My First Time Attending My Church

Written: 26 September, 1999

The Presbyterian church had a Bible class at 9:30am, and the worship service at 10:30am. So I got there a little before 9:30 and went immediately into the lounge where the pastor had showed me last week where his class on Colossians would be held. He remembered my name and made sure that everyone coming in to the class knew that I was new there so that we could be introduced. The lady teaching the Genesis class also popped in before the class started and he introduced us. He said he wasn't sure if I wanted to take the Genesis class or Colossians (since they happen at the same hour) but I figured I'd take his class since he knew my situation and everything. Also, I was a little more interested reading in the New Testament rather than the Old Testament and I'd made sure to read Colossians the night before. I asked him if he preferred for me to go to the Genesis class and he said it didn't make a difference...that there were probably a few more younger people in the Genesis class, but I was welcome in his class.

As the class started, I saw that most of the people there were older people, including a few seniors. Then there were two men who were probably in their Forties and two or three women in their Forties or late thirties. And one girl who was probably in high school. I didn't feel out of place really. Someone handed me a paper sheet that had a little background on Colossians which cleared up some things for me. I'd noted at the end of Colossians that the writer said "Remember my chains" and the sheet explained that he'd written it while in prison. A lot of people brought up tangents from other books of the Bible that a passage would remind them of, and a fair bit of time was spent talking about a person in the Bible (I think his name started with an M) [Melchizedek] who had no record of having been born or having died. One person brought up aliens and "Chariots of the Gods?" and the pastor said that the idea of things happening in the Bible as a result of an alien race diminishes the work because it would then be the work of another race, not of God. I didn't say anything most of the time and just listened.

Then the class was over and it was time to get ready for the worship service. I asked somebody where the bathroom was (always a good thing to know, I think) and after using it went into the sanctuary. I took one of the sheets in a box that had the basic set-up of what songs would be sung when, etc. (just like the Catholic church had done) and found a seat near the back. People gradually filed in, and a good size crowd showed up. I noticed that all of the windows had a little part of the window that was opened up, and the door was open, so one could hear the sounds of the street outside and the sunlight coming in, not like the dark Catholic sanctuary I went to yesterday. I almost decided to sit near the window so I could feel a breeze, but decided to sit near the middle aisle instead.

I noticed that the pews had some books in a slot in front of each pew. One slot held a hardcover Bible, a hardcover Blue hymn book, and a softcover pink hymn book. The other slot had some postcard-sized sheets and some envelopes. I assumed that the envelopes were for leaving money, like in the Catholic church I went to. The Catholic pews had a little knee-rest that folded out from the pew in front of you so that at various times during the service one could kneel, whereas these Presbyterian pews had no kneel-feature, so that was one less position I had to worry about.

The ceiling was really tall and there was a huge cross at the altar, but nobody was bowing in its prescence as they passed by it or anything. There were around 12 people in robes (blue or green, I can't remember) and I saw later that they were the choir. (The Catholic church I had went to yesterday had no choir, just an organist and two singers, dressed normally.)

The pastor was now dressed in a black robe with a green scarf and stopped to chat with some people in the middle aisle before the service started. He saw me and said "I hope we didn't scare you off," and I said, "Not at all, I enjoyed it." But I was silently wondering what this service would be like, and I didn't want it to scare me off.

As people sat waiting for the start of the service, they talked and talked among each other, not whispering and trying to keep quiet like in the Catholic mass I went to. It wasn't until the ringing of the bell, which indicated the start of the service, that people started to quiet down.

I can't remember all the details, but looking at this printed schedule, here's how it went:

One of the first things that happened was the organist played a tune on the organ for a few minutes. Nobody had to do anything or say anything, and I liked that. I could listen to the beauty of that organ and marvel at the idea that here I was in a church on a Sunday morning. And then the organ playing reminded me of the old-time radio dramas like "The Shadow" that I enjoy, which often used organs for the background music. I'd long suspected that organists during the silent movie era were able to move into radio when talkies arrived, but where did they go after the Golden Age of Radio? Well, the church would be a logical place. I would have been happy if it had just been a half-hour of organ music at the church. I felt like telling a friend of mine, "Hey, you gotta come to this church, it's like The Shadow radio show!" But then the organ playing stopped after about 5 minutes and I was jarred back into having to follow the lines on the paper.

There was a lot of that speaking-in-unison thing that I talked about yesterday, only this schedule listed all the words, and they were in English. So, at one point the pastor or a man in a suit would say something from the podium and then we were supposed to read out these lines to him in reply, and then sometimes everyone including the man at the podium read out these lines at the same time. Here's an example:

Leader: O God of Promise, enable us to live out our faith in our daily lives.

People: May we believe in miracles. May we dare to dream dreams. May we find rainbows in our paths. May we share all that we have and believe with all who have not.

All: O God of Love, hold us all our days. In our Lord's name, we ask this blessing. Amen.

So, the "Leader" was the guy at the podium, and we would be silent as he read his line, then the "People" were us and he'd be silent as we read ours, and then both he & us would read the "All" lines together. We also had to read the famous "Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy Name. Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done..." etc. "The Apostle's Creed" was also read in unison.

I thought that the most effective of these speaking-in-unison bits was a "Prayer of Confession" that we all read in unison:

"Almighty God and Everlasting Friend, Jesus is my Lord and our Savior. I believe in Him and try to follow Him. I must confess, however, that my faith does not always lead to action. Too often my faith doesn't effect me and the way I live. I am not as different as I should be as a result of my faith in Christ. I still live pretty much for myself and not enough for God. O Lord, forgive my moments of selfishness when the last thing I want to be is a servant. Forgive me for not allowing my faith to change my lifestyle, my choices, and even how I spend my time. Have mercy upon me and change me into a person that is genuinely responsive to You and Your love. Forgive me my sin and help me live more for You. In Jesus' Name, Amen."

Whew!! Quite a mouthful, eh? But the thing I liked about it was that it seemed really honest, words that I could really relate to and the thing I wanted to pray.

That confession-in-unison was followed by a moment of silence so that each person could individually pray to God their own sins, or whatever they felt they needed to confess to God privately. I was glad to actually get in a moment of prayer!

The choir sang a few songs and there were also songs for the whole congregation to singalong to. Most people around me weren't really singing it seems, but I kind of sang along. First I had to figure out how to use the hymn book, though. I'd seen that everyone had grabbed up the blue hymn book and started singing from it, but how did they know which page to turn to? Well, I soon figured out that the little schedule I'd been reading had the info right on it, like:

*Hymn of Praise: "Today We All Are Called to Be Disciples" No. 434 Blue Hymnal

Each song in the book was numbered (I finally realized), so I just had to turn to song 434 and voila. I soon got the hang of it.

At one point early on, there was a thing called "The Children's Message." This was a sermon for the kids told by a man wearing a regular suit. The man had a remote control car and he placed it on the stage and showed how he could make it do what he wanted. Then the man said that God could make us do what he wanted if he chose to, but he would rather that we not be forced to follow Him. The man said, "Would you want a friend to play with who was forced to be your friend, or would you rather have a friend who really wanted to play with you not because they were forced to?" Although this short sermon was aimed at the children, when I was walking home I found that it spoke to me, too. God doesn't want automatons or brainwashed zombies, He wants us to follow Him because of love.

I think the song I liked best was one called "Lord, I Want to Be a Christian." I don't have the words here, since they were in that blue hymn book, but it had simple lyrics similar to the "I Wanna Be Holy" idea that I'd mentioned earlier would be a good song.

And thankfully we got a sermon from the pastor. First he read various passages from Hebrews and James which sounded like they were practically made to be read aloud in a church because of their repetitive phrasing. The idea of the sermon was that "faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead." (James 2:17) He said that good deeds are a reflection of our faith in God, that we are thanking God by doing them. He said that if the Christian church won't help the poor, who would? He talked about how Noah was laughed at for building an ark in the desert, but if he hadn't acted according to God's wishes that we wouldn't be here today. I don't know how long his sermon lasted, but it was much longer than the speaking I heard at the Catholic mass, and for that I was really grateful. I could have listened to him preach for hours!

There was no Communion. There were the words "Bread of Life" and "True Vine" (which sound like mottos in a Danielson CD's liner notes) in big letters on the wall behind the altar. The schedule said that next week was "World Communion Sunday," so I guess that's when they'll have the Communion thing. I'll have to ask the pastor about that, like what I should or shouldn't do.

There were three moments near the end where I was kinda confused about what to do. One of these was when they passed around the collection plate. Two people went up the middle aisle holding two gold dishes and they were going to each row and letting people put those little envelopes in it. When it got to me, I whsipered to the woman that I was new at this and didn't know what to do, and she indicated for me to pass the dish down to the lady at the end of my row. Well, that was one moment of confusion out of the way.

Then I noticed that people were handing down a red book and signing it, but each row seemed to have their own book. But when it got to the person sitting near the middle of the aisle, that person would sit the book down in a slot next to them. I kept waiting for a book to be handed to me, but it never came. It was only when I got up to leave later that I noticed there had been a red book in the arm-rest next to me all along. I presume that I was supposed to take it out of there and hand it to the rest of my row (just one lady at the end) and then put it back. I guess that's how it works. Nobody told me.

Finally, another odd moment came at the end when we all sang a song called "Reach Out to Your Neighbor." Then I noticed the word "Benediction" (whatever that means) in the program, and then a note "Please hold hands" during the closing song! Oh great, I thought, how is this gonna work? Thankfully, the older lady at the end knew what to do and next thing I knew I was holding her hand (and she was holding somebody else's hand, etc., etc. to form a human chain) and mumbling the song we were supposed to be singing. (I hadn't had time to look at the words in the program to know it by heart.)

After that, she shook my hand and introduced herself, and I shook hands with a lot of the people around me. People were getting up to leave. The pastor was by one of the doors greeting people as they leave, like you see on TV sometimes. I decided I'd shake hands with the pastor before I left, and tell him that I really liked the sermon part best. I told him, and he said that he was really glad that I came, and I said that I'd see him next Sunday, since I'd decided that the experience was something that I could survive again, and that the confusing bits would probably become more natural the more I got exposed to them. Also, I felt that attending this had given me more "food for the mind" than the Catholic service did yesterday, and I'd prayed that God would give me more "food for the mind," so I wasn't about to give up on it when I had gotten some of what I'd ask for.

Speaking of food, the pastor then told me that there was coffee in the Social Hall where maybe I could meet some of the members. I said "Okay," but I don't drink coffee, so I figured I'd just swing by the room and see what it was like. There were people of all ages talking in there and eating donuts or whatever, but after a minute I decided I'd just take another look at the pamphlets and bulletin postings in the church and then head on home. I grabbed a newsletter and then walked home.

So, that was it. Not sure of what to make of it really. I liked some parts of it (the sermon, the organ playing) more than others (the reading-in-unison thing, holding hands with strangers, the confusing things I don't understand yet like the collection plate thing, etc.) but overall I'd say it was a positive experience. I guess I've found my church for now.