Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Joe 'n' Karim's Excellent Church Adventure! Episode 1: Doncaster Community Church of Christ

In the weeks coming, I'm going to be chronicling a new venture. A friend and I have decided to visit a new church each week.

It began when Karim (the aforementioned friend) asked me if I could recommend any churches to him, as he was unhappy with his old church and hadn't been going for some weeks. I recommended my current church, Jeebus - a congregation in an "emerging" church where we practice church in a decidedly "un-churchy" way. But Karim was after something a little more traditionally "churchy", with a sermon, songs and the like, in a "regular" church setting (pews, altar, unnecessarily expensive sound system).

I immediately thought of my old church, Doncaster Community Church of Christ (Donny). The Sunday night service is youth/young adult oriented, with a band and all that other stuff. It had been the church of my early to mid-teens, and was where I rediscovered Christianity after the childhood trauma of imposed Catholicism. I hadn't been in years, but I told Karim that I would brave this gap and check it out with him.

Weeks passed. We couldn't find a Sunday where we were both free.

Last night, finally, that Sunday came, and off we were to Donny (more on that later).

On the way back, we decided that we would check out a different church each week, partly as mission to find Karim a new congregation, but also as an adventure, of sorts. We made the decision to visit all types of churches, from the traditional, to the innovative, to the extreme. Everything's on the cards.

We have no idea how long this will last, or what the eventual outcome will be.

Personally, I see it as a bit of a spiritual challenge. I suppose I'm guilty of getting a little too comfortable in my spiritual life, and it's high time I get a theological kick in the pants.

So, over the coming weeks, I'm going to be "reviewing" my experiences. I'm doing this mainly to sort out my own thoughts, but hopefully some other people will read this, get something out of it, and give me a million dollars to write a book.*

Here we go.

25th of June 2006

Doncaster Community Church of Christ, Doncaster Road, Doncaster

"FESTival" Service, Sunday, 6pm

We were running late. As we pulled up into the church car park, Karim noted that it seemed rather quiet. There weren't many cars in the car park, and there didn't seem to be any lights on in the church building itself. Neither of us had bothered to check if there was in fact a church service on tonight.

We entered the church and were greeted with a dark foyer. It wasn't until our eyes adjusted that we noticed the two young women at the door greeting latecomers with a smile and a church newsletter. We made our way inside the... I dunno what you'd call it. Auditorium. Worship centre. Whatever. You know what I'm talking about. Pews and a high roof. Altar out the front, tech desk out the back.

There was a small cluster of people seated in the centre section of pews, directly in front of the altar. All the other sections were roped off, most likely to prevent bashful newcomers such as ourselves from hiding in the shadows. And it would've been easy to do so, as the room seemed to be clouded in an unusual low-light. So we did what any self-respecting church newcomer would do. We sat in the back row.

A young red-headed man stood out front with the microphone, reciting the latest goings-on from the church community. Bake-sale this, trivia night that, Barbara someone... (I'm paraphrasing heavily here.) I was just getting my bearings when the offering bowl zoomed past. I didn't have the time nor the spare change to put anything in. It was then that I noticed the people seated either side of us. To my left was George - a kind and approachable minister who I remembered from my old days at Donny. He did a double-take and then proceeded to strike up a bit of "how'd you do/where've you been". He didn't seem to mind talking over young red-headed man. To the right of us sat my girlfriend's ex, who, after a curt nod of recognition, seemed content in ignoring us for the rest of the evening. Then the lights started to dim even further, and the video projector fired up. It was then that I realised exactly what was going on. They were trying something "different".

This used to happen a fair bit towards the latter months of my stay at Donny. Every now and then, when someone had the inclination, the regular Sunday night service with songs and a sermon was eschewed for something with a more "unique and unorthodox worship style", which usually involved a presentation (be it a performed drama or video) followed by the congregation breaking up into smaller discussion groups, or having a panel of people up the front fielding questions. In this case it was the latter. These things usually seem to me like a but of a token effort on the ministry team's part to keep things "fresh" and "engaging", but I decided to give them the benefit of the doubt. After all, it had been years since I'd been here. Things might've changed.

The video started interestingly enough. A contemporary orchestra settled themselves in a concert hall, tuning their instruments and eventually striking up a nice little piece of music. Then someone started talking. A man round about 30 with bleached hair and box glasses was sitting up in the stands. He faced the camera, and he began to talk about music. Then he began to talk about God. After a short while I clicked that this was basically a sermon on tape. The man used music to describe our relationship with God and talked about "being in tune with God". The metaphor was okay I guess. Even if it was a little wishy-washy, the grandiose video production with sweeping shots of the orchestra playing a rousing tune made it seem a little more solid. (I did a web search and found a short excerpt from the video we watched.)

The video ended, and young red-headed man (who I later learned had a name) welcomed the three panel members to the stage, sorry, altar. One was a middle-aged man in glasses with a name like Norman, the second was Mark, son of George (the minister sitting next to me), and the third was a spry "God is awesome" blonde named Kylie. I'm not too sure why these three were selected for the panel. Perhaps because they seemed like a varied selection of the congregation's demographic. Young red-headed man read out the pre-prepared questions and the three took turns giving their answers, with some stunted and awkward banter strewn intermittently throughout.

I won't go through the panel discussion, suffice to say that it lacked conviction. Well, not conviction so much as a point. We heard the three's opinions on things and young red-headed man had barely wrapped the discussion up before we were chuffing down bread and grape juice and calling it a day.

Now came the part that Karim was dreading: the after-service greet-the-newbie-and-rope-him-into-devoting-his-soul-to-the-church. Surprisingly, it wasn't as bad as I'd expected. We chatted with George a bit, young red-headed man came over and told us his name was Simon, and then Simon's wife dropped by, and I realised young red-headed man might not have been as young as I'd imagined. She seemed nice, if a little defensive: "We were trying something 'different' tonight. We normally have way more people than this." Then I said hi to the two other people I remembered from the old days, and we left.

I suppose at the least the service got me thinking again after my lapse in theological discourse. Karim and I enjoyed a lengthy discussion in the pizza restaurant afterwards. I guess if anything, the service at Donny pushed open a door for me that had been slightly ajar and in some danger of closing. I guess it was up to me to walk through it. (Cue inspirational music.)


If my writing seems overly critical, that's only because I'm a sad, cynical bastard. Plus it's more fun to write (and read) this way. If you're finding it hard to tell when I'm being ironic and when I'm being earnest, you should try talking to me. It's even worse.

Next week I get to be the newbie and Karim the veteran as we go to Karim's old haunt: Coburg Baptist Church.

*I'll donate some of it to charity, I swear.


Ally said...

This was incredibly entertaining to read... :) I enjoyed it.

Joe said...

Thanks! I'm glad. :) I had fun writing it.

Anonymous said...

so, when are we going to hear about your next venture at Coburg Baptist Church, and the following churches??