Wishing to satisfy the crowd

11 a.m. contemporary Shine worship, First United Methodist Church, Birmingham, Michigan.

I’ve spent my life in small congregations, sometimes ones so small that they didn’t even have a permanent home for worship.

Cozy, yes. Claustrophobic, sometimes.

But chiefly¬†“without many resources.”

First Church is one of the largest congregations in my hometown, but that isn’t why I chose it this Sunday. First Church is also the site of Friday Night Lights, which is a once-a-month rave that attracts 500+ middle-schoolers. Fun? “Made of awesome,” my seventh-grade son says.

So I thought he might not mind accompanying me to a contemporary worship at the very location of so much awesome, i.e, First Church’s Christian Life Center. I kinda figured he’d balk at the traditional worship being held in the sanctuary at the same time. (Two simultaneous services! A first for me.)

“Ooh, coffee,” my son said, coming through the entrance doors to the CLC. “Coffee, coffee, coffee!” Other churches have coffee before worship (see yesterday), but First Church has coffee with optional hazelnut and vanilla flavorings. And hot chocolate. With mini-marshmallows.

“You can take it in to worship, if you like,” said Cheryl, behind the counter. She pointed to the to-go lids and then to the gym behind me, where the band was warming up with a tune I couldn’t quite recognize. All right, then. The boy — converted for the price of a Starbucks — and I took our coffees to seats on the basketball floor.

First Church’s band is of the Christian pop-rock variety, professional and professionally amplified, with lyrics projected on big screens above our heads. The music is way more modern than 19-century hymns, but from my son’s stony look, I gather it’s nothing like what he listens to on his own.

Or maybe he was trying to maintain his cool. “I don’t do singing,” he whispered to me during the second song, as the crowd began to clap on the backbeat.

“Do you do dancing?” I whispered back. He gave me the Preteen Look of Horror, but he did stop frowning.

The rock concert stage may be the chancel of our times, but still, there are no altars in basketball gyms. Rev. Brian William paced in front of the microphone stands to deliver a sermon on Mark 15:15. You know, where Pilate asks the bloodthirsty mob which prisoner they want released, Barabbas the thief or Jesus.

Pilate knew the right thing to do, William said. But Pilate wanted to satisfy the crowd — and so a great evil was done. When evil takes root among a crowd of people, what grows is horrific: Rwanda, Cambodia, Kosovo. On and on.

But in looking around a church built with so many appealing, market-tested features — new classrooms and youth parties, rock music and coffee bars — I couldn’t help but think that sometimes “what would satisfy the crowd” can lead to good. (And not just “good vanilla coffee.”)

First Church sponsors a ministry called Art & Soul at Central UMC in Detroit. Volunteers go on Mondays and Thursdays to help homeless people express themselves through art. (If you think “expressing yourself” is the least important thing a homeless person needs, ask yourself why a homeless person should need it any less than you do.) Only a prosperous church — one that has more than enough resources — can hope to offer a ministry like that.

We saw a short film about one visit, in which homeless Detroiters decorated cupcakes. One man decorated with gusto, piling sprinkles and frosting so high that the First Churcher helping him finally squeaked out, “Less is more!”

“Girl,” the man told her, “less is NOT more.”

Amen.