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)

Jesus as Commander in Chief: a Look at the Documentary “Jesus Camp”

One nation, under God

As a teacher in an American public school, I stand and recite the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag with my students every morning. When it’s over, I sit down in my desk chair, and separate church and state. I focus on my curriculum, teaching about reading literature, writing arguments, and learning language. I very rarely consider how America as a nation of Christian principles in its earliest of years.

It’s when my tenth graders read early American literature, including works by the PuritImage courtesy of amyisvip@blogspot.comans and pastors from the Great Awakening, such as Jonathon Edwards, that I am reminded of America’s Christian roots. As we read the “Sinners at the Hands of an Angry God” sermon aloud together, the students are quick to note the fire and brimstone quality od waiting eagerly to drop those who are supposed to be his children to their eternal life amid furious flames? They can’t sof the text. They passionately point out that it sounds scary and intended to make listeners feel guilty. A wrathful God? A Geem to wrap their brains around it. They get the figures of speech, but they don’t get how anyone could have believed it. They don’t get how anyone could have been moved to act on behalf of someone seeking vengeance. I see their point, and then I suggest that we cannot pull this kind of sermon out of its original context and into our time period because our societies, lives, and ways of thinking are so vastly different.

After watching Jesus Camp, directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, I’m not so sure I can make that claim anymore, at least not in good conscience.

I watched Jesus Camp at the recommendation of a classmate, Jess. When she learned I was doing research on religion, she told me it was a must-see. I was so intrigued that I watched it within a day of her lending me the DVD.

The documentary follows a children’s pastor (Becky Fisher) of a Pentecostal Evangelical church and three attendees of her summer camp, Kids on Fire (which has since been shut down). Becky Fisher, however, was not in the first five minutes of the film. Mike Papantonio, of the Ring of Fire radio show, though, was, and to say he left me confused would be a gross understatement. He began talking on air about “these guys” who are following some new brand of religion and generating war in the name of god.

I wondered:I thought this was about Jesus. Why is he talking about jihad?

Turns out, Papantonio wasn’t talking about Islamic radicals; he was speaking of radical Pentecostal Evangelicals who are building an army of Republicans in the United States. What a claim to make. I knew instantly that this was a documentary about extremes. The directors were creating this spectrum straight out of the gate by juxtaposing Papantonio with Fisher, who spoke next, encouraging the children to whom she preached, “This is a sick old world. Get your tools, and fix it.”

What tools, exactly Ms. Fisher? Surely she couldn’t mean the hand grenades and machine guns of 5 year old Islamic soldiers to whom she compared her own congregation by stating a desire to see Christian children being as radical as the young in places like Palestine and Pakistan who are willing to put their life on the line for their God. The war imagery continued when later in the film as Fisher posed questions, including this antagonistic example, “Take these prophecies, and do what the apostle Paul says. Make war with them…This means war. Are you a part of it, or not?”

By thphotoe looks of the camouflage face point on the children dancing and chanting to worship music, they most certainly are. They even recited choreographed battle cries: “V-I-C-T-O-R-Y. That’s the Trojan battle cry.”  This camp seems to be a boot camp, turning out soldiers who will save America and bring the nation closer to God.

Kids. Guns. War. I’m surprised it took me as long as it did to become angry with the film. Kids stood, gaping, at their pastor. Tears streamed down their faces as they were reminded of the dangers of sin, and classic childhood heroes, such as Harry Potter, were condemned as they would have been had their stories been a part of the Old Testament. I was reminded of Edwards’ “Sinners” sermon. I couldn’t stop myself from wondering what good could possibly come from making children cry in church. What good could come from making children fear the God who is supposed to love and forgive them?

Then I remembered. I remembered the extreme spectrum the filmmakers set out to establish at the start of the film. This film was not to speak for a nation. It was not meant to speak for Christians across the U.S. It was meant to reflect the practices of one community–to inform.

While I disagree with many aspects of the teachings portrayed in the film, I think it was valuable to watch, as does Rotten Tomatoeswhich gives the film an 87% fresh rating. The documentary presented radicalism in a non-aggressive, non-threatening way to viewers. We tend to hear about radicalism the most in relation to groups with ties to Islam.  This is not to say that Evangelical Christians are radical terrorists, but, as mentioned above, there are striking parallels in the language used. Rather than fear Evangelical radicals the same way Americans fear radical groups such as ISIS and Al Qaeda, we can benefit from recognize the power of doctrine on a young mind.

I think we, as a nation, tend to be scared of what we don’t know. Not every child is given the same choice we might be. Jesus Camp gives us the opportunity to know and understand before we make blanket judgments.

Religion vs. Jesus: An Age Old Debate, as Slammed by Jefferson Bethke

Last Wednesday, I was scouring YouTube for a video to use in my classroom for the students’ Watch It Wednesday do now assignment. Usually, the videos are news clips, but I wanted to switch it up a bit for entertainment’s sake, so I was looking up videos on controversial topics–spoken word poems on the purpose of compulsory education and standardized testing. While watching these videos, I noticed something in the “Suggestions” sidebar that piqued my interest, a poem called “Why I Hate Religion, but Love Jesus” by a young man named Jefferson Bethke.

The title is certainly a version of a phrase I have heard many times, a phrase heard from kids, teenagers, and adults alike.

Oh, I’m not very religious, but I believe in God. 

Oh, I believe in God, but I can follow him and pray to him from my house.

Oh, I don’t know how I feel about church, but I definitely believe in some kind of after life.

One could chalk up this sometimes apathetic, sometimes disgruntled, sometimes outright rebellious attitude to an overabundance of rules and doctrine in various churches. Speaking from personal experience, I know that Catholic church has what I consider to be very heavy-handed rules about birth control and family planning. I know several churches, especially Southern Baptist churches, have rules and beliefs about drinking alcohol. I understand that religions develop and share these rules as interpretations of the Bible and, therefore, connected to the word of God, but for someone who wants to believe or become involved with a church, but the blanket enforcement of what seem like arbitrary rules makes religion appear to be more a way to control people than to develop a close relationship with God.

As you watch Jefferson Bethke’s spoken word poem, he addresses these concerns by addressing contradictions between being a member of religion and being a true disciple of Jesus.

Bethke compares religion to a list of chores, suggesting that it’s a way to ensure believers behave the same way rather than focusing on their individual relationship with God. He iterates that churches should welcome the broken, those who don’t follow the rules because they are the ones who need guidance, and yet he recognizes these are the people who often feel most out of place and rejected by the “good” members of the church. He ends his poem by stating religion and Christianity are two different claims.

“Religion is man’s search for God. Christianity is God searching for man.” 

This is a powerful statement that makes clear God is looking to save. God is looking to help. It shows that organized religion may not share that same purpose at it’s core or that the mission has gotten too muddled with time and the human mind, an argument emphasized again in this word cloud of Bethke’s poem. Religion and Jesus are the largest words, most used in the poem, but Jesus is larger, which suggests that He is more than doctrine. He is more than religion.

Screenshot (36)

Now, I’m sure someone might think that by posting a poem expressing views on religion as Bethke did might suggest that he is not a true Christian, but it is important to remember that this single video has received, at this time, 29, 020, 448 views. His YouTube channel has over 500,00 subscribers. He actively posts videos about living a Christian life, mostly geared toward millenials. He shares views on dating as a Christian, living as a Christian when you don’t feel God, and problems or conflicts between modern American culture and Christianity.

He seems interesting and dedicated, proof that a person can question church, question religion, and still be a disciple of Jesus. He illustrates that there isn’t a one-size fits all religious life. I highly recommend checking out his channel and watching a few videos. Most aren’t longer than 7 or 8 minutes.

His slam poem was published to YouTube in 2012. It’s success inspired his 2013 book release, Jesus>Religion. I received my copy from Amazon yesterday, and I am looking forward to seeing what else Bethke has to say.