Church Visits: Not Necessarily a Waste of Time

In the past two weekends, I visited two different churches with various members of my family.  They know about my lack of faith, and I’m at a point where I don’t feel intimidated by religious services or guilty of about my skepticism. Going to church solely for the sake of spending some time with them finally seems like a sensible solution. I don’t regret the decision, either, because the two services provided an interesting study in contrasts.

The first was a Palm Sunday service at the United Methodist church I attended from ages 9 to 18.  The second was a Saturday night Easter service at a megachurch in which I had never before set foot.

The Methodist church has an annual Palm Sunday tradition — all the children walk down the aisles of the sanctuary waving palms, in imitation of Jesus’ welcome to Jerusalem, and sing with the adult choir.  I did this when I was younger, and this year, my 3- and 4-year old nephews were participating. They sang the same hymn I did as a child: “Hosana, Loud Hosana.”

Hosanna, loud hosanna, the little children sang;
Through pillared court and temple the lovely anthem rang.
To Jesus, who had blessed them close folded to His breast,
The children sang their praises, the simplest and the best.

I feel a little queasy about this tradition now. There’s an underlying message about innocent children having an innate understanding of spiritual matters that adults lose due to all that corruption and knowledge the world pushes on them later in life. Remember, Adam and Eve were “as children” in the Garden of Eden until they ate of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.

I was surprised by by the sparse attendance. When I was active in the church, both of the Sunday services filled the pews. Now it’s only half full the week before Easter.  I was also surprised that the kids did not wear robes. When I did this as an upper elementary student, I was in an actual choir with weekly rehearsals and uniforms for the performances. But with the lower attendance, and perhaps a lack of volunteers, an established children’s choir is harder to pull off. Instead, they just let the kids carry palm branches down the aisles in their regular Sunday clothes, and most of the older boys had their hands in their pockets while they sang.

The sermon was preached by one of the assistant ministers, and it was pretty dry. The reading was 1 Corinthians 14:26-33.

26 What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up. 27 If anyone speaks in a tongue, two — or at the most three — should speak, one at a time, and someone must interpret. 28 If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and to God. 29 Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said. 30 And if a revelation comes to someone who is sitting down, the first speaker should stop. 31 For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged. 32 The spirits of prophets are subject to the control of prophets. 33 For God is not a God of disorder but of peace — as in all the congregations of the Lord’s people.

I was more interested in what was unsaid.  The selected passage conveniently stops right before the Apostle Paul says something offensive to most modern ears.

34 Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. 35 If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.

I have seen these two verses before, but I had forgotten the context. This is a New Testament text laying out the rules for an orderly Christian congregation that is pleasing to God — and it explicitly includes instructions about silent, submissive women. The United Methodist denomination clearly does not follow that particular dictum — they ordain women, and it was a female minister who gave the reading.

A denomination that ignores the parts of the Bible they don’t like is preferable to the alternative, but the way my former church approaches the issue leaves a lot to be desired. It would be nice if they could explain why they reject that particular excerpt, or how lay people can tell which parts of their holy book to ignore. I don’t think any such standards exist, though.

The mega-church Easter service was a different animal. This church owns a massive campus, with numerous facilities. There are four services most weeks in the main auditorium, and six on Easter weekend. I sat with about 2,000 worshipers at service number three.

The auditorium has a large stage, theatrical lighting, and arena-quality video screens. The senior pastor, who is a much better speaker than anyone employed at my old Methodist church, gave a sermon about being raised by an abusive addict.

Naturally, the religious messages rang hollow for me. He said that while he would never wish a childhood like his on anyone, he was somewhat lucky because he realized how much he “needed God” at a young age. He attributed his mother’s spiral into alcoholism and sleeping pill addiction to Satan, and her decades-later recovery to God. I have profound problems with these ideas, but I expected to hear them. I did not expect to hear some interesting observations on relationships between abusive parents and their adult children. He discussed the guilt he felt about no longer loving his mother the way he knew he was supposed, and said he understood that those in the audience with similar backgrounds were likely to have similar feelings.

Because of there were portions of the sermon I liked, I was more disappointed by the way it ended then I had a right to be. He pointed his finger at the crowd and said he wanted men to fulfill their roles as “spiritual leaders” of their families by guiding their wives and children to a baptism station set up outside the auditorium. Demonstrating his great consideration, he also assured the women that there was a makeshift salon set up as well, so that they wouldn’t have to worry about how their hair would look afterwards. I suppose he believes more of what Paul wrote than Methodist clergy do.

These two church experiences combined to give me further insight into how Christianity is taught and practiced on a weekly basis. Of course, I had a lot of experience with church as a child and teenager, but I’m able to observe more clearly now that I’m an acknowledged atheist. I certainly won’t be making any affirmations of faith or taking communion, but I think I might make a habit of church visits.

About Bentley Owen

Bentley Owen reads books and lives in Tulsa, OK. He's on twitter.

  • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

    Any single women at the 2nd one?  Just wondering if they were allowed to go to the baptism station on their own, or if they had ushers to play the ‘
    spiritual leader’ role.

    • Anonymous

      The women I saw who weren’t with a man were mostly with other women, and two going together. I didn’t get the sense that he was forbidding women to go by themselves. But married men leading their wives and children was clearly his ideal.

  • Annie

    I have gone back to the church I was raised in (Catholic) on several occasions (wedding, funeral, a relative’s first communion).  It was fascinating to actually listen to the words that I once recited in a monotone unison with the rest of the parishioners.  As an outsider, it felt like a movie scene of witnessing a cult. 

    Was he joking about the salon?  Would he really expect women to be rightfully concerned about their appearance after participating in a baptism?  That seem so strange.

    • http://annainca.blogspot.com/ Anna

      As an outsider, it felt like a movie scene of witnessing a cult. 

      LOL, exactly my reaction to the Catholic mass! I wasn’t raised Catholic, though. I find religious services interesting, but rather bizarre. I always think to myself: “Surely, surely they can’t actually believe this.”

    • Anonymous

      I did not think he was joking, but I may have been wrong.

      • Annie

        I doubt he was… but he should have been.  Another great post Bentley.  Thanks for going!

    • MN Atheist

      Ha! I feel the same way when I end up in a church. It is almost like a scene out of a movie where everyone is chanting and swaying…

      I always look around to find people that are simply standing quietly like me. There are always several and I then wonder if they are thinking what I am thinking…

  • Karen Locke

    I’m an ex-Catholic atheist; I took a long road to atheism but haven’t been Catholic for, oh, more than 30 years.  Yet the nuns who taught me infected me — perhaps not quite in the way the church wanted — and I still hum the tunes of “Jesus Christ Superstar” to myself around Easter. “Hosanna, hey-sanna, sanna, sanna, ho-sanna, hey-sanna, ho-sannaaa… hey J.C., J.C. won’t you smile for me, sanna ho-o-sanna hey Superstar???”

    • Shawn

      My wife is a former Catholic as well, although we use the term “recovering Catholic” usually.

  • Sailor

    “34 Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. 35
    If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own
    husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the
    church.”Certainly attributed to Paul in the bible, but I understand there is quite a lot of evidence this was not written by Paul but someone else using his name as coat tails. I think a couple of lines of reasoning are that when Paul was around there was no church hierarchy so this was written at a later time, it also conflicts with some of his earlier writings which are quite pro women, so would be a real about turn on his part.

    • Erp

       One thing that scholars point out is that 1 Corinthian 11 has a different regulation regarding women in church which is that if they pray or prophesies she should cover her head (which is why in the not too recent past women always wore hats or other head covering in church [still do in some churches]).   The expectation here is that women are permitted to speak in church. 

      The bit in chapter 14 is much closer to the pastoral epistles which are attributed to Paul but are very different in language use and other things than the epistles that almost everyone agrees were by Paul so most scholars think they were written later and not by Paul.  

      • Anonymous

        I did know that some of the epistles attributed to Paul are almost certainly forgeries, but 1 and 2 Cornithians are not among them.I did not know that verses 34-35 may have been inserted. That is interesting.

        • Iammarkharrison

          I would have thought this passage is about women talking in church is a corruption of the same observation other commenters have made: show respect and no one (not just women) should chatter and hold conversations against the preaching in the church. As with many things, the message has been warped to something else.

          • BentleyOwen

            I don’t think it’s a corruption of anything. It tells women to be submissive as “the law” (Old Testament) wants them to be, that if they have questions they should ask their husbands. These are not instructions that can be generalized for both sexes. Whoever wrote it had a very specific, misogynistic outlook.

    • Pseudonym

      I don’t think that the authorship of 1 Corinthians has ever seriously been in doubt (unlike 2 Corinthians, which is believed to be several letters edited together).

      The usual take on this passage is that the context is that 1 Corinthians was written to a specific church at a specific time to address specific issues about disorder and disharmony in the church. There are a lot of such issues mentioned throughout the letter.

      I’m not suggesting that Paul was some kind of feminist. Far from it. But he was likely trying to combat specifically misbehaviours, rather than giving a general statement about the status of women.

      • T-Rex

        Speculation anyone? The Bible has been translated and edited so many times over the centuries that even so called “scholars” couldn’t possibly know who wrote what. Nice try though.

    • MN Atheist

      The far-right fringe have an extreme interpretation of this. Women are not allowed to speak at the dinner table in their own homes. While the men eat and talk. True story!

      Of course it’s not all of them that do this…but it is happening.

  • Ndonnan

    It must be interesting to go back to church from the position of an atheist.As a christian im always interested,amused,bored,inspired to go to another denomination or religion and see how they relate to God.Like Annie,go to a traditional catholic or orthadox service,i think what the hell,if this is what church is like i would never go,other people love it.I now live in a catholic community and when ive been to their church its been great. Our church[Penticostal] used to meet in the uniting church after they finished and on the saturday the seventh day adventists had their service,all quite differant.On women speaking in church i belive it is a cultural thing,most religions are the same,certainly even 50 years ago you would never hear a woman preach,now it s common.For that matter 50 years ago it was un common to see a woman in any position of authority or power in society at all,things have changed for the better.

    • Collin

      Society has indeed changed for the better, dragging the church and sheeple after it into a more modern and just state.  It certainly has not been the church responsible for these enlightenments.  
       What will the sacred texts of the bible look like in another 50 years? How can anyone want to base a society on texts that become outdated on such a rapid and regular basis?  Continue to cherry-pick until the tree is bare?  

      • MN Atheist

        I really like that…until the tree is bare.

  • pagansister

    Having been raised a Methodist, it was interesting returning to the church during summer visits.   I was raised in the Methodist church  from age 11-17, until I started having many doubts as to what I was being taught.  Married a UU, raised our 2 children in the UU church and one is an atheist, the other leans towards Paganism.   Summers they went to the Bible school at the church so they got introduced to the “Christian” faith of their grandparents there as well as sometimes during the Christmas season.  I enjoy the beauty of the church building,  don’t do communion or the professions of faith etc. when I’m there—since I don’t believe it.   However, I do enjoy singing the hymns, as this church has a beautiful pipe organ to accompany the hymns.

  • pagansister

    Need to clear up something—I was raised a Methodist from birth, but spent the last 6 years in the particular church I mentioned, and my parents remained in that particular church after I left home.

  • LutherW

    I was raised Methodist, yet never really believed. Went to a Catholic church recently (which I have done many times with family) for a funeral. I was struck as I never had been with all the symbols of torture everywhere. Jesus on the cross on the alter, scenes of the crucifixion on the stained glass, different Jesuses all over, all being crucified. Never noticed it before. Kind of depressing to think so many spent so much time in an environment with such a depressing environment.

    • T-Rex

      I went to a Catholic wedding last year and noticed all of the torture scenes around the church as well. Sick fucks..

  • Amarines1

    I went to a catholic church recently to attend a baptism of my boyfriends little cousin with my 6 year old, being an ex catholic atheist I was shocked to see the disrespect of believers children with their video games and cell phones. I had my daughter there quietly and to be respectful while there. I got jokes about how surprised they were that I was not on fire. Yet somehow I had shown more respect in their church than they did. It was interesting to see, to say the least.

  • MaryLouiseC

    Hemant wrote:  “The selected passage conveniently stops right before the Apostle Paul says something offensive to most modern ears.  34 Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. 35 If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.My response:  There is nothing offensive about that passage if understood correctly.  Up until that point in time, women and men were separated.  Men got all the teaching.  Women didn’t get any.  But now something revolutionary was taking place.  Men AND women were worshipping together, hearing the Word of God preached as one body.  Given this, you can imagine how many questions the women had.  And now they had the opportunity to ask them.  However, they were asking so many they were disrupting the service time and time again.  Therefore, Paul instructs them to remain silent during the service and ask the questions of their husbands who, having had a lifetime of teaching, could answer them in their own homes where the discussion could go on for hours and not be an interruption of anything.It’s also helpful to look at the original Greek.  The word Paul uses for ‘keep silent’ is ‘sigao”.  It refers to a voluntary silence.  It is used to describe Christ’s silence before Pilate.  In other words, Paul isn’t issuing a command to women, but asking for their cooperation in choosing to be silent during worship.  He could have used ‘phimoo’ which means, basically, ‘shut up’ and given as an order, not a request.  He was asking them simply not to talk out loud while the worship was going on.This is clear when you look at the passage in context.  Paul has been talking about the disruption with regard to speaking in tongues and how to have an orderly worship service.  It’s important to read things in their context to get a complete understanding of individual Bible verses.When Jesus came, he really turned the world upside down with his view of women.  In his eyes, they are equal with men (Gal. 3:28) and there were many women in the early church who played important roles (eg. Phoebe was a deaconness, Junia was a teacher, Lydia had a house church in her home).Unfortunately, some people have misinterpreted the passages about women in the New Testament.  Greek misogyny crept into the church (Aristotle called women “botched men”).  Some of it lingers today in some denominations.There are a number of good books on the church, Christianity and the equality of women including Biblical Equality by Ronald W. Pierce and Rebecca Merrill Groothuis and Philip Payne’s One in Christ.What concerns me is the fact that there were a number of sexist men who have made derogatory remarks about women at the Reason Rally.  When questioned as to why these men were there, representing atheists, I understand that your explanation was that they would bring a lot of attention to the event.  If there were atheists who have made racist comments about African-Americans or people who had ethnic roots in the Middle East, would you have allowed them to speak at the event if they had been celebrities, too?  I bring this up to suggest that perhaps you should look at the log in your own eye rather than the speck in someone else’s, especially when that speck is simply a misunderstanding of something on your part.

    • jwood

      Yeah, I’m gonna say that to remain silent is really the same. Women were asked not to talk or participate during sermons. And by saying that context changes, you basically make Paul’s teaching obsolete (he was right then, but wrong now).

    • BentleyOwen

      I wrote this post, not Hemant. I admit that I am not an expert on the subject, and I plan on studying it further. I appreciate you offering specific titles for reference purposes.

      I still have some trouble with the reasoning you’ve offered, though. I don’t know any Greek, but let’s look at several English translations of that passage in order to acknowledge the common themes.

      NIV (the one used in the service and quoted in the article):
      Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.

      KJV:
      Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience as also saith the law. And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.

      ESV …the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.

      CEV… the women must not be allowed to speak. They must keep quiet and listen, as the Law of Moses teaches. If there is something they want to know, they can ask their husbands when they get home. It is disgraceful for women to speak in church.I don’t think I’m misreading by recognizing this as the message:

      1) Christian women should behave as they are instructed by the Old Testament (“the law” in three translations, “Law of Moses” in the CEV).

      2) They should ask their husbands for better understanding, suggesting he has spiritual authority over them.

      3) It is not right for women to speak in church: “Disgraceful (NIV, CEV)” “Shameful (ESV)” “A shame (KJV)”I am not misinterpreting these translations- they say that there is a God-ordained public role for women, and it is a submissive one. And in the home, if the husbands are the teachers and keepers of knowledge, it would be difficult (though not impossible) to achieve an equal partnership. 

      You say this interpretation is at odds with the message of Jesus and with early church history. I can an accept that. I believe that the Bible is a selection of documents written by humans, transcribed by humans, translated by humans, and canonized by humans over the course of many cetnuries. Much of it is contradictory. But that still brings me to the question I asked in the piece:  how can lay people can tell which parts of their holy book to ignore.  Your approach suggests that the best way to settle these contradictions is to insist that troublesome passages have a meaning other than the apparent one. 

      Now, let’s get to this “log in the eye” business. The three atheist men who have received accusations of sexism that were featured at the Reason Rally are Bill Maher, Richard Dawkins, and Penn Jilette.

      Maher called Sarah Palin a “cunt.” He did not hate her because she was a woman- it seemed to be her views that ticked him off. But he used a sex-specific epithet to dismiss her views. This was wrong. He does this kind of thing often with women he disagrees with. It’s worth noting that atheists are not all that concerned with everything he says, because he is not active in the skeptic and atheist community the way Dawkins and Jilette are. He is not really a movement leader, in other words. By offering him a slot at the Reason Rally, the organizers were not endorsing everything he says, merely acknowledging that his statements on religion reveal him to share some things in common with us. He ended up just sending a clip from his show, which was seen by many as a slap in the face. 

      Dawkins was dismissive of a woman’s concerns about sexual harassment at skeptic and atheist events. He was heavily criticized for this- and because he is a movement leader, his comments, which were made on an atheist blog, were taken very seriously. Aside from this, he’s generally quite good on feminist issues, and he even tried (and failed) to present his criticism of the woman who complained about harassment in feminist terms- he thought she was making something out of nothing, when there are women who suffering from real problems, like genital mutilation. Poor reasoning, deftly picked apart by Jen McCreight, who was later an organizer for the Reason Rally.
      http://www.blaghag.com/2011/07/richard-dawkins-your-privilege-is.html

      She also clarified later that while what he said was wrong, he was not a misogynist.
      http://www.blaghag.com/2011/07/dawkins-is-not-misogynist.html

      Jilette endorsed an article by a female friend of his who argued that gender disparity at skeptic events was not really a problem, and feminists need to quit whining about the it. The best rebuttal to this argument was published on this site.http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/2012/01/02/pennjillette-your-friend-is-wrong/

      I don’t think that these problems are as serious as Bible passages instructing women to be submissive, or the the fact that the Bible is often unclear and contradictory. Nevertheless, when they do come up, they are eagerly addressed and argued over.

  • MaryLouiseC

    Not sure why that appeared as a gigantic block of print.  I had it divided up into multiple paragraphs.  I’m sorry it doesn’t appear that way as it makes it much tougher to read.

  • KrGuest

    In general, I agree that going to church as an atheist can be time well spent, whether you were raised with it or not.  If you approach it as an anthropologist, not a believer, it’s a really fascinating way to find out what looms large in the minds of “the other 85%” (or whatever number).  It helps explain what the heck is happening in the world today.

    I used to think “most churchgoers can’t possibly believe this claptrap, and are only going for social reasons” but now I have truly come to believe that most churchgoers truly believe almost all they are hearing.

  • Ddz1

    as I believe and a Catholic victim of torture symbols – I wonder which is more of a form of torture:  having no future – or suffering and dying to live in peace forever.   You atheists have no optimism.  I do. 

  • Brittanie

    It’s certainly amazing how different the “word of God” sounds when falling on atheistic ears. I’m only just an affirmed atheist but even as long as a year ago, sermons from preachers started to seem wrong to me.


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