Posts Tagged ‘ Evangelical ’

Churchspotting Special Report: A Viewing of ‘One Nation Under God’ – Visited on 1/7/12

Today’s Churchspotting is something of a special event.  Rather than our traditional visit to a York County religious service, this week we feature a religious-political event held at the Filbert Presbyterian Church on Highway 321, between Clover, SC in the north and York to the south.

The event in question was a public showing of the film ‘One Nation Under God,’ a video aimed to mobilize evangelical Christians as voters for the 2012 elections.  The movie showing was not itself affiliated with Filbert Presbyterian Church, though their pastor did attend the event to watch.  Rather, it was put on by a weekly prayer group that meets at the Pork N More, a barbecue restaurant in York, every Monday.

According to a Mr. Duncan who spoke for the group, their venue was simply a matter of calling local churches to find one willing to let them use their space.  It was this same Mr. Duncan to whom I introduced myself at the entrance to the venue, where he was greeting attendees at the door.  He asked whether I was Christian before I entered.

The viewing took place in the community hall of Filbert Presbyterian.  Both the church proper and the hall were modest buildings of red brick, with any woodwork in their facades picked out in white paint.  Inside, the hall was a yawning, airy space of white walls and arched ceilings.  From the kitchen near its entrance and the mobile basketball goals sequestered in a corner, the hall’s more regular uses appeared to be sports and community meals.

Well over fifty locals gathered to watch the film that Saturday morning.  The vast majority were older or elderly, though a handful of younger adults arrived with children in tow.  A few of the attendees were recognizable as members of churches visited previously by Churchspotting, including a few from Divine Saviour Catholic Church.  As it was not an official church function, dress varied with the attendees’ preference.

The showing of ‘One Nation Under God’ lasted approximately three hours, including an intermission between the film’s two halves.  Though it was shown in a Presbyterian church, the film’s intended audience was explicitly ‘evangelical Christians.’  The film premiered in mid-November of 2011 in Evangelical churches throughout the US and it references the evangelical movement by name throughout its presentation.

The film was fairly straightforward in its goal.  Its host was Bill Dallas, a former California real estate developer who founded the Church Communication Network, a satellite broadcast company, after serving a five year prison term for embezzlement.  Dallas introduced himself in the film as the CEO of United in Purpose, a non-profit organization with the stated end of mobilizing evangelical voters for the 2012 election.  He then introduced Champion the Vote, a campaign started by United in Purpose to find unregistered evangelical voters, register them, and ensure they voted in the 2012 elections for what he called “the agenda of the lamb.”

Three core issues comprise the “agenda of the lamb,” as presented by Dallas and other speakers in “One Nation Under God.”  First and foremost is putting an end to abortion in the United States.  The other issues are, second, support for ‘traditional marriage,’ i.e. between one man and one woman; and third, support for Christian influence and practice in public, daily life.

To support these issues “One Nation Under God” brought on speakers who included evangelical historian David Barton, presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich, and Dr. James Dobson, founder of the evangelical group Focus on the Family.  Each of these in turn voiced support for making Christian values, as embodied in the three issues listed above, central to American public and political life.

During the intermission pastor Matthew James of Trinity Bible Church in Rock Hill spoke to the audience.  He asked attendees to call on their pastors to get involved in politics, both national and local.  He added that should their pastors be worried about ‘attention from the IRS” as a consequence of political involvement they should seek out a program called SC Renewal Project, an organization that hosts conferences for pastors, including paid hotel stays on-site.

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relevant Church (sic) at Oakridge Middle School – Visited on 8/7/2011

By the time I rounded the last bend of the circuitous road between Clover and Lake Wylie to find the sprawling grounds of Oakridge Middle School on my left, the hills and forests were already baking under a grueling August sun.   Mine was the only car I saw inbound from Clover, a town perhaps a mile across and a few miles back, home to some wealth and much poverty.  Its heart was left derelict by the textile industry’s decline decades ago.

From the other direction came a steady stream of glossy SUVs and town cars from Lake Wylie, that well-heeled suburb of Charlotte, its shores encrusted with halfpenny mansions, its hills festooned with redbrick shopping centers.  The cars glistened beetle-black in the sun as they swerved into the school parking lot.  I joined them when my chance came, following the signs set up to direct first-time attendees to the far lane.  Moments later I walked among the last of the early crowd headed to that morning’s worship service at relevant Church, filing in under the school’s aluminum awnings shoulder to shoulder with Lake Wylie salarypeople and their teenage children.

The nearer one comes to the main event of a relevant worship service the more visible the church’s staff becomes: teenagers and twentysomethings in neon ‘Event Staff’ t-shirts handing out leaflets and pens and notepads for visitors or waving attendees on towards the service.   That service takes place in what the staff calls the “Cafetorium”, a cafeteria with the stage and acoustics of an auditorium.  Nearly two hundred chairs sat ready for the congregation, while towards the back lurked all the hardware of a modern audio-visual presentation.  Black cords snaked between the camera stand, the computers, the sound system; all attended by fresh-faced volunteers.  On the stage stood microphones, stools and instruments, all the necessaries of a live musical performance.  I took a seat to the back, awaiting what promised to be a professionally managed show.  I was not disappointed.

A service at relevant Church lasts from around 10:30 in the morning till just shy of noon.  Live music portended by the props on stage dominated the first forty-five minutes of the service I attended—in this case a guitarist, backup singer and keyboardist performing contemporary Christian music, the sort one finds at any number of Evangelical summer camps and festivals scattered throughout the country.  The church’s visual projector displayed the lyrics on a screen hung above the band, but only a few voices joined them from the crowd, and only a few hands rose to clap the beat.

The band quieted as a bull of a man took the stage, one of relevant’s associate pastors who introduced himself as Tony.  With the rhythmic cadence of a practiced preacher or a motivational speaker he set up a video displayed to the congregation: an ad, for lack of a better word, for relevant’s upcoming beach weekend for children and parents.  Then he began a brief sermon for the crowd.

The congregation he spoke to was a group of mixed ages: some old enough for retirement or nearly so, many more ranging from their early forties to late twenties, married couples with their teenagers and young children, all dressed for casual Friday at some anonymous Charlotte office park. He reminded them of the economic troubles that beset our country, of the unpredictability of markets and investments that seemed so sound until a few years ago.  To these people, who have either seen their neighbors’ fortunes swallowed by the ongoing economic collapse or who face dire monetary straits themselves, for whom a stable and reliable American future now slips further and further away, he offered a new source of succor.  He said that they ought not to put their trust in retirement plans, investments, stocks or bonds or any other traditional hideaway for their money.

Instead they ought to put their trust in God, and in their Church.  Rather than sink their funds into material investments they should spend it on the one thing they could be sure of—their spiritual home, relevant Church.  They ought to commend their money to the same place they commended their souls. He assured the congregation that God would look after them if they believed and gave of themselves.  The offering bags passed down the rows as the guitarist for the praise band led the congregation in their opening prayer, calling on God to grant them all good fortune.  The whole interlude was a refrain common to certain strains of Evangelical worship, the so-called ‘prosperity gospel’—the idea that God will recompense those who ‘sow’ for the church by donating money by providing good fortune in the future–but only to those who sacrifice their money faithfully, with their whole heart, to his servants.

When the band finished they and the event staff cleared their equipment from the stage as the main event began.  The lead pastor of relevant Church, Matt McGarity, is in the midst of his hale thirties.  Handsome and charismatic, a father of five, he has a face for magazine covers and political commercials.  He appeared to the crowd in jeans and a t-shirt, the microphone of his earpiece glinting in the stage lights.  That day’s sermon bore the title “God’s Wonderbread.”

The sermon itself dominated the rest of the service, an eclectic mix of personal anecdotes and readings from the Old and New Testaments all delivered in a cordial, informal style.  He related stories of two breakdowns he’d suffered on the highway over the years to illustrate humanity’s lack of control over their surroundings.  The theme of that day’s sermon was how God watches over his faithful, as related specifically by the tale from the Book of Exodus of the migrating Hebrews receiving “manna from Heaven” on the march. McGarity explained at length that if the congregation believed thoroughly enough their God would redeem them from times of trouble.  He never mentioned how he himself was redeemed from those car troubles.

At the sermon’s close I witnessed the very first Communion taken by relevant’s congregation in their new location at the middle school.  Rev. McGarity encouraged the worshipers to come up of their own accord to one of four stations set around the seating, where the church’s associate pastors broke flatbread, provided sips from broad goblets, and offered to listen to the prayers of any who wished to bare their souls.

After the service I sat down with Rev. McGarity for a brief interview.  By his own account he spent his early adulthood in the US Marine Corps, serving for six years as a mechanic and sometimes firearms instructor, before leaving the Marines in 2002 to start a family and begin a career in construction.  After a few years in that line of work he described a growing calling towards ministry that culminated in his earning a Master of Divinity degree from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.  2011 is his third year as a pastor.

August 7 was only the fourth meeting of relevant Church in its current form.  Previous to that relevant was an auxiliary program of River Hills Community Church, just up the road in the heart of Lake Wylie.  McGarity said that he’d begun as an associate pastor at the River Hills church, tasked by its leadership with creating a program to draw in the young and the ‘unchurched,’ as he put it, of Lake Wylie and its surrounds.  Its first worship service in this phase was on Easter Sunday, 2010.  He described how his program eventually drew hundreds of worshippers each week, many of them unaffiliated with RHCC.  Such success convinced him that relevant could stand as its own church.

He then parted from the established RHCC to set up his own independent ministry, and relevant is the result.  On the church’s organization, McGarity revealed that relevant is not a part of any larger church network or denomination.  The church has a staff of around fifty volunteers leaving McGarity the only person involved who draws a pay check from the weekly event, though he mentioned plans to add two or three more paid positions.  relevant currently leases the ‘Cafetorium’ and surrounding halls from Oakridge Middle School on the weekends, and McGarity made no mention of plans to move to another site.

Given his background as a soldier of the United States now become a man of God, I asked McGarity his thoughts on America’s ongoing wars.  He said he believed that the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan “began as wars of liberation,” and that wars waged under such pretexts are just.  Though the occupations there drag on, he feels that there is now a moral obligation for American forces to stay until they establish a lasting peace.

Finally, as with every other pastor, I asked Rev. McGarity about his view of the relationship between Church and State.  He took that opportunity to expand upon the relationship between his church and the middle school in which it operated.  He made it clear that his interaction with the school system was entirely monetary, that “we (relevant Church) never impose” their beliefs on its students or faculty.  His arrangement, he said, would be the same between the school and a Jewish temple or Muslim mosque.

As a final aside, I’d like to thank the Saturday group at the coffee shop in Lake Wylie who, if they are reading this, know just who they are.  I doubt I would have found relevant Church without their useful tips, and I look forward to more discussions with them in the future.

Clover Evangelical Presbyterian Church – Visited on 7/17/2011

Yet another warm, muggy, overcast morning.  The clouds laid spread from horizon to horizon as a tattered, grey-white bed sheet throughout the weekend of the 17th.  Beneath such dull skies the whitewashed wooden siding of Clover Evangelical gains a matte dullness, but its windows remain as bright and welcoming as ever.  Those windows, which from a distance appear to be the stained glass of other churches in the area, are in fact wooden boards painted in a bright, eye-catching likeness of the traditional glass.

Where the Clover ARP covered last week was a centennial institution, Clover Evangelical has only just celebrated its twentieth anniversary at its current location.  The church is a single story longhouse of wood sidings and brick foundation, with a small steeple rising above the entrance crowned with a white wooden cross.  Along its left wall is a tiny tended garden, with benches and brick paving set before a free-standing wooden cross, behind which looms a carven likeness of the Ten Commandments set into a red brick frame.

Inside one finds sturdy wooden pews beneath the fluorescent lights and drop-ceilings of an office building or public school, with a stage to the rear from which the pastor preaches and the congregation’s youth choir sings.  A thin wall divides the longhouse behind that stage, veiling a meeting room prepared for community meals and gatherings.  Despite their modest funds the church staff has clearly gone to great pains to prepare its sound system.  A modern stereo apparatus lurks in the back left corner, behind the several pews, while microphones for the choir bristle behind the pastor’s lectern.

Clover Evangelical is, according to its own pastor Rev. Chuck Maynard, very much a blue collar affair.  In his own words, Rev. Maynard preaches to exactly one doctor and no lawyers.  It is a small, informal gathering, reputed by its own members to average at twenty members, where thirty adults at a single worship service is a full house.

They arrive in sandals and t-shirts, tucked in collared shirts among the elder men, dresses for the elder women, each attired as though for a day of work or school.  There is an informality, a closeness to the service—there is a sense of family and community in the longhouse, where everyone knows everyone and has done for years hence.  That day only a combined thirteen adults and teenagers were in attendance, with others unable to visit due to injury or illness.

Music dominates the first half of the Clover Evangelical experience by music.  The congregation sings hymns alongside contemporary studio reproductions played through the sound system while an overhead projector displays the lyrics upon the far wall, a kind of sacred karaoke.  The machine’s music enfolds and largely overpowers the voices of the small congregation, most of whom seem too shy to sing out.

A sermon from the presiding reverend fills the second have of the worship service; that morning  Rev. Maynard, a self-described veteran of two years in the Vietnam War,  began with a reading from the Book of Isaiah and criticism of the American legal system, which is “flat screwed up” in his words.  The reverend’s condemnation extended to the American government, of which he remarked “How many of us expect a politician to tell us the truth?”

The pastor emphasized the role of the family in the church, its importance in reinforcing its own teachings and preventing its members from straying from their oaths and covenants in the faith.  In that vein Rev. Maynard held nothing back when he condemned homosexuality, saying “It is an abomination to God and it is not okay.”  He bitterly criticized 129 Presbyterian pastors, whom he said recently signed a document affirming their decision to accept homosexuality in their churches.  Of them he said, “They are not pastors, they are not Christians, and they are going to Hell.”

On the role of Christianity in government and the power of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, Rev. Maynard said he believed that the clause exists only to prevent the establishment of a national church of the United States, such as the country’s founding fathers saw and experienced in other contemporary nations.  He rejected what he called a “separation of God and government,” and would prefer that the US government operated on a strict constitutional basis.