If the minister’s sermon had contained any of the above it might have struck a chord but in fact it only featured the five key words “Jesus died for your sins.” I guess everyone knows what their sins are and don’t need to tell the rest of the world but the problem with this week’s Easter service is that everything became so literal and it offered no insight into reality. Personal and social issues were far removed from the church service leaving the age old story to be told yet again without any modern day comparisons. Perhaps comparing the crucifixion and the resurrection to contemporary society is blasphemous but at least it would have made it more interesting. Understanding sacrifice in a modern context must surely be essential to making a person a Christian. Despite my personal disappointment at the lack of context around the service I was never bored. The congregation of The Christ Apostolic Church on Dalston Lane are like most evangelicals: extremely forthcoming and accepting of my random appearance but also unsettling in their unquestionably assertive friendliness. The service consisted of a few gospel Hymns to a West African tempo (the congregation were predominantly Nigerian) intersected with bible readings. Sadly the sermon not only lacked a context but was filled with clichéd Christian sound bites, “Jesus died for your sins,” “Accept the blood of Christ,” “It is not too late to let God into your heart.” The only words that really got me thinking was when Minister said that if you do not have God in your heart when you worship then you are nothing but a “ noise maker.” I am definitely a “noise maker. “I think most of my friends and family would agree. This indirect insult inspired me. As a “noise maker,” it’s my responsibility to find the little modern sacrifices within the congregation to contextualise this experience and provide myself with a reason for my visit.
Searching for sacrifice within a crowd of happy, clapping, all dancing, arm waving Christians is hard. No one is complaining let alone carrying a wooden cross. My natural architectural interest led me to ask questions of the congregation on the church’s origins. After a few polite but probing queries eventually I found my modern day concession. The Christ Apostolic Church had been situated on a road between Roseberry Place and Kingsland Road but was forced to move a little further north to Dalston Lane due to the construction of the new East London Line station, Dalston Kingsland and the new housing complex, Dalston Square. Dalston’s two landmarks of gentrification brought upon the area by the 2012 Olympics which had featured heavily in the local press for upsetting locals however these grievances had been recently muted bythe media as the Olympics loomed closer. Not that I got any sob stories from the congregation, it was more a matter of fact account. Despite the forced move put upon the church I appeared more angry at the City of London’s ability to rehouse the church than the congregation. The Christ Apolistic Church was proud of their new home which they had now occupied since 2009. The building is a two floor office built by Hackney Council as Hackney Connextions Centre with the mission to provide disadvantaged youth with an opportunity for an education and employment. Hackney Connextions moved further down Dalston Lane, it was hard to establish with the Minister if the church owned the building outright or rented the building from the council. The building is the most unlikely location for Dalston’s largest evangelical Christian community: it is not only the home of Christ Apostolic Church but also the home of The Mission of Faith Christ Gospel Ministries (featured in the blog on 23.01.2011), The Overcomers Church (coming soon as a blog entry) and a dry cleaners (not doubling as a church as far as I could tell). In future instalments I will look into the relationship between the three churches and their close proximity to each other. Despite my desire to claim that the Church’s make-shift home demonstrated their persecution within the newly gentrified area this was not the case. In short the congregation may have made a concerted effort and material sacrifices to keep their church alive and independent but they do not seem to feel persecuted. In the ever increasingly expensive newly gentrified area of Dalston, could the church survive another resettlement? And if they are asked to move on, will they feel they are being persecuted or will they blindly accept the situation as the will of God? Should sacrifice create a sense of regret, upset and pain or should it be blindly accepted? These questions remained unanswered but typified the insufficient vague dogma that ran throughout the service.
Searching for sacrifices does seem cheap but I do feel when presented with such overbearing optimism within a church congregation it’s important not to forget the trials and tribulations they may have faced to practice their faith. The problem is the congregation don’t want you to hear their sorrow but more to be grateful at the wonder of God. The Christ Apostolic Church wanted me to experience the Easter service as a literal story, best demonstrated by their Sunday school performance. I am used to watching children act out the nativity at Christmas but I did feel a tad apprehensive watching a children’s performance of The Passion. The crucifixion was nothing to worry about, the child playing Jesus was merely attached to a cross made of two cardboard tubes stuck together with tape. No nails and no wood. The crown of thorns was replaced by a more suitable gold coloured crown with some Holly attached from last Christmas. The play started with the last supper, moved onto Pontius Pilate, had a quick non bloody crucifixion and then ended with the resurrection. The most bizarre moments was watching a group of kids joyfully jumping up and down shouting “crucify him” and a crowd of women photographing little Jesus on his cardboard cross with their mobile phones. The entire performance was everything you would expect from a church play performed by children with biblical lines being replaced by awkward pauses, little kids staring into the audience and lots of pushing and shoving on stage so a child can wave to Mum and Dad. Besides these childish elements the sentiments of the story were no different from the earlier sermon. The minister offered the same literal interpretation but just he knew the story word for word. When the bible is taken so literally it’s meaning in a modern context seems to get lost and therefore can only be understood by the modern world’s value system: money.
Every week I pay my spiritual tourist fee by putting money into a white envelope for the collection plate. The money is whatever loose change I have within my wallet. I think the random approach means I am not placing value in my contribution (which I don’t want to as I am not a Christian) but I am still giving (and more importantly I am seen to be giving) to demonstrate my gratitude to the congregation. A more sensible and moral man would have the egalitarian approach and give every church the same amount. It’s not that I am not sensible and moral it’s that I am just not that organized, a typically apathetic response. I do not view my small contribution to the collection plate as a sacrifice and I have never placed such importance on the collection plate but this week after the collection had been passed the minister asked for our “Sacrificial contribution.” The minister continued to explain “not to worry if you cannot put in £50 and can only afford a £10, but do remember to put in a pound for every family member.” All my money was in the first collection plate and I had nothing left to give, let alone £10. It did anger me that the only modern comparison the Christ Apostolic Church could find for Jesus’s sacrifice was a financial one. Money is the value system of the majority of the world but religion should surely offer an alternative. The parishioners were not only paying for their entry to heaven but for their family members entry, which raises questions do you pay double for known family sinners? Financial sacrifice is clearly for the benefit of the church, the members are asked to write their names and the total of their contribution on the envelopes provided. The minister stated that the majority of the money goes to the larger organisation and only 8p for every pound goes to their ministry. The “Sacrificial contribution,” can be seen as a self-serving investment, putting your money into an institution that supports you, a bit like a bank but with songs, religious dogma and a community atmosphere. I do not mean to undermine the Christ Apostolic Church’s notion of sacrifice, it is pragmatic and modern, but I am just disappointed that the social and personal experience of sacrifice is entirely forgotten.
In defence of the congregation some of the members had been fasting to experience a sense of sacrifice. Naturally fasting is a more personal sacrifice than a donation of money but it’s a personal experience I lack. Easter fasting is a simple answer to the issue of sacrifice, one to build more complex ideas around, which the minister invited his members to do so. The minster’s deliberately vague and general religious rhetoric was full of sound bite clichéd questions but it did make me think about my own situation.
So I will leave you with how I begun. Can you see sacrifice in the life I lead? Surely only a self-serving one! But arguably in Christianity all sacrifices are spiritually self-serving,
Jesus died for your sins, he died so could wake up every Sunday and go to church, any church you wanted and they would let you in despite your sins. Jesus died so you would have something to write about, something to laugh at, and something to question. Jesus died so you could lose your Sunday morning and most often your Sunday afternoons, so you could realise how appalling a writer you really are, so you could fill your life with a sense of self-loathing and self-importance and publish it all in a blog. Jesus died but without any shadow of a doubt he is alive today. Whether you believe in him does not matter, he believed in you and that is why he died.
Below is an animated video of a Simon Munnery sketch. It seems fitting for my blog as it combines Christianity and Cockneys. Enjoy and I hope you all had a happy Easter.