Sunday, August 21, 2011

The First Baptist Church of Beverly Hills

One thing I have been quick to point out is my tastes are unique. To the folks who call The First Baptist Church of Beverly Hills their spiritual home, I mean no disrespect. As women are fond of saying, "It's not you, it's me." Your church is fine and you all seem a decent breed of people. And now I will proceed to lampoon you anyway; it is a flaw in me that makes me do this.

I chose this church by doing a search on Google. There are scores more churches in the area, but I had slacked a bit and failed to do any research this week. On Saturday evening I did a search for churches, eliminated the ones I'd already visited and this one came up next on the list. Oddly, driving across Hollywood today, I went past many churches that did not appear in my Google search. The church is right on the cusp of West Hollywood and Beverly Hills, and it is small -- a chapel really.
What struck me first about the interior was the lack of an alter. In its place was a drum kit and some amps. Oh, yes, friends -- I had encountered another church with modern music. Worse, the music had entirely consumed the front of the church. There were no lecterns or pulpits to be found, though when it cam time to deliver the sermon, the pastor dragged... well... I shouldn't get ahead of myself.

The "acting music director" was a professional musician from a bygone era, a charismatic fellow named Larry (I'm making it a point not to list celebrity names when I encounter them in church, out of respect for their privacy, but many people would recognize his uncommon last name if they saw it). Though older than he was at the height of his popularity, he was no less gregarious today. He played the piano while a younger kid strummed along on bass guitar -- nobody played the drums. We pounded through a few songs. Then came "visitation."

Some people are deeply introverted, but not me. I am outgoing and good with people, but I find the process of meeting new people generally awkward. Every church these days seems to have a moment during worship when the festivities grind to a screeching halt so we can all turn and greet each other. Normally a few seconds to a minute in length, it is tolerable. However, this church makes a big deal out of what it has called visitation; time seemed to stand still as I clumsily had to introduce myself to everyone in the room. Somewhere between five to ten minutes of random small talk. Ugh.

Visitation wrapped up with Larry at the piano, playing us back to our pews. It was then time for the sermon conducted by the church's long-term interim pastor, a man named Jonathan Stockstill. Pastor Stockstill got off on two wrong feet with me. First, he was wearing blue jeans. Now I've gone over this at length previously, but I want/need a sense of tradition and reverence in a worship service. The pastor is the man reading God's word from God's house and then has the daunting task of making that Word something we can all relate to in our lives. It is easy to relate to a guy in Levi's, but he seems far removed from God -- and, no, I don't picture God as a bearded white guy living in the clouds... but I also don't picture him in faded, double stitched denim. The second wrong foot was this: He sat down.

As I began to write a few paragraphs earlier, the pastor dragged a small podium to the center of the front of the church, but he also dragged over a stool, upon which he casually sat as though he was about to read aloud from his book of beatnik poetry. Here is the thing about public speaking: If you are not dynamic and full of energy, the audience reacts in kind. The congregation collectively lost energy when the pastor sat down. And that really is a shame because otherwise he was a very good speaker.

His focus was the beginning of Matthew 5, and Catholics everywhere just cringed, because if they attended Catholic school then they know this chapter all too well. Fans of Monty Python will also recognize this chapter:

Fans of Eddie Izzard will also recall these verses:

Known as The Beatitudes, these verses outline who is blessed in the eyes of God, and what rewards are likely to befall these people in the hereafter. But really, the thrust of the sermon was on a single word: passion. The problem was that the pastor did an excellent job defining the other words he would discuss (word like blessed, pure, heart, and peacemakers), but failed at grasping the true definition of the word passion. Passion literally means suffering, and too many people operate under different assumptions regarding the word. One who is compassionate is one who suffers with another who is sad or in pain. "The Passion of the Christ" was about the suffering of Jesus. The pastor didn't define passion at all in his sermon, but it was clear he misunderstood the word. He spoke in general terms of healthy obsessions (like baseball), but that is not the same thing.

That said, he touched on some interesting points, my favorite being that a peacemaker is different than a peacekeeper. And to be fair he did stand up from time to time, but most of the sermon was delivered seated on a stool. But all that could change in the coming months since the church has appointed a new pastor who will arrive shortly. He might stand. He might demand an alter instead of a drum kit. He might demand a drummer to drum as long as there is a drum kit. Once again, I have stumbled upon another church in transition. And the one I already have in mind for next week doesn't even have its own property yet. And next month I'm planning to really challenge myself and explore the faith of Hollywood.



Sunday Scorecard

This will be a regular part of my weekly reviews, a series of short-answer questions about the day's experience.

What is the contact info for the church?

The First Baptist Church of Beverly Hills
9025 Cynthia St.
West Hollywood, CA 90069 


What was the denomination?


What Bible verses were referenced?

Matthew 5:1-9 (a.k.a. The Beatitudes)

What are the demographics of the congregation?

Roughly 30 in attendance, mostly white, a few Asian, a good mix of young and old.

Was the atmosphere formal or casual?

The only way it could have been less formal is if there had been no worship service.

What was the music like?

It was like a Ramada Inn lounge circa 1977 (which is not altogether bad, just not what I consider church-goin' music)

How was the use of PowerPoint?

It was there for the song lyrics and Bible verses, to the left of the alter... if they had an alter, which they don't... but it was above the piano

Being Hollywood, were there celebrities in the congregation?

One or two

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