(Blogger’s note: My apologies for this post being two days late. Frankly, I’ve been stalling. You’ll understand why once you read it.)
About 25 years ago, I remember reading a sportswriter’s piece about learning to use a computer (one of the early IBM PCs). This wasn’t one of those “old-fogey-I-hate-this-newfangled-technology-type articles — the writer found the machine genuinely useful for his work. But he did notice one weakness in the PC, one that time and advances in technology have not fully erased. He observed that, while seeming to be intelligent, a PC (or Mac for that matter) is just a dumb machine. The problem is that when, by hitting the wrong key or something, you break through the computer’s simulated intelligence to its actual intelligence, “you are surprised at the depth of the fall.”
Over the weeks I’ve spent on my Congregational Journey, I’ve seen something similar in many of the congregations I’ve visited. Most people consider themselves to be friendly, honest, and open to making new friends. People who attend church meetings are no exception. But there are times — especially when you’re a visitor to a congregation, rather than a regular attendee — when you suddenly realize you’ve broken through a congregation’s efforts to be friendly, honest and open, and you’re falling down to their actual level of friendliness, honesty and openness. And falling … and falling … and falling. Since one of Jesus’ commands to His disciples was to “love one another as I have loved you,” finding that the people who claim to be following Him are projecting only a surface impression of that love, with little or nothing behind it, is pretty disappointing.
I now have an Exhibit A for that phenomenon: Shiloh Delta Valley Church.
Shiloh Delta Valley Church is a Pentecostal congregation thatwas founded in 2003, and until a few months ago met in a school building in the new Weston Ranch section of southwest Stockton. Recently, they’ve relocated to a building owned by First Christian Church, a liberal Protestant congregation that has apparently closed down. (When I tried to hunt them down, I got routed to a Disciples of Christ congregation in the next county.) Apparently, their plan is to buy the property, but they are currently leasing. The property has two buildings on it — a boxy sanctuary and a U-shaped classroom building that includes a nursery and a jungle gym.
I arrived at 8:50 am for the 9:00 Sunday school class, and was surprised to find only one other car in the parking lot. There were no signs outside indicating where the class was being held, so I went into the sanctuary building to see if I could find some information. Most of the literature in the lobby dealt with a fundraising dinner to be held in May for something called the “A Hope and A Future Youth and Family Center” (it wasn’t clear what that involved — other than “to bring resources for physical, mental and spiritual health to our community and the Stockton region” — or why they needed to raise money for it). But thankfully there was a slip of paper where people could sign up for Sunday school in Room 8. I guessed (rightly) that Room 8 was in the other building, so I headed over there.
(While I was in the lobby, there were three people in the sanctuary proper, one playing a keyboard and two setting the levels on the soundboard. From the very high volume at which they were testing, I knew my earplugs were going to come into play during the service.)
When I got to Room 8, it was two minutes to nine, the lights were on, the door was unlocked … and no one was there. I sat alone for a few minutes, and was wondering if maybe the class had been cancelled, when a woman came in, said hi, introduced herself and then sat down on the other side of the room. Jerry Cook, the senior pastor who apparently also teaches the adult Sunday school, finally came in around 9:05 with his materials. He handed out a packet clearly photocopied from a book, said a prayer and began the class with just the three of us in attendance. Eventually more people trickled in, with attendance finally reaching eight (including Jerry and myself) by 9:20.
More surprising than the lateness and low attendance was the content of the class. Pastor Cook stated that this was a class for leadership training … but the material he taught was on guarding one’s heart from evil — an important but basic subject in my experience, the kind you map out for new believers. For the most part, it was him teaching — he asked few questions, though he did allow input from the attendees. All in all, it was a strange experience to be sitting in a supposed “leadership” Bible study where the entire time was spent on repentance and faith in God, what Hebrews 6:1-2 calls “elementary teachings about Christ”.
The class wrapped up about 9:55, and one fellow stayed behind to say hello and talk with me for a moment; the rest were out the door in a flash. Once he left for the sanctuary, so did I — and that’s when things got really strange.
In my Congregational Journey entries on Quail Lakes Baptist and Tabernacle of Faith about a month ago, I touched a few times on a practice that I’ve begun calling “church-friendly”. “Church-friendly” is when a person greets you with a hello, a smile and a handshake … and then either walks off or simply turns away, giving you no further opportunity to interact with them. It’s an indication that they want to be perceived as your friend — but without any of the work involved in actually getting to know you as a human being. I’d gotten a taste of that at the two congregations I just mentioned. But I was still totally unprepared for the avalanche of it that I would experience here.
From the moment I re-entered the sanctuary building, what little attention I received was perfunctory, brief and decidedly “church-friendly”. The first one was typical — as I came in the door to the foyer, a young Asian woman was standing there, and we had this exchange:
Woman: Hello. (Shakes my hand.)
Me: Hello! I …
(Woman turns to face the door again, although no one is currently near the door except she and I. Several seconds later she turns her head back toward me.)
Woman: I’m Maria.
Me: I’m Ray. I …
(Woman turns head back toward door again. After another ten seconds of waiting, I give up and head for the sanctuary.)
I am not making this up. Nor was it an isolated incident — almost every interaction I had there lasted less than fifteen seconds, and most were less than five. And it wasn’t for my lack of trying, either — usually they ended with me opening my mouth to continue the conversation, only to find myself staring at the person’s back as they walked away. After the fifth time it happened, I started getting annoyed; after the twelfth or fifteenth, I just began shaking my head and laughing to myself. The longest conversation I had (twenty seconds, tops) was with an usher — also the pastor’s son — who gave me a visitor’s packet, and only because he was instructing me that I was not allowed to keep the packet itself, only some of the materials inside it. (I compromised on that, leaving the entire packet behind after he left.)
The sanctuary itself was bare-bones — a bare-walled rectangular room with about 150 stackable chairs, a music stand for a pulpit and a prepared Communion table in front of the stage (first-Sunday-of-the-month Communion being common in evangelical churches). According to the bulletin, they were supposed to be holding “pre-prayer” but no one in the sanctuary seemed to be praying and there was no indication of where prayer was taking place if it was elsewhere. By 10:15, when the service was supposed to start, there were about 70 people in the room, including kids; when it actually did start just before 10:30, there were more than 100, so the room felt nicely crowded. The congregation is ethnically diverse, usually a good sign — while Pastor Cook and his family are Caucasian, at least half the congregation is African-American.
The music began, and I found out immediately that I was right about the earplugs. (I’m still waiting for the first person to explain to me why so many congregations crank the volume up so high. Why do they think a “joyful noise” has to be a deafening, painful one as well? But I digress.) It turns out that this Sunday was a special one, the sixth anniversary of their founding, and the music was interrupted on occasion to present greetings from a pastor of another congregation in Stockton and a phone call from an out-of-town pastor. After the music concluded around 11:20, visitors were acknowledged (and I received another visitor’s packet, this time without the lecture on what I was and wasn’t allowed to keep).
And then we were invited to greet each other — and the whole scene from before the service repeated itself. Several people came up to me, said hi, shook my hand, sometimes gave their names, told me they were pleased to meet me … and showed how pleased they were by walking off somewhere else. One of them was Rena Cook, the pastor’s wife, who gave me a hearty smile, a limp half-handshake and a cloud of dust as she headed elsewhere at top speed. All around me for several minutes, people were having animated conversations while I was left to sit alone, looking at the cover of the visitor’s packet which had “WE’RE GLAD YOU’RE HERE” on it in big letters. “Irony” seemed inadequate to describe the situation. But I remembered my experience at Quail Lakes Baptist and figured that I might at least have some well-crafted Bible teaching to look forward to …
No such luck. After the greeting time, a baby dedication and some announcements (they really hammered on the May fundraiser, a $60-per-plate dinner, without quite explaining what the money would be used for) came the offering. And starting off the offering was a declaration, read by the whole congregation, of how giving would bless them and they would receive lots of prosperity and cash. Yep, the “prosperity gospel” heresy in exhaustive detail (the declaration took up four Powerpoint slides). You’d think that a congregation with membership in triple digits who’d been around for six years but still weren’t able to afford their own building (and had been meeting in a school just six months before) would be able to put two and two together and realize that this selfish and greedy “theology” was not only unbiblical but didn’t work. Apparently not.
Nor did the sermon improve on things. Pastor Cook began with Acts 3:19 (“Repent therefore and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord”) but the message had little to do with it. He started out with an emphasis on building and maturity, then talked about the importance of forgiveness, then about loving your neighbor, went around for a while on the importance of telling the truth, without tying any of them to any of the others … basically, it came across as something cobbled together from bits and pieces of several different sermons. Also, he referenced Colossians 3:1 (“Set your mind on things which are above, not the things that are on the earth”), which rang hollow after the declaration of worldly prosperity and the emphasis on a fundraiser still two months away. And most of the anecdotes he used were the same ones he’d used in the Bible study, and had even less to do with his sermon than they had with the Bible study; I was left wondering how much time, if any, he had spent working on either.
Nor did his message — even though it seemed far more motivational than spiritual — seem to resonate with the congregation. While he got his share of amens and cheers, I could also hear a lot of conversations going on in the seats. One girl sitting two seats away from me spent the entire time playing on her Gameboy, with earbud headphones on. And the disconnection didn’t stop in the aisles — when Pastor Cook’s lapel mic went out for a couple of minutes mid-service, an usher (they call them “porters” there, not sure why) tried to hand him one of the cordless mics the musicians had been using. Pastor Cook ignored him completely, instead plowing on with his message until the poor usher gave up and set the mic down on the music stand (without turning it off — THUNK!).
At 12:45, with the service heading for the two-and-a-half-hour mark, I realized I needed a break from a sermon that still hadn’t decided on its point, from declarations of love for a congregation that had made it clear they didn’t want to get to know me. Back out in the foyer (where I went without any of the hundred-plus people in the sanctuary taking notice), I took another look at what I thought was a flyer for that May fundraiser. It wasn’t a flyer — it was a form letter to businesses, asking them to donate services or merchandise for a raffle and silent auction to take place at that dinner. So much for having faith in God — apparently they were content to get their prosperity through tried-and-true business methods, begging for supplies and having lotteries. As I stood there, I felt I heard God speaking:
This congregation wants to do big things their own way, not Mine. If they did it my way, they’d have half the congregation and ten times the impact.
Doing it God’s way — loving God with everything, loving people as yourself — has never been known to fail. But it’s hard work, and it means above all not putting yourself first. It means not emphasizing personal financial wealth. It means making an effort to get to know people, which takes spending more than several minutes, let alone several seconds. In short, it means not doing all the things that Shiloh Delta Valley Church seems to be spending its time on. So no wonder that the woman who talked about the fundraiser complained that “there are people in this city who don’t even know who we are!” Everyone in Judea and Galilee knew who Jesus was when He was walking about on earth — because He lived out the life God wanted Him (and all of us) to live, and it stood out. Why would people in this city care to know about a congregation whose idea of friendliness is a handshake and a retreating back, whose emphasis in giving is on getting things for themselves, who displays such an incredible disconnect between their words and their actions?
I headed back to my car with the impression that Shiloh Delta Valley Church was a group that wanted to act like a megachurch, not a group that wanted to act like Jesus. Which I guess would be fine if a megachurch could save or change anyone. But it can’t — only Jesus can. What I believe God wants me to pray for Pastor Cook is that he would take his eyes off his goals for himself and his congregation, and return to God’s Word without an agenda. Because it’s that Word, and the God who gave it to us, that will really change the world.
Driving away, I recalled a phrase from Pastor Cook’s opening prayer: “God forgive us for our insensitivity, when you’re working in our life and we don’t even know!” I can forgive them for their insensitivity, too, and have. But I think it would be foolish of me to bother visiting again.
Is God’s Word preached? Grade: F — quoted seemingly at random, twisted (I haven’t used half the examples above that I could’ve), used to support heresy …. if there’s a way to misuse Scripture, they managed it.
Is God’s Spirit working? Grade: C-; for all their yelling in tongues, there didn’t seem to be any evidence of lives being changed from sin to holiness, or of real interest in the things of God.
Do God’s people act like it? Grade: D — a lot of big smiles and handshakes, but nothing that really resembled love for (or even interest in) anyone they didn’t already know.