"Proof Supernaturally in our Lives"

Connect Church, Bendigo / Aug. 23, 2015

Catherine Schieve

  Greeting : photo by Catherine Schieve

Greeting : photo by Catherine Schieve


Sunday August 23, 2015

Context: Connect is an emerging Pentecostal church in an edge-of-town development on the outer fringes of Bendigo. The church sits on a hillside of scrubby trees, new lawns, dirt roads, family housing with trucks in driveways. There’s a bare dirt parking lot outside the church compound. One can see the spires of Bendigo’s elegant Cathedral district looking European over the hill. It’s a combination of rural and new family settlements, lots of teenagers and children, new migrants, and a strong contingent of older people of more rural appearance including a noticeable number of “down and out” lower working class folks, looking rough hewn and informal. I’m familiar with Bendigo’s downtown, and this area has an entirely different “feel” to it. I was attracted to the tone of Connect’s website: “We are a mixed bunch of people living in the city of Bendigo. . .The main thing uniting us, is the awareness of everyone being profoundly loved by God.”[1]

The Space, exterior: The church is a simple structure; a big boxy rectangular corrugated iron and concrete building. During the hour before the service, amplified rock music booms from the un-soundproofed metal walls. The area is not (yet) landscaped at the time of this writing, and there is a huge bare advertising-style cross, embossed on the front of the building. It is not clear which side of the building is front. The church campus has another large, simple modern space for youth and administration, and a children’s playschool looking lively and colourful. Rough footpaths connect the buildings.

Greeting: People run out to greet me at my early arrival. First an older man in checked shirt, then a young band member, then a woman and child. All are extremely friendly and informally dressed with tattoos, flannel shirts, casual clothes – perhaps an anti-trendiness – I get the message “this is who we are.”

Hospitality: I go inside, invited by a band member to listen to them warm up. There is a greeter and her name is Norelle. She sits beside me for the entire service. She tells me about “Transformation House,” a drug rehabilitation and residential program run by the church. There are two houses, for men and women and those residents must attend church and be mentored by the community.[2] It is an AOG church, an evangelical branch of the Methodist Church. Community buses bring people in for a popular gathering called Hymns for Life. A half-hour before the service, as Norelle talks, there are several dozen people in the building, small prayer meetings happening, conversation, all while the band warms up. People sit on the backs of the seating, legs dangling, the buzz of voices.[3]

Interior Space, congregation: The space is a clean, bare auditorium with raked seating, rock ‘n roll type frontal stage and painted completely black inside, as in a pub or a very plain theatre. There are no windows and no decoration of any kind. There is stage lighting and a centrally located sound booth (my husband - who used to teach audio at Bendigo TAFE - says that the people who run that sound booth consider their work a ministry). The gathered congregation are mixed ages and races; about 80-90% Caucasian and a number of African and Aboriginal folks, mostly in their 20s to 40s with a notable contingent of older men in their 50s and 60s in rough and rural clothing. Norelle mentions that the church is very proud of their elder male group. Most people appear in the middle to lower economic classes, a “proletarian” feel with lots of plaid shirts and jeans, informal dress, family groups, easy-going friendly talk. Some people seem outright disadvantaged either developmentally or economically. People congregate sitting informally on the backs of the benches, chatting in a neighbourly way - this is not about image as much as about community. There are a number of single parent families, mothers with several children, and mixed race families. Norelle tells me that the recovering addicts all sit together, in the front left area of the room. The older folk stick to the back of the room.[4]

A big projection screen front and centre displays the Connect Church logo and website URL.

The amplification is loud and I must put earplugs in to be able to think. Norelle says they have communion every week and it is an important part of their service.[5] One of the men that I met outdoors, a toothless man wearing what looks like a knife holster tells me that he was a member of the Salvation Army and now his brother is in jail. This is why he is at the church today. There are several mixed race couples. There are what I informally identify as “Goth Bendigo youth” – young adults in their 20s wearing black with a downcast style.

Worship begins: The service begins with a warm and lively greeting from the Emcee, who does not appear to be a member of the clergy - it’s jeans and T-shirts, all youth on stage, an eight person rock band. The band faces the congregation spread across the stage, age 20s to 30s, men and women, not particularly cool but casual and energetic. The way they stand and approach singing signifies a “pop devotional” style recognisable despite the low-tech setting. Upward cast eyes, open hand gestures, and a crooning vocal style all say “liturgical pop” – not just singing in a pub.

Moving from Praise to Inwardness:

Our God is greater, stronger… A praise song at smooth medium tempo, all congregation standing. The tempo accelerates gradually and the lyrics take a deeper tone… You are enough… The congregation stays standing for the duration of several such hymns, well over half an hour. Eventually most of the crowd are swaying and moving, hands raised in the air and infants clutched with one hand on the adults’ hips. The babies seem to be participating right alongside the parents; who cares if they make noise? It is chaotic and enthusiastic. By this time I realize that we have not yet seen a member of the clergy. The author of stars the author of life has written his love in us… The tone in the room is becoming more ecstatic and at the same time more inward. You broke my chains of sin and shame, I am set free… calling the Lord … (I think of the addicts in the audience and wonder if the message is slanted toward their presence). The language is simple and vernacular. A young woman soloist with red hair in jeans is now carrying the crowd, trancelike, eyes closed, free speaking over a musical repeating  vamp: I am set free… At this point about 40 minutes in, the audience is free chanting in a very striking way: they are praying out loud, around the tonality of the song, it goes between language and non-language, I hear words of prayer in and out of English, and in tongues made up spontaneously. There is a trance like feel in the room while the video projects images of stars and sparks… The following hymn seems to draw us to the depths: your love is extravagant, your friendship is intimate, you captured this heart. At this point the energy in the room congeals and words return. [6]

Communion and giving: The electric guitarist announces all sit for communion. Grape juice and wafers are passed around and the communion is led from behind the electric guitar - somehow he manages to sip the grape juice while not putting the guitar down. I am fascinated that it is still not clear who the presider is, or if there is anyone leading! Lead guitarist: Lay down our life for people around us…  Take this cup… Our love is tangible. It is a free-form Eucharistic prayer from behind the guitar… We’re here together as a body… Thankful  - all the elements of Eucharistic prayer are here, in an improvisatory structure. All stand again for the “presence” hymn – without it I’m not living, a praise song very slow tempo. The Emcee Joshua talks over a musical vamp (like a Broadway play): praise has power - and moves into an ecstatic sermon over music. It is informal and loose… “proof supernaturally in our lives”… . The African bass guitarist is honoured and applauded. Kids run to the front of the room. Some people leave. The tithe is passed around. Sow into the church… Amen.[7]

Word: At this point I think the service is over. But, Pastor Phil finally makes an appearance. He is dressed in a boxy leisure suit, and appears to be a retired businessman, 65-ish, with broad Aussie accent, clearly an elder and not part of the rock ‘n roll generation. He is lively and conversational. Everyone opens their Bibles which have appeared out of pockets and purses. There is no common publication or pew sheet, it appears everybody has brought their personal Bible along. I was moved to see some of the older plaid shirt men with very battered tiny Bibles pulled out of grubby workmen’s jeans. Pastor Phil launches into John 17:7  with a simple reading and interpretation; “somebody’s praying for you… Jesus’s intercession for us” - this is a basic Jesus lesson. There is no prescribed prayer book. He talks about “the real Lord’s prayer, the high priestly prayer, Jesus loves you… I don’t know about you but I guarantee…” Pastor Phil’s speech is full of repetition, emphasis, relevance. He uses a lot of the word you.[8]

Redemption and Sending: Then the tone shifts and he’s talking about atonement, redemption, fleshy desires, the Lord’s protection from the realm of Satan, (using the language of prison) “in protective custody” “active consent” “Judas made a choice to fall”… Are you with me? YEAH! - from the audience. “The Lord’s pre-judgment of you, your destination, your daily choices…” There is lots of noise and response from the congregation. They shout back. Pastor Phil is jumping up and down, and the message seems to be slanted toward the encouragement and redemption of the ex-addicts in the congregation. “The word joy happens 875 times in the Bible” YEAH! Pastor Phil leaps up and down, evangelizing “bring people to Jesus” his long sermon is a tinge of racist but benevolent. There are some strange comments about the Chinese (I see no Asians in the congregation) and he ends with an emphasis on preservation, sanctification, glorification, unity. It’s quite a long Bible teaching.[9] The service ends with a group prayer, with passion, spontaneous and repetitive “praise you Jesus” – I see much intensity in their eyes. The band reappears with a floating sustain, rising to: All raise their hands to do the will of God. Let’s have a hand for pastor Phil!  Big clapping, and all go for coffee, sent out to soft instrumentals.[10]

After: My host Norelle sticks close by me during coffee and is very eager to know what I thought.[11] We sit under a giant pop art wall Fresco of Jesus and the cafeteria is hopping with activity. Interestingly, there are two coffee lines, one for those who can pay and one for those who cannot. I have the feeling that these services inject a lot of hope combined with stern messages into the lives of the congregation.

Reflection: To worship (even as a visitor) with a community is to know the people with a kind of intimacy. This group and their practice create a feeling of openness and inclusivity  permeating straight through from the lively participation of the people, to the tone of the website and way of inhabiting the church space. There is a lack of ornamental ecclesiastical symbolism within the service (vestments, architectural decoration, precious objects.) These things occur in the act of performance - sound, words, gestures, and articulation of time. Theologically, I noticed that Jesus is positioned as “friend” who brings us to the Lord. In other words, it’s not a clear sense of the Incarnation God-Christ, but something slightly different; Jesus as conduit. That sense of conduit is clearly communicated; worship as living Spirit. Structurally, the most remarkable thing was the temporal unfolding of the long music-liturgy – 35-40 uninterrupted minutes with tongue speaking as a kind of meditative plateau, and Communion as an end-point.  People participated with verve and stamina. The symbolic dimension happened mostly at the level of behaviour and voice, rather than in architectural decoration, vestments, procession. The most startlingly unpretentious part of this ritual was the communion-from-guitar, almost a statement “our feet are on the ground and we experience Christ everywhere.”  I am invited to experience Christian sacramentality as essentially an ephemeral experience, as articulated by Ann Loades: “sacraments are fluid, consumable, transient, except in their immediate or longer term effects on human persons.”[12]

2017 Note:  Since this writing I have had the privilege of returning to Connect church, and have learned that Connect is not "emerging" but rather an established church in Bendigo on a fairly new campus. The preacher I observed on this particular day of worship was, according to some, a particularly dynamic speaker. Connect has since then modified its liturgy to include a more youth-oriented service. I remain impressed with the warmth and authenticity of the Connect community.

REFERENCES


[1] connect-church, 'Connect-Church', last modified 2015, accessed September 1, 2015, http://www.connectchurch.com.au/.

[2] Bendigo Advertiser, 'Bendigo Gets Nine Drug Rehab Beds', last modified 2012, accessed September 5, 2015, http://www.bendigoadvertiser.com.au/story/1154956/bendigo-gets-nine-drug-rehab-beds/.

[3] 'Interview With Norelle’, interview by Catherine Schieve, in person (Connect church Bendigo, 2015).

[4] 'Interview With Norelle’

[5] 'Interview With Norelle’

[6] Connect Congregation, 'Church Service', 2015.

[7] Connect Congregation, 2015.

[8] Ps. Phil Hills, Speech, 2015.

[9] Ps. Phil Hills, 2015.

[10] Connect Congregation, 2015.

[11] 'Interview With Norelle’

[12] Ann Loades, 'Finding New Sense In The Sacramental', in The Gestures Of God: Explorations In Sacramentality, Geoffrey Rowell and Christine Halled. , 1st ed. (London: Continuum, 2004), 163.