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.
- Cash, Credit Card or Cheque
- 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.