Subtitle: Fear and Darkness
On June 26, 2005, I attended the 9:00 a.m. service of the first Evangelical Free Church of St. Louis County as an amateur anthropologist. The large physical church is a spacious modern structure that appears to seat about 2000 people. As I approached the parking lot I encountered the “Church police.” Wearing safety vests marked “police,” they directed traffic into the large parking lot. Large and expensive automobiles populated the parking lot. I attended the early service. Another service was scheduled to begin at 10:45 a.m.
I sat toward the right side of the pews, facing across the large expanse toward the large stage where the services was to be held. I immediately noticed the large stage and extensive stage lighting of the nine musicians on duty. They performed several songs at the beginning of the service, many of these having a gentle beat and lush harmonies characteristic of 70’s folk rock. The 70’s were probably the era during which many of the worshipers in came of age. Most of the adults looked to be between 35 and 55, all of them squeaky clean and looking content. There were almost no elderly people to be seen. That’s too bad, since the evangelicals have invested good money on first rate cushions are kind to old bones.
Every churchgoer I saw (there were probably 1500 people in the building) was Caucasian. Several hundred of the worshipers were wearing T-shirts printed with a quote from Proverbs 9:10: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”
The sound system was professional quality and stage lights were run by a person perched in the balcony. There were no prayer books in the pews; words to the songs are displayed on several large monitors positioned around the church. The lyrics to songs hovered over only a few topics: one needs to constantly praise, worship and glorify God (who is apparently a very insecure Fellow). Fear and obey God without question. According to some of the song lyrics, even the mountains bow down to God. During the music, numerous people held their hands up in a gesture somewhat between a crucifixion and a touchdown. The were especially prone to do this when the music changed from verse to chorus or when the music modulated to a new key. Apparently, God waits for those moments before coming down to touch people.
The leader of the service was a distinguished looking man approximately 60 years of age. I believe his name was Kevin Hughes. He spoke of the traveling done by members of the church to spread the Good Word. He spoke of the good “harvest” the church had in Czechoslovakia. This December, members of the church will try to do some more harvesting in the Middle East. He thanked God for “being who you are” (God apparently appreciates our approval as much as our obeisance). Hughes thanked God for “not hiding from us” (though one of the song lyrics I searched “only the light hideth thee.” Hughes preached for almost forty minutes. For forty minutes, however he didn’t revel in a single natural mystery. He didn’t express any hint of joy or wonderment regarding life on this planet. It was all serious stuff.
His focus was warning the flock to stay on the straight and narrow. The audience members were told that they must accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior and work hard to get other people to do likewise. The job of the church car is to believe without any question. This “blows away all the doubts and darkness.” The purpose of life is to “glorify God forever.” He mentioned “I’m politically very conservative. I don’t mention this except when it relates to the Bible.” He mentioned that he’s met people who aren’t conservative. “They support people I can’t even bear talking to.” (audience laughing).
Hughes spoke of his many travels and his many encounters with many people. He dropped the names people with whom he has rubbed elbows over the years, including corporate executives. He spoke of many incorrect ideas regarding books on religion that he has read. He is up to this task (of daring to subject himself to incorrect ideas of others) but sternly warned the flock that they shouldn’t get any ideas to do likewise. They should stick to reading the Bible itself. “A good way to get into heresy is to read books about religion other than the Bible. Don’t do this! Any book beyond the Bible is false. Everything in the Bible is true.” He warned to sheep that they shouldn’t discuss religion with any group that considers any writing other than the Bible. “Don’t go! They are heretics!” Churchgoers should stay far away from new-agers like Shirley MacLaine Hughes sneered. He warned to beware of modern-day Gnostics “who claim that Jesus was not really a man but only a ghost.” Churchgoers should especially avoid “atheist” evolution. “Don’t believe it!” And don’t discuss any of these topics with others who promote these ideas. That is a sure road to darkness, he warned.
Hughes showed himself to be an arrogant and humorless man. He is absolutely sure that he knows the truth where others fail. In fact, many other evangelicals fail, but not Hughes: “There are many false evangelicals today.” He rails at anyone who disagrees with him. Hughes warned the churchgoers about the pomposity of those who preach falsehoods. They offer only “sin and egoism that drag us into darkness–for them, it’s my way or the highway.”
A solid ten minutes of the sermon was spent doing scriptural exegesis. This line means this and that verse means that. It’s apparently no concern of his that a God who can rise from the dead, etc., can’t write the Bible clearly enough (or inspire a translation clear enough) that its readers can understand it by its plain meaning.
Hughes had nothing to say about helping the poor or helping anyone in need. A member of the church might protest that I just happened to show up on a day when this important topic was not covered. For this reason, it is instructive to carefully read the church’s slick Welcome Brochure. On page 3, a section called “We Believe” sets forth the church’s twelve articles of faith. None of these articles recognize any obligation to help the poor or give any sort of physical assistance to needy others. The entire focus is on snuffing out one’s sense of skepticism and being a good sycophant. The lack of such a doctrinal position might serve as an invitation to continue buying their SUV’s without any guilt.
Getting saved is not the “ultimate purpose” of reading the Bible, Hughes admonished. Instead, we should be seeking “fellowship.” He then opined (in circular fashion) that fellowship would lead to sharing lives with each other and uniting bounds that “would bring life eternal with Jesus and God.” Hughes claimed that going to heaven is like a banquet in where “we’ll never have to go home and we won’t get tired.” [This brought to mind George Bernard Shaw's quote on Heaven: "a place so inane, so dull, so useless, so miserable, that nobody has ever ventured to describe a whole day in heaven, though plenty of people have described a day at the seaside."]. Hughes didn’t need to remind the audience that there is only one alternative to the heavenly banquet, because it is set out on page 3 of the Welcome Brochure: “everlasting conscious punishment.”
What really fires up the Evangelical church members is converting others. The big monitors repeatedly reminded the churchgoers who they are: “First Free — Contagious Christians Who Pray Fervently . . . and Passionately Spread the Flames to Metro St. Louis and beyond.” Don’t use your mind and work hard to get others to do likewise. It appeared to me that church’s approach to maintaining these flames of passion was to brainwash the audience. The clear message was that churchgoers cannot and should not think for themselves. Hughes was not there to offer assistance or encouragement. He was there to take away their intellectual teeth and to convince them that they desperately needed him to pre-chew their ideas.
He talked down to this audience from start to finish. He treated them like an abusive parent would treat his children. What else could one call it, where a man high up on a podium calls down to one’s grown children that their only duty is to unthinkingly obey or they would be severely punished. Thus is worship at this Evangelical church.
About the Author (Author Profile)Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.
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