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Wednesday, May 14, 2008 08:18 pm

Going to church with Mom

My boyhood church keeps the faith, contemporary-style

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Untitled Document On Mother’s Day I go to church with Mom. She’s still with our old home church, Central Christian, though it’s hardly the same church I grew up in. Central has become our small town’s version of a megachurch. Over the past 20 years it has leaped enthusiastically into the contemporary-worship movement, first ditching hymnals in favor of projecting the words on a screen (“If the projector bulb ever burns out, we won’t be able to have church,” my late father used to grumble) and then taking out the choir loft to make room for a band and “praise team.” A few years ago Central completed a multimillion-dollar worship center with advanced lighting, sound, and audiovisuals. Its trendiness has been rewarded: People are flocking to join the flock. I ran into a friend who grew up there with me and stayed. He’s now a member of the board, so I thanked him for taking good care of the place that means so much to me and my family. “It’s not easy,” he said. “We’re growing so fast.” That’s not a problem I’ve had in the church I belong to, where the theology is more liberal and the worship more traditional — but I didn’t tell him that. As I looked for Mom among the hundreds swarming through the atrium between services, one of my high-school classmates, who has been coming to Central for only a few years, greeted me enthusiastically: “What brings you here?” I thought he was kidding. “It’s Mother’s Day,” I responded. He said, “Oh, your mom goes here?” I could excuse him for not knowing that this is my old church, but how could he not know it’s hers, when she’s here about every time the doors open? “He probably goes to the 10:45 service,” Mom explained after we found each other. “I usually go to the 8 o’clock or the 9:15.” I was heartened to see several of my mother’s contemporaries, who had been my Sunday-school teachers and Vacation Bible School leaders, seated with their “kids,” who had been in my youth group and are now pushing 60. As we took our seats in the auditorium, I remembered the special feeling I had as a kid when just Mom and I went to the Sunday-night service, where we sang hymns together. Dad stayed home to watch Bonanza. For him, church just once on Sunday was enough.
The house lights went down, the stage lights went up, and, at the top of an elaborate set that looked like a bridge to heaven, the drummer launched the service from on high. (“Mom’s church has gone Las Vegas,” I once said at a family gathering. “More like Branson,” my Missouri brother-in-law corrected.) Guitarists joined in and then the praise-team vocalists followed with “Give it up. Give it all up.” I didn’t know exactly what we were giving up, though the theme of the service was “surrender.” As the lyrics came on the screen, I could see why these praise tunes are called “711 songs”: seven words repeated eleven times. The video announcements included footage of the children’s stage performance from last Sunday, for thos who’d missed it. Then came the dedication of several babies, with something else we didn’t see in the 1950s and ’60s: One of the babies was introduced with just her mom — no dad mentioned, no questions asked. Some things haven’t changed; as in many other conservative churches, there are still barriers to women in leadership. But many things have; I saw a couple of black faces in the crowd, a difference from back then. Central reaches out to the poor with food pantries and soup kitchens more than we ever did when I was young. The church’s divorce-support group would have been unheard of in those days. The preacher, in a polo shirt (I was the only one there wearing a tie), delivered a sermon in his “Prayer for Dummies” series on the Lord’s Prayer. His central point was that prayer reminds us, “God is God and I am not.” I couldn’t agree more, and was thinking that the theme could be expanded beyond the purely personal to include groups such as the U.S. military, but he didn’t go there. The ushers had handed out a page of sermon notes, with blanks to fill in. “Write this down,” the preacher said. “I surrender to God’s control.” To close, we got to sing an old hymn, because it fit the theme. There was no hymnal to share, but everything else was the same as when I was a boy, with Mom and I singing together, “All to Jesus, I surrender, all to him I freely give. . . .”

Contact Fletcher Farrar at ffarrar@illinoistimes.com.