November 09, 2004
The idiot box

I've had a bad church experience and a good church experience in the past week. First the bad one, since I'm still recovering from the headache and want to get it out of my system.

This Sunday I went to the Long Beach Friends Church. I was curious about it because it belongs to the Evangelical Friends, which none of the Quaker bloggers I know belong to. The church is also interesting for other reasons: it's 112 years old, ancient for a SoCal Protestant church, and it has a large Cambodian population, with an entire service in Khmer.

I attended the English service, as you might imagine, but I asked about the Cambodian factor. I mean, when you think "Quaker," Cambodia isn't the first thing that springs to mind. Apparently that started in the '70s, when like many old downtown churches LBFC had dwindled to the point where they were thinking of closing it. But this was also when Cambodian boat people were landing on the shores of Long Beach in droves. Many were already Christian, and when they saw the church they wandered inside. The Quakers decided that this was their next calling.

I thought this was neat, and to be fair, there were several neat things about this church. The building itself was very nice. It dated from the '20s and was gracefully aging, and being in it actually reminded me a lot of being in San Francisco, which has a lot of buildings like that. Being Quaker it isn't very "churchy," and has no steeple or altar, but it has a nice neoclassical design and a pretty domed alcove up front for the choir loft.

There's also a guy there (though I didn't meet him) who does a homeless ministry. Twice a week the church provides a meal and Bible study, and about 100 people show up to each of them.

What bothered me, however, was the answer to the question I'd had since I first heard of the evangelical Quakers: how evangelical, and how Quaker? The answer was, mostly the former. The pretty dome of the alcove was obscured by a screen for projecting song lyrics, there was a drum kit in the choir loft, and a mediocre rock band played for about 20 minutes. The church has a pastor; he wasn't there, but somebody else gave a sermon. The only thing that seemed Quaker about it was that in between the two events they opened up the floor for about five minutes to let people say whatever they wanted to say. Somebody announced their engagement, a couple other people requested prayers, a third read out what sounded like an e-mail forward about being a soldier for Christ.

Afterwards, over coffee and doughnuts, I bluntly asked a couple people how much the Quaker tradition informed the church. The answer I got was mainly that they don't do sacraments, which, of course, is hardly unique these days. I asked about pacifism, and was told it was mostly up to the individual. A couple members of the church are in fact in the military -- one of the prayer request was for a member now in Iraq -- but, I was told, you expect that for relatively poor inner-city folk.

I was, I admit, in a bad mood going in. I was very tired from something work-related that had occupied me all day Saturday, and I hadn't had enough food or caffeine for breakfast. But I left feeling profoundly bummed out. As I've visited all these different churches in L.A. I've seen the great homogenizing force of evangelicalism. The Pentecostals, the Baptists, the Salvation Army, the Presbyterians, and now the Quakers all play the same white-bread Christian rock songs, all have long, folksy and apolitical sermons, and in some vague way feel very similar. And it particularly distressed me that the Quakers seem to be joining in. Reading the Quaker bloggers I've gotten the impression that liberal Quakers are losing touch with their past, and it was depressing to see the evangelical Quakers doing the same in a different way.

And why, why would the Quakers flee their past? Granted I don't know a lot about Quaker history, but it seems to me they have less to apologize for than any other Christian sect. They opposed slavery way before it was cool, they never fought in wars, they refused to swear fealty to any earthly authority. I mean, compare that to the Anglican church that started because a king wanted to dump his wife, or the Adventists who started from a belief that the world would end 150 years ago, or the Assemblies of God who started because white people wanted their own Pentecostal church. I can understand why those churches would ponder how much the past should inform their current practice, but the Quakers?

I suppose the seeds of the problem may have been there at the beginning. If you tell people to come in and let their "inner light" shine forth without any liturgical or doctrinal impediments, it shouldn't be that surprising that they drag a lot of their culture with them. But I suppose that's why the Quakers used to be cultural separatists. Now, not much seems to be shielding them from the massive cultural force determined to divide all Protestants into generic liberals or generic evangelicals.

I suppose Mother Rome is having her revenge.

I've been trying to forget about it, but the frustration has stuck with me. Last night I dreamed I went back to the Pasadena Mennonite church (still my favorite of the one I've visited). And at the start of the service they rolled out a TV and started showing some obnoxious movie. People started getting out of their seats, and I remarked to someone that the movie idea didn't seem to be going over well. But then I realized they were moving so they could see the screen better. I walked out in a huff.

Later, someone found me and urged me to return, saying they'd shown only a few minutes of the movie and now it was back to normal. I was still too put out to go back. I woke up with a headache, one of those headaches you get when you've been clamping your jaws tight for a long time.

Well, that's my lament. In my next post I'll get to the good experience.

Posted by Camassia at November 09, 2004 09:55 AM | TrackBack

I was a member of the Evangelical Friends Church for many years.

And I believe you are very right about the Quakerness being lost. I've been to silent meetings and Jesus was ignored. I've been to the evangelical church's "praise and worship" service and seen no difference in it from any other Protestant service.

My priest said that 90% of evangelical Protestant churches sing exactly the same songs. What we pray we believe, he said (lex whatever, my Latin is very poor) and they're all praying the same things. We shouldn't be surprised when they meld together.

Posted by: Kizmet on November 13, 2004 06:01 AM

The old Latin saying is "lex orandi, lex credendi" (the law of praying is the law of believing.)

You raise an interesting sociological point. Some people want to embrace the different and unique. I think some people find a lot of attraction in the alieness of Catholicism (or Budhism or Islam), while others want the easy and commonplace.

I think it's a shame that the Quaker tradition (along with most of the mainline Protestant denominations) appears to be dying. Keeping alive a unique tradition takes a lot of work. I'm raising my daughters as Catholics. It takes a lot of work. They might fall into the easy evangelical thing, but the cultural resource that the Catholic tradition offers will always be there and I think ultimately they will come to cherish their heritage.

Posted by: Peter Sean Bradley on November 14, 2004 08:44 PM
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