Monday, May 20, 2013

C3 Melbourne North

You'd think I'd be an old hat at this by now, but still the anxiety hits me, every week, just before I walk into the unknown. This week was no exception. Luckily I arrived early and had time to call my dad who calmed me down before I went in.

I can't really explain what causes my mini panic attacks. I'm pretty sure every one gets nervous headed somewhere new for the first time, especially when going alone. I wish I could go back in time and teach Lucy-the-doorgreeter a bit more empathy and a bit less hyper, "WELCOME TO CHURCH!" Maybe I'd take a note from Eric's book and lead them by the hand, find them someone warm to sit with and stay by their side.

This week's panic attack was induced by the sight of someone I knew. Someone who knows my whole story, why I left church five years ago, someone who was there at my first ever church service.

Turns out it wasn't them. But the panic I felt was real.

Why? I'm pretty open about my spiritual journey - at least I think I am. But the very thought of having someone know who I was when I walked in scared me more than not knowing anyone at all. I can hide behind my veil of "I'm just visiting" - but the truth is, there's more to it than that. I'm judging. I'm taking your church on first appearances. I'm using my powers of deduction to see if I can find any sincerity. I'm looking for a genuine experience of the presence of God. All in 90 -120 mins.

I wasn't going to go to a C3 church. I figured Planetshakers was probably enough of a pentecostal experience for me. But my criticism of Planetshakers had been their lack of inclusion, and I was responding to a direct invitation to attend a grand opening of a brand new church. So they had to be inclusive.

And to their credit, they were.

I was met at the door by a pretty young girl in a bright yellow t-shirt saying "Hello. I'm here to help you" or words to that affect. She led me to the room and introduced me to James, the new church's pastor. James was great. He was natural, comfortable. We talked Melbourne vs Sydney (where he'd moved from), Geelong vs Collingwood, and he introduced me to his wife and baby boy. He felt like someone I'd genuinely be interested in getting to know a bit better, which I realised is one of the first times I've felt like I've actually found a potential friend at a church.

The meeting was taking place at Rydges Hotel. There was a sense of excitement at the thought of being a part of something "from the beginning". Something new. Something untouched.

But then the service started. And it didn't feel new at all. I'm pretty familiar with C3, and I was wondering how much they would deviate from their "formula" for a new startup church. The answer was none. Not at all.

The service was opened by a video of Pastor Phil Pringle, head of C3 international, congratulating James and Shanthy on the opening. The first song we sang was credited as written by: Dan Pringle, Joe Pringle, Leah Pringle. I can't remember the name of the song, but I do remember it didn't say "God" or "Jesus" once. It could have been a pop love song. And the way my handsome friend was singing it, it would have probably have been more appropriate.

I want to give credit where it's due. The young guy leading the music was gorgeous. He had a great singing voice and he could play the guitar well enough. And boy, he gave it all. But it was the biting of the bottom lip, and the "woah woah woah's' that got to me. I was thinking how great it would be if the churches got together and created their own version of the Voice - just for frustrated singers, wanting to be pop stars, but also wanting to give their gift to their God.

It just felt so much more like a performance than any sort of worship I've heard lately. I'd rather go back to the CDs at the Salvos.

After two songs, repeated over twenty minutes, James got up and started the service. He had his wife by his side, and they were lovely. I saw them as a couple of kids who'd paid their dues: Got married, had kids, served in their church, and now they were ready to go.

James said his vision was to show the city of Melbourne that Christ is a valuable and true option which I thought was nice and then Shanthy opened in prayer.

Then it was time for the offering.

I don't want to be a classic Pentecostal cynic here, so I'm not going to give any opinion, just outline how James went about collecting the offering. Firstly, there was a slide on the screen identifying the three ways to give.

  1. Cash, Credit Card or Cheque
  2. PayPal
  3. Scan the QR code in the welcome book

James did tell his new congregation they shouldn't feel forced to give, but simply to give as your heart felt led. He quoted scripture from Corinthians.

While the offering buckets were being passed around, we watched another Pastor Phil video - an update on the 20-20 vision of C3. I must admit, I found the video a bit icky. The sole purpose of C3 is to build the C3 church? My understanding of their argument is that salvation is the only way to truly save people, and therefore that's all that matters, but shouldn't there be other methods of outreach? C3 Melbourne North outline in their welcome book that volunteers from the C3 church partner with St Vincent De Paul to serve the homeless of their city - which is great.  So why couldn't the 20-20 vision include strategies to make the world a better place for people to live in? Why does it always have to be about getting people to come to you? Build it and they will come? They are already there!

I'm not familiar with the guest speaker, Pastor Anthony, who lead the sermon, but I understand he too had come from Sydney for the weekend. He delivered his message from an iPad mini, and encouraged us to download the You Version app (which I did) and follow along. He made some nice points about the role of the church (to bring a message of faith, hope and love), reaching into the community and finished with a request to the congregation - If you're going to call yourself a Christian, please live like one - which I adored and totally agreed with!

My only real concern here is again the lack of scripture. We looked at two verses, Act 2:42 and Acts 1:8, isolated scriptures with no context and were used to introduce a new point, which wasn't always entirely relevant, if I'm being honest.

James closed the service by offering his congregation the chance to come up the front and get "right with God", and we were invited to hang around for a launch party in the cafe around the corner.

After the service I had the opportunity to speak with four different women, all lovely, all new to the church (obviously). We spoke about what we looked for in a church, why they had settled on this one, and why I was still undecided. I told them that while everyone seemed kind, I was looking with a church with similar values to mine. We sympathised that it's a little hard to tell everything you need to know from one service. During my conversations with the young women we spoke about topics such as hell, gay marriage, big churches vs smaller ones, when pastors give bad advice and finding your own truths. I really liked my conversations with the girls, but I'm not sure how much they were just being agreeable to make new friends.

Even though I'm pretty sure I'm not going to find myself a permanent member of C3 Melbourne North, I'm not ready to write them off just yet.

I look forward to any follow up correspondence I may receive and I wonder if James had the same "we should be friends" thoughts I did.

Side note: St David's Uniting Church is still the only church who have ever sent me any "follow up" - a lovely card from Allison, despite me always giving any information requested of me. 

Sunday, May 5, 2013

The Salvation Army Melbourne Project 614

Today's story starts with a song. This song.

I'd really like you to listen to it through, preferably in a different browser window while you continue to read my blog. Preferably on repeat. 

Because this song has something incredible about it.

Today I heard this song for the first time in about five years. This is the song I was singing when I gave my heart to Jesus as a thirteen year old girl. And today, listening to this song, I nearly did it all over again.

Are you listening to it? Promise? Okay. I'll go back to the beginning. 

On a cold wintery morning, I hopped on a train to the city to go to church. I was super early, so I stopped off for a coffee. It wasn't a great coffee, and I needed to go to the toilet, so with about ten minutes left to kill I headed into church. 

It was one of those rather magnificent old Melbourne City buildings, and I followed the sound of the band rehearsing up the stairs to the grand hall. But there was no band, only a CD playing in the background. And the hall was grand, but set up with about thirty lowly chairs in the middle. 

I was waved at as I entered the room by a young girl, probably around my age. But she kept doing what she was doing. Eventually I chose myself a seat in the back row (of three rows) which was being guarded by an older man in his Salvation Army uniform. I asked him if I could take a seat there. 

"As long as you give it back," he chuckled.

I smiled, to be polite, which was all the encouragement he needed to continue to tell me dad jokes.  Once we got to, "But that's all forgotten about these days, isn't it?" he tired of my company and headed off to chat to some other people. 

Georgia was next to come say hi, she was the girl who waved at me upon my arrival. She told me it was going to be pretty quiet this morning, they didn't even have a band today. I asked her how many people they usually expected and she said when they gave out Sunday lunch they had heaps of people coming along, but they were mostly homeless and it often got violent and out of hand, so they had stopped doing lunches. Numbers had dropped dramatically. 

I told her that was a shame,  it was nice they had tried to do something to help, and sad it hadn't worked out. Georgia shrugged. 

"Have you been able to find something else you can do instead?"

"We give out tea and coffee all morning," she replied. And then she also tired of my company and left me alone. 

Kylie was next to pop over, with an extended hand and cheesy grin.

"I'm Kylie"

"Hi, I'm Lucy"

"Are you visiting here today?"

"Yeah I am actually. I haven't..."

"Me too!" She excitedly interrupted. 

"Oh are you? Where are you from?"

"I'm from Planetshakers," she announced. 

I'm not proud of what happened next, but I'd been caught unawares. 

"Have you been there before?" She asked me.

"Um, yeah, just recently actually."

"And what did you think?" She asked with the pompous I-know-I'm-fantastic that only Pentecostals seem to master.

"Yeah, I didn't like it."

Her face turned to stone. Her mouth contorted into a stern pout.

"I'm sorry," I said. "I just found that it wasn't very welcoming to visitors." 

"Yeah, you've got to get in a cell group." 

"I just believe a church should be prepared to welcome everyone, meet them on their level." I looked her in the eye. "I'm sorry - I've offended you."

"I'm fine."

"No really, I'm sorry. I think your church clearly does wonderful things for it's members."

"No, it's fine," she smirked. 

We didn't talk for long after that.

One more young girl came to talk to me. I can't remember her name, but she was my favourite, because I got a full five minutes out of her before she too bored of my company and skipped off. 

It was 10:47, and I had the only empty seats in the room either side of me. I wasn't making a good impression. 

The service was run by a young-ish lady Officer in uniform. She was probably in her thirties, with a warm and lovely smile. She apologised there was no band today, but because we live in a modern-age, we can worship with a CD!  She invited us to sit, or stand, kneel, whatever we wanted to do to connect with God, because that's what worship was about. 

The words appeared on the plasma screens around the hall and people were happy to sing and clap along. I thought it seemed a bit awkward, but I was in the minority. 

Then the second song, Shout to the Lord, started playing. I smiled. This was my old favourite! How lovely. It was nice to hear a song I recognised. But as the song continued playing (are you listening to it now?) I remembered other things. I remembered what it felt like to be in love with Jesus. I remembered what it felt like to worship him with everything I had. It was intoxicating. I wanted to leap up out of my seat and sing his praises. I was caught up in a moment and felt something I haven't in years. 

Then I looked to my left and caught Liz, an older lady with a pusher, just reading a gossip mag. So not everyone was responding to the song like I was. Liz got up with her pusher and headed off. The song ended. I fell back into reality. 

What had just happened to me?

We heard three more songs, and I didn't have the same urge to run, crying to the altar and break down in shame. Liz came back to the service with her dress tucked into her undies. Turns out she'd just needed a toilet break. 

After the last song, we prayed the Lord's Prayer together and the young lady Officer passed the mic to a younger male Cadet. He reminded me of a youthful Luke Jacobson, full of spirit and life. He spoke about how God was all around us, all the time, and was constantly speaking to us, working on us, yeah? So cool, hey? So what's he been up to with you guys?

Lots of congregants were happy to give a testimony of what God was doing in their life, Rebecca was finding her identity as a Warrior Princess, Jeffrey was going to bible study, Archie was celebrating his recovery from alcoholism, Georgia was learning to live in her Father's affections. Liz was next to put up her hand.

"Yes, Liz." My young friend giving her permission to speak.

"It's Mother's Day next Sunday."

At this moment I loved this church. No, Liz - that's not a testimony. That's a fact. That's not what God's doing in your life. That's a Hallmark event.

My young friend wasn't as cynical as me. 

"Yes it is! Thank God for our mums. Thanks for sharing, Liz."

Without skipping a beat, this young guy embraced his congregation. This is a place where there really are no wrong answers. You just get loved. 

I have to admit, the service was downhill from here for me. Next on the agenda was a "gospel message" DVD. It was live recording of an interpretive dance (Yes, I searched for it on YouTube. Here you go). Then the Officer read a passage from the "scripture" but I have to use quotations here because some of the "scripture" included lines such as: "God went for the jugular when he sent his own son" and "What's next, Papa?"

Then for her brief message, the Officer told us how God speaks to her through Sci-Fi films, and gave a few examples of lines in movies God had spoken to her through. I really wanted to let her know that it probably wasn't God, just good script writing, but I do get her point. You can find a positive, godly message in The Hunger Games. If you're looking for it. 

While the church were given time to go and pray at the altar, I had the time to think about what I was doing. It must take a very special sort of Christian to join a congregation such as this one. About 80% of the people I saw seemed to be in some kind of immediate need, be it suffering from addiction, homelessness or mental illness. There were a handful of young, healthy congregants.  

I felt really selfish wearing my visitors hat. I didn't want to go through my normal routine after the service of waiting for people to come be nice to me. I wanted to make sure that everyone in this room was being looked after, and there weren't enough uniforms to go around.

I recognised Jeffery as one of the men I used to feed when I volunteered at Credo, a community cafe in the city. I decided to go say hello after the service. 

There's a whole other blog I want to write about the Officers closing remarks at the service, so I'm not going to slaughter them quickly now. But she was a kind, sincere lady, and I wish I'd gotten the chance to meet her after and let her know how much I loved her congregation.

When I got up to head over to Jeffery, Liz walked past me with her pusher. I touched her on the shoulder and let her know her dress was stuck. As I helped her untuck, I remembered just how truly great it feels to serve somebody. I had missed it terribly since finishing up at Credo. I get why Jesus washed his disciples feet. Humility is incredible. 

Jeffery didn't remember me, but was very excited to introduce me to as many people as he could. I got to speak briefly to the young Cadet who had spoken earlier but he too had to rush of quickly. While I was chatting to him, Liz came over and asked if there was any food today. No, only tea and coffee. 

Ever since I left the doors of that church, with a wave goodbye to Georgia, I regret not offering to take Liz out to lunch. I could have, I should have got her a nice hot meal before I said my farewells. What made my afternoon so important I couldn't have given that time to her? I had an opportunity to do the things I say I want to do, the things I say are important, and I didn't even see it right in front of me. 

So the church didn't fail this week - but I did. I may be getting more and more cynical about things, in fact I made the note, "How come every time I come to church I feel a little more close to Atheism?" but these guys are definitely doing something I'm not. And it's time for me to change that.

Oh, and because I found it on Youtube, here's the Bonus American Idol edition of Shout to the Lord.  Enjoy.