Open Bible Christian Center, 302 19th St. W.
Service: 11 a.m., Sunday, Feb. 8, 2015
Length of service: 1 hour, 10 minutes. Length of sermon: 33 minutes
Give the Open Bible Christian Center credit for being what they call proactive. I hadn’t been seated for more than a minute before the church secretary, Cindy, sat down beside me and welcomed me to her church.
She also handed me a water bottle with the church’s logo on it, and inside the bottle were four pieces of candy, a brochure about the church and a little printed warning that the water bottle was not dishwasher-safe.
She also gave me a sheet of paper that she asked me to fill out and place in the collection plate, while assuring me that Pastor Ron Rager would love to talk to me at greater length. The little questionnaire asked for my name, address, phone number, email address and Facebook page, but I didn’t feel like sharing all that.
I inscribed my name on the survey and wrote under it, “Just looking today, so I’d prefer to leave the rest blank.” At least it was something I could put in the collection plate. I had stopped donating money many churches ago, though I can’t say why. I simply stopped feeling any obligation to pony up during my theological forays.
What is this series about?
To read the essay that introduced this series click here.
There was a leisurely air in the church, with people milling about and several small children playing tag in the pews. The service finally started about eight minutes late. We had a song first, provided by Pastor Ron on acoustic guitar, accompanied by a keyboardist, bass guitarist and a drummer, with a woman on lead vocals.
The first song wasn’t terribly promising and the drummer, though he was encased in one of the most elaborate Plexiglas cages I’d seen yet, was very loud. On the bright side, no one ever did try playing the set of congas set up on the front of the altar.
This is a traditional-looking church with a peaked roof, open beams and pews upholstered in red cloth. There were about 40 people on hand, a quarter of them children, but most of the congregation was seated behind me—and I was in the middle of the sanctuary—which made the place seem pretty empty.
After the first song, Rager’s wife, Beth, ascended to the altar and talked at some length about how we should all, in the upcoming meet-and-greet segment of the service, offer each other a “praise report,” naming something with which God had blessed us recently.
I didn’t want to be rude, so I thought maybe I’d mention the fine weather. Early February in Montana and it was almost 65 degrees outside, under blue skies. What was I doing in a church anyway?
As it turned out, I didn’t need to deliver any praise reports. I began to circulate in my area of the church, but at least a third of the congregation didn’t even stand up, making it obvious they weren’t going to shake hands, much less blather on about something they were grateful for.
The people I did shake hands with simply mumbled a “Good morning,” which was a relief, I admit. Pastor Ron, whose hand I had shaken in the lobby on the way in, came over and pumped my hand again, as did his wife. Then, after a few more announcements, the music commenced again and went on for about 20 minutes.
The band and the singer were inexpert, which I hope I can say without being snobbish or judgmental. They seemed to know it, too, giving their performance a tentative air. There wasn’t much singing along, but as each song came to a close a gentleman wearing a Puente de Amistad T-shirt clapped enthusiastically, usually prompting at least a few people to join him.
My heart went out to the minister. Thanks to these Sunday outings of mine, I now knew what he was up against in the competition for souls and warm bodies. Savvy church samplers would have to find some kind of kinship here, some spark of community, or perhaps some searchers would like this place if they found the slick production values available at the bigger churches a bit much.
At any rate, the music ended at last, followed by the collection and then a short video about “Military BibleSticks,” digital audio devices designed specifically for active duty military people, containing, according to the website, “a dramatized recording of the entire New Testament and specially selected Psalms.”
Then came the sermon, based on a line in Acts 7, “The hand of the Lord is apparent.” It was a discursive, wide-ranging sermon in which Rager talked about the necessity of being “transparent.” He read a few Bible passages, which we could all see on the screen above his head, which made his slow, halting recitation all the more awkward, since we could see where he missed or transposed a word or phrase.
At one point in the sermon, he talked of advising young people on how to interview for a job. He told them they had to be transparent, to freely admit to any shortcomings that might affect their performance. When he applied to be a minister here, Rager said, he let them know at once that he was dyslexic, which explained his halting delivery. It was a touching moment.
There were references to Joseph and his brothers, to Moses and the bulrushes, to the restorative power of saying “I’m sorry.” There was an assertion that “at one time America was founded completely on Christian values,” and then a statement that nothing was more important than learning to say to your children “you’ll never change.” Rager spoke of the oppression suffered by African-Americans in his native Detroit, about race prejudice in South America, and about the difficulty of praying with one’s spouse.
How did it all tie together? I’m afraid I don’t know, but maybe no one else was impertinent enough to wonder if there should have been more connections. But the sermon was not all boring and it didn’t seem oppressively long.
Even so, when it did end, I was one of the first to bolt for the door, eager to get outside and count my blessings on such a splendid day.
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.
Chapter 6: Billings Freedom Church.
Chapter 7: Faith Chapel.
Chapter 8: Eagle Ministries Inc.
Chapter 9: First United Methodist Church.
Chapter 10: Pilgrim Congregational Church.
Chapter 12: First Christian Church.
Chapter 13: Victorious Word Church.
Chapter 14: Oasis Church.
Chapter 15: Harvest Church.
Chapter 16: Billings Association of Humanists.
Chapter 17: Word of Life Fellowship.
Chapter 18: Emmanuel Baptist Church.
Chapter 19: St. Nicholas Orthodox Church.
Chapter 20: Faith Evangelical Church.
Next Week: Billings Seventh-Day Adventist Church.