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