My mother once said, “You’re a Presbyterian, so act like one.” I have absolutely no recollection of what I’d done to receive that advice, but I remember at the time wondering what a Presbyterian acted like. I’m still a Presbyterian and I know a great many Presbyterians, but I still can’t come up with a proper template for Pres-behavior.
When I moved to Arenzville, the Presbyterian church had recently closed so I attended what I figured was the closest thing to my former church, Arenzville Methodist. Methodists look just like Presbyterians, their order of worship is similar, they use mostly the same words and they believe in potlucks … that’s all I needed. But over the years I’ve been fortunate enough to do piano gigs in a variety of denominations and have gained at least a little insight into what makes one congregation different from the next. Let me begin by saying that most members of mainline churches know but a little of their church’s tenets and history, so their differences seem largely self-imposed or inherited from their family If you’re looking for a scholarly analysis of American church-dom here, look elsewhere. I’m not smart enough to do that, and besides, it sounds pretty boring. Instead, a few observations and anecdotes …
My friend John recently did some music for a small independent church in Springfield. Sometime during the three-hour service, the “prophet” commanded all the worshippers to come forward. John’s a nice Methodist boy who has been taught to obey, so he dutifully walked forward with the rest of congregation … except for one homeless man in the back row who headed for the door. The prophet saw him and shouted, “Junas! Don’t go out that door!” Junas stopped a moment, then again headed for the exit. “Junas! You’re being disobedient! Stop right there!” Junas left and for that one Sunday gave up the free meal that usually followed the service.
Sitting up front playing the piano, I get a good view of what’s happening back in pew-ville and the music itself is often what most clearly separates one denomination from another. I’ve played for services where the hymns must be submitted by noon on Thursday or else, while in some congregations the worshippers shout out their favorites as the service is going on … a spiritual version of ‘Stump the Band.’ I once played for a service in Adams County where the minister began by saying, “God hasn’t said a word to me this week about what I should preach about. Did He speak to any of you?” As it turns out, God did, and several in the congregation gave little sermonettes. The energy level in some services I’ve witnessed vary from people passing out from too much dancing around to Sunday mornings when they fell asleep out of sheer boredom. I once attended a service at MacMurray in which the priest was dressed as a clown and we took communion by dancing around in a circle on the Annie Merner stage and tossing the bread and wine over our shoulder to the next dancer. One of my most memorable worship experiences was in a “catacomb service” patterned after the early Roman Christians who were forced to worship in dark caves. There were no lights. If you knew a scripture, you said it; if you knew a song, you sang it; and if you felt like praying aloud, you prayed. Okay, it was just spooky enough to shock my Presbyterian sensibilities, but by golly, it was strangely moving. More church moments that I’ll not soon forget … walking into a service in Shannon, Ireland, when the boys’ choir was rehearsing, taking a tour of Canterbury Cathedral just as the organist let loose with Bach’s “Prelude and Fugue in A Minor,” watching a little lad from Arenzville come forward to play his first public piano solo and a Decatur service at which an elderly lady had knelt at the altar to take communion and then had trouble getting to her feet, only to be helped up by two little granddaughters who came running down the aisle. I’ve always thought that I could enjoy any sort of service as long as they worshipped God, but when I read of the snake handlers down South, I fear that there are denominations that might test my resolve.
I don’t agree with those who grouse about the fact that America is host to so many denominations. As long as people have varying personalities, it’s a good thing to have churches that fit them. We’d all be a bit uncomfortable if forced to fall into a similar pattern of worship. Besides, there’s the tale of my grandmother (also a Presbyterian). When I was but a young Presby-pup, I looked at the three churches in our little town and became confused. How could they all be correct? I asked her, “Grandma, if Jesus came to town, which church would he go to?” She smiled and told me, “Oh don’t be silly, Kenny. He’d probably be in jail.”