So I went undercover at an evangelical church (story + videos)
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21-02-2011, 03:31 PM
So I went undercover at an evangelical church (story + videos)
My first post on these boards. Wrote this up for a few others on another forum, but thought it would be appropriate on here. Sorry if it's a bit lengthy!

Well, I finally made it to visit an Evangelical church today and it was definitely a good experience. Not perhaps good in the sense that I thoroughly enjoyed it and felt an innate value to the ceremony, but more to do with the angle of approach and different view one gets from actually being there, rather than seeing clips or sound bites on television. Despite an apparent wealth of theoretical/observed experience on the topic, I came away with my opinion slightly changed on what it means to be part of an Evangelical congregation. That is, some of the finer details of the motives behind the movement, rather than some change of heart re the divinity of God.

The name of the church is Hillsong, and it took place at the Dominion Theatre in London. Not quite the venue one would expect for a religious gathering, outside of Bible Belt country, USA. Hillsong has its roots in Australia, and has now spread throughout the world in the 25 years it has been in operation; counting countries such as Sweden, Russia, and South Africa within its sphere of influence. The reason I chose to make this my first appearance in a place of worship for many years was largely down to coincidence. A friend of mine who converted to Christianity several years ago happened to invite me along, and despite initially worrying that it would compromise my anti-religion stance, I saw it as an opportunity to gain first-hand insight into what makes an Evangelical church tick, and moreover, capture audiences. Clearly Evangelical church is regarded as quite hard-line in the scheme of things. When it comes to the fundamentals of the religion, there's certainly not the degree of leniency shown in brands of Christianity more popular across England, which gave my Atheist heart an extra rush of adrenalin just contemplating the scope for absurdity.

I arrived 15 minutes early, so as not to be rude and cause any grievance to those who'd generously invited me, only to find that my friends were running a bit late; leaving me to mingle with a very smiley bunch of churchgoers. Even on the front door there were people wearing brightly-coloured Hillsong wind-breakers and t-shirts, waiting to greet and even chat to random people entering the building. As I was alone at this point I was sure I'd be collared, but a healthy scowl managed to keep God's children at bay. I'd liken it to perhaps being black at a KKK rally, wearing the full garb. You suspect that your cover is about to be blown at any moment, and just hope they don't attempt to engage in conversation, for fear that the truth may come out.

My only hope was to wait for my inside people who could smuggle me across the finishing line and into the service. As it was, the people I was due to meet arrived and I was saved, only to then be thrown into a very large rock-type gig. There were perhaps 1,000-2,000 people in attendance, which is impressive considering that's just the Central London branch, and they actually hold two shows/sermons every Sunday, with a further two planned for the near future. Troubling times ahead for Christianity? Not if this church is to go by.

Slightly concerning to me - as somebody who counts friends as regular attendees - is the clear focus on money and spreading the word. I'm unused to church collections, but I just didn't like how envelopes were put on every chair and people asked to share, despite the fact that they may already have payments set-up on a monthly basis. Indeed, I believe it's not uncommon to find people giving 10% of their salary directly to the church. Having been alarmed by this in the past, I'd made my discomfort at the idea known, but was assured that the church was simply being used to distribute the money amongst good causes. This seemed kosher, aside from adding an extra step in the process, so I let it slide. However, at the service yesterday they were not plugging the idea of helping starving children or protecting the weak, but rather finding a new site to park their vans in order to facilitate moving drum kits and guitars for the stage show! Incredible. I'm not sure whether those donating completely missed that part of the sermon, or whether they were too embarrassed to mention it was where their cash was going, but I found it quite disturbing.

The idea of having (paying for) rock bands and stage shows already made me a little uneasy, as it seemed that cash should be going towards good causes. Although, much as with Dawkins' claim that faith is a virus, the self-serving, intent-on-blindly-multiplying nature of what I saw painted a picture of an entity trying to grow and increase in following, based on very little, and with definite lack of concern for what I would regard as the true greatness of religion; care for fellow man. It shouldn't be focussed on converting people, but rather helping those in need. As an Atheist it's always difficult not to challenge clearly incorrect views, but I certainly wouldn't spend charitable money on taking down the opposition and bringing people around to my way of thinking. I find it quite strange that God-fearing people don't share this view. Surely it's a huge sin to spend such funds on largely irrelevant items? I was left with the feeling that being a good Evangelical Christian is all about converting others and increasing the following, without questioning why, or the motives of the church generally.

So – on to the show. As expected, there was a teeny-rock act, singing lyrics pertaining to Jesus and Christianity. Such things have been parodied over and over, with a recent South Park episode ringing-true over issues such as the undertones of sex and hormones when it comes to Christian rock. There were certainly a number of female fans who were quite vocal, and I even heard a whistle or two. Of course this sounds like harmless, typical behaviour to us, but for a church? Far be it from me to get on my high horse about what a religion should be, but it didn't quite sit right. I was neither gob-smacked, nor indeed outraged, although due mention has to be made of the amount of material I'd witnessed via my own research over many years; which perhaps made it somewhat expected.

The issue of traditional, dignified Christianity versus this all-guns-blazing spectacular is one which is slightly harder for me to be confident on, having seen it for myself. Previously I'd considered the former to be a better method of worship, but for the sake of completeness, I thought I should evaluate my own prejudgement. Firstly, what made me think there is a best or better method of worship? Indeed, if to my mind all worship is ultimately futile, does it really matter what form it takes? Is it more valuable to flog a dead horse with a pneumatic drill rather than a stick? In theory we can attest to the power of the mechanical method, but in practice there's no great gain. Even suspending that disbelief, and entering the realm of second-guessing God's preferred method of worship sees us fare no better.

The already-strained adherence to higher authority, brilliantly filtered by men of power throughout the ages, struggles yet further as man - the self-imposed interpreter of God - attempts to select the most appropriate way in which to show faith. Quite clearly, a follower of Monotheism can't show any reason why their religion is "more" the word of God than their counterparts’, so it seems that we should eliminate this thinking on the grounds of objectivity. There really is no reason for somebody to add more credence to their religion, nor their method of worship, based solely on human interpretation. Rock bands and solemn prayer are two halves of the same walnut; which hangs from the branch of a tree whose form is guessed at as the correct will of a being who is assumed to have existed. To question the shade of the walnut seems a little distracting from the bigger picture and bigger questions posed by the hypothesis.

Throughout the two-hour show I paid complete attention to the pastor, who explained his thoughts on the role of a religion versus the pure act of faith in a higher power. To my surprise, he sided with the argument that religion is man-made and open to human interpretation, and instead focussed on the personal relationship one has with God. Whilst seemingly a selfless act by a church pastor, I couldn't help but wonder how they could then justify running a church themselves. Were they paying lip-service to their own ideals? My suspicion was further aroused later when Bible passages were discussed, suggesting that only one true God should be worshipped, and people shouldn't flip between idols. That's all well and good, aside from the fact they're assuming their own, Christian God is the one "true" God, which fails a sanity test as it's an empty claim which any other group could happily make. The suspension of disbelief is absolutely critical in the use of such ideas. If I'd have been carried away and rather wishy-washy about my beliefs it would have been easy to go with the flow and believe the pastor was being earnest, when really it demands the acceptance of something far more bizarre. Indeed, this separation of fundamental concepts from "teachings" is key to the successful transference of information, and the lack of questioning on the part of the follower. It's effectively shoe-horning information; hoping the less-palatable details will be drowned by the feeling of goodness and delight in hearing a positive passage about how God will reward those who believe.

The reward idea is packaged with guilt and personal blame. It's a win-win situation for Christianity, as they are able to pass-off the lack of divine intervention as the individual's fault, with claims that they're not trying hard enough to be good people, or that their faith is waning. Effectively this creates a circular logic trap in which somebody not feeling the rewards of worship feels they need to try harder, until something inevitably goes right. Over time and by chance we would expect to see some positive from which they could gain confidence, with or without God's hand, yet the very same fortune will quickly and shamelessly be attributed to faith by those looking for affirmation of their beliefs. This quite cruel and unfounded logic is used as a tool to subconsciously intimidate a perhaps already-weak person into further submission.

As was expected, the evening was splattered with the mention of reward, and how all that’s required is a belief in God; with the so-called saviour to provide everything, as he is everything. By this point I was turning my head to look around for a fellow bemused face, but there were none to be found. Everybody was taken in and there were no obvious logical filters being applied to judge whether these were words with genuine basis in reality or whether they were just accepting what they've been told. Those with even a passing knowledge of Monotheism, and particularly Christianity, should be aware of the paradox that is the juxtaposition of prayer and free will.

Free will is the classic defence used by Christians against criticism of God for all the evil in the world. The idea being that it’s impossibly to correctly judge a person if they are given everything just by asking, rather than having to struggle. The idea of a God who creates beings just to judge them is a little much for me, but let's follow the thought process. The devil being responsible for evil never quite cut it with an awful lot of people (omnipotent God, creator of all, not only responsible for the creation of the anti-Christ, but also powerless to stop him?), so the concept of free will was used. I could accept the lack of contradiction on this issue if it weren't for the fact that church leaders constantly push prayer as a means of achieving help. From a psychological standpoint, it's quite clear that an internal monologue with self can clearly benefit those who are guilty of not thinking problems through. There is no supernatural being involved, but rather an expected chemical and emotional reaction in the brain.

We can explain away the placebo effect very easily. It's the bi-product impact on a human, whereas what I later witnessed was something far more foul. About 15 minutes into the show the speaker decided to read from some cards which had been sent to the church, by people who had positive messages. One included a chap who apparently had a terminal, cancerous tumour, with little hope of recovery. He wasn't a member of the parish, but he asked - via friends - if they could pray for him. Wonderfully he managed to recover, assuming the story was genuine and not a hoax aimed at wowing people. I found this claim to be quite sickening, despite the welcome resolution. There is no possible way, using the logic of Christians themselves, coupled with our understanding of modern science, that prayer could make any difference. More to the point, there cannot be, and is no such thing, as divine intervention. By definition it's just not possible, yet it's included as a matter of fact; giving false hope to many, and surely a feeling of anger when their prayers go unanswered..

This leads us nicely on to the idea that worshippers are programmed to defend the lack of answers on the part of God. This wouldn't be necessary if the logical "prayers can't be answered/God doesn't control things" argument was maintained, but instead we now have excuses being manufactured where they aren't needed. It would be easy to tear them to pieces, so let's have a go. An obvious example would be the one chosen by the pastor. He claimed that those who were suffering had strayed from God's path. It was as if they themselves were to blame for the lack of a miracle. That's quite a weight to hang around the shoulders of very impressionable, and quite possibly, very desperate people. I say desperate, as notoriously faith is gained and focussed on in relation to the human state, or psyche, if you will. Using the pastor's own words, people don't generally call out for God to request that halting of all the good things in their life or bemoan the fact that life is going perfectly. Instead we see people asking for help when they have serious problems which they feel are beyond them. The psychological reasons are obvious to all.

So, whilst it's impossible to judge reasons for each individual having faith, it's worth noting that the head honchos agree that there exists a far greater tendency to attract those who are suffering. We have a set of people who are down and out, needing help, and basically they're being told that their current woes are related to their lack of belief in God. Looking at this objectively, we may argue that they're being told what they need to hear in order to improve themselves, but clearly the supernatural, God side is being invoked, or else the whole religion would be for nothing. The potential value in telling people what they need to hear is great, if indeed being held responsible for the bad in their lives provokes a good response. However, the natural consequence of such selective thinking is the exclusion of individual praise for the good they do. Instead we see God or Jesus taking credit, with the being reduced to a mere conduit.

This is the absolute opposite of self-empowerment and personal responsibility. It also lends itself to the idea that doing something you personally believe to be the will of God will see you greatly rewarded. Perhaps in an afterlife, perhaps before, but the potential to kid people into following even extremism is there to be witnessed. The true beauty of humanity is surely to be moral because things simply are right and wrong, rather than because you want to earn brownie points with a higher being, for reasons of self-interest. The logic trap here being that moderate religious groups can use human morals to redefine the apparent word of God. "They aren't real xyz" is a phrase we hear in reference to many extreme groups, but that's human judgement doing God's job. There's little step from that to advocating evil. Religious morals are no more than rehashed models of previously-held human ideals. The moment you add God, who is infallible, you then confuse issues and see humans attempt to push the boundaries and reinterpret scripture to suit their own needs. Being able to distance oneself from personal responsibility is an insult to civilised society, and should not be tolerated. Of course, another thought is that awful things happen to new born babies, who are surely devoid of sin. This again shatters the idea that all personal suffering is the fault of the individual.

Back to the sermon. We were presented with a "case study" video of a girl who was lost and guess what? Now was found. Simply words on a screen, with no real value other than to hammer home the idea that Jesus = salvation, and that salvation could only come via their route, and would most likely be helped by making monetary donations to the church. The constant reinforcement of this idea was done as if telling a fairy tale; only the onlookers were all older and should have known better. Lots of overly positive comments and waffle, backed by images of the odd Bible verse. It was done quite cleverly. Rather than have open discourse on a given topic, we'd be presented with a vague passage, proclaiming a correct way to go, and the inevitable positive value in doing so. Thinking about it, it read like an advertising campaign. Imagine, if you will, a pyramid scheme presentation with music. The fact that they were preaching to the converted tells me that it's an unconvincing job being a disciple of Jesus. If I had a belief which relied on constant reminder and scare tactics, I'd certainly question the logic behind that belief. To willingly, systematically expose oneself to propaganda in order to believe is wholly irrational.

The entire idea of congregation fits in with this backwards thinking, to display a world in which people only believe because others do. They lack courage in their convictions. The large crowd and feeling of being as one aim at playing on human desire to be part of a group and feel their views are shared. Indeed, it could be claimed that supposed personal relationships with God are the product of human desire to be known and understood. We all, deep down believe that we're interesting, multi-faceted beings, and we look to meet others who confirm that in us, and really "get" who we are. What better than an all-knowing God? Even if the world is against you, the suggestion is that God understands. And so another psychological weapon in the armoury of religion is unleashed.

I was quite annoyed by some of the clear lies on display. Aside from the claims to have cured the incurable, I was met with a number of references to the world being "thousands" of years old. Rather amusingly the pastor mentioned God having looked over us for "hundreds of thousands of years", which he quickly corrected to "hundreds AND thousands of years". Silly him - imagine trusting science - the climax of all previous human learning and understanding of the world - when you can just guess based on a dubious and clearly self-serving book from 2,000 years ago? The pastor later explained that the world was 6,000-years-old, and that despite our education, "not everything you learn in school is correct". Propagating lies to fit in with an outdated fairy tale. If Jesus were real, he would truly be weeping. Once you have to start making bare-faced lies to support your beliefs, it's seriously time to examine yourself and your motives for belief. I was angry at first, but this subsided as I think the pastor genuinely believes what he says, and he himself is possibly a victim of the very words he now uses to capture the minds of others.

I was expecting some of the more extreme parts of Evangelical Christianity to be on display, but it's clear there's a difference from church to church as to the best method of worship; even those under the "Evangelical" banner. Within the congregation itself there were dissenting voices (upon being questioned by me) over the pastor's claims that the world was just 6,000-years-old, which made me question the logic of group faith over personal faith. I can only see the social acknowledgement factor being the difference. Indeed, it could be said that people compromise their own values and religious morals in order to join a specific group and be part of a team. From a moral standpoint, I think that's quite abhorrent, as harmless as it may seem. You're freely admitting that you're adhering to something you don't quite believe in, for the sole purpose of removing feelings of inadequacy or isolation. The need to be part of something and have one's views affirmed - combined with the championed reward system - makes for a mind which is open to unfounded suggestion, and ultimately religious falsehood.
Here are the videos I took.

Claims that people have been cured/got jobs thanks to prayer (includes me turning the camera on myself at 2:15 and mouthing "what the f***?!", as I had nobody else to say it to):

Welcome message and call for more donations, plus extensive chat on where the money will be spent:

Pastor discussing new church in France:

Girls giggling at innuendo (the two I was with :-s), Evangelical-style running/dancing on stage and more:
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22-02-2011, 04:46 AM
RE: So I went undercover at an evangelical church (story + videos)
Hillarius videos ^^ I enjoyed your commentary on the ordeal, yeah generally when someone I know decides to invite me to church they make sure it's a more empiracle pastor =p This guy is some piece of work. I loved everyone reaching out seeing as how they could've just reached out in their minds. Was laughing for a good 4 minutes on that part. Clearly I would hope most of the people who went there are just wanting to be in a giant congregation and don't really believe what he's saying, but faith healing has always been the number one hook. Even though of course according to Christian beliefs if god cures a deadly disease, that means someone has to live longer before reaching heaven. But who wants to insert logic anywhere?

Wonderful observation, I've never been to an evangelical church. I have been to Catholic churches in Italy though. What an odd experience, so many people are there that it's about the same feeling as being in a mosh pit at a concert. You came to enjoy the performance (pastor speaking) but everything is drowned out by the immenseness of the crowd. Kinda like how I would view being on drugs is (seeing as I've never tried) what with all the bright colors everywhere and ceilings with imperceptive heights.

I'm not a non believer, I believe in the possibility of anything. I just don't let the actuality of something be determined by a 3rd party.
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24-02-2011, 07:25 PM
RE: So I went undercover at an evangelical church (story + videos)
(22-02-2011 04:46 AM)Lilith Pride Wrote:  Kinda like how I would view being on drugs is (seeing as I've never tried) what with all the bright colors everywhere and ceilings with imperceptive heights.

But being on drugs is would be more enjoyable then going to church, mind you seeing a band wouldn't be half bad... Now Phase 2 has inspired me to want to go undercover, darn it.
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