3/23/08

A Non-Believer in Church: The Orchard at Tupelo

I should explain a few things before I begin. I come from a devote Christian family. All of my family as well as my Mississippi friends still think I am a believer. I gave up believing the mythology about two years ago. I still go to church regularly out of fear of what others will think of (or might do to) me. Since I am going to church, I ought to be recording these experiences. Maybe it is ironic that I'm writing while listening to the excellent Christian music podcast "Bored Again Christian," which I would recommend to anyone.

About three weeks ago, I attended the services of "The Orchard," a church of the United Methodist in Tupelo. It's a much larger church than I am use to attending, with around 1,000 people in attendance. The place looks like an airport terminal. The signs that hang from the walls have a giant typeface to direct people to different areas of the building. There are free coffee and donut stations throughout the auditorium. The church has a store with spiritual living books, t-shirts, and coffee mugs. Several wooden crosses hang from the ceiling. The front of the auditorium has a stage and a full band was used throughout the service.

Most of the service consisted of live music, which was enjoyable to me. The band played while the congregation (or more appropriately "audience") watched. There was some encouragement to sing and the lyrics were on an overhead screen, but I didn't see a lot of participation. The majority of the people were content to stand and listen. The older Christian me would have been bothered by the lack of singing from the group. The newer secular me wonders why a person would make any effort at all to come to church and not try to participate.

The speaker of the hour talked about a passage from The Book of Hosea, Ch. 11. Hosea is a book about a prophet who is so angry that he spends most of the book begging God to curse and torture the tribe of Ephraim in cruel and inhuman ways. The speaker is obviously talented enough to turn this book into a family friendly lesson. He told a funny story from his childhood where his mother would read a children's book to him when he got in trouble, and that this was much worse than any spanking he could have received. It was clever in that it showed that the bond between God and his people should be the same between the bond between parents and children, thus the overall message of "God loves you" was complete.

After the speaker finished, there was more live music, followed by the offering. One minister introduced a family who had recently had a baby girl. The family said that they all wanted to be rededicated to God, including the baby. The minister sprinkled the water on the baby's head and talked about how she was now a sister of the church, but not yet a full member. This portion of the service made me realize that the indoctrination of children into a religion begins before they are even able to learn of alternatives to what the parents already believe.

There were some closing announcements and one minister told a shocking story about how someone died of a heart attack in the middle of the previous Sunday service. Then he clarified that no one died and no one even had a health issue. He was highlighting the problem that people are parking in the zones reserved for emergency vehicles. It was a shocking way to get my attention, and it worked, but I don't exactly condone that sort of attention grabbing. It harkens back to the story of the boy who cried wolf too many times.

The service concluded with a minister simply saying that the service was over. The window drapes are mechanized to all open at the same time, so as the service finished the auditorium filled with sunlight. It was quite beautiful and it certainly had the emotional draw to it. Looking back, every aspect of the service was based on an emotional appeal to follow God. There was no effort to make a reasoned appeal to follow God because it wasn't needed. Why do you need reason to get people in the doors if free coffee, donuts, and live music do just as well?

I enjoyed my brief time at "The Orchard," if only for the entertainment value. If you are a member of this church, I hope this provides a new perspective on this church's style of worship. Also, be on the lookout for a new guy sitting on your pew taking copious notes (and that goes for any church in Northern Mississippi).

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