Karaoke for Jesus

Warning: This entry deals with some of my feelings about church. I have tried not to offend anyone, but if you’re pretty sensitive about church-related issues, you may want to skip today’s entry. Thanks.

If you live in the South, you’re either a Baptist or a Methodist. If you are neither, you’re “goin’ to hail.”

I learned about this categorization early on, in the first or second week in my new school after we moved to Virginia from Colorado. I seemed to get the same questions from all the kids I met. “What’s your name?” “What kind of accent is THAT?” “Where are you from?” And the last – “Are you a Baptist or a Methodist?”

“Er, neither,” I’d reply, and a lot of kids were horrified. Imagine their horror when they met Jon, a Jewish kid from Brooklyn, a few years later.

For the record, it wasn’t that they were intolerant, so much as they had honestly never encountered anyone in their lives who was neither a Baptist nor a Methodist.

I’ve never been religious. My father was raised in the Baptist church. My maternal grandfather actually traveled around the country building churches, and when my mom was a kid, she’d go to whatever church was being built at the time. So she got to experience a really wide range of sects of Christianity, from churches where people spoke in tongues and writhed in the aisles, to churches where you kind of just hung out and talked about stuff, to churches where you weren’t allowed to wear makeup or pants, cut your hair, or listen to rock music.

I don’t know how they made the decision to let us choose our own belief system, but that’s what my parents did. So we were never baptized or christened or anything, and we almost never went to church as kids. My aunt belonged to a Disciples church in town, and sometimes Ginny and I would go to services with her or participate in the Christmas plays. Ginny went a lot more often than I did; I tended to get freaked out and dizzy every time I went to church. Maybe I’m possessed.

While I was away at college, my parents decided that they wanted to belong to a congregation again, and began attending services at a small local Baptist church. When I got home from school, I briefly attended with them for several weeks.

I learned pretty quickly that the Baptist church and I disagreed on a lot of issues, but since they almost never came up during services, I kept on going for awhile, figuring it wouldn’t kill me to spend an hour a week making my family happy, and that I might learn something.

Finally, there came a point where I knew for sure I wasn’t getting anything out of my time spent, and furthermore, that I was actively becoming bored and annoyed at each service. So I stopped going, and I do the Chreaster thing now with my family.

Despite my lack of religion, I was raised really well. I have good manners (most of the time), I’m kind to others, I have a clearly defined sense of right and wrong, and I try to live my life in a manner I can be proud of. That’s not so different from what Christians try to do, is it?

I’ve taken many opportunities over the years to check out church, just to see if anything has changed for me. So far, it hasn’t. And please, don’t try to talk me into it. I’d never try to talk you into agnosticism (which, I guess, is where I identify best), because I know it would be equally futile.

It’s nothing against my parents’ church, really. The pastor and the associate pastors are nice guys and good speakers. They don’t normally spend more than twenty minutes of a service on sermons. They try hard to relate lessons from the Bible to real life using good commonsense language. They don’t go all hellfire and brimstone, condemning liberals, gays, feminists, “baby-killers,” and Democrats (although a speaker they brought for revival did once). For the most part, it’s a kind, gentle, friendly Baptist church.

What broke the deal, then? What was it that was so bad that I couldn’t just suck it up and keep going for an hour each week, if for no other reason than to please my family?

The answer, my friends, is the music.

My parents’ church is really into canned contemporary Christian music. That tends to be the only stuff performed during special music time. Back when they had the 11:00 service in the sanctuary, they did sing a traditional hymn or two from a hymnal during the service, and that was good.

But the church has been growing. It grew so much that they built another building to accomodate more people. Part of this building, which doubles as a gym, is now filled with chairs and the 11:00 service is held there. Gifts to the church made possible the acquisition of a large projection screen. And THAT is even worse.

Because now, the only hymns sung are contemporary hymns (are they even called hymns?) with a backing track from a CD or tape. Since no one knows these songs, the words are projected on the screen.

In my eyes, this is a train wreck.

I have been singing for a very long time, and I have been reading music since I was about 6. It’s like English to me. If I don’t know a song, and I have the music in front of me, I can sight sing it passably, and what’s more, my voice is strong enough to help the people around me.

That’s not ego, really – I think it’s how most churches work. You have the choir singing to help out, and you have a handful of strong singers dispersed throughout the congregation who either know the song or can read the music and help to carry the people nearby.

When all you have are words on a projection screen and a backing track, if you don’t know the song, you’re screwed. Most of the time, they’re screwed.

Now, the songs are bad and they’re sung badly. Singing used to be my favorite part of church, and now I can barely stand it, because at the very least, if I had some music or something to go by, I could follow along with even a lousy song. But now it’s just words on the screen. It’s like Karaoke for Jesus. And most of the people around me never know what the hell is going on either, so you’re either standing there pretending to sing, or you’re picking up notes a half-second after they move on, which causes major discord, and that annoys my sensitive ears and it’s just no good. Why can’t they just move the hymnals from the sanctuary and let people share? Why can’t we sing more? I truly believe that if I’m ever going to feel God, music will have to be involved, and I’m sorry, but the canned crap just won’t do it.

Christmas is worse, because we NEVER sing traditional Christmas songs at the cantata, and one of my favorite things about Christmas is singing ACTUAL Christmas songs with a group of people. I hate the canned stuff. Hate it.

And that plus the minor detail of my issues with the beliefs are the main reasons I don’t go to church anymore.

Besides, I really like to sleep in on Sundays. I’m just sayin’.

9 Replies to “Karaoke for Jesus”

  1. I had to fight with my dad for years before he allowed me to stop going to church. No amount of indoctrination convinced me to buy into something that I wasn't feeling. It was as simple as that and remains so.

    That being said, some of the best people I've known in my life were deeply religious.

    And no, I could never sing worth a shit.

  2. so, really, the post is about your feelings about poor singing in large groups led by people incabable of leading them. Or, more to the point, contemporary/canned music.

    No offense taken here sweetie.

  3. ha! I used to go to church to make my grandparents happy. my grandad was the “head usher.” While we rarely had to suffer through canned contemporary music, our organ was a force to be reckoned with. I think i've got permanent hearing damage now.

  4. I would say, not only don't sing, just don't go. It leaves more space for those who really get into it, and frankly, you don't need that.

  5. That sucks about the singing. Come to think of it, my brother stopped going to our church shortly after a mass where they had the most wretched singer on earth. And since he was a music major, he was pretty much in total pain the whole time. And you think singing badly during a regular mass is bad, how about at a funeral? Both of my grandparents were laid out at the same church and both times we had a horrible older singer. Out of tune and just awful. Of course, they're volunteers so you can't complain. I could go on and on about going to church but i'll save it for one of my entries instead of taking up space here. :)

  6. Whoa — background CDs? Projection screens?

    Man. I stopped going to church once I moved out of the house (going to church was more or less to appease my mother); but the more enjoyable moments during mass was when the choir had to sing. What was really cool about it was that they all knew how to play various instruments and stuff, so it was like…a church band…if that makes any sense. But yeah, live music is so much better than CD. :)

  7. The more I've learned in my undisciplined study of the many forms of Christianity, the more I'm convinced that Jesus was trying to get across ethics as his main thrust. One doesn't need to go to church to understand ethics, indeed, fundamentalism can certainly cloud the issue.

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