My Sunday Visit to a Fundamentalist Church

I am halfway through my two-month pastoral sabbatical, and people keep asking me how it is going and what I have learned. The answers I keep giving are that it is going well and that I don’t know what I have learned yet. I miss seeing my friends on Sunday mornings, but it would be inaccurate to say that I have missed all that I used to do on Sunday mornings. Maybe that will come in a few weeks. Maybe not. We shall see.

When I began the pastoral sabbatical, I decided to take July off from church altogether and to use Sundays in August to visit other churches. The purpose of these other visits is not necessarily to hunt for new ideas or to scope out the competition. Instead, I’ve simply been curious about some churches in the area. I am visiting them to  satisfy my curiosity. Since I wouldn’t normally have the opportunity to do so, I figured this August, during my sabbatical, would be as good a time as any.  

So, on Sunday morning, I dropped Vanessa and Calvin off at Vintage (the girls slept in), and I headed off by myself to a church in northwest Arkansas that is a part of the denomination that I left when we moved here to start Vintage. 

I’m not exactly sure why I was drawn to this particular fundamentalist church. Maybe I wanted to see if I still had some connection to what I had left behind. In my book Fundamorphosis: How I Left Fundamentalism But Didn’t Lose My Faith, I wrote pretty forcefully about my past church experiences. Maybe I wanted to make sure I hadn’t created any strawmen. Maybe I just wanted to see if I have made a mistake.

Bottom line – I haven’t.break_free

First off, let me say this, I was greeted warmly when I arrived. People seemed genuinely glad that I was there. I was a little nervous about attending a small, local congregation since I have been featured in the local paper a few times and write a periodic column. One old lady told me that my face looked very familiar, but I just chuckled and said, “I don’t know.” What impressed me most was how people remembered my name. Those who greeted me multiple times, including the pastor, always used my name during the second conversation. That was impressive. 

I did get a chuckle out of an elderly usher trying desperately to find a visitor’s card to give me to fill out. I wasn’t sure if he gave me the impression that so many visitors stop by that they had run out or that visitors were so rare that they didn’t know where the guest cards were kept. Eventually, he found one. I didn’t fill it out. I’m not a good person.

What was much less welcoming was the service itself. An order of service was printed in the bulletin but was not followed. That was strange to me. The music was led by an eight-person bluegrass band. One song was from the hymnal. The other six or seven were not. They were not oriented toward congregation participation. They included rather awkward times of chatter between band members between the songs. And they were bluegrass. Not my favorite.

The service also featured a time of singing “Happy Birthday” to members of the congregation. Not my favorite.

And a “shake hands with someone around you” time that lasted seven minutes, six and half of which I spent all alone at the end of my pew. Not my favorite.

When the pastor took to the pulpit, I was ready for the sermon. He preached from the King James Version of the Bible. It was a topical sermon about the power of one person in God’s economy. It wasn’t the least bit exegetical or conscious of biblical context. But it was earnest and certainly not the worst sermon through which I have ever sat.

There were several points at which the sermon could have easily swerved into a mean-spirited diatribe about President Obama or the moral decline of the country or the emergent church or evolutionary science. All of those punches were telegraphed. Thankfully, none of them were thrown.

Instead, the pastor stayed true to his theme that one person who is available and bold can make a huge difference in the world. Jesus himself is the ultimate case in point. No argument out of me on that.

WIthout a doubt, the thing that bothered me most about the sermon was an illustration that the pastor used about a University of Southern California professor who sought in his classes to disprove the existence of God. As the story goes, one Christian student rose to his feet in defense of his faith. In a final act of persuasion, the professor was going to drop his piece of chalk, claiming that if God were all powerful, he could keep the chalk from shattering when it hit the floor. When he went to drop the chalk, the professor accidentally dropped it down his shirt sleeve, after which it made its way on an impossible journey down his pant leg, where it rolled onto the floor unbroken. The professor left in a huff, and the student spent the next thirty minutes telling his classmates about Jesus.

The story sounded to me like one of those hackneyed email forwards that eventually ends up on Facebook. But the pastor kept insisting that it was a verified, true story. Undeniable evidence of both God and the importance of boldness in the face of evil atheists. His insistence drove me to me to google it up on my google machine while he was telling the story. Sure enough, there’s a entry about it. Not true. Respect lost.

The sermon and service ended, predictably, with several verses of Just As I Am and an altar call that felt directed at the first time visitor sitting in the second pew to the back.

I didn’t go forward.

And I’m not going back to fundamentalism.


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