Billings Freedom Church, 550 32nd St. W.
Service, 10 a.m., Sunday, March 2, 2014
Length of service: 1 hour, 55 minutes. Length of sermon: 41 minutes.
I arrived at the Freedom Church about a minute after the service was supposed to have begun, slowed down as I was by ice-packed streets on a 10-below-zero March morning.
I was impressed to see 100 to 125 people already on hand on such a miserable morning. And they were on their feet, swaying and singing along with a three-piece band and four singers arrayed around the altar.
Unfortunately, while the band was skilled enough, the hymns were prosaic and repetitive, set to melodies that sounded like B-side pop anthems, like Hootie and the Blowfish on a bad day.
The words to the hymns were displayed on two large screens flanking the altar, and sure enough, there were the copyright dates on the corner of the screens, showing that most of them were just a year or two old. Traditional gospel songs are often magnificent, and the old-time Protestant hymns are rarely bad, but this modern stuff was just tame and blowsy.
Not that anyone else seemed to mind. The music went on and on, until I began to wonder if the service, such as it was, would consist of anything else.
Luckily, some people were sitting down, so I soon joined them, the better to take notes. As the music continued, a dozen or so people wandered down to the front of the altar and stood there singing, arms spread wide or held up high, and one of them seemed particularly active and engaged.
He also had the habit of shouting out words or phrases, mostly just “hallelujah,” in a way that was both out of time and out of tune with the music. Then, after 32 minutes of nonstop music, this same gentleman mounted to the altar and announced that it was time for communion.
What is this series about?
To read the essay that introduced this series click here.
I quickly realized, by consulting my bulletin, that he was none other than Pastor Gail Craig.
We now entered into a 35-minute-long phase of the service that combined communion, some preaching, a bit of music and much prayer and praise. Craig invited members of the “Healing Team” to come down to the altar, and then invited people to come forward if they needed any kind of help.
Whether they were experiencing marital troubles, financial problems, diseased organs, “some bronchial garbage going on,” or whether they simply needed “an encounter with the supernatural presence of Almighty God,” Craig announced, they were invited to come on down.
For me, a Minnesota native and the product of an undemonstrative Catholic church, it was all very strange. At least two-thirds of the 150 people on hand filed down to the front of the altar, most of them with arms raised, lost in rapture.
I sat there debating whether I should join them. It seemed blasphemous on the one hand, to go down without an open heart, skeptical of supernatural encounters, but on the other, how could I really experience the service without joining in on this key part of it?
So down I went, arms raised, and stood with the other supplicants. It was definitely louder down there, with the booming drums, keyboard and guitar, and I can see how people might get caught up in the emotion of the thing. I stood there for a while until deciding I shouldn’t take it too far, by actually asking anyone on the Healing Team to pray for me, so I returned to my pew.
The service passed the one-hour mark before Craig finally began to preach. Until then there had been an almost constant engagement by nearly everyone present, with singing, waving arms, ejaculations of piety and praise. But during the entire 41-minute sermon there was almost complete silence.
Oh, there were shouts of “Amen!” now and then, but rarely were they spontaneous. Pastor Craig had very nearly to beg for them, to the point where I felt sorry for him.
“Come on,” he said at one point, “somebody give praise!” A bit later he asked, “Am I talking to anybody out there?” He was also in the habit of compelling audience participation by asking everyone to repeat this or that word or phrase.
“Everybody say,” he would begin, followed by “peace,” “righteousness,” “joy,” “servant,” “series,” “as it is” and “Heaven touching Earth,” among many other words and phrases.
He might have done less hounding had there been more meat on the bones of his sermon. In 41 minutes he basically pounded away on a few concepts. I don’t think it helped that his attempts at folksiness were a bit labored.
As just one example, he said prayer “is better than dial-up Internet. It’s better than digital Internet. … You’ve got your own Holy Ghost Wi-Fi!”
He also employed a rhetorical device similar to that sometimes used by Americans when they encounter a foreigner. Apparently finding it inconceivable that anyone could fail to understand English, they keep repeating the same thing but getting louder and louder, and enunciating more clearly.
But at last he was done and it was time to go. The service had lasted just shy of two hours and I was exhausted. So much for Sunday being a day of rest.
Previously: Chapter 1: St. Patrick Co-Cathedral.
Chapter 2: Mount Olive Lutheran Church.
Chapter 3: Full Gospel Revival Tabernacle.
Chapter 4: First Church of Christ, Scientist.
Chapter 5; First Baptist Church.
Next week: Faith Chapel