Sunday was one of those busy days. It being Palm Sunday, the day began with Divine Liturgy marking the Triumphal Entry of Christ into Jerusalem. At coffee hour, I enjoyed visiting with new friends visiting from St. Barbara’s in Fort Worth. He is a fellow Georgiaphile and she is Syrian, so there was much to talk about. For my wife and all the in-laws, however, it was Easter Sunday, which meant going home to host the traditional spread at our house. My son and I were able, however, to successfully maneuver this unLenten minefield of meats and buttery dishes, without calling undue attention to ourselves. Then that night, it was back to the mission for Bridegroom Matins. I really get into the services of Holy Week, but that is not the subject of this post.
Before heading home from church, I stopped by Starbucks to pick up some Sunday newspapers, it being the only place in town to find a NYTimes. I have, of necessity, drastically curbed this habit of late, but I still splurge about once a month on a Sunday Times. Three young people, of the sort that hang around Starbucks (musician-types, if you will) were standing outside smoking. I went in, picked up the Dallas and New York papers, visited briefly with my friend Matt behind the counter, and then left. As I walked out, only one of the young people was still hanging about, a man/boy wearing a yellow pork-pie hat. We spoke in passing, the typical “how’s it going,” and I walked on towards my truck. He called out to me as I passed, saying “so you didn’t go to church today, either?” I stopped and turned around, because I understood what he meant, and took it as a high compliment. I was in faded jeans, although my shirt was tucked-in, which is not always the case. I gather that he assumed that I had not done the “Easter-thing” because I was not suited-up. I turned back, and answered “well actually, I have.” I stood there and talked with him for probably 10 minutes or so. As he finished his cigarette, I listened to a convoluted tale of how he was originally from Indiana, had come down here because of a girl and because God was telling him it was the right thing to do, was involved in a band, had a job, lost it but had hopes of another, and was now living out in the country somewhere. Grant had been raised Pentecostal, and had actually been to church that morning, thinking that he needed to do so that day. He had gone with a friend to a local Metro Church, but found the Easter service so lame he could not stay, and so left and found his way to Starbucks. Mainly I just listened, but at one point I asked if he was thinking (about the service) that “there had to be more to it than this.” He agreed. I told him what I was and he had never heard of such, first assuming I was Orthodox Jewish. I explained very briefly—for this was not a time for a history lecture. I gave him a card from our mission, told him to contact us if we could ever be of any help, and offered up some variation of the standard Orthodox “come and see” approach. I asked Grant if he had any cash, and he said he didn’t and didn’t want any, but I gave him some anyway. We said goodbye and God bless and I went on my way, and he into Starbucks. There are worse ways to spend your cash. There is something about a chance encounter like this. It is not as if the spotlight has been suddenly turned on us, but rather, it is as if we have been in training, and in training for times such time as these--and you come away hoping you didn’t blow it too bad. For me, these are the times when I really have a sense of the spiritual world all around us in which we live and breathe and move--the cosmic drama in which we play our part.
After dinner and before the Bridegroom Matins, I worked my way through the newspapers. With my talk with Grant fresh on my mind, two articles caught my attention. The first was Andrew Rice’s Mission from Africa in the Times Sunday Magazine, here. You don’t expect sympathetic treatment of religion in the Times, particularly the Sunday Magazine. Rice has spent quite some time with the Nigerian-based Redeemer Christian Church of God. Other than quoting 3 times from Philip Jenkins (usually a good indication that a particular article is not a serious inquiry), I found his story to be balanced and insightful.
Founded in the 1950s by Josiah Akindayomi, who after a vision, passed off leadership to charismatic Pastor Enoch Adeboye (known to the faithful as “Daddy G.O.”), the RCCG is at the forefront of a global religious phenomenon, emanating in the Southern Hemisphere, now washing up on our shores. The church claims adherents in 100 nations and is staking a claim on the U.S., as well. In fact, the denomination even has a Texas connection, the church’s continental headquarters on a 550 acre site in rural Hunt County, where “church officials plan to develop…a mixed-use community, with homes, stores, a university, a commercial fish farm and perhaps even a water park.”
While Rice notes the “Africanization” of the Pentecostal movement, he detects how they have adapted themselves to “the modern forces of global crosspollination,” or as Adeboye boasts: “Made in heaven, assembled in Nigeria, exported to the world.” And the church is making inroads among some groups in the U.S., where Adeboye sees “an emptiness in man that can only be filled by God.” In fact, one of their pastors notes that “everything is Americanized.” This, however, is not always a recipe for success.
Church leaders are quick to contest any suggestion that they preach the “prosperity gospel” extolled by American evangelists like Creflo Dollar, which teaches that God will grant material wealth to those he favors, but whatever distinction they’re making is small. (“I am not a prosperity preacher,” James Fadele said at one sermon I attended, “but I am rich!”) Redeemed pastors routinely petition God to transform their followers into millionaires, members are encouraged to tithe and the Sunday collection is accompanied by joyous fanfare. At various events I attended, I heard Fadele ask members to raise money to help Adeboye buy a private jet (which duly arrived in March) and to sign up to accompany the general overseer, at a cost of up to $8,500 a person, on a coming pilgrimage to Jerusalem, which is to feature luxury hotel accommodation and a re-enactment of the Last Supper.
Indeed, the RCGG has become so Americanized that their Nigerian pastors often harken back to the founding fathers of the nation, praying that the country will return to its “old glory.” Another exhorted his congregation: “This is our Jerusalem! Father, restore the old glory back to our nation.” still another prays, "I am not an American by chance. I am in this country of plenty because you have a plan for me.”
The front page article, here, in the Sunday Dallas Morning News was also tied to religion, chronicling the continued growth of the Texas-born “Cowboy Church,” now expanding throughout the South, West and Midwest. I don’t want to continue to “beat a dead horse,” for I have commented on this group years before, here. On the surface, they appear to be on the opposite end of the American Religiosity Mall from the Redeemer Church folks, but on closer examination, appear to be selling much the same wares. Long a novelty, cowboy churches have in recent years become a bona fide, Texas-based movement, showing strong growth in congregations, attendance and baptisms even as much of denominational Christianity in the United States is losing ground.
I learned a few things I didn’t know about the Cowboy Churches. First, they are directly supported by the Baptist General Convention of Texas (the BGCT.) The Cowboy Churches are, in short, Southern Baptists in boots. They number 136 churches in Texas, with a new one opening every week. According to the writer, they offer “simple Bible-based sermons and live country music,” where “pastors further set the tone by wearing cowboy hats, doffed only for prayer.” The most disturbing bit of information however, was learning that most services concluded with that old Roy Rogers-Dale Evans chestnut, “Happy Trails.” Sermons are kept short, for as one pastor noted, “they’re not going to sit there for very long....We try to be in and out in an hour.” (Orthodox Christians, particularly here during Holy Week, are allowed one derisive snort at the unintended humor of this last remark.) These factors, and others, indicate that one has not exactly waded off into the deep end of the pool at one of these gatherings.
There are other tidbits—the writer seems to find it unique that they use horse troughs for baptisms (which are not at all unusual to this Orthodox Christian.) The more important factor, however, is that the church is in the baptizing business. Though it accounts for only 2% of the BGCT membership, it supplies 10% of new baptisms. Interestingly, 70% of these baptisms are of adult men.
Still, I have to admit that I just don’t get it. They claim to “celebrate Western culture while trying to reach both cowboys and tenderfoots with an unpretentious and nonjudgmental approach...people who have a problem with the traditional church.” As one pastor concludes that "what we’re really shooting for is to keep the riffraff in....We tell people to come as they are, and buddy they do.” These are admirable sentiments, I suppose, but what I think they have done is to build a straw man which they use as justification to fashion church the way they want it. One can always find a stuffy church in which one is not particularly welcomed. But in my 27 years as a professing evangelical Protestant, I never felt the constraints of any unreasonable dress code. Men (or women) in casual western dress would have drawn no particular attention at all.
It seems that members have largely constructed a church around the lifestyle they enjoy, or the image they wish to project. “I’m doing everything I want to do…and I am doing it as a Christian,” said one. Maybe I’m wrong, but I thought that was a big part of being a Christian, that we not get to do everything we want. Another just likes Western dress, music and movies, stating that “if there’s a Western movie on, my TV is on.”
But one of the pastors let out a secret that I have long suspected. He concluded that “of the 700 people who go to our church, there’s probably not a dozen that I could bring out to the ranch and could actually help me some....The rest I’d make sit in the truck.” Even this percentage may be as overstated as some of the old OCA membership statistics, for most are just people who like to dress western and drive a truck. In short, the church seems built upon little more than a fashion statement. I make no claims to cowboydom, but my dad was a real cowboy, from a part of the state where that was the norm (which is to say, not from around here.) I know the real thing when I see it.
If the Redeemer Church and the Cowboy Church were my only choices, I’m not exactly sure what I would do. The singing of “Happy Trails to You” would probably be an insurmountable hurdle for me, though. Chances are, I’d chuck them both and go hang out with my friend in the pork-pie hat.