Sunday, September 25, 2016

Abney Street Church of God - Saint Albans

Abney Street Church of God in Saint Albans

Warning, I have decided to drastically revamp the format for these articles. I took some constructive criticism from the original format. I am still going to be highly opinionated, but you'll get used to it.

First Impressions

Walking into the Abney Street Church of God in Saint Albans, WV is both what you would expect and not what you would expect of a smallish church in a middle class neighborhood. You would expect lots of older white people. Lots of cheap suits or slacks with button downs. Lots of floral print, white or salt and pepper hair, lots of plaid. What you might not expect are faces smiling and greeting every single person as they walk through the door personally, by name, until they see a face they don't know. You might not expect their smile to grow wider (not smaller) when they realize that they get to meet a new person today. You might not expect a sturdier handshake from the pastor's wife than from himself. And you might not expect to be personally guided to the sanctuary. You might not expect to watch the pews fill only halfway, only about 50 or so people. It might not be what you expect, but it's what you'll receive.

Honestly, truthfully, I am surprised that their sanctuary wasn't packed. If I were of the persuasion to be persuaded into being a member of a church, this would probably be high on the list. Maybe Pastor Jack Lawrence was right, and their church's decision to buck the current standard of Namesake Christianity makes some people angry. But for an atheist, tired of lipservice and empty platitudes, most of the sermon was a relief to hear. This was an actual Church of Christianity, in whatever form it's decided to present this century. These were real people, a real community, a real church family.

The term "Apologetic Christianity" has been thrown around a lot recently. To my understanding (don't quote me on this, it's my amalgamation of services I've heard or watched so far) apologetics is not (as I originally assumed) the process of apologizing for the atrocities that the Catholic and Protestant churches have throughout the years either funded, supported, or committed, but rather a decision to un-apologetically stand by the "truth". In this sermon today, with this small group of people, this is how it was explained to my understanding: The Bible says to give answers to anyone who asks about your faith. But looking back at the old language, the word that was actually used was not answers, it was an old word that sounds similar to "apology" which actually translated today means to give a defense. And so that is where the term "Apologetics" is coming from, and why it means not to apologize but to explain.

Unlike the last review I did, I won't give my full outline of the sermon. To my liking, the sermon was more natural and free-flowing, like a conversation, rather than a lecture. So an outline is pretty worthless in this case, so we'll just go with the highlights and my notes.

How Should We Then Live?

The Best Bits of a sermon by Pastor Jack Lawrence of Abney Street Church of God

Jesus built the church, not man, and so when churches are built around men (Evangelists) the church is not holy, not what it was meant to be, and it is heretic.

Health and Wealth gospel values entertainment and positive thinking above teaching the harsh truth about God, religion, and the world. ASCoG, as a church, has decided to decline to be that type of church and instead talk about the ugly subjects like loss, pain, and confusion.

We are born intelligent, but not wise. Not even Christians can know or understand God. God gives us ways to become meaningful and to grow and cultivate our wisdom, like our communities, our families, our nations, but those things are a means to grow, not to achieve. Job had no answers, he went through a living hell, and when encouraged to blame God for all that had happened, he refused. He knew that he could not know God. Sometimes God seems cruel, but maybe  we just don't understand his timing, reasoning, or method. We don't get to understand God and his movements because we can't.

Sanctification means to be set apart from others, to die to self, to consecrate oneself, and to allow the holy spirit to take over. To die to oneself, one must live every day fully in mind, heart, and strength, in a way that is holy. To give up what one wants to be closer to God.

Final thoughts

This church seems to house a tight-knit family, but one that is eager to invite you in and love you. They are completely transparent with their money, they stated the charities and projects that tithes would go towards before passing around the plates. They weren't showy, the decor and the equipment wasn't in disrepair, but it wasn't flashy. They do what they must to keep the place going, and the rest goes out to the community. 
They care for each other, know each other on a first name basis, and do things like cancelling service to attend a friend's funeral. Their guest singer wasn't some big name on the gospel scene, it was a fellow whose wife recently died and he sang about not knowing what is coming tomorrow, but knowing who holds the future and who holds his hand. The place is comfortable and comforting. They have decided to take the hard road, to talk about things that aren't flashy, or en vogue, or maybe sometimes even pleasant. They talk about how hard it is, but how much the hard work will reward you in the end.
At the end of it all, this faith that Christians hold is a parody of the American Dream. There are those who fall for "Get Rich Quick" scams in the real world, trying to grasp that American Dream without any of the hard work, just like there are churches and "believers" who would go to church on Sundays to get into heaven without all the hard "loving people" crap that those other churches talk about. But at the end of the day, with the American Dream as well as Abney Street's version of Christianity, the work is what matters. Because even if you do get rich quick, even if you do get absolution for today, in the long run, what does it get you? None of the satisfaction. None of the quality. None of the accomplishment. Just empty platitudes. 
Abney Street's Christianity is the one that I believed in once upon a time, back when I did some believing. Abney Street in its adult service is the type of church that I am looking for. And I would recommend it to anyone who feels alone, angry, or searching. Pastor Jack Lawrence stated that getting saved is not just kneeling down one day, saying some words, and being set for life. It's the beginning of a journey. Well, I'm not on a journey in the way that he described, but maybe I am on some kind of quest. I think we all are in this life. We all want to find meaning, human beings are programmed to find patterns, and in the chaos we find ourselves facing every day, and with fulfillment and meaning slipping further away with every level of complexity we add to our lives, that need is an ever deepening pit. The nature of this blog, what I thought it was when I started, has now changed. I am not here to rate these places on a scale of one to ten ( I will still give advice on the nature, kid friendliness, transparency, etc. that I promised before) but I will try to expand on the thoughts and claims of a group of people more diverse, more varied, and more likely to disagree than almost any other groups of people. I'll try to explain it as I learn it, and as it seems to be to an atheist like myself. 
The only way for the religious wars of this world to stop are for the people of religion to be understood as people. For their beliefs to be legitimized by acceptance. So I won't just be visiting Christian churches. I'll be visiting other places where I am allowed to be. Forewarning, though, that because of my physical location, Christian churches will dominate most of my writing for now.

As promised, ratings on the things:

1. Children: they have children services, but I didn't get the opportunity to ask about them. I am considering removing this from the list of clearances, because I am feeling out a belief that children shouldn't be taken to church until they ask to be. This is not something suggested by many (if any) churches, but I am starting to feel it to be true to myself. So for the next few until I decide what I believe, I won't be including a children's aspect.

2. Outreach: They sponsor children in places like Egypt to get them through school, they do "trunk or treat" every year to keep kids safe when trick or treating, they have constant food drives for Christ's kitchen and food pantries, and they support other local and foreign charities. This is amazing, considering that their congregation is so small and not in an overly affluent neighborhood. 10/10.

3. Financial Transparency: Before collecting tithes, they stated clearly where the money was going. You could tell by church and its leaders that there wasn't exorbitant amounts of money being spent inside. They were, pardon the pun, practicing what they preach. 10/10

4. Inclusivity/Diversity: Out of a congregation of maybe 50 people, I counted 4 people of color and 3 people with severe disability. The 3 young men who were disabled and their caregiver were greeted warmly by everyone who crossed their paths, not ignored or avoided, and the people of color were interspersed organically with the others, not isolated or avoided. So, 8% people of color, and 6% people with disabilities, which are both about double the demographics of this town in general, and all of them were welcome and valued just like the rest of the congregation. 10/10

5. Content: I didn't agree with some of what the pastor said, but he said it respectfully and with conviction. There weren't any misquoted quotes, and anecdotes were clearly described as "stories" and not fact. I appreciate all of those aspects more than Pastor Jack Lawrence will probably ever know. Those are not common practice among men who wish to make their point seem valid. 10/10

6. Community: Part of me really wants to lay down roots here. I almost want to go back next week. But I know I have to keep moving, and keep learning, and keep travelling. But I believe I will be back. I think that this will be my Holidays church, while I explore what else the world of faith has to offer here. The people were kind and friendly, and as I said, it seemed like a family thirsty to adopt more. 10/10.

Gateway Christian Church

Friday, May 6, 2016

Gateway Christian Church - Saint Albans Site

Gateway Christian Church's SA Campus
Gateway Christian Church's St. Albans site is located on the corner across for the post office and the social security office. When I say corner, I actually mean the block, because the "campus" as they call it is enormous. There is designated parking for guests and the elderly, right beside the main doors, which is a nice welcome to those of us who (still) have no idea where the general parking would be.
It would appear to be at Riverview Towers (the assisted living apartments) and the social security office parking lot, as well as the post office parking lot itself.

The first service starts at 9:30, and I did a drive-by about 30 minutes early, and the doors were open and a few early birds were shuffling in. Turns out I should have arrived then, because there was apparently coffee which I missed out on (and desperately would have enjoyed for this trip).

When I did park and enter about 10 minutes before the show was to begin, a door was opened for me with a polite smile and by a man in his late forties. No directions, no hello.... No, "have you ever been here before?" or realizations of a new face. So I glanced around the strange "lobby" which is made up of two conjoining hallways one to the left and one to the right. To the left were tables of pamphlets, leaflets, tracts, and signup sheets for various projects and events. I turned back to the men holding doors and asked, "I've never been here before, where is the service held?" and was pointed in the direction of double doors on the left hall.

The "chapel" was enormous. I took notes for the first 10 minutes while the three enormous digital countdowns on the hi-def projector screens ticked away. They are as follows,
Joey Copley - SA Pastor
Very large campus. Comfortable seating in interesting setup. Large modern chapel countdown on huge projector screens. All looks very professional & expensive, though congregation is modestly/modernly dressed. Even mix of younger vs. older.
Came in 5 min early, nods as greetings. good place to fade into the background. Took seat towards back right corner.
The chairs were comfortable, they weren't benches, but it did remind me of the evangelicals you used to see on the lower channels on TV on Sundays. It was comfortable, the seating was spread out enough as to not jostle your neighbor when going through your purse, and it seemed that, provided the person in front of you isn't too tall, you could see the stage equally well from all sections.

The guest speaker was introduced after entirely too many non-traditional hymns that I (having been raised in several churches and in Christian schooling) had never heard of. The lyrics were projected on those big screens, but without sheet music it was hard for me, personally to sing along. The band was very near professional, and their equipment was top of the line. While I appreciated the aesthetics, and it was impressive, from an outreach point of view the two sets of tithes taken were more of club dues than offerings to "The Lord's Work".

Greg Koukl was the guest speaker, whose corporation (some may say organization, but I won't) you can learn more about here, and I will go into more depth about my personal opinions (and past experience) with the man in a later post. (Suffice it to say I've "known" him my whole life...) And the message, which was lauded by pastor and preacher, was, and I quote, "Life is hard, then you die." It was called Apologetic Christianity, which upon first hearing the term I was pretty excited, but it's not exactly what it sounds like. According to Mr. Koukl, it's more about having and teaching realistic expectations about what life as a Christian is all about. It's Christianity's answer to the 70's and 80's Jesus Freak fad. (And again, his words, not mine. The speech is documented, you can look it up. It's called The Four Hard Realities of Spiritual Faith.  The outline and my notes are as follows
4 Hard realities of Spiritual Faith
1. Spiritual Growth is Perplexing [ II Cor 4:8 Paul was perplexed] Experience does not equal expertise [Proverbs 21:24] 
2. Spiritual Growth Takes Time
3. Spiritual Growth Hurts [Phill. 2:29 ; 1 Peter 4:1 ; 1 Peter 2:22 ; II Cor 4:16]
4. Spiritual Growth Doesn't Ultimately Satisfy
Press on for the goal, there will always be a dissastisfaction in this life because we were not made for this world [I Peter 1:13]
Life is Hard and then You Die

Candy Payne - Children's Minister
After the first service, I went up front to speak with the home pastor about the church and childrens' programs. I was given a gift bag for coming for the first time (which contained a branded water bottle, bumper sticker, some flyers for programs, a branded carbiner  keychain, and a DVD I have yet to watch), and led to the children's area behind the sanctuary. My notes are as follows.
Excellent setup. Some hesitation when asked about stance on Baptism. Is considered essential for salvation, and is taught as a "when you're ready" thing, but not clear if it's taught as requirement for salvation at that age group. 
All volunteers are vetted fully, check in/out system in place and well organized, groups for babies, pre-k, and gradeschool ages. Staff was friendly and space looks safe and clean. Only concern is a lot of stairs to pre-k, but maybe good to deter dangerous persons. Kids all looked happy and seemed to be having fun.
Greg Koukl - Guest Speaker
I did stay for the second service, hoping for the home pastor to speak, but it was another sermon by Koukl. Again, I have had misgivings about this speaker for a long time, and moreso when I heard his second sermon. Also, upon exiting the chapel to explore some in the lobby, found his coworkers hawking DVD's, books, and CD's. Your normal "Motivational Speaker" merch set up. Take note that second service was much more heavily populated by an older crowd. I assume that had a lot to do with the tone change in sermons, which switched from comfort/newer age tone to more traditional damnation. Also take note that the pastor of both the Saint Albans and Teays Valley campuses were both present and both commended each sermon, indicating that the views of the church probably match up with the content of the sermons.
Hell and Death.
A Grief Observed by CS Lewis (which I plan to read very soon)
Can consciousness be reduced to something physical?
"There is not a soul because we can't find a soul. There is no space in the brain for the soul to fit (according to an article in Time magazine from 1975, which, after searching Time's archives from 1975 I have yet to find. If you can find the article, please link it in the comments so that I can revise this section, however until I am able to find this article I'm going to call this debunked.)
And from my actual notes on the spot
[[Feels like cherry picking quotes to prove a point. IF we aren't associating belief and science, why are we citing 40 yr old editorial pieces? Why not Psychology Today or BP Hope? No current sources to cite? I doubt that.]] 
Why do we need Jesus to rescue us from our God? If that is the case, who would want to worship that God?
He rescues us from The Father. Father is angry, and Jesus satisfies the wrath of God. Propitiation. [Matt 10]
[[So then what about people before Jesus?]]
[[When does sin start? birth? childhood? 18?]]
[[As a father, would you punish your child for life for disobeying, or would you eventually forgive them out of love?]]
[[If a human parent punished in a way like "hell", if that is godlike, good, love, why would they be called abuse when humans do them?]]
A lot of people who think they're Christians will end up in hell. [Matt 25]
[[Are we talking in an outreach view or a condemnation view? 
[[It's interesting which speeches he chose to speak to which group. Younger, more diverse early group gets life is hard but you'll be okay", older less diverse group gets "everybody but us is going to hell." Plays on holier than thou tendencies]]
[[If God can do anything and made all the rules, why did he make the system require permanent solutions to temporary problems? Why would he make humans value rehabilitation if we are made in his image, wouldn't our general values as a species be representative of his own? If God is truly GOOD, why would his actions not be good in our hands?]]
"Best sermon I've heard in a long time on the subject" - Pastor, so this is commiserate to the church's views.


  • I don't recommend this church to newcomers to the Christian religion. 
  • The children's program has the right idea on paper, but may be a little more Fire and Brimstone than new-age Christians or converts would appreciate, but it's hard to tell because of the secretive nature of the actual lesson plans. 
  • While there are outreach programs funded, they don't seem to be the best choices, in my opinion, since they are more based on converting contemporary and Catholic regions than helping the poor. 
  • The site is extremely well-maintained and the facilities are highly updated. It felt more like showmanship than anything else.
  • Overall, outreach and financial transparency fail at this site. The subject matter is sketchy. The children's program gets a weak "pass". The welcome and atmosphere fail (partially based on the large congregation due to both campuses meeting together for the guest speaker). I will give this church another go on a day that is less crowded to get a better feel for the "usual crowd". 

 What do I look for in a church?
What do I look for in a church?
 Disclaimer: The photos used in this post are not my own. I borrowed them from the church's website and from google search. If requested by church administration, I will take them down, but would request the opportunity to replace them with my own photos of the site and administration. I do not make money from this website, and I am giving full disclosure that I do not own the photos, so am not breaking any copyright laws, however I'm not a bad person so I won't use them if permission is revoked. Any edited or crafted images (headers, footers, previous and next leads) are my own creations and my own intellectual property. They may be used freely by other bloggers, but may not be revoked as they are my own property.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

What do I look for in a church?

what should i look for in a church
So this blog should be considered a suggestions list. Not just of what churches in this area are more or less appealing, but also suggestions of how one might grade a group on for oneself. There are a few key factors that I will be taking note of and grading as I go. Obviously, some may be more or less important to you, based on your own needs, desires, and beliefs. And you may have your own checklist to find a place that fits you. I just feel that these are the best starting places for myself.

1. Inclusiveness

The absolute most important factor for me in determining the fit of a group is their inclusiveness of people they do not know. I am a divorce', a stepmother, a person with disability, a person with tattoos and purple hair, and who doesn't really fit the stereotype of a traditional church goer. For me, the first day can tell you a lot about the general atmosphere a group shows towards newcomers. [[Disclaimer: Unfortunately for this particular experiment, I am white in a predominately white community, and so there are very few spaces where I can test race relations. For my friends who identify in racial minorities, I have to say I'm sorry. I'll do my best to judge how safe a space may be, but being that I am what I am, there's no way I can give definitive guides to that.]]
It will be my first and foremost goal to try to test the waters for people who don't "fit the mold". There is no point in a person trying out a setting where they will not be welcomed. It's not the shopper's job to impress the group, it's the group's job to impress the shopper. If they don't take people as they come, then they're not worth my time.

2. Doctrine

This is a less "grading curve" kind of question, and more of a defining question. While studying the particular rules and beliefs of a denomination can be very telling as to what direction a church may take, you never know the exact flavor until you taste it. This will mostly come from sermon notes, Sunday Schools, and other outreach programs, if applicable. Basically this is the question, "What do they believe, and how crisp are the lines?" Main subjects of question will be the attitude and idea of God, the level of adherence to Old Testament guidelines, the stance on "outreach", the attitude towards other or clashing religions and their followers, and the general attitude of the worldview. 

3. Financial Transparency

While this is a more difficult concept to measure during a one-week visit, I think that it is extremely important to know that the money being donated to the church, tax free, is being used not only in the way that it is claimed to be used, but also in a way that is compatible with the idea of utilitarianism and charity.  In other words, if a group says that money is being used for a charity that doesn't exist or is vastly under funded in comparison with the amount of money being raised, or if a group is openly using money only to benefit the members, staff, or site, the group would fail on this point.

4. Youth Programs

How thorough is the youth ministry? How open or crowded is it? Does it resemble brain-washing, is it overly dramatic or dark or heavy-handed? Does it encourage free-thinking, doubt, and questions? Is the space for children safe, open, and clean? What are lesson plans like? Who leads the lessons? Successful programs would have an open-door policy, and would not feature rotating leaders, unless the rotation were of pre-screened, pre-approved adults. Ideally there would be guidelines for behavior as well as limits to what subject matter is covered at what ages. Ideally, self-examination would be encouraged at all ages, as well as identity and personal choices. Weekly groups like AWANA are not required, but will be noted. This is extremely important to me, since we have two small children who may or may not end up interested in attending these kinds of events.

5. Diversity

This should go without saying, but a good group doesn't have "haves and have nots", but it should also not be strictly haves or have-nots. Ideally, a group would have a healthy mix of people from as many socio-economic backgrounds as possible, and everyone would have a voice. Large vs Small membership size won't be considered a pro or a con unless it's extreme (thousands of members or less than 10 members) but will be noted for the edification of the reader.

Once again, these are just five simple checklists. Each point may or may not be touched on, depending on the quality of the visits. If I'm not invited back for an evening or weekday meeting, I probably won't attend an evening or weekday meeting. Names will be changed for the sake of privacy of everything except for street names and obviously the church name. Conversations quoted may or may not be verbatim, but will be paraphrased or quoted to the best of my ability as I will have a notebook but not a voice recorder.
Anyways, tomorrow is the first day, I'm pretty excited and nervous, but I can't wait to let you guys know how it goes.

 Gateway Christian Church Saint Albans
Gateway Christian Church Saint Albans

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Welcome? Undercover "Church Shopping" In Appalachia

Welcome to the blog. I wanted to take some time to introduce myself before and my project before getting started.
My name is Alex, I am a wife and stepmother, and I grew up in the Kanawha Valley of West Virginia. There's a joke about our area (and it applies to a lot of other communities in the Bible Belt) that my dad and I always used to tell (still do, actually) every time we passed a new construction site -- It's either going to be a bank or a church, and lord knows we don't need any more of either.

A little bit of backstory, shall we? Like I said, I grew up here, and, like most people around here, I grew up in church. I went to a Christian school from first to eighth grade, went to AWANA (like scouts, but more Bible and less practical skills) and/or youth group every Wednesday night for as long as I can remember. I went to church on the major holidays, and every other weekend, when I would be with my grandparents. My dad never believed any of that stuff, I don't think, but he never tried to stand in my way, either. I wanted, more than anything, to belong to something bigger than myself, and to understand my purpose and goal. I spent a lot of years hoping that organized religion would give me that.

A lot of bad things happened to me in churches (and that school) growing up. But a lot of really amazing things happened, too. I met people who genuinely loved me, and who I genuinely loved, too. Of course I also met people who were genuinely evil and destructive, and caused my already damaged mental health a lot of extra, unnecessary trauma. Over all, after all the years, I've learned a lot about what I think about organized religion and churches, particularly in our neck of the woods.

A group of people can have either positive or negative effects on the following 3 people(s): 1. The members as individuals. 2. The members as a collective. 3. Non-members/prospective members. Religion and faith-based endeavors in particular tend to be only positively affecting no more than two of those groups at any given time. Either the group is good for The Church and harmful to its members and neighbors, or it is good for strangers and harmful for The Church, or it is good to its individual members and harmful for strangers... Very rarely do you find a group of humans (because, even if they are supposedly led by God, they are all still human) who do not hold biases. It seems the best you can ask for is a group of humans so driven by universal love that they do not lash out or exclude individuals based on their own biases. This has proven difficult for many groups, mainly because their prime directive comes from an admittedly outdated book.

As for my own belief, I am not sure. I have settle for the term agnostic, however I don't think that the existence of a God (or multiple gods) is really relevant to the answers I'm currently seeking in life. What is truly relevant is living a life that is representative of what we want this world to look like after we're gone. And if there were a god, I would want it to be one of love and inclusiveness, like a parent, who, even though their children may stray, would still love them no matter what, and would learn to accept them for who they were, not push them into self-hatred and harm for the sake of appearances. If there is a god, and it does not match that description, I am honestly not interested.

Now, finally, for my goals with this experiment. When I was a member of a church, we would often get visitors, and for whatever reason, the first question they were asked was always "Do you have a home church?" (no doubt this was for recruiting or "outreach" purposes) and the answer was often, "No, we're just shopping." And, while I never got to do it since I was just a kid and I went where my grandparents took me, I always thought that was such a romantic idea.

And why shouldn't we "Just Shop" churches? What would be wrong with getting an idea of what all the communities are like, sampling them and taking what we like from each one to create our own network? No doubt, in every group there are the people you want to take home with you and the people you would rather just leave behind. With everything else, from banks to bars, you don't have to settle on the first one you find, or the one your friends or parents tell you is the best, or the one that's the closest to your doorstep.

So my goal is to create a sort of map of the churches in my area, do my best to describe them physically, characteristically, ethically, socially, and ideologically. It's one thing to say, "this is a methodist church, with predominately middle aged white folks" or "this is a catholic church with predominately young black folks." What I want to do is visit, and give a full description of what a person can expect to experience on an average day at these places. That's why I'm going without calling ahead, that's why I'll sit in the back, I won't draw attention to myself, and I won't tell anyone why I'm there. I just want to know what these people are like, and how it varies from one steeple to the next. And I'll write it all down and share it with you here.

We will begin on Sunday morning, at Gateway Christian Church, in Saint Albans, WV.