April 9, 2011

The Hip Church in Puerto Rico part dos

(I wrote about a recent church experience HERE and this post is a continuation of it.)

The service was over and my feet were hurting me. We started to file out and a friend asked me an inevitable question: "What did you think?"

I'd have asked the same question if I had brought a guest with me, so I knew it was coming. But they didn't realize how heavy their question was. I had already begun to feel a little bit guilty about forming all of these reactions to a church service. I certainly hadn't gotten what I hoped out of it. And from that came this deep self-examination - yes, it matters what I thought about church, but that reaction says a whole lot more about me than it does about the church. I hate the thought of me being a church critic.

Such a simple question really didn't require us to jump into a discussion where we'd probe into my cynicism and spiritual guilt. So naturally I told them it was difficult for me because of the Spanish. This wasn't a lie, but it was a cop-out. I told him I'd been to services a little like this in the States.

He said this was a brand new concept in Puerto Rico, that they were changing what people think about church. Kids here, they don't really want to go to church.

Boom. Confirmation that my whole blog-about-how-uncomfortable-and-cynical-I-am-in-church-thing is entirely misdirected. It might be amusing, but it is misdirected. I was humbled. I had thought plenty about how the church was trendy and trying hard, and that churches shouldn't be concerned with trends. But that whole time, it wasn't the church that was concerned with trends. It was me.

Here was a place that was meeting people where they were at, moving with the Holy Spirit, connecting and transforming people in a place where they felt welcomed, comfortable, alive. And I had spent my time there thinking about communion cups and Raisinettes and my sore feet, drawing comparisons between this church and others I'd been to years ago.

My friend painted a picture of a Puerto Rico for me where the kids don't want to go to church. It's boring, it's traditional, it's stuffy, and as a result they don't have any interest in Christianity. But this place was new, fresh, appealing. And not far away from a college. I thought about how youthful the church was. The pastor was young, the band was young, and the majority of the congregants were really young, too. Something good was happening here. Puerto Rico needs more places like this.

As for me, I wonder what I'm supposed to do with myself when I bring my exhaustion into church with me. All I wanted to do was sit down for a while and hear a preacher, but I didn't get it.

On the way home later on, I made a comment about how tired I was and that I never really got to sit down and hear preaching like I had hoped. I sounded like an old man.

"This was a worship service, Jim. The whole point is to pray and worship. There's not supposed to be a lot of preaching anyway."

Yup. I definitely didn't get it.

April 8, 2011

The Hip Church in Puerto Rico

"Is this going to be one of those three hour services?" I ask. My feet hurt and I'm sunburned and not especially interested in a marathon church session.

"No, probably just an hour and a half."

Good. I'm not one for lengthy church services, even in English. I feel a little guilty about it. Shouldn't my soul always be up for praising Jesus, listening intently, singing whole-heartedly, ever an empty sponge for soaking up the Holy Spirit? A long church or worship service shouldn't be a big deal. Still, I can't seem to muster the enthusiasm for them.

We're going to be late, probably by half an hour. We'll miss the bulk of worship, get there for announcements, I'll settle in and hear a preacher speak in Spanish and, if anything, give my ears a little practice hearing Spanish but probably not get a whole lot else from the teaching. Then another song. Shake some hands. We'll leave. Simple and painless.

It takes a while to park. Jon drops us off at the door and we go in to the old theater where they meet. There's a sign with a non-church-sounding name and a table where they're handing out Raisinettes and bookmarks. I think back to the days when I was visiting churches in St Joe, where they wooed people with gift bags and coffee mugs. Church-searchers should never run out of coffee mugs. I take my Raisinettes and bookmark and we go in.

I survey the scene: Pretty simple set-up, Movie theater seats, Blank canvas by the stage with markers where people can come up as the spirit leads and write stuff. There's an over-qualified band on stage leading a worship tune. The lead guitarist is a gangly guy in skinny jeans, Vans and a plain V-neck tee. He has an underbite and a messy hairdo. He's probably in another band. In my experience, most hip churches have this guy. I've seen it all before. The come-as-you-are, hip church might be new in Puerto Rico, but it emerged as I was in college (at the height of my hipness) so I knew it well. They were trying hard to break out of the stuffy church mode, and actually doing a pretty good job of it.

We wait in the back for Jon while he parks the car. I'm hungry and they gave me Raisinettes, so I try to get them open, but they're in the sort of plastic-packaging that cannot be torn. There's no sawtoothed edge at the top. It's gonna be a fight between me and the packaging to get to the candy inside. It would be ideal to get this done now instead of later when the preacher is speaking. But after a solid effort at tearing them, I'm getting nowhere. So I stuff them in my pocket and picture myself futzing with them during the sermon, pulling hard until they tear open and I throw an elbow at some poor person next to me, and the candy goes flying, rattling noisily down the floor, interrupting the pastor and drawing all attention squarely on me, the guy who couldn't wait for the Raisinettes, instead of the pastor and His Boss.

Jon arrives as they end the song and we find seats next to some friends of theirs. Someone comes up to pray for Libya and Syria. She prays for a long time as they flash images of destruction on the screen and the band plays ambient, serious-sounding chords behind her. I'm trying hard to pay attention and focus on prayer, but the Spanish makes it tough. I think and translate about every other sentence, trying to keep up.

Then, another guy gets up and preaches a little, but we're all still standing and the band is still playing behind him, so it all has this kind of brief, temporary feel to it. This isn't the real sermon. He's saying something about family problems. Lots of people go forward, then people from the band and more established congregants go up to pray with them and lay hands on them. One guy puts his hands across the backs of people's necks and I feel like it's kind of weird. My feet are starting to hurt.

He finishes and the band starts playing a Spanish version of a David Crowder Band song I know. This gives me a little bit of energy, and I sing the parts I know in English. They get to the chorus, and it takes on this improvisational, long, emotional feel to it, and people are singing it over and over again. Eventually the PowerPoint person gets lost and puts up a 360 degree pan of the cross at sunset. This goes on for a really long time, and the lead guitarist drops to his knees and begins to weep while the band and congregation sing the chorus over and over again. All said and done, the David Crowder song probably lasted about 19 minutes.

My feet are really sore now and I'm starting to feel kind of exhausted. We've been there about 45 minutes it feels and they still haven't wrapped up this whole integrated worship-prayer thing they're doing and gotten to the preaching. It's not going to be a 90-minute service. I think about sitting down but I convince myself that if I do, people will think I'm having some intensely emotional and spiritually repentant experience, crying out to God for mercy and compassion, when really I'm just tired and starting to disengage from it all. Instead, I stand and start to think about blogging about all of this.

Then, the preacher comes up. The band steps away from their instruments, except for the guitarist who keeps playing ambient chords and mouthing lyrics while the pastor speaks. People sit down. Phew. I get out the Raisinettes because now I have a plan. I poke a whole in them with the threading of a key-ring in my pocket. I'm in. Sweet sustenance. No flying elbows, no noisy distraction. It's good.

The speaker talks only for a few minutes, and gives an invitation. I don't know if it's an altar-call or just an invitation for prayer about something, but lots of the same people come up again, and lots of the same people who laid hands on them before come back up. Throughout the service, I always knew pretty well what they were talking about, just not what they were saying. There was some standing and sitting and raising hands and stuff. Since I wasn't entirely sure what was going on, I went with the status quo to be safe. I didn't want to commit to something, to identify myself with something that wasn't true. I'm a little confused, and it's a humbling thing to be confused in church. People who come for the first time probably understand that fairly well.

They serve communion in little pre-packaged juice cups with communion wafers shrink-wrapped into their lids. It was very convenient, moreso than breaking bread and pouring wine (or Welch's) and having to pass two plates. We all stand for this again.

When he finishes, the band returns to their instruments and the worship leader says something about "a final song." I am cautiously optimistic. And as they launch into this last worship hymn, people around me start to gather their things. The end is near. Sweet relief. They wrap up, but not before one final encore tag-ending to the last song.

(Continued tomorrow)