Monday, January 30, 2012

Novocastrian Pentecostalism: An Account of a Service.

Church 180 is situated on Hunter Street, the main road through Newcastle’s central business district, and housed in The Royal, an old art-deco cinema. The building’s exterior is elaborate with several distinct sections of unique design, while its condition has somewhat deteriorated over the years. Aside from a small sign bolted to the wall that indicated the presence of a church, there is nothing external to the building that signals its use for religious services. I arrived an hour before the service and the only sign of activity was a coffee cart set up to the side of the main entrance, in an attached vehicle bay. Most people seemed to arrive on foot; however, given the nature of the street it is hard to find parking in the immediate vicinity. The cars that did arrive outside of the building were typical of the area, standard production-line family cars and some utility vehicles that all appeared to be in good condition and well kept.

As the service time drew nearer people started to arrive in greater numbers and I approached the main entrance, which led into a large foyer with people milling about in conversation with each other. Near the front doors spread at intervals there were a team of greeters. Upon entering I was immediately noticed by a greeter dressed in a black collared shirt and dark slacks, who made eye contact and approached me to introduce himself and handed me a brochure that contained information about the church and its services. He asked me where I was from and introduced me to one of the younger Pastors at the service, dressed in a causal surf-brand t-shirt and jeans, who took me into the main body of the theatre and informed me that tonight’s service would have a special “rock theme”. He showed me to the seats and said that if I had any questions he’d be happy to answer them. At first I sat towards the back of the theatre, but given that even the front section of seats was not filled I moved forward before the service began. Perhaps the most striking feature of the space was the complete lack of obvious religious decoration, I scanned the room and it was merely a white-washed multi-purpose room with no crucifixes, no depictions or inscriptions. The most prominent feature were three large plasma televisions arranged upon high-platforms draped in a glossy black material. The space seemed secular in nature, and the people sat chatting as young children ran around playing. While the service itself seemed to be very youth-focused, the actual congregation was largely made up of middle-aged people with a scattering of individuals both younger and older than the mean. Their attire was casual to semi-formal with some men and women dressed in t-shirts and jeans, whilst other woman wore dresses, and other men sported jeans and collared shirts. The participants dressed in styles typical of middle and working class people of the area. The ethnic breakdown of the congregation was largely Caucasian, representative of the city, with few ethnic minorities present and the gender differential appeared to be roughly even.

To signal the commencement of the service, the plasma televisions were turned on and their screens displayed a count-down from three minutes and smoke machines started to bellow out mist that obscured part of the stage. No one seemed that fussed by this and continued to talk until the counter reached one minute to the beginning and people started to file in and the first section of chairs filled out quickly with approximately three hundred in attendance. In the last few seconds of the countdown, a band assembled on the stage and the lights dimmed, the music started with a jolt of guitar and drums as people stood up on their feet one by one until I could see no one sitting. I felt compelled to stand up and fain enjoyment – it would have been extremely conspicuous and odd to remain seated. Some people put their hands upward towards the roof, while others swayed with eyes closed and others still jumped about and danced. There was a feeling of anonymity given the dim lighting and invasive sound that permeated the hall to the extent you could not hear the person next to you. The first song was fast and energizing with the chorus line that went “everybody stand up if you praise him”, obviously designed to draw people into the service and uplift their moods. The lyrics were displayed upon the screens and I noticed that they were copyrighted by Hillsong church, Australia’s largest Church which would indicate a similar platform and uniformity of Pentecostal churches in Australia.

The band continued through two more songs, connected by bridges that melodically rose and fell between peaks of intensity and mellow lows, which lyrically concerned the awe inspiring power of Jesus and his love for all of us. It was at this moment that two points continued to recur to me. Firstly, that, as Sigmund Freud argued in The Future of An Illusion, the belief cannot be separated from the wish, as the lyrics continuity reiterated that Jesus gave himself for humanity, to save us, to protect us and that he is looking out for us. Secondly, that given the elaborate means employed to stimulate emotional response, how was it possible for participants to differentiate between the excitement of the music (alongside the general ambiance) and the experience of faith ('evidence of things unseen')? With the end of the first musical segment of the service, one of the Pastors started by noting that the music, band and theatrics of the service were a “mask” for god, that god was working through them to reach the congregation and help them feel the Holy Spirit.

At this point, the Pastors began to talk about the “awesome power of god” and how good it felt to praise him. Pumping his arm into the air, he claimed that earlier that day he had been unable to raise his arms above his shoulders until someone from the earlier service had prayed over him and healed his injury. Then, he discussed a section of the book of Hebrews that pertained to a high-priest in the time of Abraham who had received tithing from Abraham and foreshadowed the coming of Jesus who now represented the high-priest. And, just as in those days, it was the duty of the godly to tithe. He did not quote biblical scripture directly and the story was rendered in a colloquial and informal fashion, as he enthusiastically gestured and pasted up and down in front of the congregation. Buckets were passed down through the rows and people where encouraged to give to god, not man, as the funds required for running the church where for him and not man. Moreover, visitors at the service were invited to mark their details upon “connect cards” that would allow the Church to remain in contact with them and send news of upcoming events. As the bucket past me, I noticed it did not contain money but someone had dropped a connect card into it. This process completed, the congregation was invited to pray for a member who had been through some recent distress and anyone in their lives who was suffering through hard times. When the pastor was done with the group pray, a multimedia presentation was screened on the plasma televisions that relayed Church news from the return of the senior pastor from an overseas trip to planed activities of “connect groups” and the upcoming “couples night”. Music, media and theatrical flares were highly integrated into the service, or rather, seemed to constitute the main components of the service. After the Church news, the smoke machines were turned on and smoke obscured the stage as the band reemerged dressed as Kiss, the American rock band known for their elaborate costumes and face-painting, to preformed God Gave Rock 'n' Roll To You. The song and the original lyricist Russ Ballard’s life and theological questioning were used by the senior pastor as a means to discuss the book of Job and the question of what god does for man and how it isn’t for man to question god, but for god to question man.

The senior Pastor’s sermon was ushered in by another short multi-media production that used rock music and flashing graphics to signal who was delivering the sermon. Unlike the first pastor, the second pastor was more subdued and deliberate in his delivery and affected a solemn importance at crucial points in the speech, while still rendering scripture into distilled colloquialisms. Dressed in a collared shirt and blue- jeans, the pastor retold the story of Job, his misfortunes and resultant indignation levied at god for the existence of suffering. At which point, the pastor explained the response of god that came not in the form of answers but in further questions, designed to put Job in his place and emphasise his inability to comprehend the magnitude of the world and the power of its creator. The theological summation was: god is powerful beyond question and questions us in our purposes and not visa-versa. Toward the end of the sermon, the congregation was invited to close their eyes and bow their heads. The pastor continued to talk of Job and God, while personalizing the story and reiterating that some of the congregation might feel or have felt like Job and that it wasn’t for us to question god. He continued that it fell upon each individually to act against suffering in the world and live up to god’s expectations. He then invited people to take Jesus into their heart today and started to vaguely indicate positions in the room where people might wish to do so, “perhaps someone at the back wants to accept Jesus into their heart” and then the he asked people to raise their hand to indicate acceptance of Christ. He congratulated someone at the back and told them they weren’t the only one to make that decision today as others in the morning service had raised their hands. I opened my eyes and a girl seated to the left of me had raised her hand and seemed uneasy to have been the only person singled out.

After the Sermon was finished, the band again took to the stage and the lights were dimmed. Once the band was finished, the service was concluded and everyone was invited into the foyer for refreshments. It took roughly half an hour to forty five minutes for the congregation to dissipate as people took their time chatting amicably.

Written by Mathew Toll.

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