June 3, 2008

Steeple Chase: The Church Hoppers go to church so you don’t have to

By George Halitzka and Zach Nord

These are the first three of a 10-part monthly series of reviews of Christian churches. LEO chose to include only that brand of worship in this series for several reasons, its popularity in this part of America for one, but not because we prefer it or wish to see it criticized above another. If you’d like to pitch LEO with “Mosque Hoppers,” “Temple Hoppers,” “Snake Handler Hoppers” or some variation thereof, you know where to find us. —Ed. 



Curious Souls: For those curious souls who wonder what really happens in church on Sunday, LEO is launching a new series called “The Church Hoppers” with George Halitzka and Zach Nord. They will visit a different Louisville church each month. Photo by Jane Mattingly
Curious Souls: For those curious souls who wonder what really happens in church on Sunday, LEO is launching a new series called “The Church Hoppers” with George Halitzka and Zach Nord. They will visit a different Louisville church each month. Photo by Jane Mattingly

Religion here on the border of the Bible Belt is a fascinating mix. Half of Louisville is CatholiBaptist. The other half’s hoping if they ignore the Jesus Freaks long enough, they’ll go away.


But we figure there are probably a few folks in the middle, too. Curious souls who wonder what really happens in church on Sunday, but fear they might burst into flames if they cross a sacred threshold. Just for you, LEO is launching a new series called “The Church Hoppers.”

Each week, I (George Halitzka) and my partner-in-holiness, Zach Nord, will visit a different Louisville church. We’ll report what happened in the worship service, and try to draw some conclusions about what the church might believe. 

That way, if you ever decide to visit, you’ll know in advance if they’re stockpiling rifles for Armageddon.

Zach and I agree that the purpose of church is to bring people closer to God. It’s not to get butts in the pews or fill the offering plate or promote Republican politics. So we’re going to do our best to evaluate whether congregations are fulfilling their mission.

We won’t claim to capture every nuance of a community of faith in one visit. But we’ll do our best.

After all, we like church — we’re not here to bash it. We just want to separate the sheep from the goats.


About your Church Hoppers

For our first visit, Zach and I went to Northeast Christian Church, a megachurch off I-265. We’ll give you our report in a minute. First, we think it’s important to know where your humble Church Hoppers are coming from.

I (George) am a weekly churchgoer, an “Evangelical Christian.” I hate calling myself that, because people assume I’m a gay-hating, gun-loving Republican who bombs abortion clinics on Saturdays.

OK, sometimes I vote GOP. So sue me. But other than that, I figure God loves gays, lesbians and abortion providers at least as much as Charlton Heston. I don’t speak in tongues, and I don’t even believe Harry Potter is Satanic. (I’ve read the books three times.)

Here’s what “evangelical” means in my book: Jesus died for my sins and rose from the dead. I believe the Bible was inspired by God and has authority over my life.

After that little confession, maybe you still think I’m a right-wing whack job. But it’s OK — at least now we can agree on why I’m nuts.

Zach doesn’t go to church much, and his faith isn’t really nailed down. “I’m still kind of trying to figure things out,” he says. “I’ve always had this feeling that I don’t know exactly what I believe in.”

He went to Catholic grade school, and his devout grandma took him to Mass sometimes. But his parents wanted to let him choose his own beliefs — and Zach appreciates that. “I’m really interested in learning about all different kinds of beliefs,” he says.

Zach has a lot of respect for people with authentic faith. But he’s completely put off by hypocrites. He gripes, “(I see) some people work through the week, smoke pot on Friday, get drunk on Saturday, go to church for 45 minutes on Sunday, and then do it all over again.” He’s not their biggest fan.

So, if you put Zach and me together, I guess we’re looking for congregations that help people grow closer to God, believe in Jesus and the Bible, and live what they preach. 

O Lord, are there any churches like that?

We hope to find at least a few.


•••



Northeast Christian: Northeast Christian Church is at 9900 Old Brownsboro Road. You might like this church if you enjoy a contemporary approach to worship, and have kids or teens in your family. Photo by Jane Mattingly
Northeast Christian: Northeast Christian Church is at 9900 Old Brownsboro Road. You might like this church if you enjoy a contemporary approach to worship, and have kids or teens in your family. Photo by Jane Mattingly

Northeast Christian tries too hard

for the “Abundant Life”

At Northeast, they’re all about the Abundant Life. Lest you forget, the slogan is plastered all over their website, their quarterly magazine and weekly brochure.

So what is it, exactly?

Jesus said in John 10:10, “I have come that people might have life, and have it more abundantly.” In other words: The Abundant Life is a fuller existence now, with heaven thrown in at no extra charge.

That doesn’t sound like a bad theme for a church. Or at least it’s better than the unofficial fundie slogan, “Thou Shalt Not Anything.”

But the Abundant Life lost its luster once we sat through Northeast’s church service. Apparently, this lifestyle requires you to:

1) Be an upper-middle-class WASP, or White Anglo-Saxon Protestant. We didn’t spot a single non-white face in the sanctuary. 

2) Sing relentlessly happy pop songs about Jesus, led by four singers with permanent smiles on their faces.

3) Listen to an overly earnest pastor tell you — and I quote — “To be you, you have to be new. To be new, you have to be in Jesus.”

4) Show no regard for the Church Hoppers as we tried to back out of our designated “Visitor Parking” space after church. One lady in an SUV actually sped up to block us in! (OK, maybe I’m a little bitter about this one.)


The Megachurch Way

As a card-carrying Evangelical, I’m used to the megachurch phenomenon. Theatrical lighting and big video screens; pop music and motivational sermons — they’re not all bad. If you’re turned off by tradition, they can help you connect with God. Zach admitted, “For people who are wanting something modern, something family-oriented — this might be a good place for them.”

At Northeast, however, it seems like they’re trying too hard to sell Jesus.

For lapsed-Catholic Zach, this was a strange way to do church. “All I was missing was a bag of popcorn,” he joked. “I felt like I was at a concert and a play at the same time.”

The five worship songs had catchy tunes, but they were overly emotional and emphasized me: What Jesus means to me; what God did in my life. They didn’t seem to be particularly focused on the Man Upstairs.

Then Pastor Brad Stone opened his sermon with a personal story about walking in the woods last winter. He was wrestling with a death in the family and having a really rough time. He saw a hunter’s tree stand nearby. He climbed up and looked out over the forest, at which point a meaningful song came on his iPod. That’s when he realized God would get him through his struggle.

Unfortunately, Pastor Brad then pulled out his iPod — right there in church — and climbed into an actual tree stand that had been set up onstage. The lights dimmed, except for an overhead spotlight on Brad, as we were treated to his special song. Meanwhile, the pastor sat there reenacting his warm-fuzzy moment. 

Brad went on to explain that he made new footprints through the clean snow as he walked back out of the woods. If we trust Jesus, he claimed, we can make new footprints in our lives, too.

“Start thinking about yourself in a whole new way,” he chided. “Your past no longer has (power) over your life.”

Thank you, Mr. Motivational Speaker. When we left, I still wasn’t sure what Pastor Brad was challenging me to do in my life. But I’ll always remember him sitting at the top of a tree stand in church, holding his iPod.


The Abundant Life

Zach and I both walked away from our first Church Hop feeling like we’d attended a pep rally.

“They definitely want to have a lot of members in their church,” observed Zach. “It seems like that’s what they really want.”

Personally, I believe Northeast really wants to help people connect with God. But I’m not sure their version of the Abundant Life is the way to go. 

I pity the depressed single parent with a looming foreclosure who walks into Northeast unaware. Are all of her problems going to be solved by listening to a special song on the iPod she can’t afford? Will she feel like smiling along with relentlessly happy singers and pop lyrics that proclaim God is good, all the time? Will well-designed postcards extolling the joy of Abundant Living mean anything to her? 

I think Northeast Christian Church means well. But perhaps their worship could use a few less plastic smiles and a bigger dose of real life. 


•••


St. Frances of Rome puts 


St. Francis of Rome: St. Frances of Rome Catholic Church is at 2119 Payne St. You might like this church if you’re looking for a medium-sized Catholic church that places a high value on community, and isn’t afraid of a somewhat contemporary approach to worship. Photo by Jane Mattingly
St. Francis of Rome: St. Frances of Rome Catholic Church is at 2119 Payne St. You might like this church if you’re looking for a medium-sized Catholic church that places a high value on community, and isn’t afraid of a somewhat contemporary approach to worship. Photo by Jane Mattingly

passion and faith into worship 

Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. I’m a Protestant, but I snuck into Mass last weekend. And what’s more … I liked it.

Maybe that’s because of my other confession. Father: I’m a closet doubter. 

I’ve been a weekly churchgoer since I was in a cradle. But when I look around at random suffering in the world and encounter God’s silence, I wonder if there’s anyone in heaven. 

I desperately want my faith to be true. Life doesn’t make sense to me without Jesus. I’ve examined the arguments for and against Christianity, and I honestly think the evidence favors God’s existence.

But when doubts arise, my evangelical worship tradition, laden with pop songs and motivational sermons, doesn’t always help. That’s why I’m glad I went to Mass this week. 

The beautiful pageantry helped me find a little more faith. Reciting the ancient creed (“We believe in God, the Father Almighty …”) was good for my soul. Breaking the bread in communion helped me remember Jesus’ sacrifice. And repeating a refrain of “You will show me the path of life, and guide me to joy forever” — well, that Psalm helped me look toward heaven. 

So although I’m a Protestant, Father, I wanted to say thank you for hearing my confession. And this week in Mass, thank you for strengthening my faith.


The Church Hoppers disagree

St. Frances of Rome Catholic Church was our destination this week. Although Zach grew up Catholic, the Protestant (that’s me) actually liked this church more than he did. 

 Zach expects worship to be firmly grounded in tradition. “I think there’s a sense of comfort when you’re going through different things in your life, but every time you go to church, it’s the same,” he said.

At St. Frances, however, we sang newer hymns, written in the past few years. (An organ still provided the accompaniment.) The church is no grand cathedral, and that was a disappointment for Zach — a magnificent building helps him feel the presence of God. 

Most of all, Zach was uncomfortable with Father Lawman Chibundi’s passionate style. “This guy had a little too much spunk for a Catholic church,” he said. The priest, a native Zambian, actually got his elderly parish to shout “amen” at key points in the homily!

Chibundi spoke from Luke 24, a story about two of Jesus’ disciples who left Jerusalem after the first Easter. They believed Jesus was the Savior — until he was crucified. They heard rumors of the resurrection — but didn’t believe them. Now that Jesus was gone, they were heading for another town to get back to normal life. 

But then a stranger came and traveled with them. He explained that the prophets had foretold the Savior would die, but then rise again. As they sat down for dinner that evening, they realized the stranger was Jesus. 

Like those disciples, Father Chibundi said, Christians “are quick to forget that Jesus said, ‘I am with you always.’ When we are going through disturbing times, we forget that he walks beside us. But even if we have forgotten the words of Jesus, Jesus has not given up on us.”

The priest challenged his congregation to “trust and rely on the words of Christ, even when we all hope seems to be lost. … Trust that his resurrection power will always revive us.” 


Doubting Thomas

I loved Father Chibundi’s passionate style, his ringing affirmation of the resurrection. The Father’s skill as a storyteller helped me see a Biblical narrative I’ve heard since I was a kid in a fresh way.

But for Zach, it was too strange and different. The changes in the Mass that made it more contemporary turned him off. Plus, Zach seems to have inherited a few genes from Doubting Thomas. A passionate sermon on the resurrection just didn’t resonate with him.

“I believe Jesus died — that he existed,” he said. “And I could make myself believe he rose from the dead. But the truth is, I don’t know what happens to anyone after they die. 

“I know of a God that is in a Catholic church,” he said. “But I wouldn’t say that I could give my life for that God.”

As for me, I do believe — but sometimes, I need extra strength for my faith. So the Father’s sermon touched me when he said, “Even if we have forgotten the words of Jesus, Jesus has not given up on us.”

That’s a comfort to anyone who tries to follow God — whether they’re a Doubting Thomas or not.


•••


Canaan Christian Church sees both sides of Jesus


Canaan Christian Church: Canaan Christian Church is at 2840 Hikes Ln. You might like this church if you enjoy very energetic worship and a church with significant community outreach. Photo by Jane Mattingly
Canaan Christian Church: Canaan Christian Church is at 2840 Hikes Ln. You might like this church if you enjoy very energetic worship and a church with significant community outreach. Photo by Jane Mattingly

Some churches only believe in half of Jesus.

“For the low price of a Sinner’s Prayer, you can receive heaven today!” proclaim the Fundies. They want to rescue your soul from hell, but if there’s a famine in Africa … uh, let’s pray those heathens get saved before they kick it.

Liberals love Social-Action Jesus, but sound embarrassed when you bring up (ahem) sin. In fact, I’ve heard sermons that barely mention God. “Let’s just be nice people, because we’re not sure about the ‘Resurrection’ thing anyway,” they mutter.

Yet in the Gospels, Jesus gave equal airtime to spiritual and practical stuff. So aren’t there any churches that do both?

Enter Canaan Christian Church. They talk about repentance and social action — all on the same Sunday!


Canaan, the Promised Land

Zach was immediately swept up in the music. The worship leader actually danced around the stage as she led choir and congregation in simple, passionate songs: “If it wasn’t for your love/If it wasn’t for your grace/I don’t know where I’d be without you.”

“I loved it,” said Zach. “When the choir sang ‘God is Able’ — I really dug that song. I could feel God in the music. It was very heartfelt; very emotional.”

I have to admit that I was uncomfortable. As a white male, I’m not often a minority, but in this African-American church, I could count the white faces on one hand. I was also taking notes, so I probably did a convincing impression of The Man. 

Then, right before his sermon, Pastor Walter Malone asked us to join hands in prayer. I wasn’t planning to intrude on anybody’s holy moment. But the elderly lady beside me stretched out her hand … and suddenly, I felt much more comfortable.

Malone preached an old-fashioned revival sermon, complete with “Amens” and “Hallelujahs!” He started with more energy than any white preacher I’ve ever heard, and cranked it up from there.

His challenge was simple: Don’t just come to church; live like a disciple of Jesus. Don’t just keep a Bible on the shelf; pull it down and read it. He named sins and called for repentance.

For people who are “shacking up” with a partner who’s not their spouse, Malone said, “You’ve put a barrier between yourself and God.” For folks not donating to the church, he proclaimed, “You’re robbing God in the tithes and offerings.”

But Malone didn’t end on the subject of sin. He emphasized, “We serve a God whose mercies are new every morning. The devil wants to make me feel guilty. I’m going to tell him, ‘I may have fallen down, but I still have my joy!’”

He called people to the altar to begin anew — and they came! By the end of the service, 80 percent of the congregation had knelt at the altar or in the aisles between the pews.

“For the most part, I felt like he was right on,” Zach said. “He was putting people in their place. Just because you belong to a religion, it doesn’t mean you’re a spiritual person.

“Our whole mission as Church Hoppers is to find congregations that are bringing people closer to God,” Zach continued, “and that’s exactly what he was talking about.”


Race and religion

I was really impressed when I found information about Canaan’s Community Development Ministry in the pew bulletin. This church puts faith into action, operating mentoring services for teens, an employment-assistance program and GED/literacy classes.

But that’s not to say Canaan Christian Church is perfect. Their service was overly long (clocking in at two hours, 51 minutes), and there was too much talk about tithing for your Church Hoppers’ tastes. Also, the worship seemed showy at times. 

Zach explained, “I enjoyed the preaching for the wrong reasons. I was being entertained — and that felt kind of blasphemous. But I did listen to what he had to say.”

Still, the service was so passionate, so Jesus-centered, and so inviting that those were minor issues.

The elephant in the living room was race. Zach and I felt welcome, but we saw less than 10 white faces among thousands. In contrast, every other church we’ve visited is 99 percent Anglo-Saxon. Sunday morning at 11 has been called the most segregated hour in America.

Christians claim to worship a guy who broke the color barrier. Jesus hung out with Jews, Samaritans and even heathen Gentiles. So what gives?

Perhaps Believers of every race need to heed the words of that great philosopher, Rodney King: “Can’t we all just get along?” 


The Church Hoppers do not identify themselves before, during or after any church visit. They are not intended to diagnose, treat or cure any religious malady. Always seek the guidance of your pastor or spiritual healthcare professional. Look for them monthly in LEO. Contact them at ChurchHoppers@WritingByGeorge.com


Race and Religion

By MiltonNashTN

The Steeple Chase (great name!) article of June 4 was very well done and I appreciate the honesty of your impressions of the churches you visited. Your point about churches being some of the most racially segregated places is well taken.

Consider how most churches get their members. Someone who is already a member invites a friend, an acquaintance, a co-worker to their church. How many of your friends, acquaintances, or co-workers are a different color than you? If we personally only associate with people of the same color/ethnicity/what-have-you as ourselves, then how do we expect our congregation to magically achieve racial diversity? George, you write about how uncomfortable you were for the first part of the service at Canaan. And why? How racially diverse is your workplace, your circle of casual acquaintances, of close friends? Perhaps as "diverse" as Canaan's congregation? Perhaps we can now better understand the feelings of the occasional few dark-skinned members of overwhelmingly white congregations, especially when they are pointed to with pride as evidence that the church isn't segregated and exclusive after all.

I say this not as any personal criticism of you whatsoever, but just to say that our worship should not be compartmented off from our life the rest of the week and then expect it to be a picture of the Kingdom. As we reach out and include people of diverse races in our daily life, so will our congregations become diverse as well.

Additional information

By milbster

I wish that the reporters would have included mention of Northeast's capital campaign. The large church wants to get even bigger with a $25 million expansion. To fund the campaign, they invited the "big givers" to an event at the Slugger Museum and also hosted a 2nd catered meal at the Galt House. The "lesser" givers were invited to bologna sandwiches in the Church lobby. I realize that the purpose of the article wasn't to get to that depth, but it seems like people should know, because it would be a shame for those reading the article and seeking God to think that all Christians and all churches are so caught up with money. I truly believe that most churches would and do take a different approach. We tried Northeast out and it seriously turned us off church.