the way you’re used to being left—feeling abandoned, bereft. So don’t be upset. Don’t be distraught. (John 14:27) Say with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord.” Believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead. Then you will be saved. (Romans 10:9 NIRV)