By Jared Stutzman
The mid-morning sun was bright. As Brian shielded his eyes with his slim-line NIV and sauntered toward the square steel erection that housed The Family Worship and Fellowship Center, he wondered if it always shone brighter on Sundays, or if it just seemed like it. “Probably just seems like it,” he decided. “All the shiny cars in the parking lots reflect the light.”
He tugged cautiously at the untucked hem of his shirt as he passed through the conversational masses of humanity in the foyer and into the multi-purpose sanctuary. When left artistically unbuttoned at the top and carefully disheveled, his shirt revealed both his hemp necklace and an A & F emblem on the chest of the gray T-shirt beneath it—a nice, careless look, but the maintenance of it required his constant attention. Brian looked toward the stage. Corlin the worship leader was inspecting a microphone. His square-cut black spectacles and spiky black hair glinted in the stage spots, and his fair-trade organically-grown black Sumatra steeped in his black french press on the floor near his black Pumas. Corlin’s shirt was also black, but the non-distressed areas of his jeans were blue, as was the small Celtic cross tattoo on his right forearm. The tattoo peeked out from under his half-rolled long sleeves like a badly-kept secret.
“Must not be a pledge Sunday,” Brian thought to himself. There was a pattern to Corlin’s sleeve-length. On pledge Sundays and for business meetings, Corlin’s sleeves were buttoned down tight with cuff links (and he also wore a tie). For ordinary Sunday morning worship (like today), his sleeves were discriminatingly tousled and half-rolled so that the Celtic cross barely peeked out. At youth meetings, he rolled his sleeves all the way up so that the barbed-wire inscribed on his bicep revealed itself salaciously while the Celtic cross was in full promenade.
Around the multi-purpose sanctuary’s six double-door entrances, families arrived as units. The units instantly dissolved as they entered the room, and the resulting swarm of individuals immediately regrouped into age-segregated clusters. Kid-clusters were gender-segregated as well, and adult-clusters seemed to share hair and clothing styles. Brian felt the magnetic pull of the “college and careers” cluster forming in the module of seats by the far western wall, and headed toward it.
The college and careers people always sat in the western seating section, which offered a side-view of the stage. The youth group claimed the eastern section on the opposite side of the room, facing them. The stage jutted out between the two side seating sections into a sea of seats. Three center seating sections faced the stage and had a more direct view of the theater-sized twin projection screens, the plexiglass speaker’s podium, and the kaleidoscopic arrangement of guitars, amps, and drums in the worship team’s area. Retractable basketball hoops faced each other across the room—incongruous, perhaps, but Brian knew that FWFC had intentionally designed the building to maximize utility at minimum cost.
Brian caught a glimpse of Pastor Thom walking through the foyer and realized he was looking forward to the sermon—imagine that! He liked Pastor Thom. After 18 years in a church where the road to God was paved with King James English, fear and trembling, Just As I Am, and the Republican party, it was nice to be at a church where people were into Jesus, but still cool. FWFC people were with it. They were connected, in touch with the world around them. Identification with Providence Free Will Baptist Church had been a social liability in high school, but Pastor Thom was an asset, even in a college town. His conversational grasp of popular culture was nothing short of masterful, and everything about him—his talk, his clothes, his mannerisms, his looks—here was a guy who lived in the moment, who had earned the respect of…well, of people like Brian and the college and careers amalgamation. And their friends, of course. Especially the unchurched ones, and that was the whole, point, right? Pastor Thom was a rebel, just like them. He boldly challenged the conventions of pastoral behavior and carriage. He didn’t rock the Che T-shirt and tattoo like Corlin on weekdays, but—you got the impression that he could have if he wanted to.
Coffee infused the air; doughnuts were ubiquitous. Brian disgustedly stomped his foot as he realized his tin coffee cup was at the bottom of the pile of dirty dishes on his apartment counter. About half of the members of the college and careers cluster sipped their beverages from cardboard cups; the other half drank from colorful, locally-crafted artisan pottery mugs. Brian would have to use a cardboard cup today—not that he really minded. The cardboard cups had been standard until Pastor Thom’s environmental stewardship sermon series last year. The guilt induced by the pictorial display of African famine (connected to the excesses of western culture) led most of the members of college and careers to a wholesale denouncement of disposable products, though there was some heated debate from a few climate-change deniers.
Brian had noticed that Pastor Thom didn’t actually mention climate change at all in his sermon series, but that hardly seemed germane to the discussion. Brian himself was without much of an opinion. He had grown up hearing that all environmental concerns were a hoax concocted by the political left, but then, he had also grown up hearing that the King James Version was the only inspired version of the Bible. When he thought about the African children begging for water, he felt a little guilty, but not enough to spend forty bucks on a pottery mug. Hence the tin cup from his camping equipment—a way to show he wasn’t heartless without really taking a side. Once he’d been seen with the mug a few Sunday mornings, it was sufficiently established that he was indeed a conscientious, concerned citizen. The furor over the issue subsided a few months after it began, and some of the pottery-mug types forgot their mugs periodically. It stopped mattering because no one had seen a picture of African children for months.
Brian snapped out of the pottery-mug drama that had been replaying in his head as he settled into his padded chair, tugging again at his shirt hem with one hand while he held his coffee in the cardboard cup with the other. Corlin was already beginning his pre-song spiritual banter over the background of a soft electric guitar. The bass drum thumped, the lights dimmed, and Corlin’s voice dropped into a coarse vocal fry. The bedlam of conversation in the multi-purpose sanctuary dipped momentarily beneath Corlin’s amplified voice, then surged back to a dull roar, then began to drop away again. The whine and hum of distorted guitars immediately flooded the aural gap left by the diminishing conversation. The decibel level in the room was a constant; the babbling cacophony decreased in inverse proportion to the band’s volume.
Brian reflected briefly on the stiff, artificial quiet that preceded services during his childhood at Providence Free-Will Baptist Church—the request the song-leader would call with a plastered-on smile—“please turn to number 141 in the hymnal—number 141.” Brian was glad those days were behind him. This worship style really fit his personality. It wasn’t exactly “emo” or “punk”— more indie/folk, but plugged-in and edgy. Definitely contemporary and relevant—music for his generation, with hair and clothes to match.
The techies at the sound board spun their knobs, dimmed the lights, and worked their magic on the projection screens. Green meadows swam by; a human silhouette trudged up a hill. Suddenly, there were words. The youth group cheered as it recognized the song. Corlin approached the mic, hands churning on a plugged-in acoustic, black Pumas placed precisely side-by-side and touching, knees slightly bent and flexing to the beat, eyes closed behind the square-cut black frames, spiky hair cocked to one side and undulating hypnotically. Emotion and intensity pushed wordless feelings from deep within his being to the surface, where they forced their way unbidden to his lips, formed almost by accident into English verbiage matching that on the screen. His passion revealed itself in breathy tones; it rubbed his voice into a raw, edgy, clarity; it pulled and tugged at his melody, weighing down the beginnings and ends of his phrases and distorting his pronunciation into a quasi-Australian accent.
Brian knew Corlin’s stage presence was a cultivated skill—a form of showmanship. But that didn’t necessarily make it wrong, right? What was the alternative, creaky, old-fashioned hymn singing? Three-chord campfire Kumbayas by some kid who “learned” guitar over the summer? With 500 people in the room, some polish was a good thing, especially if it reached people—especially if the people it reached were unchurched.
It occurred to Brian as he tried to sing along that, after two and a half years, he was still trying to justify his presence at FWFC. It was as though a piece of his brain was afraid that Providence Free Will Baptist might have been right all along—that God really did care about girls wearing culottes instead of pants, and that He really did frown at the very idea of movie theaters and eating out on Sunday, even though Brian knew better now. One of the best parts about moving away to college had been the chance to start fresh with church. Though he never rebelled outright against his parent’s church while he had been in high school, he was glad of the opportunity to go to a more relevant, contemporary church. It just took a while to shake off the false guilt complex he’d inherited at Providence.
Family Worship and Fellowship Center was a good church. It was. He knew this. He could tell because it was growing. It was reaching people. It was successful. It was a church you could bring your friends to, even intelligent, sophisticated friends.
Pastor Thom was a dynamic speaker, and he was a having a real impact on the community. The way he talked about Jesus—it made you want to be His friend. He preached about tough, real-life issues like poverty, racism, and the environment. He spoke about what mattered now, here, today—he knew what was trending on Twitter, and he talked about it. His sermons were full of references to the movies, to the news, to sports, to politics, to the things that Brian’s generation cared about.
At FWFC, Christianity was—well, Brian would have called it “cool,” but that sounded too juvenile. Hip, maybe. Culturally conscious and aware, socially engaged, sophisticated, growing, successful, relevant—it was perfect. What more could you ask of a church, anyway?