Emmanuel Baptist Church, 328 S. Shiloh Road
Service: 8 a.m., Sunday, Jan. 18, 2015
Length of service: 1 hour, 6 minutes. Length of sermon: 35 minutes
I lucked out this week. I chose the 8 a.m. service at Emmanuel only because it fit with my plans for the day. I didn’t know until I got back and looked at Emmanuel’s website that the early gathering is always the bluegrass gospel music service, with “contemporary praise music” at 9:30 and 11.
On stage—yes, stage; this is another very large West End church—were three guitars, a fiddle, mandolin, dobro and upright bass. I wasn’t familiar with the first couple of songs but enjoyed what I was hearing, and then the band swung into a fine medley consisting of “I Saw the Light,” “Blood of the Lamb” and “I’ll Fly Away.”
This was the first time I had heard Hank Williams (“I Saw the Light”) at a church service. I think it’s safe to say I sang along with as much enthusiasm as I’ve ever shown in church.
Then came an even better song, “Farther Along,” one of my favorites. Its chorus ends, “We’ll understand it, all by and by.” The song was trailing off when Pastor Paul Jones strolled out in a checked shirt under a sweater and said, “I’m kinda looking forward to that ‘by and by.’ It’s the here and now that’s getting me down.”
After a few more remarks and announcements, the band played one more song, “In the Sweet By and By.” This is a sect, I realized, with a heavy emphasis on the hereafter. And sure enough, when the song concluded and Jones launched into his sermon, the subject was how members of his flock might get into heaven.
What is this series about?
To read the essay that introduced this series click here.
He took as his text 2 Corinthians 10:3-5, in which Paul talks about destroying strongholds, taking captive “every thought … to obey Christ” and punishing every disobedience. Jones said Paul based this discussion of spiritual warfare on the standard Roman techniques of subduing its enemies.
This explained, I think, why the large stage was strewn with artifacts of war, including combat boots and helmets, duffel bags, ammo boxes, even a large tent draped with camouflage netting. The bulletin said this was the third week of a lecture series.
Jones said the struggle with Satan is relentless and it is not haphazard on the enemy’s part. Satan knows all our weaknesses and is an expert at exploiting them, at creating within us “satanic strongholds,” by which he meant vices or sins. Jones, a former college football player, warned that Satan has a playbook on each one of us.
He said strongholds begin as thoughts, then turn into attitudes, actions and habits. We can destroy them only by concentrated, intentional attacks, he said, and in this pursuit the notion of “moderation in all things” is downright foolish. It’s as if a serial killer said, “I think if I could just murder less, everything would be OK,” Jones said.
He repeated something he said he heard from his eighth-grade religion teacher: “If a bird lands on your head, it’s not your fault. If it makes a nest there, it is.”
So far, so good. I thought his advice for overcoming vices and bad habits was perfectly reasonable—so reasonable that you could strip away all the talk of Satan and Jesus and put it in the mouth of a secular psychologist.
But of course that would make no sense to Pastor Jones or, presumably, his congregation. For the goal is not merely to conquer sin for the sake of improving our temporal existence. Everything aims at heaven, as those gospel songs tell us, and Jones scoffed at those “who don’t really believe that Jesus is the only way to heaven.”
I distinctly remember feeling the first pangs of heresy when the nuns at my Catholic school told me the same thing, that all non-Christians were bound for hell. It struck me as merely unfair then. Now, I find it dangerously arrogant in a world teeming with religions and made so small by technology.
Which isn’t to say that I felt anything dangerous in the presence of Jones or his flock. It was a mostly older crowd that turned out for the bluegrass service, and I was a little surprised how at-home I felt there, how comfortable it was to sing along with familiar old tunes.
And Jones didn’t leave his flock feeling all smug, either. He said the important thing was giving themselves up to Christ: “You can give yourself to Jesus this morning and get killed at the roundabout” (I sensed some nervous shuffling among the elderly drivers), “but heaven is yours.”
If they went on living after giving themselves to Jesus, however, the battle against Satan would have to continue to be fought every day, he said. I hope it wasn’t blasphemous of me to leave there feeling as good as I did, despite my heathenism.
Naturally, my joy was heightened by the thought that I hadn’t had to sit through another long session of contemporary praise music.
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.
Next Week: St. Nicholas Orthodox Church.