True North: a New Look at My Old Stomping Grounds

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You know those guys who wear orange vests and carry glowing orange sticks so they can direct you where to park when you are going to a concert in the the city? Well, on Sunday morning, those same guys stand in the parking lot of the local elementary school amid waving flags that read “True North Church,” directing worshippers where to park as they arrive for the morning service. I pull my car into a spot near the front, wishing I could have parked further in the back, in a place less open.

I follow a trail outlined in volunteers in neon green t-shirts that read “I Can Help!” into the lobby of the school I attended as a sixth grader 13 years ago. The lobby is crowded, filled with tables with signs reading “What’s Next?” and “Compass Kids Check-in.” Off to the side, there are refreshment tables with water jugs and light snacks. Two volunteers stand along side a computer monitor at an information station, disseminating information. I remember that the lobby looked similar during my sixth grade enrichment fair, though the tables displayed replicas of classic American landmarks, like my own Golden Gate Bridge, rather than God’s word.

Screenshot (48)I enter into the gym, which seems to be transformed into a sanctuary of sorts. There are eight rows of blue folding chairs in the middle, facing a stage decorated with dark black fabric. There are six rows of the same folding chairs angled at the stage to the left and right of the center set-up. The stage is home to a large drum set, a drum set encased in a clear walls. There are other instruments on the stage, as well, including a keyboard, two guitars, and a bass. Above the stage, aligned left and aligned right are two large monitors that rotate through the following five slides: “Welcome Home,” “Download the True North App,” a compass kids advertisement, a website advertisement, and an Instagram handle.

Most of the congregation appears to be in their 20’s or 30’s, and most attendees are couples. There are a few families throughout the church, but many take their children to a classroom just down the hall from the gym. Those sitting in the folding chairs talk over coffee. Most of the seats are still open, and groups of young people stand around the room in animated conversation, conversation full of laughter and leaning. I am the only person sitting alone.

I feel a little awkward, but I brush this feeling aside. It’s most likely because I am unfamiliar with the service and the set up.

Music plays, the current song a song by Echo Smith.Multicolored lights flash designs on the white cinder block walls. The overhead lighting is off.

At 11 am, a countdown begins on the screens, and Judah, the creative Pastor of True North, begins talking to the congregation, inviting them to share in the worship experience that True North has to offer. The displayed experiences on the screen show baptisms, youth group, church set up, and Compass Kids classes. The soundtrack of the video is so loud that I can feel the music vibrating in my chest and through my feet.

The service begins with three songs, and all the members of the congregation stand and sing along with the projected lyrics. Hands are raised. Feet tap. Bodies bounce up and down, as though they are channeling a spirit outside themselves.

The music stops, and we all sit down. A video begins playing, introducing the More Initiative, a tithing initiative that will help the church develop its own permanent location. Then, church announcements are shared, a baby is dedicated to the church, and the baptism schedule is discussed.

That’s when the congregation is invited to stand and greet each other. As I do so, Judah, a former classmate of mine, approaches, taps me on the shoulder, and then opens his arms for a hug. “I’m so glad you made it,” he shares. Then, he sees I am sitting alone. “I will sit with you. You shouldn’t have to sit alone.”

He sits in the empty folding chair next to me as his brother, the pastor, gives a sermon on faith and purpose. He interacts during the sermon with “yes” and “come on” with every sentence he finds insightful.Screenshot (49)

The service ends with a song, and then the lights come on. “Well, what did you think of all this?” he asks, motioning around what feels like a set design in the cafeteria-auditorium mix.

I think for a moment, and then I am reminded of On Looking by Alexandra Horowitz, a book that shows us “how to see the spectacle of the ordinary.” I wonder what he can tell me about all of the items they set up. I was still struggling to see the space as more than the place I used to eat my lunch in the middle of the afternoon.

“It’s different,” I said. “Very different. I’ve never seen a church with screens before. I think that if more churches had those, people would come more often. We’re so used to looking at screens.”

He laughs. Then he shakes his head. “People think that, you know. They think if their church just had this stuff, more people would come. But this stuff really isn’t different than anything else. I mean, yea, we put the lyrics on a screen, but other churches have the lyrics in accessible song books. I just see it as my job. I’m the creative pastor. God is the ultimate creator. Everything I try to do is just a way to channel his creativity. I try to make the normal be more of an honor to Him, but our church in Haddonfield, it doesn’t have any of this and it has 160 loyal attendees every Sunday at 10. It’s not about what you have. It’s about the experience.”

He points to the seats. No, I look again. He’s not signaling to the emptying seats but motioning toward the people filling them. “This. These. These people are the church. This building isn’t the church. Church isn’t about a building. You know, my mother-in-law can’t seem to wrap her head around a church that’s mobile.” He’s explaining that while a church provides a foundation for many, a church doesn’t actually need a foundation. I’m reminded of the Francis Nurse’s claim in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, in which he says, “My wife is the very brick and mortar of this church.” The congregation is the foundation; the people are the ones that can be relied on for guidance, for direction, for comfort, for prayer. The building itself doesn’t do anything. The building is just a place for the church to come together.

I ask about the band whose music served as book ends during the service. I say something about how it must be cool to have rock music at church that people enjoy singing along to, but he corrects me, albeit politely, informing me that there are many misconceptions about that, as well. Worship bands aren’t just about the music. The participants are church leaders, directing and engaging worship, channeling the spirit for others.

I nodded, taking in his perspective, seeing the pieces less individually and more as components of one whole. And then, unexpectedly, his words became more than words. An old friend, a friend I hadn’t seen in years approached, “Lauren? Is that you? How’s it going? It’s been a while!”

We talked for a bit, and he said he was glad to see me there. He told me that attending this church has been one of the best choices he made. I saw the church as the people in it.

The cafeteria was more than just a cafeteria for me then, if only just a moment or two.

It was a unique experience, and I would be interested in returning to try and see more of these things for myself.

Images courtesy of @truenorth_church (Instagram)

A Prodigal Catholic Returns: Field Notes, Transcriptions, and Scene

On Sunday, March 22, I made the decision to go to church. It was the first time since I was 16 that I went without a death or memorial service dictating obligatory attendance.

I entered the church and moved to the far left. Why? Comfort. That was the area I always sat in when I attended church as a CCD requirement. I looked at this location as a way to join the general population without feeling like I would be in the spotlight or the priest’s direct line of view. I genuflected and entered the pew as though I were a regular and looked around, taking in the scenery. I sketched the church to familiarize myself with the different aspects of the church and altar.

In the time remaining before the start of the mass, I jotted down some notes and observations about those surrounding me. I knew I shouldn’t feel too guilty, as it wasn’t as though I was ignoring the priest or something, but I couldn’t shake the feeling. I thought everyone would suspicious of the woman hunched over a tiny blue notebook, scribbling furiously before church began.

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Transcriptions

Pages 1 and 2 of Notes

Timagehere are 90 rows of pews in the church. Two straight, altar-facing rows line the sides of the tiled center aisle. A baptismal font and a table holding the offering stand halfway up the center aisle. There are two angled rows on either side of the two straight rows. The front of the church is raised three steps of above the rest..

At the center of the raised section of the church is a large, white, marble altar.  Behind this, hanging on the red brick wall is a large crucifix. To right right of the crucifix, if looking at the front of the church, is a statue of Mary and Joseph. To the left of the crucifix is the tabernacle holding the Eucharist. Above the gold tabernacle is a lit candle in a red jar; this candle hangs from the the ceiling on a gold chain. The lectern is diagonally between the altar and the tabernacle. Three large chairs are in a neat row diagonally between the altar and the statue of Mary and Joseph. The center chair is the tallest, and the two smaller chairs frame it.

Page 3 and 4 of Notes

A majority of the attendees seem to be about 50 or older. About four or five families with kids sit around me. There are big gaps in between groups of people, and thereimage seem to be about 20 in my section and the row of pews to my left. There are several rows in front of me that are completely empty thought a few people on the other end of the pew in which I am sitting.

In terms of dress, it seems as though everyone under about age 21 is wearing a hoodie or sweatshirt.

In regard to the families, there are three dads alone with children. The largest family in my immediate vicinity has three teenager daughters.

The left side of the church is more full than the right.

The church balances out a bit as many people arrive after bells signaling the time is now 5:00. The back half of all rows in the church is nearly full. There are still only two or three people sitting in each of the front rows.

The procession of religious leaders in the church is led by two young boys who appear to be in about 3rd or 4th grade, and they are dressed in altar server robes.

At this point in the service, there are two people still kneeling and praying. They both appear to be over 30. One of the women is alone; the other is with what appears to be her husband.

About five minutes into the service, families are still arriving. A family of four sits a few rows in front of me. The woman and the man kneel to pray, but the two children with them do not.

Pages 5 and 6

The few adults that are still entering the church stop to bless themselves with holy water as they enter, but the children who enter walk by the basin without stopping or turning back. The adults then genuflect but the children do not.

imageFather Gormley and Deacon O’Brien say the mass.

The first reading is read by an older parishoner dressed in a suit. He reads quickly and steps down.

The responsorial psalm is sung by one singer. She is accompanied by one guitar player.

Five people in my section of the church have missiles open and follow along with the songs and readings.

Three teenage girls enter together without an older adult after the first reading. Only one of the three kneels and bows her head in prayer before sitting in the pew. The others sit right away.

A father and elementary-school age daughter enter while the gospel is being read.

The priest, who is wearing robes of purple, black, and gold, gives the homily. His voice is booming, and he has stepped down onto the main floor. While he speaks, many parishioners, especially those sitting near the front, look down. They do not look at the priest.

The two teenagers sitting in front of me are not accompanied by adults.

Page 7

After leaving church, I discussed the mass with Mark, who attended with me. He is Baptist and has never attended a Catholic mass. I asked imagehim to share his thoughts on the service and how it compared to the services he was used to.

He said the mass had less scripture reading than his own church services. It also moved quicker. There were less prayers, but he isn’t used to the recitation of specific prayers that the mass involves. He had expected more people to sing than were actually singing.

The space was difference because it was bigger than his own church. His church also doesn’t have a crucifix at the front. They have a plain cross.

In terms of the church attendees, he was surprised by the casual dress. He said no one at his church would come in anything less formal than khakis and a collared shirt.

Scene

The bells above the church toll five times. As the family enters the foyer, they see the procession of altar servers, deacon, and priest moving up the center aisle. The mother pushes her children gently ahead and points to the left of the church as they glance over their shoulder. They turn after crossing through the doorway, skirting past the basin of holy water, and make it to the diagonal column of pews before realizing their parents are a little further behind them.

The parents had stopped to make the sign of the cross over themselves before finding a seat. The daughter seems a bit flustered by this. She’s tapping her foot as she waits for her parents to catch up.

When the parents meet them at the start of the column of pews, the mom points her children in a direction again, using her index finger to indicate an empty pew halfway to the front of the church. The children walk, their foot steps heavy. They sit down as soon as they enter the pew and rather than walking down until they reach the spot in which they’d like to sit, they slide all the way down. The buttons on the back of their jeans making a slight grating sound.

The dad, genuflecting on his right knee, shakes he head side to side, as though he his disappointed in their distracting movement. He scoots into the row, followed by his wife, who drops the cushioned kneeler. Both she and her husband kneel, heads bowed over their folded hands, saying their prayers.

After a minute or two, the couple settles back into the pew alongside their children. The mother looks to her right and gives the kids a look, perhaps to suggest they should be paying closer attention to the reading. The look must have worked because then all four are facing the lectern, and all I can see are the backs of their heads.

Reflections

Returning to church while knowing this blog post would be forthcoming was more troubling than expected. I felt like I had to choose between trying to be aware of my surroundings or listening to the readings, songs, and homily. By the time the mass got to the first reading, I resolved not to write down anything else and instead opted to make jottings if I had any when the service was over. I think this went well enough, and I didn’t feel like I was being rude.

Something I’m really interested in after attending this mass is generational differences. The clothing, actions, and apparent attitudes of the assorted age groups seem to vary drastically. I wonder what opinions of their counterparts these various age brackets would have. I also think this gets back to the tradition aspect of religion and church.

I will also be going to a Baptist church service before the end of the month, so as interesting as I found it to have a discussion about comparisons, I’ll be interested to make some comparisons myself.

College Students, CRI, and Spiritual Struggles: Drilling down through the Sources

Zotero1

The first set of sources in my Zotero library

Millennials’ involvement in church has been one motivating factor in my spiritual journeys research. When I came across an article titled “Religion as Bridging or Bonding Social Capital: Race, Religion and Cross-racial Interaction for College Students” my interest was piqued. The title suggests that college students and their social interactions can benefit from an understanding of religious beliefs.

The article asserts that colleges have a responsibility to promote cross-racial interaction and cultivate an environment in which students from diverse backgrounds meaningfully engage with each other. The authors of the study recognize that structural, organizational, and social factors, i.e. religious affiliation, influence student interaction. Religion, interestingly, seems to be the most segregated aspect of American daily life both on and off campuses; Parks and Bowman cite research, particularly that of Bryant, that implies participation in religious communities has a negative relationship with diversity-related behaviors. Such organizations instead promote bonding of likeness. (Park & Bowman, 2015).

Zotero2

The second set of sources in my Zotero library

Consequently, the goal of this quantitative survey study is to examine whether religious observance, religious world view, and participation in religious student organizations affects cross-racial interaction (CRI). This is significant because college tends to be first opportunity for  young adults to interact with and make connections between different racial/ethnic groups.

The study presented the following five hypotheses:

  1. Participation in campus religious groups is associated with lower CRI.
  2. Students attending a religious group with a majority of the same race would have lower CRI than groups with a more diverse majority.
  3. Students who identify as Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish, or Hindu (religious minorities) would have higher CRI than the Protestant reference group.
  4. Students with higher religiosity will have lower CRI.
  5. There will be a negative relationship between religious activity and white students (Park and Bowman, 2015).

The study found that students belonging to religious minorities all had higher CRIs than Protestants. The authors were surprised to find that significant effects between religious group participation and CRI were lacking. Instead, religion seems to make it easier for students to create bridges between students of different races (Park and Bowman, 2015).

Because this study seemed to reflect a positive conclusion in regard to millennials and religiosity, I chose to investigate more of Alyssa Bryant’s study, a study Park and Bowman seemed to use as a counterargument and jumping off point for their study.  I found “The Impact of Campus Context, College Encounters, and Religious/Spiritual Struggle on Ecumenical Worldview Development” through the university online database.

This quantitative study of 14,274 college students analyzes how students develop an ecumenical worldview.The study used a four page survey to examine the extent to which religious/spiritual struggles mediate the relationship between campus contexts/college encounters and worldview. The findings illustrate that college experiences bring students into contact with religion, spirituality, and diversity in classroom and co-curricular settings. More challenging experiences tend to provoke religious and spiritual struggles, and while the struggles “stimulate acceptance of, interest in, and understanding of others…,” the experiences may cause lower levels of psychological well-being, physical health, and self-esteem (Bryant, 2011).

While Bryant’s article illustrates what might help students of different backgrounds and religions relate while on campus, it doesn’t clearly define spiritual struggles. The term interests me so I went to the references page and found the following article: “A Phenomenological Analysis of College Students’ Spiritual Struggles.”

This qualitative research study expands upon a 2008 quantitative research study that identifies correlative factors of students’ spiritual struggles. This follow-up study used interviews, transcriptions, and journal reflections to define and classify the spiritual struggles of college students.

The study found that spiritual struggles of college students can be summarized in one word: CONTRAST. Bryant, Walker, and Luzader write, “At their core, spiritual struggles were steeped in the conflicting, contradictory, and paradoxical aspects of life….Spiritual struggles revolved around deeply felt dualities in the most fundamental aspects of the human experience.”  As the chart from page 60 of the study reveals, religious struggles of young twentysomethings arise out of questions sparked by new experiences or new interpretations of previous experiences.

image

Millennials may be confused about church, but had I read the sources from bottom to top, instead of top to bottom, I would have recognized that positive experiences arise for this young generation out of religious questioning and exploration. Hope and faith may not be as lost as I had assumed they were. Faith, instead, is a starting point for relationships and connections as long as this generation stops being afraid to learn about it and discuss it.

References

Bryant, Alyssa N. “The Impact of Campus Context, College Encounters, and Religious/Spiritual Struggle on Ecumenical Worldview Development.” Research in Higher Education 52.5 (2011): 441–459. Web. 4 Apr. 2015.

Park, Julie J., and Nicholas A. Bowman. “Religion as Bridging or Bonding Social Capital Race, Religion, and Cross-Racial Interaction for College Students.” Sociology of Education 88.1 (2015): 20–37. Web. 5 Mar. 2015.

Rockenbach, Alyssa Bryant, Coretta Roseboro Walker, and Jordan Luzader. “A Phenomenological Analysis of College Students’ Spiritual Struggles.” 53.1 (2012): 55–75. Web. 4 Apr. 2015.

Post Interview Reflections: Student Steven (Online Interview 1)

If anyone had told me when I first started this blog and this research task that I would have made a contact with a student in Indonesia, I would have scoffed. It would have seemed so unlikely to me that something so borderless could occur in my life. Alas, I’m glad no one had told me that ahead of time because I would currently be eating my words.

I interviewed student Steven Djie, a fellow WordPress blogger, via e-mail on Friday, March 27. I sent him a series of ten questions after having several previous e-mail exchanges about his religious beliefs. My goal was to learn what drew a teenager to be so close to God and so in tune with his faith. Within a few days, I received answers back to the ten questions I had asked, and all were insightful. I know I shouldn’t have been shocked that they came from a 17 year old because I have grown accustomed to reading his well-developed, thought-provoking blog posts, but Steven’s keen eye for understanding at such a young age continues to amaze me.

The Findings

Steven doesn’t attribute his faith or relationship with God to any particular moment. Instead, he attributes it to the work of the Holy Spirit. Being that he is Chinese in Indonesia, as is his family, he feels like Christianity wasn’t necessarily a choice but an aspect of his family history. He develops his faith by attending a Christian school where most of the subjects are studied through a Christian lens. This was something new to me, as I didn’t necessarily know there was a Christian way to study things like economics. In addition to the regular subjects, they have sermon-like lessons and worship sessions at least three times a week.

Outside of school, Steven studies the Bible, prays, and listens to and writes worship music. For him, it is a way to write about life and minister at the same time. Many of his friends kept blogs, and for this reason, Steven also started blogging about his faith. Writing the blog has helped him develop and further his Bible study.

Overall, Steven feels that his biggest difficulty is approval. He sometime feels conflicted about wanting to fit in with friends and following his relationship with God. He has said, though, that his faith tends to win in these situations.

Successes

I believe I asked a variety of questions which enabled me to get interesting and dynamic answers. Being that Steven is a blogger, he provided thorough written responses through e-mail. I could also pick up his voice through his writing, much like I can when I read his blog posts.

What might be done differently?

InterViews by Brinkmann and Kvale suggest that one measurement of interview quality is the extent of spontaneous, rich, and relevant answers (192). While I received rich and relevant answers, the e-mail format of the online interview kept the spontaneity at a minimum. Especially after completing successful face-to-face interviews, the unique twists and turns of conversation were absent from the e-mail exchange. This could be simulated more through repeated back-and-forth e-mail messages, though with our time difference and schedules, this level of constant communication was simply not possible.

Questions that Remain and Moving Forward

Being that Steven is from Indonesia and a very Christian school, I wonder how possible it would be to generalize his experiences here in the United States.  I would like to speak with a high school student from America about their experiences with Christianity and the conflict between a relationship with God and a relationship with friends to see if the struggles parallel Steven’s and seem to be more of a universal phenomenon for teens rather than a singular experience.

Questions and Responses

1. Your blog post mentions that you had a wavering relationship with God prior to this year. What occurred that pushed you to God for good this time around? Was it an event? A conversation? A book? Please explain.

You know I think that everything that I am and have become is all the work of the Holy Spirit. It really isn’t my doing or my desire for God. No one desires God (says Romans). So i’d have to say nothing new/different occurred to me that really made me draw closer to God. Because always, it’s the work of the Holy Spirit Himself. But I guess what’s harder is not maintaining the relationship itself. I think what enabled me to really maintain the relationship is because I have decided to deal with certain sin-strongholds that I’ve held on for years.

2. I know that the majority of Indonesians practice Islam. Why do you personally practice Christianity as opposed to Islam? Do you think your geographical location in the country impacted your choice? If so, how?

My family is Chinese (race). In Indonesia, the people who practice Islam are mostly native Indonesians. The Chinese people usually practice Christianity and Buddhism in Indonesia. It is very rare to see a Muslim Chinese Indonesian. I don’t think my geographical location really impacted my choice. It’s all family.

3. You mentioned in our e-mail conversations that you attend a Christian school. Elaborate on this descriptor of “Christian” school. What is it that makes your school a Christian school?

My school adapts a classical education-approach. For the maths, english, sciences, we use Cambridge curriculum, which is the most popular curriculum used in Asia aside from International Baccalaureate (IB) <– maybe since you’re teacher you’d know that. But we have subjects such as History and English Literature which we don’t use the Cambridge curriculum. We study Lit and History and Indonesian Civics from a Christian approach, connecting with Biblical principles etc. Every morning we’d have ‘Chapel’. It’s like homeroom. We would have a praise and worship time. Then, a Christian teacher would teach some Christian values, almost like a sermon in church. This year, the theme is the Ten Commandments. So, each commandment is the topic of the chapel time for one whole month, with the exceptions of special times such as Christmas or Easter.

4. Additionally, in an e-mail, you mentioned that you find it challenging to live out your faith through your actions. What do you think your biggest difficulty is in terms of practicing your faith? Why do you think this is so challenging?

The biggest difficulty is the approval idols. I want to do good, but sometimes with the perverted friends that I have, it’s hard to do it. It’s all about approval. I’m a normally introverted person, and I tend to seek approval a lot. But I’m trying to kill those idols.
5. What do you think are some of the ways God has shown what you describe as “love moments”?

I’m teased a lot at school. Sometimes my friends can get pretty annoying. And, in these times, I can still feel God’s protection. I can feel His assurance of deliverance. I can hear Him say that I am enough and that I don’t need to prove anything to be accepted by anyone. It’s those moments where God reminds me of His love. God is everywhere in my life.

6. You mentioned that you feel like you have a constant relationship with God. What are things that you do to maintain and cultivate that relationship?

Reading the Bible, praying, praise&worship through songs. Those three things are a must for me. Most especially reading the Bible. I think reading the Bible and praying is so important.

7. When did you first listen to worship music, and what were your first reactions to the genre?

I’ve always known worship music. As I said, my school holds praise and worship every morning for 3 days a week. But in the past I never liked them, not because they did not sound musically good, but because I thought it was so pious and weirdly religious. I think worship music reaches to the heart and if one doesn’t open up one’s heart to hearing His voice, one wouldn’t enjoy worship music at all and would try hard to avoid it.

8. How has worship music affected your faith and relationship with God?

You know worship music should never be a replacement to Bible reading. That’s what I learned. Worship music is written by people so its not and will never be the Bible. Worship music can only ‘minister’ to people. I guess at a certain degree, it helps make me feel God’s love and presence more. But not the same as when I read the Bible. As for the Worship music I write, like all the things I write, I hope to convey a message that will bless and minister to others when I sing it to them.

9. Why did you decide to start writing and performing worship music?

I’ve always been intrigued in writing songs. Taylor Swift is one of my favorite artists of all time, and she is a singer-songwriter who writes all of her songs based on her personal life. i’ve always been inspired by her. And, as for writing worship music, it kind of just came to be. I had a conversation with my cousin who also writes songs and she said how songs always convey a message and should not just be like a diary. That really inspired me. So I started uniting both my life experiences and the message I wanted to convey to people so that people can both relate to it and at the same time be ministered.

10. Why did you decide to start your blog, and how do you think it is helping develop your faith?

A lot of my friends have blogs. I’ve always loved writing, ever since I was a kid. I’ve always had a lot of things in my mind. And I knew that I need something to just pour my thoughts out on. So I created a blog. Its definitely helped remind me of for example verses that I would typically forget after several weeks or so.

Post-Interview Reflections: Rev. Randy (In Person Interview 1)

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I opened the doors to The Treehouse in Audubon, New Jersey for the second time on Friday, March 27. I was scheduled to interview the owner, Randy Van Osten, who is currently a student at Palmer Theological Seminary, pursuing a Masters in Divinity. He is also an associate pastor at Oaklyn Baptist Church in Oaklyn, New Jersey.

The interview was scheduled for 4:30, and it was only 4 pm, so I perused the menu of coffees, teas, and bakery items, many of which are fair trade and/or vegan. I settled on a cup of The Republic of Tea’s Strawberry Vanilla tea being that I have given up coffee in honor of Lent. I took the steaming cup back to a table by the front window and unloaded some items from my overloaded shoulder bag–a computer, a notebook, my field notes, and a pen. As I waited for my tea to cool, I scanned the room. In a Facebook message prior to our meeting, Randy had told me the family opened the cafe as a space where customers could feel God’s love and presences, and I wanted to see if that translated in my opinion.

I was drawn to a sign by the coffee stand and supplies, a sign that read “Mugs, Not Drugs.” I chuckled at the positive play on words. The owners definitely have a sense of humor. Additionally, the space was warm as the three baristas were singing a song together as they swept and wiped down the counters in preparation for the music event that would take place in the space later that night. I felt at home and settled in.

I must have felt more settled in than I looked because at about 4:30, I was surprised by a voice behind me. “Lauren?” the voice said. “Hi, I’m Randy. Did you need another minute before we get started?” I looked up and then quickly grabbed the books I had strewn on the chair across from me.

“Not at all,” I replied. “Please. Sit. It’s really a pleasure to me you.” I am surprised to see the figure matching the voice is wearing shorts, r sandals, a Palmer Theological Seminary t-shirt. He also has a piercing in his left eyebrow and long hair tied back with a bandanna. I feel like I have nearly forgotten that pastors can be regular people, too.

I opened my field notes book atop an outline I had made, and that’s when I began. I introduced myself and summarized my research, explaining my interest in spiritual journeys, particularly the journeys of millennials or those in their late teens and 20’s. At that moment, I could have thrown my outline into the wind because I only referred to it one time in the remaining hour of our interview.

The Findings

Our interview, thanks to my introduction, opened with a discussion about millenials in church, as this is also something Randy is researching at seminary. According to his findings, this age group seems to have an aversion to church, about 33% of this group argues this aversion is predicated by the aversion to the formal structure of services. They also want to be able to make a difference, and the church doesn’t really give them that opportunity. Many churches today operate on the system of the 3 B’s: butts, buildings, and budgets. They aren’t as much about the people as potential members would hope.

Serving as a youth pastor for the last six years, this is something Randy is working to combat. His responsibilities include teaching and fostering socialization among the younger members of the parish. He mentions that the youth group, about 35 to 40 6th graders through 12th graders, at his church “likes to have fun” when they meet from 5:45 to 7:45 on Sunday nights.

In addition to youth group, Randy has worked to develop a contemporary service, the second service at his church on Sundays that targets an audience of mainly 30-to-40-something members with kids and families. This service includes a worship band, led by Randy’s wife, Theresa, that sings original songs and worship tunes from Chris Tomlin, Matt Redman, and Hillsong United. The service also features a more interactive sermon with video clips and reenactments to keep churchgoers more engaged and interested. He notes that in 20 minutes time, only 10% of the church, the audible learners, would be able to remember a purely spoken sermon. Most people need a more experiential learning enviornment.

Randy acknowledges that this contemporary service may not be enough to draw millenials back to the church, suggesting that we “don’t do church the way it’s supposed to be done.”  Many church goers hang up their faith when they leave, simply going through cultural motions. Church should really include building a sense of community among believers, a community in which they could share meals and share life. They could read more of the Bible at home independently and discuss. They could go out and do things that serve the town. Randy stated, “If churches want to be seen, they need to go out and love on their community. Love is appealing.” This is why he takes the youth group out on one to two service opportunities a month, including visits at the Ronald McDonald House and Urban Promise Academy in Camden, New Jersey.

On a personal level, Randy has been actively involved in church life from the time he was a small child. His father worked for the church, and Randy was in Bell Choir, Youth Choir, and Teen Choir. He also attended Sunday School, church, and youth group once a week from the time he was in Kindergarten through the time he was a senior in high school. Astonishingly, he received a calling to be a pastor at the young age of 13 as he listened to a family he was friends with speak at Camp Lebanon with his youth group. They had returned from four years of missionary work, and Randy explained that he felt God was speaking directly to his heart through this family. He felt that God was telling him he needed to be involved and be a leader.

From that point, he never questioned his faith, though Randy admits to leading a double life at some points, particularly during college in which he was torn between God’s ways and the temptations of the ways of the world. He attended a Christian college, but there was still peer pressure in this environment, a statement also made by Jefferon Bethke in his book Jesus>Religion. Randy, however, acknowledges the importance of those experiences because he feels he can relate to people more and serve them better.

To maintain his faith now, outside of church, Randy prays, reads the Bible, and the Book of Common Prayer of Ordinary Radicals regularly. He also does a devotional one to two times per week with his two young sons and with his wife, a practice that involves scripture reading and prayer. He used to play music, but between school and running his shop, he simply doesn’t have time time anymore.

The Treehouse

I was still interested in what Randy meant when he wanted the shop to be a place with the presence of God’s love, so this is the moment of the interview where I returned to my outline and asked what he meant by this. The answer I received was awesome and in-depth, spanning nearly four pages of my field notes book.

He began by explaining that he wanted the interactions between the staff and customers to be likened to that of family and embody a familial atmosphere. Randy explained that God can move any way he wants in the space. It could mean someone just enjoys themselves to someone learning about faith in one of the many Bible study or church initiate groups that meet there weekly or bi-weekly.

With the recent news controversy about the Religious Freedom Act now effective in Indiana would have any bearing over the shop’s customers or target clientele, but Randy just laughed briefly and replied, “Jesus doesn’t discriminate. Not serving someone is crazy.” He explained that The Treehouse has suffered a bit from the stigma that might surround a Christian-owned business when they were located in Collingswood as opposed to Audubon. They were believed to be an anti-gay business, though this was never true, and were rivaled by another coffee shop in town owned by a gay couple.

About a year ago, a customer entered the shop with his daughter. He said she had been invited to a birthday party there and asked if he would be welcome in the shop, as he was gay. Randy said his wife comforted the man and rid him of any doubt that his attendance would be a problem. As Randy retells the story, the man cried tears of love and acceptance. Furthermore, there have been small services and weddings for gay couples at The Treehouse. The rumors, which followed them briefly on the Audubon forum, have been annoying to Randy, but overall, they don’t seem to have affected his business.

Expectations vs. Reality

I was so nervous going into this interview that I over-prepared and had more than 15 pre-written questions, categorized by topics of interest in my research. I arrived so early, thinking I was going to be late. I was worried I was going to be disjointed and jumbled, jumping topic to topic to make sure I thoroughly covered  Looking back, none of those nerves were necessary. The interview was comfortable and conversational, in addition to being informative. It turned out that simply sharing the scope of my research and interest was enough to give my interviewee guidance in terms of topics to ponder and discuss. I am glad that I practically through my questions away and didn’t read from them.

I am glad, though, that I prepared them, because they did give me a mental checklist to ensure a thorough and complete discussion.

Questions and Next Steps

Going forward from my interview with Randy, who has so graciously answered to meet again if necessary to answer additional questions, I might inquire about some of the church groups that meet at The Treehouse and see if I can get in touch with any of their leaders. In addition to new potential interview subjects, this could lead to a looking or outing, if I am able to attend one of the group’s meetings at the cafe.

I would also like to do a bit of scholarly research on statistics about millenials in church to compare to the figures and information Randy supplied and provide additional insight to his comments. It must be a very broad topic if it is something he can cover in his masters research.

Successes and Room for Improvment

I think one of my greatest successes was my use of “on-the-fly” questioning techniques from InterViews by Brinkmann and Kvale. In my introduction, I started with introductory questions, asking Randy to expand upon things he stated. Then, as his answers expanded, I asked follow up questions and pausing after his responses to see if he would share more. I asked a few specifying questions, such as those about his services, youth group practices, and personal practices. Finally, I ended with direct questions, specifically the question about being a Christian business owner (160-2). This varied use of questioning enabled the interview to span the scope of nearly all of my research questions without becoming dull or routine.

Also, being different religions, we got into some cross-culture discussion and comparison, which was interesting and engaging, adding a secondary dynamic to the conversation. I was glad I had done some research on things like worship bands, which helped me understand what he was talking about a little bit more.

I almost wish, though, that I had stopped trying to connect my experiences as much as I did. I feel like he might have said more if I hadn’t spent as much time trying to relate with a personal experience to many of his comments. A bit of this enhanced the interview, but I worried I was doing too much.

All in all, I really enjoyed the experience, and I’m looking forward to additional interviews I will conduct.

Schedule Revision: Field Notes, Interviews, and Lookings

Last week, I posted a tentative schedule for my research plans. That schedule was certainly ambitious, and while I have been having a wonderful time meeting with and talking to interesting people, I am now backlogged with so much information. I have been trying to process it and analyze it all in drafts of transcriptions, but I am finding I need a bit more time to work through things with a level of thoroughness with which I feel comfortable and prepared.

Therefore, I have revised the schedule to include new anticipated post-interview blog post dates and updated some TBD dates for interviews.

Screenshot (47)Also, I have three other blog posts in the works, and I am really excited about each of them. Over the course of the next week, you can expect to see the following:

  1. An account of my boyfriend’s first trip to Catholic mass
  2. A presentation of the religious freedom act and this lovely blogger’s opinions on it
  3. An overview of Knox Online Seminary, a page which Facebook so kindly suggested to m

Stay tuned, and thank you for reading!

Pre-Interview Planning: Online Interview 2

I will be interviewing Gretchen Grossman-Mobley, the author of the four-and-a-half-star rated book Ring Around the Rosary, through e-mail Saturday, March 28.

The Background

I had been reading Jesus>Religion by Jefferson Bethke after finding his YouTube video by chance. To remain engaged in my reading, I was live-tweeting the text as I came across passages I believed were interesting or relevant to my research. I tweeted a photo of the following paragraph:

I hear a lot of people say that the fear of death and the fear of public speaking are two of the main fears in my generation, but I disagree. I think it’s the fear of silence. We refuse to turn off our computers, turn off our phone, log off Facebook, and just sit in silence, because in those moments we might actually face up to who we really are. We fear silence like it’s an invisible monster, gnawing at us, ripping us open, and showing us our dissatisfaction. Silence is terrifying (Bethke).

I had chosen this passage because I felt that it conveyed an issue I talk about at length in my daily life, be it at work with students or at home with friends.

The tweet was favG-headshotorited and replied to twice; one reply came from @ggretchenmobley, one of my new Twitter followers.

I didn’t recognize the name, so I clicked to her profile in attempt to try and learn a little bit about her. I was pleasantly surprised and intrigued when I saw the following in her bio: “Teacher ~ Mom ~ A sweetheart calls me Oma. Former Nun ~ Traveler to NYC & SF ~ RING AROUND THE ROSARY that reads like a .” When I began my research, I assumed I would have a very easy time finding former churchgoers who no longer practice their religion and/or do not believe in God. However, everyone I had gotten in contact with up to the time Gretchen and I connected had been religious and in the process of strengthening a relationship with God. A former nun would certainly help give scope and perspective to my project.

I clicked through her website immediately, looking for more information about her story and book. This quick digital journey led me to learring-around-rosary-covern that she had entered a convent in 1961 but left five years later. After leaving, she was married, had children, attended college, and became a teacher.

I contacted her to see if I could interview her both through her website and via Twitter, and she replied back almost immediately.

Her book, Ring around the Rosary, is a memoir that begins with her as a child, contemplating what it would mean to become a nun. Then, as a 17 year old, she makes the decision to join the convent.

The Method

Because Gretchen and I have been communicating back and forth already through e-mail, we have elected to conduct our online interview through e-mail, as well. While I am again a bit saddened by the fact that the e-mail form will produce, as Brinkmann and Kvale write in InterViews, “a reflective distance without cues from bodies and spoken language,” Gretchen is a writer, so I have no fear that her responses will contain both “rich and detailed responses” that are the lifeblood of qualitative interviewing (174-5).

The Questions

I plan on starting with ten questions, as pictured in the screenshot below. I am also in the process of reading her memoir, and it is likely that the text itself will answer many questions a raise others.  I am hoping that I will have the opportunity to send additional, follow-up questions via e-mail at that time.

Images courtesy of Gretchen Grossman-Mobley.

 Screenshot (46)