I was a stranger in this church. That is a relatively unusual experience for me, and it was instructive. I began to feel like Jimmy Stewart's character George, who is shown in the movie what his town would be like had he not lived in it. My ritual greetings were acknowledged sincerely, and I could see genuine warmth and support between various members of the congregation, but never got the feeling that any of it extended to me.
The thing that shocked me, though, was that nobody in the congregation sang. I may have caught a few tentative voices, but that was it, and my voice, tentative as it tends to be in the morning, was still more noticeable than any of them, to the point that I caught some folks' attention just by raising it. The other thing that shocked me was, my own voice was for a moment the only "Amen" heard in response to the baptism.
It was as if the voices of the congregation had been stolen. To be sure, the church was of the old fashioned kind, lots of stone or brick and the layout one that discourages participation or intimacy. Row on row of straight pews; I was in the front half of the church and still felt far from the sanctuary.
The organist was competent for the most part; there were supplemental hymnals with very simple hymns in the pews. But the congregation just did not sing. Even the choir seemed intimidated by the space. I began to wonder who had stolen all their voices.
"American Idol" came to mind, and the inner Simon Cowell and his legions of allies in the music business that tell people that their own songs and their own voices don't cut it. I recalled my experience at Harbor Sweets listening to my co-workers talk about that show, co-workers who just wouldn't imagine going to the wonderful open mic at the Pig's Eye pub just a few blocks away. The best music in the world arises out of communities, but communities are continually told that the real music is the stuff that's packaged and sold to them. That's idolatry indeed, and it pained me to think that in some Christian churches, where, if anywhere, people should be aware that their own voices are the ones that God wants to hear, it's idolatry that has made great headway. I was among people who are struggling and broken in various degrees, as I am struggling and broken, but who, unlike me, do not understand what a wonderful tool for healing and restoration singing together can be.
I went downstairs to the coffee hour and stood next to a couple of pillars, feeling more and more like Jimmy Stewart's character caught in a strange world. I escaped to my car and went home.