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.

No Way! Rock bands? In Church?!

Can you make a list of all the things the above images have in common?

I tried, and I came up with the following: a stage, lights, a backdrop, drumsets, guitars, microphones, and a massive crowd. It seems as though all the pictures depict rock concerts, and, as a sit behind I computer screen, I’m wishing I was part of the fun.

If I told you one of the pictures was different from all the others, would you be able to spot the difference?

In case you can’t, the picture that displays the insignia “FOB” is a photo from one of Fall Out Boy’s, yes–the mainstream pop punk band, shows. The other three are pictures from Hillsong, Citipointe Live, and Jesus Culture worship concerts. Yes, you read that correctly. Three of the photos are photos of worship bands, and yes, I did say I wish I was a part of the fun.

This past Monday, I decided I would do a series of posts on music in the Christian community after being inspired by the blogger weallseektruth’s suggestion that I listen to some popular worships bands, specifically those mentioned above. To get myself in the right mindset, my first post in the series shared my experiences with worship music and hymns up to this point.

I have since listened to several songs by each of the artists, and I would like to share my impressions of this new-to-me genre in hopes to connect with anyone who is as curious about it as I was.

1. Hillsong United

2e53fb39858620e0ae421c57d605b485Hillsong United is global megachurch, Hillsong’s, resident worship band. The band has 13 current members, ranging from guitarists, keyboardists, and percussionists. Of the 13 band members, 5 are singers, though they are not called singers but,fittingly, worship leaders. Since 1998, the band has produced 19 albums.
Their most popular song on Spotify, with over 19 million plays, is titled “Oceans (Where my Feet May Fail)”. It was the band’s first radio single and held the top spot on Billboard’s Hot Christian Songs chart for 26 weeks.

In terms of the lyrics, the song is about putting trust in God, even in the face of the unknown. The bridge, which is sung six times consecutively, reveals the singer’s unwavering faith that there is nothing to fear when following God’s calling. “Spirit lead me where my trust is without borders. Let me walk upon the waters wherever You would call me. Take me deeper than my feet could ever wander, and my faith will be made stronger in the presence of my Savior.” Not only is there nothing to fear, but together, the trust and the challenge, the lyrics assert, will make the speaker’s faith stronger. Repeating the bridge 6 times might seem like too much to an average listener, making the song almost 9 minute long, the repetition serves to prove that the speaker’s trust and dedication.

The song, sung by worship leader Taya Smith, features soothing guitar, powerful drums, and repetitious tambourine strikes. I, however, actually prefer an acoustic version the band recorded for Relevant Magazine that I found on Youtube . It’s so calming that I listened to it for about 20 minutes on repeat while reading yesterday.’

2. Jesus Culture

Jesus Culture isBand-033 a 7-piece band that has released 7 albums in the last 7 years. They expression their purpose on their church’s website, as a band meant “to bring people into an encounter with God’s love through worship and to disciple them to transform society.” Each band member works to live a lifestyle of worship and hopes that the music will provide listeners with a unique experience of God’s work.

Their most played song on Spotify, with nearly 4 and a half million plays, is “Love Never Fails.” This song is one about God’s grace and mercy, expressing that God’s love is never-ending, even in the face of tribulations. The repeated bridge in this song proclaims, “You make all things work together for my good.” Jesus Culture seems to be focused on reminding listeners that God has a plan and that there is no need to fear. God and His love will take care of all.

My favorite aspect of this song is that it is a live recording, and so the crowd singing along in the background is audible. It is a reminder that worship is a community experience, meant to be shared. While it may be presented in a “concert-like” experience and sounds like a sing-along, it’s more than that. It’s the sharing and perpetuation of a message in the form of celebration and song.

3. Citipointe Live

CommissionThumbCitipointe Live  hails from Citipointe Church in Brisbaine, Australia, and hope to see God glorified across globe. They look to “influence the world for good and for God.” They are a 5-piece band who have produced 9 albums since 2004.

Their most played song on Spotify, with 285,878 plays, is titled “Commission My Soul,” from their 2009 album under the same name.

Commission My Soul” shares a strong evangelical message, though in the lyrics, the speaker addresses God as the other songs did. It seems to be working to give purpose to one’s own life by helping others. “My life a living sacrifice,spirit empower me to set the captives free. My life is an offering.”

I have to say, I actually prefer the lesser played song, “On Top of the World,” which seems more similar to the other band’s works, declaring the greatness of God’s love with a strong upbeat rhythm, community singing, and lots of clapping from worship participants.

Final Thoughts

I found myself enjoying the worship music much more than I ever thought I would when I first starting hearing of the genre.  Maybe it was the comfort of guitars and drums.  Maybe it was the fact that It’s not overtly religious on the instrumental side; it’s very different from the single organ used for accompaniment in my church. It’s soothing and relatable while sharing valuable messages. At risk of sounding like a cliche, I felt at peace both physically and mentally while listening.

I’m now beginning to wonder, because it is so different, modern, and relatable, whether or not the intentions are both to praise God and make worshipping a more engaging experience than, say, that of the very tradition-focused Catholic mass. This is not to say that this would be a bad thing, but because many of the bands share similar goals about creating experiences between God and worshippers or listeners, it definitely seems like developing a new way of connecting is important.

Will it be something I listen to regularly as a soundtrack while I work? Probably not. I don’t think I’m around it often enough to reap the benefits of the community experience in which it seems so deeply rooted. I have, however, saved certain songs, especially Oceans (Where My Feet May Fail), for when the spirit moves me.

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?