True North: a New Look at My Old Stomping Grounds

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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)

Advertisements

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)

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

Pre-Interview Planning: In-Person Interview 1

I will be interviewing Randy from Southern New Jersey on Friday, March 27 at his coffee shop, The Treehouse, in Audubon.

The Background 

Our third week of class this semester was canceled, but Elaine, Kristen, and I used the time to complete some work ahead of time for class. We met at The Treehouse to enjoy the coffee and the ambiance while we worked. About an hour in to our meeting, a group had formed in the space behind us, and they were watching a video via a large projector screen. We halted our conversation for a few minutes to see if we could figure out what the video the group was watching was about, and we begin to hear religious dialogue.

That’s when Elaine, a frequent customer at the shop, had a mini-epiphany. She said that she thought they were a group from a seminary school, and that she thinks they met there weekly. She also exclaimed–she couldn’t believe she had forgotten–that the owner of the shop was a youth pastor at his church and she believed he was still studying at seminary school.

I got in touch with Randy, the owner, through Facebook, and after hearing about his experiences, I knew he would be a perfect interviewee.

Around the time Randy was 13, he said that he felt God calling him to become to serve Him by working as a pastor. Eight years ago, he attended seminary for one year, and there he met the pastor of Oaklyn Baptist. Randy worked with this pastor as a youth pastor for seven years and was named Associate pastor last summer.

He shared that he and his wife, Tina, opened The Treehouse so that there would be a place people could feel God’s love and peace without it being shoved down their throat. They seem to enjoy running the small but warm, welcoming, and family-oriented business.

The Topics

In my research proposal, I mentioned that I had questions about millenials and their church going habits.This is something I hope Randy can shine a bit of light on, as he had been raised in a deeply faithful family and spent three to four nights a week at church in his youth. I’d be interested to see what it was that kept him so actively engaged in the church community. Adding to this topic, I would like to know more about what it was like to receive a calling from God about a path for one’s life, especially at such a young age. I wonder if it would be something obvious or subtle; after all, I’ve heard the phrase “a calling” many times, but I don’t have a clear picture of what that might mean.

As a student, the idea of schooling in preparation for becoming a minister is fascinating to me. I plan to ask Randy about the classes and lessons he had while at seminary. It might be interesting to see how it compares to a secular college experience, particularly in terms of practicality and applicability. I know teaching school was highly theoretical and not as practical as a teacher candidate might hope. I’m curious to see if this is a transferrable phenomenon.

Because he is a youth pastor, I’d also like to hear some of the ways he adapts messages to help engage and reach a younger audience. I wonder if this would include events outside of the weekly church service.

Finally, I would like to see if he can take me through The Treehouse and share some of the ways he feels the elements of the business reflect God’s love.

The Method

I will be preparing an outline based on the topics featured in the section above, and each item in the outline will have a list of potential questions to ask. The outline will have focus, which Brinkmann and Kvale mention as a major characteristic of a qualitative interview in InterViews: Learning the Craft of Qualitative Research Interviewing. The topics above focus on youth in church, which is a topic in which I have been extremely interested since the start of this research project. This will keep the interview from being too scripted but also too nondirective (34). I believe it will prompt my interviewee to share what he finds most important, and, as he is an expert in this area of the field, I am excited by the prospect of new information he might share with me.

I have already explained the purpose of the interview to Randy, as I included the details in my original introduction, but I don’t necessarily want to get to The Tree House tomorrow and start asking questions. In InterViews, Brinkmann and Kvale suggest that an interviewer can engage in a funnel-shaped interview, an interview that features a roundabout approach with indirect questions until the purpose is revealed later in the interview (156-7). I would like to try and start a general, more roundabout conversation with Randy before I jump into the questions, even though he already knows the purpose of the interview, because I want to work to establish a rapport of comfort and interest. This way, the interviewee will have a grasp of me, the interviewer, so that he can feel comfortable to talk freely and expose his experiences. Brinkmann and Kvale recommend this in InterViews (154), and they suggest that this can be established by showing interest, understanding, and respect for what the interviewee is saying.

I am a stranger, and I know that I would be nervous if a stranger were asking me personal questions about my religious beliefs.

Final Thoughts

Am I nervous? Extremely. This is the first interview I have had to conduct since I wrote for The Whit during my freshman year of Rowan. I used to rehearse interviews and phone calls that I would have to make and my palms would sweat through the process.

Knowing that I’m going into this with a plan, but a plan that is not set in stone, is nervous, but I know that I am taking a risk to develop my interviewing skills.

Practice makes perfect, after all.

Wish me luck!

Kendrick Lamar: Rapper or Vessel?

The senior cheerleaders on the team I coach were the first ones to introduce me to Kendrick Lamar. They asked if we could put his song “i” into our pep rally mega mix. I listened to the free clip available in the iTunes store and said it sounded good. When the girls brought the mix cd to practice, my heart almost exploded into my chest. There was some language coming out of the speakers in our high school gym that was much too explicit for me to have approved. I labored for hours to censor the swear words out of the mix without distorting the sound too much. I was sweating, but I was successful. All of the students loved the song and the routine.

Now, with this experience in mind, imagine my shock when I saw that Revelant Magazine tweeted a link to an article titled “Kendrick Lamar: All I am is a Vessel, Doing His Work.” Um, there’s no way bknation_Kendrick-Lamar-hoodie.jpgthat this could be the same Kendrick Lamar who was rapping about the the mother “effers” who doubted him. Why would someone who uses that language be calling himself God’s vessel?  My mind went back to media debate from a few years ago, started when Kathy Griffin won an Emmy and declared she wanted to thank everybody but God. Huffpost Live discussed this claim and the thanks to God that celebrities give after winning awards, a video in which Gospel music producer John Murray states,  “I just want your work to be at least church appropriate. If you can’t necessarily perform your work or at least go to church without feeling like a hooker in church, I think maybe you shouldn’t be thanking God.” I felt like Murray should be sharing this statement with Lamar.

Then, I clicked on to read Relevant’s article. The article was short, only two paragraphs in length, but it linked to a profile of Lamar the New York Times published today. The profile, seemingly purposed to address the spiritual and politic implications of his new album, To Pimp a Butterfly, shares the key aspects of his spiritual journey and relationship with God. As it turns out, Lamar considers himself to be “saved,” thanks to a grandmother of one of his teenage friends in Compton, California approached him in a grocery store parking lot following the murder of one of Lamar’s friends and asked if he accepted God. He goes so far as to call the woman an “angel for [he and his friends].”

Just because Lamar considers himself to be save, he maintains his humanity and recognizes that he is more susceptible to sin. This new album was a way for him to explore, reflect, and share the stories of his struggle. Joe Coscarelli, the author of the Times article, writes “[Fame] brought only more opportunities for sin and self-doubt, an internal chaos reflected not only in Mr. Lamar’s intricate stories but also in vigorous jazz- and funk-inflected production that builds on the smoother West Coast sounds of his debut.” Okay, so now, maybe  I can see how he would be working as a vessel. He’s sharing his constant struggle to do the right thing. Just because he isn’t what one would consider saintly doesn’t mean that he can’t be working to serve God.

As the picture to left of this picturuseyoue, which I conveniently found in my Facebook newsfeed when brainstorming for this post (coincidence?), reminds us, a servant of God doesn’t have to be perfect. If God found a purpose for Noah, Jacob, Moses, Rahab, and David, it doesn’t seem so absurd that he might find a purpose for a rap artist who liberally uses the “F” word. Perhaps Lamar is correct, and he can share the stories on his album because it’s part of God’s plan. Lamar is quoted in the Times article as saying, ” I know that from being on tour — kids are living by my music…My word will never be as strong as God’s word. All I am is just a vessel, doing his work.” Lamar doesn’t seem to be too prideful for his own good; in fact, he seems humble and understanding that he is a part of something bigger than himself. He seems like he wants to contribute anything that he can.

Knowing this, I went back and took a closer look at the lyrics from the song, “i.” The intro verse of this song reads, “I done been through a whole lot: trial, tribulation but I know God. The devil wanna put me in a bow tie. Pray that the holy water don’t go dry.”  The first sentence demonstrates that all of the difficulties Lamar has gone through but asserts that he has never wavered in his belief that God was with him. The second line that mentions the devil, according to Rap Genius contributors, alludes to funeral attire, as bow ties are often worn by the deceased. Because he hails from such a high crime area, it seemed likely that he would meet a fate similar to the terrible one of his friend. He looks to God though, the “holy water” to protect him and prays.

A majority of the song continues, arguing that as long as you love yourself, you can then love the seemingly dark place that is the rest of the world, as it is “illuminated by the hand of God.

As I write this, I have the song playing, and my mom is still complaining about Lamar’s language and her inability to understand any words besides the “bad ones.” I, on the other hand, have realized that maybe I shouldn’t be so quick to judge. After all, in addition to being religious and working to change the rap industry, Lamar doesn’t drink or smoke. He does say of himself, “From my perspective, I can only give you the good with the bad.”

If we can overlook some of his word choice, we can definitely see the good.

Dear Lauren: A Research-Related Surprise! Love, iTunes.

As you may know, this week, I’ve been working on a series of posts about religion, Christianity, and music. The first post touched on my experiences with music in church. The second post reflected on my impressions of three recommended worship bands. With this post, I’m examining how I’ve unknowingly been a fan of some Christian music for years and the implications of my discovery.

The Discovery

iphone-what-if-its-notNow, I’m a bit embarrassed to admit this, but my iPhone is like an additional appendage of my body. I take it everywhere with me, and I almost always have at least one app running throughout the day. Saturday night was no exception. While I was getting ready to go to a designer bag bingo fundraiser, I set my phone on the bathroom counter and turned the volume up as my iTunes Music app shuffled through my library. Relient K came on as I was steadying my hand to put on eyeliner. That’s when I heard the line.

“But the beauty of grace is that it makes life not fair.”

Good thing I hadn’t started drawing on my lid yet, because if I had, I’m certain I would have poked my own eye out in surprise. That line sounds extremely Christian, I thought as I put the eye pencil down on the counter. I started the song over and listened. Other lines from the song “Be My Escape” that struck me included the following:

  • “He’s told me the way and now I’m trying to get there.”
  • “I’m a hostage to my own humanity”
  • “I fought You for so long. I should have let You in.”

This may or may not surprise you, but in high school, I went through a major alternativRelientKRelientKe, pop punk music phase. Relient K’s Mmhmm was among one of my favorites. I had always thought “Be My Escape” was a song about a desired relationship, a song about a guy waiting to finally get the girl. Was I naive? Or just blissfully unware?

Perhaps because I’ve been researching religion and spiritual journeys lately, the lyrics so obviously reveal the speaker’s connection with God. I’m going to claim that I was unaware. As it turns out, Relient K is classified as Christian rock band.

The Findings

Formerly unbeknownst to me, Relient K’s second album, Two Lefts Don’t Make a Right…But Three Do, was nominated for a Grammy in the Best Rock Gospel album. Soon after, the band broke into the mainstream music scene in 2004 with the release of Mmhmm, an album that went on to peak in the top 15 of the Billboard 200 chart.

Adownload (1)fter sitting back and reading through lyrics of my favorite songs on Mmhmm, my favorite of the band’s albums, I feel like the band is having a conversation God rather than discussing love come and gone. For example, the song “The One I’m Waiting For” sounds, at first listen, like a song about a young guy wanting the popular girl and being rejected. “And she’s so confident that she’s what everybody wants. But nobody wants her to know that.” This girl is admired, and the singer is left in the cold, alone, tapping his foot in anticipation for the rest of eternity. “And I’m still waiting for you to be the one I’m waiting for.”

However, a more nuanced listen might suggest that the guy in the song isn’t just waiting for the girl to like him; he’s waiting for her to change, waiting for someone who would be worth waiting for. Waiting. For. Could “the one I’m waiting for” mean more than just waiting for her to be good enough for him? Could it mean waiting for her to be the one worth waiting until marriage for? Ah! Abstaining–there’s a definitive Christian value.

This discovery sparked further discoveries, as I scrolled through my iTunes library to see if anything else in my library related to Relient K.

I came across Anberlin‘s “Paperthin Hymn,” which shares the line “When life is in discord, praise ye Lord.” H220px-Paperthin_Hymnmmm.

I went to work on researching Anberlin and found that many of the band’s members call themselves Christian but that Anberlin doesn’t recognize itself as a Christian band. However, they also imply that some of their songs may have Christian messages. In an article cited on Beliefnet, lead vocalist Steven Christian (I promise, that’s his real name) shares, “I just simply write about life experiences, and when God comes out, then God comes out … But I’m also not going to inhibit that or I’m not going to try to create that feeling just to sell records to more Christians or talk about God less just to sell more records to the general market.”

The notion that their songs may also be interpreted as religious is also supported by the fact that the band was Tooth & Nail Records, a known force in the Christian music scene.

Much like Anberlin, Switchfoot, creators of the song “Meant to Live,” which declares “Dreaming about Providence and whether mice or men have second tries. Maybe we’ve been livin’ with our eyes half open. Maybe we’re bent and broken. We were meant to live for so much more,” is also often described as a Christian band. The members, also like Anberlin, work to reject this classification. Lead singer Jon Foreman, as cited on CTK Blog, states, “I am a believer. Many of these songs talk about this belief. An obligation to say this or do that does not sound like the glorious freedom that Christ died to afford me.”

Once again, I receive clarification that, yes, that so much more we are meant to live for might mean Heaven. It might mean God. The band writes and believes as they see fit, whether they have a label or not.

I not only possessed Christian music, but I enjoyed it.

The Meaning

If anything, my findings about some beloved songs from my high school days seems to have proven a few things for me.

1. Christian music isn’t something only for the highly devout. It doesn’t live in churches. It lives and breathes in our society. It’s enjoyed by Christians and non-Christians alike. It can interpreted as being about God. It can be interpreted as being about a relationship. It can be interpreted as the listener so chooses, meaning it appeals to a wide audience, and that’s key for success.

2. Christian music doesn’t have to be evangelical. It doesn’t have to be working to convert or change its audience. It can simply be about the artist sharing his or her feelings and his or her concerns. If others happen to enjoy it and relate, that is just a bonus.

3. Christians can clearly still have an edgy side. Guitar riffs, loud drums, and somewhat abrasive sounds can be found on each of these bands’ albums. It’s not something made for the stereotypical old church lady, a small Sunday school student and a teenager. It  can just appeal to the teenager.

And even though I’m not a teenager, it still appeals to me, and I will continue to rock out to it as I drive with my windows down.

True Life: I Don’t Sing at Church

Sister ActNuns, choreography, pop renditions of hymns: we’ve all seen the iconic movie Sister Act, a film that injected a declining California Catholic church with the fun of Vegas-style entertainment. Maybe if Whoopi Goldberg had been my music teacher, the title of this post would have been different.

About a month ago, my family went to mass together for the first time in years. We sat in the pew, and I took one of the Breaking Bread 2015 hymnals from the shelf in front of me. I scoped out the board of hymnal number and bookmarked the page of each song that we’d hear during the service that day.

After each song was announced, the lone singer across the church rose and the organist pounded the keys to begin. Using the book as a guide, I sang along. And, allow me to clarify: by sing, I mean mouth the words practically under my breath. To be absolute, I never sing at church. It requires a level of confidence I just have never been able to muster. I glanced around at the surrounding pew occupants. I was in similar company. Everyone’s mouth was moving, but I didn’t hear any notes. No one was responding with the Responsorial Psalm.Sister Act 2

Not until the Gospel acclamation, when I heard someone behind me belting the words, “Alleluia, alleluia, alleluiaaaa.”

Curiosity got me, and I turned around in search of the powerful voice.

That voice was small but mighty. The person behind it was young, probably no more than 8 years old. He held no hymnal; he used his hands for emphasis. He seemed to be moving because he was so moved. His mom, who must have noticed me looking, put her arm across his shoulders and smiled at me. I panicked. Did she think I was judging him? I didn’t want to give the wrong impression, so I made sure to smile back before I turned around again.

I wish I could say I was so inspired that I sang the next hymn aloud, but I did not. I had heard a powerful voice, but it wasn’t my own. I wasn’t yet moved to sing.

Then, over the weekend, blogger weallseekhope’s post about worship popped up in my reader as though to give me some musical education. I’d heard the word used as a verb, but now it was being used as a noun. Jasmine equated worship with music. She talked about a worship team, and I became curious again.Was my church the only church of voiceless singers (I mean mouth-ers)? Were there more people as passionate about singing for God as the little boy who sat behind me last month? She informed me of the following:

…we do worship during church service, usually before the sermon, to prepare everyone’s heart to listen and receive the message.

Color me intrigued. It appears music in church can more than the transitional segue for mass than I have always classified it as.

She also recommended that if I wanted to see first hand what she meant by worship that I check out bands such as Hillsong United, Citipointe, Jesus Culture, and solo artists like Kari Jobe.

This confession, then, is the first in a series of posts about music and religion. My next will share my impressions of the recommended bands and artists. If you have another that you think I absolutely must check out, please leave a name or link in the comment section!

And, of course, I can’t end a post that opened with Sister Act without a grand finale. What have you sung for Him lately?