Killing Me Softly With His Sermon

Today, I attended a Methodist church. It’s not a bad place, as churches go. The minister has a knack for funny moments in his sermons, though I hope he manages to find something new to be funny about, beyond his feminist-friendly self-deprecation as a hapless father of four. I’ve only been there a few times, and that’s been the basic story line each time, and I can imagine that at a certain point it might wear thin.

Like today, maybe. Because while he was going on about — actually, I don’t quite remember what the topic of the sermon was; but whatever it was, my mind was drifting, along with my eye. I happened to be seated at the far rear, which is normally a good place from which to make an escape if I just can’t stand it anymore, though today my exit was blocked by the woman to my left, a cute, pudgy, little old thing who kept falling asleep, slumped forward. I still probably could have climbed over the back of the pew — always an option in the rearmost seating tier — but then I’d have gotten a stare, again, from an old guy in a wheelchair, off to my right and slightly behind me, back in the empty space, where I guess wheelchairs belong. He seemed to notice every time I raised my little digital recorder to whisper some additional brilliant observation about the experience of being there. So, what the hell, it was OK: I stayed.

I did have what I considered one especially brilliant insight. When I arrived, a few minutes before the service started, I noticed that people were talking to each other. It’s not a bad thing to do, but in my particular case I didn’t know anybody and wasn’t about to horn in on the discussions of the families and couples seated around me. I’d be happy to do so, but I find that’s not necessarily understood or appreciated. The little old lady to my left could have been a candidate for conversation, but she had already seemed rather oblivious when I first arrived — she didn’t notice me standing at the end of the pew; I had to ask her if I could squeeze by — and I didn’t really want to force myself upon her or disrupt her reverie.

In fact, I think she and I might both have appreciated it if the church had implemented what I recognized, in my brilliant insight, which was this: they should have been playing quiet, contemplative music before the sermon started. I’ve been to some other churches that do that, and I’ve liked it. If I want to shoot the breeze with people who won’t remember my name, I can go to a bar. In church, I prefer to church; and for me, churching includes trying to imbibe whatever traces of spirituality may be floating around on the conditioned air. With the aid of the right music — and maybe the right fragrances, though I know that’s controversial — I’ve found that the ten or fifteen minutes before a church service can actually be the best part of the whole experience. At other churches, I’ve been known to make a point of getting there early, whenever the music starts.

To tell the truth, I also think a meditative period prior to the service would aid my project of meeting a nice woman, somewhere around my own age. It’s not much of a project — I’m not actually doing anything to achieve that — but I’m just saying it wouldn’t hurt if the church gave me an excuse to arrive early, other than some unexplained desire to sit there like a doofus when there’s no music playing and nothing else really going on for a party of one. If I could arrive early enough to give everyone fair warning of my presence, it seems like I might have a chance of being approached for conversation, given my convenient location in the back row, where an individual or her friends could stand somewhere behind me, chatting, hoping to catch my eye. There is, of course, the possibility that nobody in that place would ever do such a thing. I’m just saying it beats the alternative, which is to arrive, church, and leave. There isn’t a space or an excuse to hang around anywhere else before or after. The church does seem to want to promote a sense of community — they have various dinners and brunches and whatnot throughout the week — but for some reason they don’t seem to think their members would be interested in spending any time with each other before or after the church service itself. The minister was talking in his sermon about how they are a family, and I suppose that’s what some families are like.

I was thinking of sending the pastor an email, to suggest this thing about contemplative music. Two fears restrained me. First, if he did take my suggestion, I was afraid the person assigned to provide spiritual tunes would be the guy who plays the organ during the service. This is an organist who loves the power of his instrument. “Contemplative” might not quite describe the experience he would produce. The second fear was that the pastor would respond to this second email conveying a suggestion as he responded to my first — which is to say, he might ignore me.

My previous emailed suggestion was that the minister could slow down a bit. He’s a fast talker, and judging by the heavy representation of retirees in his audience of maybe 300-400 people, I wouldn’t bet they’re all keeping up with him. Here’s how I phrased it, in that previous email to the pastor, a few months ago:

You probably noticed me during the sermon. I was the guy sitting in back. Regarding which, I wanted to offer a suggestion. I heard somewhere that the lead singer for AC/DC, or some metal group, decided to take lessons from an opera teacher, so that he could keep on screaming without damaging his throat. This is not my suggestion to you. It is more like an analogy or metaphor or something. The thing for which it is a metaphor or analogy is that I think you must master the art of overly dicting, or whatever they call it when singers are taught to crisply deliver the starts and/or ends of their words, almost to a fault, almost as if they were attempting to sound like cultured individuals instead of being mere musical wastrels.

What I mean is that, when you get on a roll, the syllables come fast and thick, and I think it must be hilarious for those seated in the front rows. But, alas, my family was never given to the front row at church. This was partly because we lived next to the church, out there in the countryside, and Dad liked to turn on the buzzsaw and roar through a pile of poles to be cut, during Sunday School, invariably dropping heavy pieces on his toes and cursing loudly to make it feel better — and then realizing he had better get into the house and put on a suit and slink into the back pew next to Mom before the sermon was halfway done. So, as I say, no front row for us.

So I, this morning, observing family tradition, was partly defeated by the acoustics. I could see your lips moving; I could hear people laughing; I believed that was my cue to laugh too; and therefore I did, even if those around me did not. For this, we could blame their aged ears; we could blame mine as well. But I really do think it might just be the delivery. An alternate hypothesis would be that it is male hearing — not lack of auditory detection, so much as a craving for a firm grip on each syllable, honed perhaps by millenia of needing to make sure that spearing the man is the proper response to what he just said.

There is, however, a scientific method of testing this, to wit: I suggest sending your adjunct choir members abroad as missionaries, more precisely assigning them singly or in pairs to sit randomly throughout the auditorium, and thus to lend moral support to those would-be hymn singers, such as myself, who are only too happy to warble audibly, given assurance that we are at least in the vicinity of the desired musical note. In other words, if someone near me seems to be singing, I feel encouraged to do likewise. Such was not the case this a.m., and that brings us to the scientific part of the expedition: to gather data. Your proposed missionaries would hypothetically report back from the trenches, sharing valuable intelligence as to what is seen and heard, way back there in the outer darkness — just in case I happen not to be present and am thus unable to serve in that capacity.

Having acquired social skills in New York City during my formative years, when he ignored that first email, dismissing all the effort I had put into it, I sent another, asking why he was ignoring me. That one did get a reply, though a brief and tired one that seemed to wish I would just go away. And that’s understandable. A father of four can tend to only so many things at once. He did thank me for my suggestion. I can’t say that it registered, though; neither I nor the sleeping lady to my left seemed to notice that anything had changed since my last visit. So I am not going to bother him again, except perhaps to send him a link to this post.

In coaxing the minister to make sure his audience can understand what he is saying in his sermons, I could be overlooking a fundamental rule about churching, which is this: nobody cares about the sermons. If they did, they wouldn’t be there, because sermons are generally aimless indulgences of random thoughts that achieve nothing. Admittedly, this is not how ministers see it. As I know from my time among ministerial types, they usually believe the sermon is driving home an important message — about some Bible passage, or consumerism, or how God restores the spice to life. And some of that stuff does sink in sometimes, at least for listeners predisposed to take it seriously. I guess I was moved to offer the suggestion to this guy because, especially in that first visit, I thought he was very good. His sermon actually made me think. Evidently I did absorb some of its essential thoughts, even if some of the fun stuff did blow past me. It even affected my behavior a bit. For a sermon, that was something.

Today, however, as I say, my thoughts and my eye were straying. The key moment was when the minister interrupted his sermon to show a brief video created by the church itself, featuring a black guy in dreadlocks who turned out to be the church’s own director of outreach to college students. The guy was well-spoken, young, and — did I mention? — black. This raised, for me, a question, halting my mind in its travels: was his skin color an important reason for his hiring? For instance, was he making important gains in proselytizing among an enormous population of black students at the nearby university — a population that I had not detected, during my visits there? Or was his video perhaps being played for some other reason, to this audience of hundreds, among whom my roving gaze found no nonwhite people?

I’m not doubting the black guy’s qualifications. He was photogenic. In that brief video, he seemed intelligent. I’d be delighted to learn that he was hired strictly for his abilities, in a color-blind hiring process. That would be different from being hired because the church was determined to hire a nonwhite person even if s/he was less capable. There would be an issue of discrimination, but the question on my mind was whether perhaps the church hired a black guy for purposes of using him to improve its image, to make itself seem more multicultural than it actually was.

Let me put it this way. In this city, non-Hispanic whites account for only 27% of the population. Hispanics account for 63%. In my time of sitting in that pew and watching who walked in and out — and also during my previous attendances — I saw no blacks, indeed only one or two who appeared to be in any sense nonwhite. That’s among an attendance that I would estimate, as in this instance, at 300-400 souls, in each service I’ve attended so far.

As a point of comparison, I’ve also attended the Lutheran church down the street a few times. I’d be surprised if Sunday attendance averaged 100. Compared to Methodism, Lutheranism is closer to Catholicism. Maybe that would explain why the Sunday morning congregation at the Lutheran church included a significant percentage of Hispanics. They even had a black woman, who for her own reasons endured or conceivably appreciated the white male minister’s joke at the expense of Muhammad Ali.

A different guess would be that the two churches seemed to have different cultures, and the Lutheran one was more congenial to minorities. I’ve mentioned the soullessness, for me, of the experience of this Methodist church — the experience of walking in, seeing no sign that anybody wanted to talk to me, having noplace to go other than my spot in the back pew, not having spiritual music or fragrances or anything else to justify sitting there alone in that spot, for any longer than absolutely necessary — and then seeing, at the end, that everybody stood up and just walked out to their cars, evidently without any concept that there could be what we in the Jesus movement used to call an afterglow experience. For us, afterglow was where a person would want to sit and marinate, after the church service, alone or with friends, savoring the sense of having encountered the presence of Christ and the love of his children. In other words, we just didn’t want to leave.

I mention those factors because that Lutheran church, more than most others I’ve attended, seemed to be making a diligent effort to populate its little lobby, before and after services, with church members who would barely let a stranger enter without having someone at least say hello to him/her. Beyond that, if you want to really blow someone’s mind, you might tell them that I was sitting alone in the pew before services, at that Lutheran church, minding my own business — listening, yes, to their organist’s contemplative music — when a young, pretty, married woman off to my left actually slid down my way, offered me her hand to shake, and introduced herself. This simply doesn’t happen to old white guys in America, especially not to those who aren’t anyone’s boss or banker. I don’t think she was attracted to me for my money. I think that, at some point, somebody at that church called a come-to-Jesus meeting, as it were, and delivered a choice: either we make a real effort to reach every stranger who comes through our door, or we wither and die, and with us the gospel.

A reader of my other posts may suspect that I would not be entirely averse to the prospect of churches withering and dying. Some of them, anyway. But the focus in this post is on a somewhat different thought, namely, that I’m not too sure the Methodists have a workable game plan. I’ve contrasted the Lutheran and Methodist ministerial style before, but in that previous post I noted especially that the seminary training of Methodists seems to emphasize practical aspects of how to run a church, while the Lutherans are more up inside their heads with theological study of the Bible and its ancient languages. You’d expect that a practical, methodical Methodist minister would be living up to his own concept of building a real worship home — but instead, to me, despite all his theologizing, the Lutheran pastor was doing a much better job of that.

I would say the difference was subtle and yet remarkable: you could miss it, and yet it could really matter. At the end of my first visit to the Lutheran church, I noticed that people were not getting up and walking out. I guess I assumed that’s what they would do; but after I stood up, I saw that a number of them were remaining in their seats. I’m not sure why. I mean, of course some did get up. I almost felt like I should sit back down, to see what happened next. Instead, I left. But as I observed in my next visit, a fair number hung around in their pews for at least five or ten minutes afterwards. I’m not sure how long, actually, because I only went a few times, and after a certain amount of pretending to read and re-read the paper bulletin and inspect my fingernails and listen to the music and so forth, I ran out of excuses to be still sitting there without looking like some kind of lurker, so I had to go — being accosted, again, on my way out, by people who wanted to shake my hand and thank me for visiting.

My guess is that, for all his lack of polish — or perhaps precisely because he wasn’t putting on a slick production — congregants appreciated that the Lutheran minister was sincere. I mean, I even emailed this guy some links to my anti-religious writings, and yet he still wanted to buy me coffee. This was, obviously, a profound contrast against the Methodist’s response. The message from the latter was, hey, I’ve got a thousand members; I don’t need you. He so clearly didn’t need me that he didn’t even bother assigning someone on his ample staff to treat emails from people like me as a sign of potential interest. Outreach to me, making people feel welcomed — it wasn’t happening.

But if I’d been black? That, I think, would have been a very different matter. I think in that case the Methodist minister would have fallen all over himself to welcome me. That would fit with hiring a cool, middle-class black guy to run the ministry to white and Latino university students. It was like the 1970s, when radical Marxist professors at Harvard were declaring their solidarity with the working man, because that was the academically fashionable thing to do, but they still didn’t want the working man as a neighbor, unless he turned out to be working-class economically but middle-class socially.

This city’s demographic makeup was only 7% black, as compared to 13% for the U.S. as a whole and, say, 24% in Boston or 49% in St. Louis. In this neighborhood, it was probably not even 7%. So it was pretty clear that the black guy was not hired for outreach in the black community: wrong part of the city; wrong city altogether. Very few black people were going to visit that Methodist church on Sunday morning, and those who did were very unlikely to say, “Oh, wow, they hired a black guy for their student ministry; I belong here.”

So then why hire the black guy? One possibility was that the church was completely color-blind. They just hired the most capable applicant, regardless of skin color. That is possible. It is not likely. According to Pew Research, the United Methodist Church is 94% white and 1% black. From this, one might estimate that, when the church advertised this position, there would be 94 white Methodist applicants for every one black Methodist applicant — even if we assume, contrary to the data, that blacks and whites obtained college degrees (presumably required for a position involving university outreach) at the same rates.

Well, if a black guy probably couldn’t deliver much increased interest from the nearly nonexistent local black community, how about hiring a Hispanic, in hopes of persuading more Hispanics to join this Methodist church? In a majority-Hispanic city, that would make sense. And that is precisely what did not happen. Indeed, the staff page, with photos, suggests that, among at least a half-dozen primary and auxiliary pastors and other public-facing leaders in this church, this black man is the only member of a racial or ethnic minority. Sure, the Methodist church is only 2% Hispanic nationwide — but to achieve that average, one would expect the Hispanic membership, in cities like this one, to be much higher.

It seems rather obvious that the black guy would be hired only if he was what the white membership wanted. For purposes of persuading college students to attend a church, it is not clear whether a cool black man would be more effective than a cool white woman or Latina. In any case, it did not seem that the church’s white members and leaders were making a serious effort to bring more Hispanics into the picture. It appeared that, if you want to prove that you’re socially aware and diversity-oriented, you can shoot for a 30% Hispanic mix, and risk upsetting the comfortably white composition of your congregation; or you can just hire a young black guy who looks really different from your graying Baby Boomer membership.

So there was a question of tokenism — of the perceived need to hire a relatively flamboyant representative from another race. I guess that was what I was wondering, as I sat there in the pew and watched that black man in that video. I would have preferred to just watch and be impressed, but I’d had so-called “diversity” thinking rammed down my throat for too many years; I had learned that the presence of a black man, where you would not expect to find one, is probably due to the misguided bureaucratism of a white social justice warrior, the type who would consider male and female fraternal twins to be more “diverse” (because their genders differ) than Billy Graham and Adolf Eichmann (because they were both conservative white males). Basically, in that world, if you can check a box on a standard form (female, check; African-American, check), then you’ve got diversity, even if you wind up with a lot of people who look different but think alike. If they could have their own personal Obama on staff, that would pretty much prove, in their minds, that they were morally superior to those of us who just don’t care that much about skin color until someone shoves it in our face.

These were my thoughts and impressions. Obviously, I wasn’t on the church staff. My surmises could have been completely off-target. But that’s sort of like saying that a customer decided not to buy your toaster because she thought it was a Frisbee. The customer would be completely wrong, but misunderstandings are to be expected when you present people with strange appearances. I was looking at a cool young black guy in church full of old white people; I had my years of victimization at the hands of privileged whites who congratulated themselves for believing that they gave a damn about blacks like the ones I’d had as roommates 30 years earlier; I was drawing my own conclusions. C’est la vie.

Observe, then, what has happened here. I went to church. There was the dim possibility that I would make friends or meet a woman there, but the primary mission was to church — to have at least a bit of a spiritual experience, possibly from a sermon that would give me something to think about, or perhaps just from being in that place, among those people, hearing that music.

To emphasize, I had nothing against the black guy. I didn’t see that he said or did anything wrong. My reaction had nothing to do with him personally. The point is rather that his appearance was so glaringly incommensurate with that incongruously white assembly that I couldn’t help being distracted by questions and frustrations arising from past attempts to reason with sociopolitical ideologues — among whom, as I suddenly recalled, some had been Methodist. I wondered what the minister and his people were up to, what they would assume about me — what he had in fact assumed from my words and/or surname, resulting in his decision to essentially dismiss my emails.

Evidently I was primed for these reactions. I hadn’t thought so, when I decided to attend church today. But now it seemed my mission had gone completely off the rails. There was a question of whether this church would be, for me, a sanctuary or, rather, an arena. True, I didn’t fit with the true believers in the Lutheran church, where I definitely didn’t share their views of the Bible and such; but at least I was safe there, for the time being. Better than that, actually: the minister remembered me, and went out of his way to talk to me. You might think I would be safer in the big Methodist church, where I could be completely anonymous — and I was, as long as I stayed silent and unknown. But if I ever dared open my mouth, what would they think of my reactions to their black minister? I was certainly welcome to add my name to the attendance roll, my voice to the hymns, and my dollars to the collection plate. But why would I want to?

There is talk, these days, about the contrast in membership trends, between liberal and conservative churches. I don’t know if such trends affect this particular Methodist franchise, within the liberal United Methodist Church. But as I recalled the number of old people in attendance today, I had to chuckle at an observation by a pastor in Minnesota, talking about that state’s churches:

United Methodism in Minnesota since 2000 has lost 35 percent of members …. The Presbyterian Church USA in Minnesota has lost 42 percent …. And the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in Minnesota [i.e., not the more conservative Wisconsin and Missouri synods, to which my neighborhood Lutheran church belongs] has lost 22 percent ….

Answers to some of these mysteries might be found at the Presbyterian Church USA General Assembly meeting last month and the Episcopal General Convention meeting this month. At their current rates of decline neither denomination will exist in 20 years. Yet neither convention focused on evangelism or church growth. Episcopalians debated whether to compel a handful of dissenting traditional dioceses to host same sex nuptials. They also discussed editing their liturgies to become more gender neutral. Presbyterians denounced Israel and USA border policies, opposed religious liberty in favor of LGBTQ and abortion rights, and pondered whether to divest from fossil fuels. A senior church official claimed there’s increasing excitement in their denomination over “justice” issues. No doubt. They lost 68,000 members last year.

The conservative churches were losing members too, but not nearly as rapidly. Declines over the past 20 years seemed to be in the neighborhood of five to ten percent.

So the question there is why the liberal churches are in free-fall. I don’t know — do you suppose it could be bad for membership to align oneself politically with progressive non-Christians who voice unremitting disrespect toward white males, when that demographic accounts for at least 40% of your members — more like 60+%, if you include the wives and girlfriends those guys may drag elsewhere?

Politics itself may be a culprit. It seems that a substantial share of the public finds politics stressful and distasteful. Disputes about socioeconomic policy could be just about the last thing most people want to deal with in a church, where the whole idea is to encounter beliefs and ideas that are in some sense constructive, sociable, redemptive, or otherwise supportive of a shared religious experience. Being mad about stuff belongs elsewhere. It appears there’s just not that much of a market for a religious sphere that would seek to repeat what you can already get from a debate with your next-door neighbor.

But there I go again, talking about issues instead of the personal experience of being in the church. And yet, when the personal experience is so empty, one can’t be surprised that other thoughts would fill the vacuum. The thought occurring to me at this point was that maybe the black guy served to assuage worries about diversity among the white faithful. Maybe his presence provided reassurance that we couldn’t be racist — after all, we voted for Obama — and so, never mind that stuff about outreach to the Hispanic community.

Maybe the real conclusion, from all this, would be that the Lutheran church felt safer because damnation was safely postponed. Until I died, those people would probably be praying for me, hoping I would come to accept Jesus as my savior, or some such thing. But in a church with a social justice orientation, questions arising from the discovery of that black minister reminded me that eternal judgment could come almost immediately, as soon as I asked the wrong question. At least the Lutherans would give me time to listen to the music.

* * * * *

Postscript: regarding the situation for the black employee at a heavily white religious institution, consider these quotes from an article in Slate (Graham, 2019), describing the situation at Relevant, an evangelical culture magazine:

A few weeks ago, Andre Henry’s friend sent him a tweet from the evangelical culture magazine Relevant, announcing it was working on a podcast episode about racism in the Christian community. Henry, who is black, had been the magazine’s managing editor for nine months, until last fall. Based on his experience there, the podcast idea didn’t sit right with him, and after some deliberation, he decided to sit down and write about his time at the Orlando-based magazine. …

[T]he ongoing ramifications of Henry’s post— “Black Christians Deserve Better Than Companies (And Churches) Like Relevant Media Group”—have exceeded his expectations. It has already led to a “sabbatical” for Relevant Media Group’s [CEO and founder Cameron Strang], an outpouring of solidarity from other ex-employees, and a sprawling online conversation about race, gender, and office politics in Christian organizations. …

In Henry’s Medium post, he wrote that working at Relevant made him feel like a “token” at an institution afraid to alienate its largely white constituency. … “I’ve come to accept that many young-ish, white, evangelical leaders with large platforms … are simply not committed to being antiracist, but only in appearing non-racist,” he wrote, “and they’re using us as props for the show.”

Buoyed by Henry’s essay, [Rebecca Flores, a Latina and another former managing editor at Relevant] decided to write her own post about her experience …. Others noted that Relevant’s reviews on Glassdoor were scathing. …

Josh Lujan Loveless, a former Relevant podcast host and senior editor of a now-folded spinoff magazine, tweeted that he had been asked to use female or “ethnic-sounding” pen names when he had written too many articles under his own name because leadership wanted Relevant to seem more diverse. … Although [Flores] had always written under the name “Rebecca Marie Jo,” Strang insisted she use her last name in her byline. … She now believes that he wanted her to use Flores because it is a recognizably Hispanic surname. “I really feel like a character in Get Out,” she said. “It’s become increasingly obvious that Cameron wanted tokenized parts of me, but never the whole. Once I lost my value as a token, I was disregarded.” Strang eventually fired her via email. …

Flores questioned whether Relevant is as progressive as its graphic design and cover subjects make it appear at first glance. “They might push boundaries and make a white evangelical think about issues and consider social justice, but they’re not saying, ‘We should support Black Lives Matter,’ ” she said. “They’re not saying anything revolutionary.” Reflecting on the cancellation of his Black History Month package, Henry arrived at the same conclusion. “They’re trying to avoid optics that would upset people. But when we say people, which people are we talking about?”

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