Sunday, August 7, 2022

Churches of the Silver Valley: The Worship Center, Smelterville

(Part nine in an ongoing series.)

I'd been to The Worship Center once before, back in early 2020. So I figured I knew what to expect when I headed out today to visit the only church in the little town of Smelterville, known more for its Walmart store these days than for its historical role in smeltering ore that gave the town its name, back in the mining heyday of the Silver Valley.

It's been a rough week for me from a physical standpoint, so I had it in my head that reviewing a place I'd been before would require less effort on my part. In fact, I'd been thinking about putting this series on pause for August, so I could rest and prepare myself for our family's upcoming road trip. But in the end I reasoned, probably correctly, that if I found an excuse to take a break, I'd never get back to it.

I was also tempted to visit a Unity Church out in Coeur d'Alene, outside the Valley, after happening upon a book last week that explored Unity's beliefs -- which seem not all that far removed from mine, at least in terms of how Unity envisions God and Christ as concepts, and our relationship to both. But I watched snippets of a few services online and didn't feel particularly moved by what I saw to make the hourlong trek. And Unity's embrace of the Prosperity Gospel kind of negated in my mind all the good that they might otherwise do.   

So off to Smelterville I went. But I was on my own today, as the kiddo decided to beg off on going to church this week. Yes, I started this series as a kind of religious-ed homeschooling project for her, but if she didn't feel like going to church, I wasn't going to force her. Having church forced on me as a kid, after all, only ended up making me like it less.   

So, about the church itself. This rather generically named place of worship makes its home inside a big tan-and-brown building that, as far as I could see, had no exterior signage whatsoever. There were a few folks talking outside the entrance, in an open pavilion area with folding tables. My best guess was that people had gathered to eat on this warm summer morning before the service. I spotted a coffee dispenser near the entrance, grabbed a cup, and headed inside.

In the hall leading to the sanctuary was an information desk with merchandise for sale. I'd find my way back there afterward. I could see from a countdown clock on one of the projector screens in the sanctuary that I had only three minutes till the service started, so I went in and found a seat at the back.

Now, The Worship Center is one of two churches in the Valley that resemble what I think of as a typical megachurch. Not that The Worship Center is large in physical size; it's more about an approach to doing church that rubs me the wrong way. To me, it happens when the spectacle of the church experience supersedes authentic worship, or when selling and maintaining a brand takes precedence over everything else. In short, sometimes we're confronted in these communities with what feels uncomfortably like Christianity as a capitalist commodity, all flash and little to no substance. 

So you could say that I walked in today feeling a bit cynical about what I was going to experience.

The place was packed. I'd say there were around 125 people, which actually is a massive church turnout for the Valley. Excepting St. Alphonsus Catholic Church, which had an unusually high attendance the week I visited because of Fr. Jerome Montez's ordination anniversary, I'd say today's turnout exceeded the total number of people attending all the other churches I've visited so far. Heck, there were more musicians onstage today than there were total attendees at a couple of churches I've been to.

The worship music, led by the onstage band, was what I expected in terms of lyrical content. Washed in his blood. Perfect submission. Blessed assurance. My God is bigger, greater, stronger than you. Oh, what a savior, wonderful Jesus, repeated like a mantra. You're still on your throne, so whatever I'm feeling, I've still got a reason to praise.

Those are all direct lifts from today's songs, all sung with earnest passion, as outstretched hands swayed in the air.

I have to be honest: This type of me-and-Jesus worship feels completely alien to me. It actually makes me feel anxious. I don't like the emotionalism of it. It feels shallow and self-centered. It seems to promote overly simplistic answers to both life and faith, embracing an easy-believism kind of Christianity that requires nothing of the practitioner because Jesus already took care of everything. 

But again, this church was packed, while so many Valley churches I've visited have been hollowed out. So maybe people dealing with serious struggles in their lives, as many in this area are, need an uncomplicated faith that gives them a simple hope that everything will work out OK. It doesn't get the job done for me, but then that's why I was just visiting and not a member. 

A little bit of background: The church itself is part of the Pentecostal Church of God, a worldwide denomination with more than 600,000 members. I learned during today's service that the church takes part in overseas missionary work and has undertaken tours of the Holy Land, no doubt drawing on the resources available from being part of a larger church organization. That's something most churches around here couldn't do, given their small congregations and limited funds, so it was certainly nice to see that such opportunities exist in the Valley for anyone interested in taking part. It appears that there are also several local study and fellowship groups that take place during the week, and the church offers a weekly food bank for the needy. The Worship Center appears to be a very active and engaged church that maintains a strong focus on helping others and sustaining their members' faith. 

The lead pastor at The Worship Center is Silver Valley native Corey Berti. Pastor Corey spoke only briefly today, as regional bishop Kelly Lineberry was in attendance to present a certificate of credentials to Ed Warren, a Worship Center member. Though the certificate was, in one sense, "just a piece of paper," the bishop said, it more deeply represented a calling from God to minister to the people. I obviously don't know the back story, but it was clear to me that Mr. Warren has been active in ministry work for the church and was being recognized for his actions, presumably with the goal of giving him more of a pastoral role. 

In fact, after the certificate presentation and a brief prayer, Mr. Warren was handed the stage to deliver the day's sermon. And it's at this point that I have to admit that my cynicism about what I expected today was rather misplaced. 

If you recall from last week's visit to Grace Evangelical Free Church, I expressed my pleasant surprise over Pastor Nick Hoffman's Micah 6:8-based Christianity that takes us out of ourselves and has us focusing on service to the needy and those on the margins. Well, today I heard Mr. Warren delivering a similar message that leaned heavily on the epistle of James and the Sermon on the Mount -- two of my favorite parts of the New Testament. They both call us to action out of love.

Hearing this sermon was kind of a shock to me, because I'm so accustomed to hearing Protestants criticize so-called "works-based salvation," the idea that you have to earn your way into heaven. To me, this stance has always seemed like an excuse for Christians to do nothing to better the world they live in or to better themselves, as if it's enough for them to simply coast through life because their ticket is already punched for heaven. But today I heard just the opposite of that message, and it was wonderful to experience. 

Volunteering at youth camps, Mr. Warren said one of the things he hears over and over from the kids is that they just want someone to love them. As traditional religious faith breaks down and society grows more self-absorbed and angry, alienation and unhappiness are taking ever deeper root. People become disconnected from each other as families pull apart and social networks break down, and they're left feeling unmoored in a world where the ground is constantly shifting under their feet. They have nothing to cling onto. No hope. No love.

This is where Christianity has a bold opportunity to step in and fill that void of love that so many people are experiencing. After all, Christ himself said that the world would know his disciples by their love. 

Mr. Warren made an excellent point that Christ came with an incredibly radical message, one that would set his followers apart from the rest of the world. In essence, when the rest of the world tells you to retaliate, to punch back, Christ said to turn the other cheek and not resist your oppressors -- and, in fact, to kill them with kindness. If someone sues you for your shirt, give them your cloak as well. If a soldier presses you into service to carry his gear for a mile, carry it for two. We do so not to humiliate them or show our moral superiority, but to be such an advocate for radical love that they might be inspired to follow our example. As I've said before, we should always assume that we're the only Bible some people will ever read. 

This is the point that the epistle of James presses so urgently. As Mr. Warren pointed out, James reminds us that it's not enough to tell the person in need to be well and keep warm; we ought to actually help to the extent that we can. This is why James says that faith without works is dead. It's all well and good to thank God for saving us, but do we return the favor and help others? Do we become the hands of Christ in a world that needs his love, or do we just recite creeds and beliefs, telling others about our faith but not showing it? 

To Mr. Warren's way of seeing it, Christians have to be different, and that difference is loving others, even when you're tired or annoyed and the last thing you want to do is reach out. You have to make Christ your "because," the reason you do what you do, loving others because he loved us first. 

Imagine a world where Christians looked like that, selflessly giving and serving, rather than condemnding fellow sinners and acting indifferent to a fallen world because "I've already got mine," both materially and theologically speaking. As I've said before, if Christianity looked more like Christ, maybe the churches wouldn't be emptying out and the world would be filled with more hope and love.

Mr. Warren wrapped up by asking the congregation to reflect during the week on 1 Peter 2:11-25, a passage that exhorts Christians to set an example for others by living a righteous life and following in the example of Christ, who never retaliated against his persecutors but gave his life as an act of sacrificial love. 

I don't think Paul was mentioned once at today's gathering. That alone is remarkable, given how Paul-centric so many Christians are. And when he's absent, the flavor of Christianity you get is completely different. It exudes love, charity, and openness instead of restrictive rules and condemnations. Not that I'm implying that either Mr. Warren or The Worship Center are opposed to Paul. It was just nice to get a break from him, and to see how the New Testament message unfolds so differently without him. I've never hidden my distaste for his teachings. 

You'd think I'd have no interest in Christianity if I don't care for Paul and can't bring myself to believe in an anthropomorphic God. But today's message at The Worship Center was a reminder of why I stick around. There are actually several reasons, like the way Mary connects me to the Sacred Feminine and fills a role for me both as a nurturing mother figure and as an avatar of the Holy Spirit. But even more than that, I just continue to love the story of Christianity, and I think the world would be a much better place if we put Christ's ethics to work and demonstrated the kind of emptying love that he showed others. He's not just a creed or a sacrificial proxy, and when that's all he is, we miss the point and do both ourselves and the world a disservice. And that's why I'm always delighted to see folks in the Christian fold emphasizing love, charity, and mercy over creeds and condemnations. It's those folks who represent our best chance to keep Christ, and Christianity, relevant in our world.

On my way out, I stopped by that merch table and decided to take home some beautiful illustrated study guides from The Daily Grace Company. Along with a guide dedicated to Ruth -- one of only two books of the Bible named for a woman -- and a reflection on The Lord's Prayer, the two books that really caught my eye were reflective of Mr. Warren's sermon today: James, and the Sermon on the Mount. 

People more faithful than I talk about how the Spirit nudges you to pay attention by leaving little clues for you. The fact that I expected easy-believism going into today's service and then got both a sermon and study guides on James and the Sermon on the Mount, encouraging us to demonstrate the love of Christ to a world in need, could easily have those same folks saying, "See? Someone's trying to tell you something."

Maybe; maybe not. I'm content to keep an open mind about it.

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