Mystery Worshipper: Mainline Pilgrim
Church: Calvary Baptist
Location: West Lafayette, Indiana, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 8 July 2007, 11:00am
The church is typical of the new churches in the new suburbs. A grass and asphalt campus surrounds a building that has absolutely no scruples about being plain, unobtrusive and cheap, with a fiberglas steeple stuck on top as an afterthought. The sanctuary is a windowless auditorium decorated with plastic plants. Out in the lobby can be found the Connection Cafe, featuring wi-fi connection points and serving cappuccino, latte and flavored coffee drinks. The cafe is painted a peculiar shade of red that makes the place seem about ten degrees warmer than it actually is.
It's a good deal younger than churches a mainliner such as myself is used to. Their events calendar is full of fellowship dinners, pool parties, picnics, game nights and community barbecues. However, while there are programs designed to attract new members and get everyone acquainted with each other, as well as ministries for children, young adults, brides-to-be, mothers, those seeking spiritual growth, etc., it seemed to me that there was a conspicuous lack of outreaches to the poor, meek, or persecuted.
Lafayette is a middle-sized blue-collar manufacturing city that sits on the east bank of the Wabash River about 65 miles northwest of Indianapolis. The suburb of West Lafayette lies across the river and is a college town, home to Purdue University. Calvary Baptist straddles the line where expensive, new housing developments collide with cornfields.
The Revd Charles D Grant, Ph.D., pastor.
What was the name of the service?"Praise!" Worship Service.
How full was the building?
A little over half full, with several rows of seats roped off to pack everyone together.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
I was greeted by a man who was leaving the building as I was entering, but no one extended an official greeting or helped me find a seat. I did have a quick chat with someone I knew from the university.
Was your pew comfortable?
The congregation sat in rows of padded, convention center stacking chairs of average comfort.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
People milled in and out of the auditorium for a while before anything happened, as if they couldn't decide whether to have a service or not. Various announcements were projected onto the screen, including such dictums as "A healthy church is a GROWING church!" and "Are you being NICE enough?" When the band started playing music, people finally decided that they might as well have a service since there was praise music anyway, and made their way to their seats at a leisurely amble.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
I suppose the service began when the band started playing a Christian rock song. There were no words of greeting or introduction.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
There was a service sheet and projection screens, so nothing else was necessary. The Bible verses were taken from various translations.
What musical instruments were played?
A piano, three guitars, cello and drums shielded by a strange little glass house to deaden the sound, I imagine.
Did anything distract you?
The congregation was so quiet and attentive that I wouldn't dare get distracted. The bulletin even had a little quiz in it to make sure you were paying attention to the sermon!
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The service was a strange combination of formal and contemporary. People sat stiffly in their chairs singing modern praise tunes without any swaying or hand waving. Otherwise, the service was your standard evangelical concert-and-a-sermon service.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
50 minutes, including a 10-minute presentation of the progress of the church's new Connection Center.
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
2 – The pastor leaned on the podium casually the whole time in an apparent effort to seem personable and informal. His sermon was projected via PowerPoint, and he kept jabbing a laser pointer at it. It seemed to me that he had first written the sermon and then then tinkered with a computerized Bible search program to find passages to support his points. The passages came from many different parts of the Bible and weren't even all from the same translation. I wondered whether white, suburban churchgoers really lacked influence on society to the degree he claimed. And all the talk about cleanliness reminded me of Acts 11:9: "What God hath cleansed, make not thou common."
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The sermon had the rather gruesome title "How to Stay Clean in a Corrupt Society." How, precisely, society is corrupt was not clarified; therefore the nature of the church's cleanliness remained a mystery. There were a few clues to the dreadfulness of this corrupt society, though – at one point he mentioned that the church needed a building permit for its new connection center and from this leapt to the conclusion that churches are illegal in some parts of the country! He assured us that no matter how many times we fall in with those corrupt sorts, we should try our best to stay clean because Jesus was perfect.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
I had to give a great deal of thought to this question before I could come up with something that was heavenly about the service. During the closing song, the leader of the praise band let out the typical shouts one hears at such times such as "God, you are great!" and the like. The guy got so excited that he started tripping over the words when he shouted – it was clearly a moment of real piety and devotion for him.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The sermon really was dreadful. I didn't feel free when I heard that sermon, and I certainly didn't experience God in it either.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
My friend from the university introduced me to his family. I spotted another woman I knew, and she invited me to her house, where a "two dollar lunch" was being served for students. The rest of the congregation headed for the cafe without so much as a glance in our direction.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
I'm not a coffee drinker, but the cafe looked fully loaded and featured honest-to-goodness baristas dispensing the flavored coffee drinks.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
1 – There is absolutely nothing that would draw me back to this church again. The service was unenlightening enough, but the dismal record of service to the poor and needy is a testament in and of itself. Barbecues and pool parties are nice, but the work of the gospel they are not.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
I did not experience the gospel as I understand it at that church.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
"Are you being NICE enough?"