Hello readers! Like a nice loaf of sourdough, He is risen.
I celebrated Good Friday by attending a Tenebrae service at St. Joseph Cathedral (Roman Catholic) on Broad street in Columbus, and I celebrated Easter in Cincinnati at Crossroads church. Each experience probably deserves its own post, but to be timely I am combining them.
I couldn’t have had two more different experiences. St. Joseph is an old, gothic cathedral. Crossroads is a modern megachurch. The Tenebrae service is very traditional and somber while Crossroads provided a multi-media Easter production. This seems somewhat appropriate since Good Friday marks Jesus’ death, and Easter his resurrection.
Tenebrae means “darkness” in Latin, and the service centers around the extinguishing of candles one by one until the cathedral is in complete darkness, symbolizing the death of Christ. The entire congregation uses their hands or pamphlets to make noise after the last candle is extinguished to symbolize the earthquake described in Passion narratives, and then one candle is relit. The candle remains burning as the congregation is dismissed silently, symbolizing the promise of Christ’s return.
My friend and coworker, Sherrie, told me about Tenebrae services. I had never heard of them, and she agreed to go with me. I am so thankful she did, the experience was unlike any other I have had this year. Every word of the service is sung, there is no sermon. There was a beautiful choir that performed in Latin and in English, singing motets of Gesualdo and Tallis’ Lamentations of Jeremiah. The voices reverberated through the cathedral and made the music sound different than anything I had ever heard before. If I had gone purely for entertainment and not as part of a faith journey, I would have been entertained. I encourage my friends, religious and secular alike, to try to experience a service like this in their lifetime.
While each candle was extinguished, we all had a moment of silent prayer, kneeling in the old pews surrounded by beautiful mosaics depicting the crucifixion of Christ. At first, I took those moments as a pause and rest from the music. I was simply thinking about how pretty the church was or how my knee hurt like hell because I had slammed it on a table while studying (who says being an actuary isn’t an extreme sport?). But as the service moved along I started trying to use those silent moments to actually pray. Praying is hard, especially when you don’t know how you feel about God yet. What do you say to Him?
When I was young, I would pray sometimes. But I used it as a tool to talk to people who were gone. I would pray to talk to my grandma who had died, not really to God. I didn’t know what to think or say, but I tried. The only time I cried during the service was while I tried to pray. It was the closest I have felt to being “moved’ by any service, it was the most peaceful I had felt in a long while.
Leaving the dark church in silence, with one candle burning, was such an impactful symbol. In terms of honoring Christ’s sacrifice, it felt right.
Let’s contrast that experience to Easter. Easter at Crossroads church in Cincinnati. Crossroads is a true blue mega-church. It is made up of 14 branches across Ohio and Kentucky. Combined between all of the branches and all of the service times offered, Crossroads put on 39 Easter services. As of September 2017, they had an estimated 28,386 parishioners, and you can bet the number of attendees was higher than normal today. Crossroads is serving a lot of people. So, how did they do it?
They mass-produced that shit. What I experienced today was a movie/mini concert. A pastor (one of 26 that work in the Crossroads network) came out and introduced the movie. Then the movie played in segments and between each segment, there was a musical number performed live. The music was great! There were lights and cameras, state of the art audio equipment, professional performers, and they even had a rapper for the youths to enjoy. And during the service, you could text a number and win a trip to Israel (it sounds like I am joking but I promise, I’m not).
The movie was a mash up of various Crossroads pastors reading Bible verses and explaining them, and cuts of various church members telling their stories of how they found God in the face of adversity. Many of them said “God saved my life” and the pastors in the video equated that to the way Jesus resurrects us all.
I want to give Crossroads credit for what they did well. The members that shared their stories in the video did an incredibly brave thing, and I applaud them for that vulnerability. The music was modern and moving. The seats were comfy and… that is all I’ve got.
Crossroads is a glossy church. I can’t think of anything more strategically designed, planned, and perfectly presented than a movie they show 39 times. The musicians were working hard today, the AV crew was working hard, the coffee cart people are working hard, but the pastor didn’t seem to be doing a lot of work. He shook some hands and he introduced that movie, but he didn’t say anything that was authentic. As where the Tenebrae moved me more than any other service, the Crossroads service moved me the least of any so far.
That says a lot more about me than the churches, to be fair. I like tradition, I like authenticity. I like a small community of people coming together and not a bunch of individuals coming together to check church off their list once per week.
Crossroads is doing good in the community, and I know for a lot of people a megachurch is in many ways less intimidating than a small church. It is easy to be anonymous and not be noticed, and not make any connections. Or it’s so large you can find your tribe there! They have groups for singles, caregiver support, runners, parents of estranged children, seekers, and all kinds of others. Please scroll through their many group names if you want a laugh. They offer a lot of good things, it just isn’t the right place for me.
I’ve been reading Searching for Sunday by Rachel Held Evans, and she writes on why millennials are leaving the church, and what they are looking for. “We [millennials] can’t be won back with hipper worship bands, fancy coffee shops, or pastors who wear skinny jeans… Millennials aren’t looking for a hipper Christianity… We are looking for a truer Christianity, a more authentic Christianity.”
This resonated with me very deeply. Don’t sell me God or your Church. Explain to me why you love God, be honest, be humble in your worship, and that will go so much further in earning my trust than your glossy Easter video.