Sunday, January 20, 2013

Planetshakers Melbourne City

I was hungover.

It's been a while since I've nursed a hangover, and seems fitting that my return to the Pentecostal church would be accompanied by the taste of Berocca and the gentle, repetitious thud of regret. I spent a lot of mornings in my old church hungover, so much so I had mastered the art of appearing to be in prayer while actually sleeping it off.

I was grateful for the headache, for the distraction from my nerves for a little while. I found the car park thanks to their online instructions and the man at the car park was kind and excited to be meeting a first time visitor. I really liked this man, and suddenly had heightened expectations of being welcomed with open arms.

There were six people in black Planetshakers t-shirts standing at the front of the building, so I knew I was at the right entrance. But they didn't say good morning or welcome me, so I walked awkwardly through the middle of the semi circle they had created and in through the double doors. To my left was a "resource" desk, and to the right, information. This is where I was headed because the car park attendant told me they would validate my parking ticket for me. There were three black tees here looking at me uncomfortably.

"Um, hi. Hello. Is this where I sort out my parking ticket?"
"I'm not sure what you mean."
"The guy in the car park said you would validate my ticket or something? I'm not quite sure, sorry."

They swapped my ticket for a new one and said that would work. I then asked them where to go and they pointed across the foyer for me. I guess I was on my own.

It was 10:31 but the service had already started. The lights were out in the auditorium, the church was full and I had no idea how to find a seat. I wandered up and down the isle for a bit, feeling like a complete loser, until eventually I found some empty seats. I asked a young girl if they were free.

"Well this seat is taken (the one next to her) but you could sit over there."

I walked straight over her handbag, an accident I swear, and took in my surrounds. I've seen a Pentecostal service before of course, none of what was happening was a surprise, but it sure was fancy.

The auditorium was packed with about 1000 people. I couldn't see the balcony from where I was but it seemed that was full too. There was a full band and five singers and lots of activity going on. The band and singers were jumping and moving and the congregation were clapping, bouncing and raising their hands in the air. I had spotted four cameras, one on a crane, and a more impressive lighting set up than when I'd seen John Mayer at Rod Laver Arena.

I wasn't ready to bounce yet.

The music went for about ten minutes and by that time I'd found my groove. I couldn't help but sway and enjoy the music. They're not my new favourite band, but the music was catchy, and the performance was engaging. The people around me seemed to be really enjoying the moment.

It was exactly 10:46 when I was first invited to make a purchase. Their new CD had been released last Tuesday and I should go download it from iTunes or grab a copy up the back after the service.

As a first time visitor I was then asked to raise my hand so I could be given a welcome pack. I was told I was among the VIP's here today, that no one was more special than a first time visitor, and I should feel welcome. The church then stood up and clapped. The girl who's bag I had walked over turned and shook my hand. This annoyed me. Of course she was nice now she knows I'm a VIP.

It was time to pass around the offering buckets, and the credit card slips. The young speaker explained that they choose to give the first 10% of their income to the church, and offerings on top of that. I was invited to try it. Church news was next, a multimedia presentation and again a reminder to buy their CD, and also attend their conference, their camp and their college.

We sang a few more songs, and as an observer, I could see the appeal of being a part of this show. The band seemed like rock stars, in fact, it felt more like we were worshiping them than God. The entire service so far had felt like a well rehearsed stage production, and they were the stars. What I couldn't figure out yet, was what you got out of being in the congregation.

The main message was delivered by "a chocolate brother from Dallas, Texas", Pastor Robert Madu. He was funny, engaging, an excellent speaker and clearly knew his subject matter well. His message was titled "I got more than what I came for" and was taken from Mark 2:1-12.

Pastor Robert received five standing ovations during his twenty minute sermon. Hot points with the crowd included :

  • Get to know who Jesus actually is, not who you want him to be. 
  • Don't be naive that just because someone is standing behind a pulpit it means they are speaking the word of God.
  • A quiet church is a dead church.
  • and; When your experience doesn't match your expectation, God is giving you a revelation. 

The rest of the service played out exactly as the Pentecostal playbook tells it; have the musicians sneak up on stage and play atmospheric music while the speaker turns his attention to the unsaved in the room. Everyone stands, bows their head and closes their eyes and are invited to raise their hand if they would like to receive Jesus into their heart. Several people accepted this invitation and they were applauded by the church and taken out the back to be given a book, Eternity.

My VIP status scored me admission to the visitors lounge where again I was ignored by the "welcome team". Sucking it up, I introduced myself to a black t-shirt girl who lasted about sixty seconds of uncomfortable small talk before she left me to get myself a cup of tea. That's where I met Thea.

Thea made me a delicious mug of  English Breakfast and seemed to have better social skills than my last acquaintance, so I asked her if she was free to chat. Unfortunately she had to stay by the tea stand, so I took myself to a couch and drank my tea.

No one else approached me, so after a few minutes, Thea came over and said, "I think everyone has their tea now" and sat with me. She asked me questions about myself and was sweet and kind. She asked how I enjoyed the service and I told her I found the whole experience quite overwhelming  She smiled and took this as a compliment. I told her I had a few questions about the welcome pack, if that was okay?

"Of course," she smiled again.

Thea, you have thirteen ministries outlined in this brochure. But I couldn't help but notice, there wasn't a welfare ministry among them. Do you have a welfare ministry here?

Thea smiled and laughed. She thought it was so great that God had brought her to talk to me, because she'd joined the church staff five years ago to establish the welfare ministry. She said they had a great vision, but the timing hadn't been right so nothing had come of it yet.

Could you tell me what the vision was?

She smiled again. Oh you know, helping people by giving them a hand up, not a hand out. We were going to open an Empowerment center.

So it wasn't a rock solid vision with an action plan. Thea explained to me that at Planetshakers, they are the church. It's not up to the church to do something, its up to its members. So if the members feel led by God to offer welfare, then they should.

I spoke to Thea for a while, but we didn't go very far. I think she knew in her heart they weren't the church for me.

I didn't raise it with Thea, but my decision not to return to Planetshakers was made, not by the information in the welcome pack, but by the total absence of one word - love. Love is not mentioned once in any of their thirteen ministries, the welcome letter from the pastors or in the churches mandate - they're about The Call, Kingdom Culture, and The Commission. But I'm looking for a church that's about love. Genuine love. Love that doesn't have to be rostered. Love that doesn't have to be programmed. Love that is overwhelming, from the minute you walk in the door.

On the way out, I was asked to buy chocolates.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

St David's Uniting Church West Brunswick

I picked this church for two reasons: One, I'd never been to a Uniting church before, and two, I could walk there.

I shouldn't have started with a Uniting church.

My stomach was churning when I woke this morning. I couldn't believe how anxious I was. I wasn't sure if I was more nervous about my blog, which I've been working on for six months being a total flop, or, if no one would sit with me. My social anxiety has been at an all time high lately, and walking into a new place, alone, is really putting it out there.

I could see about three doors leading into the building and no idea which one to enter. A lovely elderly lady found me looking lost. She asked if I was here for the service, which probably wasn't that odd a question for her to be asking. Why was I there?

"I'm Alison. Sorry, dear. I should have my name tag on."

I introduced myself and Alison took me through to the hall. I was wondering why her name wasn't Margaret, or Joan. Alison seemed too young a name. Alison introduced me to Annette, who gave me a hymn book. There were three other congregants in the hall, all elderly, all sitting alone.

I sat down the back and was very quickly greeted by Malcolm. He was going to take the service today because Reverend Andrew's wife had called two hours earlier saying he was far too ill and could Malcolm please fill in. Malcolm and I discussed the narrow roads in Brunswick, catching trains, and his retiring for the third time. I asked Malcolm what he would be speaking on today and he answered, 'The epiphany' like it was so obvious an answer he was almost embarrassed to say it. I may have spent ten years in church, but I had no idea what the epiphany was.

People kept arriving for the service, about fifteen in total, including children and Malcolm,  Annette & Alison who I had already met. I had an overwhelming sense of warmth. They looked so kindly to me and also to each other. They all sat alone, except for the young Maori family, but they all greeted each other with a smile and a nod.

While everyone is being friendly enough, I can't stop feeling they are incredibly confused as to who I am and why I am there. But no one is asking me. I'm also feeling incredibly guilty, like I'm there to spy on these lovely people. I don't want to spy on them. I want to be hugged by them.

Someone walked to the altar and lit a candle. Everyone stood silently through this, and then Malcolm took to the pulpit. He welcomed us all, and apologised the Reverend was sick and that with such short notice the message today may be a bit 'hotchpotched'. Everyone stood for a hymn and Alison played the organ. She accidentally played an extra verse of hymn 904, so everyone made up their own lyrics. Annette sang the first verse again, others chose to repeat the last verse. One lady up the back brought it home with "la la la's".

After some readings by Annette and a story for the children, Malcolm introduced his message. It was by Bruce Prewer and was called: "Epiphany: Are we arrogant?"

I was hooked.

Luckily, as the sermon was "borrowed" from Bruce I was able to find it online after I got home. So for the super keen, you can read it all here, but for the rest of you, I'm just going to offer my favourite point:

"Where there is arrogance, you can not find the humble messiah".

To keep this blog as short as possible, I'm not going to go over Malcolm's message - but it was lovely. It spoke of a humble and generous church, one who doesn't pretend it is any greater than any other religion, simply, one who is lucky. It hit all the right spots with me, even if it was taken from the internet.

Then the collection was taken up. There was no call to give, no offering message. A dish was passed around and a younger man collected a basket I must have overlooked on my way in, containing dry food goods. The money and the food was taken to the altar to be blessed. Alison then shared the church announcements, and spoke of the money they had been able to donate to a Christmas charity the week before. I was impressed by their generosity of spirit. Clearly they hadn't given much, but they had given kindly.

Then I remembered the sign I saw on each of the three doors entering the building:

"This church is no longer able to supply welfare"

The church were clearly generous, and conversations with Alison after the service would confirm this, but I wondered, did the generosity have to be on their terms? Don't come to us, we'll come to you? Either way, the deeds, and the heart were surely in the right place. But I couldn't settle it in my heart.

The service finished and they closed in prayer. They prayed for the fires, the fire victims and the workers, they prayed for God to strengthen the welfare of the churches. They prayed for unwell congregants and they prayed "without any prying or sense of self importance, let us be ready to help in time of need" which was about the loveliest thing I have ever heard in my life.

I remained seated after the service had finished to see what would happen now. I had so many questions I wanted to ask them, so much about the church I still had to learn. They hadn't crossed any of my boxes, but they hadn't ticked them all yet either. I waited about five minutes until Malcolm popped back over to see me.

I told him I really enjoyed the message - it was really spot on with some things I'd been thinking. I told him I'd been out of church for five years, and was just taking some time to suss it all out. I said that in reading my bible last week I'd been a bit shocked. My memories of Jesus were of his humility and grace, but when he went to the Pharisee's house he was rude, obnoxious and offensive. I wondered how it all fit.

Malcolm told me that old testament God was about judgment and condemnation, but new testament God, through Jesus, was merciful and humble.

Malcolm - this in no way answered my question.

I politely tried to answer my own question by smiling and suggesting that maybe the son of God is allowed to be arrogant, but it's best if Christians aren't. We were interrupted by another congregant wanting a word with Malcolm and he was very quick to leave our conversation.

Alison then offered me a cup of tea and I sat with her a while and tried to ask a few questions about the church, but every time she would answer my question and quickly change the topic back to me. 'When do you have communion?' 'Next week. Are you new to West Brunswick?' It was lovely and well mannered, but I really didn't get enough information off her. She then handed me my bag and thanked me for coming.

I guess church was over.

I really liked the people I met at St David's, even if I did get the impression they were intimidated by having a single, twenty something girl walk in off the street. I'm not ready to close the chapter on this church, so I'll definitely go back, and hopefully get the chance to meet the Reverend they all speak so fondly of.