Berean Baptist Church. My friend Austin and I headed there this morning. As I mentioned in my previous blog, I wasn't really looking forward to this one. So, was I right to be apprehensive, or was I wrong?
The outside of Berean Baptist Church is quaint and overall quite charming, as you will see in this picture.
And of course, snapped a pic of myself in front of the sign.
The inside I didn't get a chance to snap a picture of because the people were having a Bible study session right before the service. But the inside was what I expected, it was simple, whitewashed walls, simple geometric patterns, wooden pulpit, not much frills. In fact, the only decoration of the chapel at all was a flower arrangement on the communion table which was set up just before the pulpit. (No communion this Sunday). There were windows with open blinds along either side of the walls illuminating the room in a lovely glow of natural light. It reminded me a lot of the LDS chapels of my childhood. Beautiful chapel in its simplicity.
The people were very warm and welcoming. When we first came in, there was an usher who gave us a goody bag. It had information on the church, a guest card to fill out, and even two pieces of Dove chocolate at the bottom all tied up with a pretty blue bow. All churches should have goody bags for visitors! After the Bible study session, practically every member of the congregation came up and introduced themselves to us, some asking questions. I didn't feel anyone judging us or sizing us up. It all seemed very warm and genuine.
The service started out beautifully with the choir coming up either sides of the church and filing up in the pulpit. The hymns were, as expected, extremely traditional. I recognized one as an old Church of England hymn, but for the life of me, I can't remember what it was. Then the pastor led the congregation in a simple prayer. Afterward another hymn, then another. Then the pastor gave a message on holding grudges and how bitterness harms somebody, but it's not the person we intend to harm, it's ourselves. I thought that was a lovely message. Afterward, he asked the congregation to call to mind their sins, then they sang another hymn, and then another, and then another, and then another. I lost count of how many hymns they sang, but it was way too many. They were all pretty, but they got old after a while. The choir all went back down and a man stood up and sang a solo about the crucifixion of Jesus. Finally the hymns stopped and the sermon began.
And that's where it turned.
The reading was from the Book of Romans. It was about grace and salvation. A popular topic among Baptists. I was fine with it at first. Then he started going on about sins. He brought up that questioning church authority was a sin. Then he railed against fornication. I knew he'd be less than positive on sex, but the way it was framed made it sound as though all men were were predators waiting to take advantage of women and steal everything from them they could, and that all women were were potential victims, and that marriage somehow protected them from this problem. All of this was sort of expected, but nothing prepared me for the weirdness that followed. The pastor mentioned that the word used in the scripture was 'slave' and mentioned how cruel Romans were to slaves and that slaves don't have any will of their own. He then said that we can either be slaves to God or slaves to the lusts of our hearts, but either way everybody was a slave. He then looked at the black people in the room and said that this might be a hard thing to hear, but the Bible is harsh and doesn't look kindly on man. He said that we can either be slaves with a bad master whom it's impossible to live up to their standards (i.e., sin) or to a good master who will help us. He actually began to frame slavery as a good thing if the master is kind. It's okay for you not to have your own will, as long as the master helps you out in your servitude to him. In fact, it's a joy to serve your master. He then said that the slavery was different under a kind master. That the shackle around your neck as a slave to sin was a burden, but the same shackle around your neck in Christ was an ornament. The first thing that honestly ran through my mind when he said that was "Martha Stewart presents slavery." I honestly had a vision of Martha Stewart decorating a shackle around someone's neck and portraying it as a positive thing. No sooner had I thought this than the pastor actually quoted Martha Stewart's catch phrase, "It's a good thing." I almost couldn't contain my laughter at that moment.
Afterward, there was the traditional altar call, where people come up to the altar if they feel they need to and ask God for forgiveness while someone plays piano. Then a closing prayer, and the service ended.
I didn't enjoy this church experience. The level of guilt, shame, and fear that I heard come out of the pulpit was a major turn off for me. Multiple times during the service, the pastor said that there was nothing good about man, that we're incapable of good, that we're nothing without divine help, etc. I heard one woman actually say out loud to her teenage son as the fornication part was being shouted, "Are you paying attention?" when he had clearly been paying attention. The attitude of the church reeked of spiritual abuse at its finest.
I'm glad that I had this experience, because this church is representative of a number of US churches and they are part of the religious landscape and a loud voice of religious dialogue in the US. Seeing them up close, the congregation is certainly a group of people who truly believe these things and feel that they are trying their best to do what they thing is right and what is wanted of them. I couldn't help but feel pity for the children, and indeed many adults who grow up in this environment where they are fed guilt and shame and that they are mere slaves with no will of their own. How do you come back from that especially in a group that promotes separation from anything worldly that it disapproves of?