So, as I mentioned in my last post, going to see Joel Osteen and experiencing his Evangelical-style church service live had a big impact on me. First, it was just inspiring to see so many positive, happy people so excited about Christianity. It was so touching to look around and feel like I was surrounded by thousands of people who were honestly trying to make their lives better and become better people.
The other big thing was that it completely clarified for my husband and me that we are Catholic. I really enjoyed the service and plan to go back next time I’m in Houston, but it wasn’t a fit for my personality. And I realized as I was dancing around with the crowd to some Christian rock song that the strong cultural disconnect I felt to Christianity when I was younger was really more a disconnect with this style church service.
As we drove back home from Houston last Sunday I thought about this a lot, and was able to condense my feelings into four main reasons that sermon-based worship services (e.g. Joel Osteen and most Protestant church services) don’t really work for me. I list these out not as an attack or even objective criticism of these types of services, just to lay out why the route I’ve chosen is a good one for me. (I have other, more purely theological reasons for my decision, but that’s the subject of a different post.)
1. I don’t trust individuals’ interpretations of the Bible (including my own)
Because I am a jerk, when I went to church services with friends I would always second-guess everything the local preacher told the congregation about how to live their lives based on his interpretation of the Bible. I would often hear a pastor quote one verse from the Bible and harp on it endlessly without putting it in any sort of context. I didn’t know much about scripture but I knew enough to know that not every word of it was to be taken as a How-To manual, so I had an aversion to the constant referencing of isolated passages to back up the preachers’ points.
But the big thing was that I had a hard time trusting any one person’s (including my own) interpretation of the English translation of texts that were written thousands of years ago in completely different languages in cultures that could hardly be more different than that of suburban America. Even before I was aware of the Catholic church’s claim of sacred tradition, I just thought it made more sense to go to that institution for advice on what the Bible means, seeing as how they’ve had 2, 000 years to think about it and it goes back to the first church fathers and they’ve never gone back and forth on matters of doctrine. As Jennifer once wrote, “Two thousand years of faith, and a fine tradition of scholarly theology grounded in scripture has made the body of knowledge within Catholicism terrifyingly broad and almost unfathomably deep.” That beats my interpretation of Genesis any day.
And I often think about that when I watch Osteen’s service on Sunday mornings. Sometimes he’ll quote a Bible verse and get to riffing about how it means that if you’re nice to your bitchy coworkers you’ll have a good life or something, and I always fantasize that someone will sneak up and politely tap him on the shoulder and whisper, “Umm, you’re making that up.”
2. It seems like God would have a brightline test for what constitutes going to church
Another thing that never quite set well with me was the wide variety in what constitutes a church service. That thought was especially present at Lakewood on Sunday. We were in a stadium, there was a lot of rock music, there were no crosses anywhere, Osteen said a few words about how to have a better life here on earth, and then we all went home. I definitely experienced something, but I kept wondering if God would count that as “going to church”.
And seeing as how God has made it pretty clear that he does want people to attend church on Sundays, it seems like he’d give us a brightline test for what constitutes fulfilling that obligation. I mean, if I walk into a building with a cross on the roof and hear someone read a Bible verse and we bow our heads and say “Praise the Lord. Amen.” and then turn around and leave, does that count? My gut tells me it doesn’t, but it technically has all the elements of many Sunday services.
Eucharist-centered church service appealed to my checklist-loving, anal-retentive nature even before I was bought into the concept that it’s the Real Presence: it’s what the early church fathers did, and it’s a very clear test as to whether or not what you just went to was something that God would consider a church service.
3. I suck at praying
This one is particular to Osteen’s type of service, but the emphasis on “feeling the spirit” strikes me as dangerous. First of all, when a large crowd of people is really emotional about something I always feel like the situation is a bit precarious. Luckily I think Osteen and others of his ilk only have the best intentions. But if, hypothetically, he wanted to gradually work in some bad messages into his Sunday sermons it probably wouldn’t be too hard to get the crowd to go along with it. When a crowd has the emotional momentum of a freight train and everyone is happy and crying and feelin’ the spirit and shouting “yes!” and “amen!” to everything the speaker is saying, it’s easy to get caught up in the moment and just start agreeing with everything you hear. That emotional high can be like a drug, for better and for worse.
But also, even at the less emotional types of services, I find that I’m not very good at freeform prayer. I love the Church’s use of memorized prayers such as the Hail Mary and those little prayer cards for various situations. When I saw all the people holding hands and praying with the Prayer Partners last Sunday I thought of how embarrassing it would have been for them to see my weak attempt at coming up with my own prayers. (“Hello? Is this thing on? Kidding. Anyway, God, or should I say ‘Lord’? Anyway, this is a prayer, in case you didn’t know. But you probably did. You know, because you’re all-knowing God. WHAT is she wearing? Wait, sorry, got sidetracked there. I guess now I’m going to have to pray about being judgmental during prayer. Where was I?…”) I know that it’s important to have a more personal relationship with Jesus and not just stick to memorized prayers, but for those of us who are spiritually incompetent and not there yet, being able to turn to time-tested rituals and verses that express what we cannot is very helpful.
4. Good Protestant preachers have too much to lose
As I watched Osteen up on stage I kept thinking of a deacon I heard on Relevant Radio last week who was a popular Evangelical preacher before he converted to Catholicism. I thought of how hard it must have been for him to make that leap since sermon-based services inherently revolve around the one preaching the sermon, and his or her ego undoubtedly becomes wrapped up in it. I tried to picture Joel Osteen converting to Catholicism and realized that it would be virtually impossible. Even if he came to think that this is the true way God wants us to worship (I’m not saying it is or isn’t, just a hypothetical), it would take an almost inhuman amount of moral strength to walk away from a situation that’s so closely intertwined with his ego and his ability to feed his family. The more you have to lose, the less open you are to seeking truth wherever it may lead you and the more likely you are to want to maintain the status quo.
I like the fact that my priest has very little to lose. Granted, he’s sacrificed a lot in his life to become a priest and he’s well-respected in the diocese, but giving up being poor and celibate has some pretty big upsides too. And it fits well with my crotchety personality that he’s required to stick to time-tested Church teachings when interpreting scripture and doling out advice from the pulpit. If I take issue with these teachings I have a dizzying amount of resources at my disposal to understand why the Church believes what they do. Plus, even if my priest were to say crazy stuff in his homilies, they’re not the center of the Mass anyway. People aren’t there to see him.
So, this is what I thought about as we drove home on Sunday. This experience came at a good time as I’ve finally made some headway into getting into RCIA and am currently making plans to have my children baptized and have my marriage confirmed by the Church. After thinking about all this I feel more confident than ever that I’m finally where I need to be.