It was April Fool’s day, Sunday. So I did something I have been meaning to do for a while. I went to church. Parkway church, to be exact. A “Hillsong” style big-box church on Sulwwod Drive, Kambah.
Just for context: my earliest childhood I spent my Sundays in a Foursquare church at Newtown – an old pentecostal denomination with roots in some revival back in the 20’s. Lot of old people. In ’77 (or so) as a child of 11 (or so) I was in Frank Houston’s “Christian Life Center”, which met at Sherbrooke Hall in Double Bay. From there CLC moved to the Koala Motor Inn on Oxford st, and then to a building next door on Golburn and Riley st. Frank’s son – Brian – (after some lost years and a bit of a sexual scandal) eventually went to found Hills Christian Life Center in Baulkam Hills. I moved to Canberra, joined CCC when they were meeting in Lyons Primary school under Ps Peter McHugh. Started playing in the band. A few years later (’86 or so), Hills CLC began hosting a music conference that they called “Hillsong” – I have some “Hillsong ’88” stave paper laying about somewhere. It became big, and eventually swallowed the church, which they renamed.
What I’m saying is – I was a pentecostal before it was cool. I been baptised in the Holy Spirit, spoke in tongues, raised my hands and sang, I was in these kinds of churches way before they were even called “Hillsong” churches. I grew up in ’em, spent 15 years in the band at one of ’em, and wasted my youth and young adulthood in them.
April ’99 I finally worked out that there is in fact no God. No invisible immaterial persons of any kind. Yes, it took a while. Took 33 years. But there you go.
Just yesterday, 13 years later, 1st April 2012, I went to visit Parkway.
It was … it was just exactly as I remember.
The enormous building. The few hundreds of suckers that
paid are paying for it (with a little help from the taxpayer). Big sound system – pair of speakers flown from the roof. Seven nice LED cans, some floods, and the house lighting itself. Indirect lighting – very nicely done. Two trusses, as well as the roof itself being a truss.
The auditorium was carefully devoid of anything overtly christian – no crosses or fishes around the shop. That’s something Anglicans do (snicker!). For a moment, they briefly projected on the wall a cross made up of bible verses. I couldn’t help notice that ‘shepherd’ was misspelled ‘shepard’. After 30 seconds or so, it was replaced with the logo of the church. Parkway. Much more the thing. More modern. More swoopy.
(There’s an active embarrassment at the symbols of their faith in these churches, you know. It’s almost as if they know, deep down, that it’s a scam. Is there any one of them that could give a serious defence of their faith? That could justify to a non-believer the hope that is in them? That could even explain to a non-believer the elements of the faith? They’d have to use the word “sin” do do so, and that’s a word you don’t hear a lot in these churches. These christians value their weekday deniability. Being a christian a guilty pleasure that it would be in bad taste to mention during the week.)
Extra stacks of unused chairs against the back walls, not set out because it would make the place look empty if they were. Oh, how I remember CCC at Gladstone st! How it imploded with Paul Whittaker at the helm, haemorrhaging people and money! Same thing there. Came in one Sunday during this, and the place was miraculously packed. Then I realised half the chairs were gone. I think we actually sold ’em.
Each person with an empty seat to either side. These are churchgoers who like a little personal space. If these people were a close-knit, loving community who knew each other’s names and were pleased to rub shoulders with one another, I wonder how many rows of seats they’d need? Would they all fit into an old stone church with pews? Oh, if it was a medium-sized old church and they were prepared to squeeze just a little, I reckon they would. Perhaps I’m being unkind. Perhaps they just like a little room to do the hand-raising thing.
There was the usual “where do I sit” that comes with not being in one of the cliques or family groups. Things on the seats – claiming the seat, or not? I picked one with a pen on it but that had someone already sitting two seats in from the edge. I asked (sort of non-verbally in the noisy environment) if the seat was taken. She indicated … well, I’m not sure what, but I sat down anyway.
The band was on a riser that was too high and sort of crammed in there. Parkway is a speaker’s auditorium, not a theatre. Piano chick with mic in the middle. Singer chick to the left (stage right). Bass player front on the other side – which I found odd. I always insisted on standing back next to the snare drum so I could see the kick pedal. If everything else is bad, if the foldback simply isn’t happening, at least the rhythm would be in time and be using cohesive beats.
Behind them, two guitarists and a drummer. All turned way down in the mix. The dude on the left out of the mix altogether. I soon worked out why. During worship time he would solo, but he had difficulty with – well – notes, really. Putting the fingers on the correct ones. Also using a big rock-anthem distortion which was badly out of place.
But I’m running ahead. Drummer: I didn’t notice being bad, which means he was fine. Takes a surprising amount of skill and practise to not sound shit on drums. Drummers have to work at it. If you have to choose to have only one decent player in the band, make it the drummer.
Bass player, reading his music, occasionally a little lost. Other guitarist: seemed to know what he was doing. But so far down in the mix I couldn’t tell. Electric and an acoustic 6-string.
It was mainly two female singers and keys – the mix you’d get at a 50-person denominational church in the suburbs.
Keyboard girl – church average. Two hands, aka piano player rather than keyboardist, hence why she could (and did) carry the music by herself. The usual cure for that is to make ’em rehearse with the left hand tied behind their back. Singers were church average. Not terrible (and I have cut some shockers out of the mix in my time, let me tell you). Not professional or even semiprofessional. Regular church singers. Maybe had a couple of lessons, but probably not.
And time for the main event. Praise and worship, also known as singing until you get a little light-headed and feel the presence of the Holy Spirit. Trancing out, with luck, because that’s the entire point of the exercise. No wonder the churches dislike weed – a little weed will give you what you get at church.
Couple of people clapping because you are supposed to, giving up after half a minute or so because they were the only ones doing it. Clapping on every beat, or the 1 and 3. Really – there are people that honestly do that. At least they were in time, and not doing the aussie thing of clapping just a touch faster than the beat.
Hillsong tunes, of course. All new stuff, not the Geoff Bullock (who we don’t discuss anymore because of the sexual infidelity) tunes. Some nice chords.
But oh my god! The lyrics! The lyrics! Worse than I remember.
I am panting, waiting for your presence
I adore you, you are my God,
you are all I need,
I also want your sticky anointing all over my face
You know that movie “About a Boy”, where the boy with the single mother has been trained by her to sing “Killing me softly”, to close his eyes and sway? It was like that. For about 20 to 40 minutes. Half an hour of passionate, womanly love songs that you are expected to sing along with. A man cannot stand and sing these words consciously without shame. Seriously, the words are appalling, absolutely dreadful. Church is for women, society’s main money-spenders. No wonder they so often marry non-believers. A few years of this, and a man has no penis anymore.
Then announcements. And offerings, which I don’t have a major problem with – of course a church takes funds to run. Enthusiastic, fun, 37 yo woman gets up to announce stuff. Fun, peppy. Keyboard girl is playing worship chords in the background, managing to sound dreary in contrast. Oh, and she’s up on a 1.5 meter riser, looming over peppy woman. But peppy woman is working it like a mofo, and manages to have some effect, actually inject a little cheer. Hella lot of charisma, lotta pep, that woman. Keyboard girl should be spoken to about appropriateness.
The church financial team were lined up, to show people that there’s some responsible oversight. Good on ’em. Then the offering. Then a break, during which people drank coffee and socialised. At which I was rather chuffed, cause I was the one that started that.
I played at CCC, when they met at Daramalin. We would get to church at 8:30 on Sunday morning to set up. I am not a morning person. By announcement time, I was in a terrible state, and they had the coffee urns for after the service set up at the back. I, being a tiny tad aspie on the spectrum, eventually just started getting myself a damn coffee. Then someone else started doing it. Soon it became a thing.
Does Parkway get it’s break to socialise from me, in the CCC band 10 years ago, desperate to stay awake after cruelly yanking myself out of bed at 7:30 on a Sunday morning? I’d like to think so.
And so, to the preaching. 2 Peter, a book well known to be a forgery. Outstanding! I was expecting a sermon on tithing, on account of the hugeness of the building and the smallness of the congregation. That’s how Paul Whittaker’s church collapsed, btw. But no! What we for was an actual attempt at exposition of a passage. Well done!
The space actually does not work well as a spoken word auditorium. Bad speaker placement – it sounded like the pastor was standing over in the right wing of the building. At no point did you have the illusion that the sound was coming from him, which is what a good PA system does. For a church, a stereo system is a waste and doesn’t work – just go mono, with one cluster flown above the centre of the stage. Even then – the auditorium is a weird shape for sound – high and wide, but not deep.
Anyway. The preaching was the usual thing for a happy-clappy church: mistranslation of the word “faith” (‘pistis’ – the set of stuff you are supposed to believe. The creed. Doesn’t usually mean “to have faith in” – to trust and rely on a person.) Each verse taken in sequence without much of an attempt to deal with the whole, which is fair enough, because it’s impossible. The bible reads like it was edited with a crosscut paper-shredder and crudely stitched back together, a result of all the schisms – each wave of True Christians, after murdering the heretics, would redact it. That’s why it seems so dense and hard to read.
Individual words pulled out and used for 10-minute parenthetical monologues. You can do this with the bible, because all the keywords – simple atoms of english – are freighted with meaning, some of which you can’t openly admit to yourself. Hope. Love. Fellowship. Like legal terms, they all have technical meanings somewhat at variance with the everyday ones. (Another reason why the bible is so dense and hard to read, unless you simply read it as written rather than as you are supposed to.)
The usual sermon, in other words. I forget the message, really, if there was one. But honestly, I’ve heard much worse. Particularly from the german bloke whose wife God didn’t heal of cancer. His sermons got longer and longer, until he finally began breaking the ton: one hour, just dribbling on and on about nothing. Pastor Karl. This dude didn’t bang on for too long, at least.
And then that was that. The standard two-hour happy-clappy weekly church. It’s what you pay for, if you go to one of them. That’s what you get in exchange for your weekly offering. They are going to reach the city for Jesus, of course, just like all the other churches just like them. It’s not clear how, though, as there’s usually zero evangelism being done. People are content to show up, sing the songs, sit through the sermon and go home. Maybe go to a home group.
They finished up. I left.
It’s good to put to rest that feeling I’ve had for a long time that I miss it. Miss being in the band, especially. Nope. Not interested anymore. Too much work, not enough return.
It was worthwhile going.