The Book of Perception

If you’ve ever visited any church of Southern Baptist origin, you may also have learned—just as I have that there’s a certain measure of decorum that is expected of the parishioners in attendance. Your participation is expected—in addition to your monetary contribution (aka never demanded but strongly encouraged cover charge). While you may or may not respond to the choir, you will definitely be expected to respond to the sermon. For if you don’t…efforts will be made.

I have never attended a funeral, Sunday service, or any church event for that matter, where the pastor or individual delivering the sermon did not go to great lengths to achieve oratorical success. Much like that of a battle rapper, DJ, or Emcee, crowd response is EVERYTHING; and if you lack it…well…it’s safe to assume that your delivery may have been a little subpar.

The beginning usually starts like an unassuming approach of business as usual—literally business. The choir sings and the collection plates are passed around. It’s a transaction of sorts. While modest and without demand, money is exchanged from the congregation to the church. My favorite part of the monetary exchange is when people try to best one another by putting more in the collection plate than the person prior. (LOL) Men are the best at it. One throws in a $50…you better believe the next will be a $100. Buuuut, a show will soon take place. A show with the basis of religious tradition…one of praise, worship, and honoring of a chosen God.

The pastor makes way to the pulpit podium while providing some obligatory small-talk towards the congregation… greetings, announcements, welcome, acknowledgement of visitors, etc. Once the basics have been addressed, the sermon will begin. It looks innocent at first glance. But the crescendo awaits with suspicious patience.

Depending on how many of these events you’ve attended and how many times you’ve heard the same pastor, you’ll understand that every now and then, the pastor is likely to open with an analogy. Even though 99.9% of all sermons have a biblical derivative, let’s be honest, a pastor has to reinvent the message in order to remain relevant to followers and the current trend of the time. Analogies are necessary in order to keep the audience engaged. Most people who attend church on a regular basis are quite familiar with the Bible and therefore may become bored and unmoved with the same sermons. The pastor knows this and so does the oldest member of the congregation because without hesitation, a church elder will blatantly or subtly reveal redundancy. Analogies are often a must.

As the pastor speaks, you as a congregation member in attendance have a job to do. The reaction to the analogy is the first indication to a pastor of the congregation’s engagement. It lets the pastor know just how much illustration and intensity will be needed to successfully deliver the message. If you can relate to anything the pastor has said, you offer an emphatic “AMEN!”, “UM HUH!,” or any other random but well-known phrase that demonstrates your agreement and familiarity…just as party or concert attendees in the audience will applaud, root, fist pump, or nod their heads to let the rapper or emcee know that they agree with the lyrics being spewed. I’ve watched this moment feed and transform egos in to flesh abiding power.

If the congregation is hushed…the pastor will become louder and repetitive in pursuit of a reaction. This crown of approval and accolades sought is sought out by the ego and must be captured. The pastor may even call upon the congregation to respond or agree. And if there is no volley…if the pastor is unconvinced of the congregation’s presence, there may be an accusation hurled out from the pastor such as “yall don’t hear me!”, “are yall getting this?”. Others may even offer to assist by repeating the pastor’s words. This point becomes a display of redundancy until either the pastor or the congregation gives in. Usually the congregation caves to the need. If not, the pastor may continue for an infinite amount of time.

Deacons and any others who are esteemed enough to share a sitting proximity to the pastor in the pulpit will have surely risen from the edges of their seats where they sat in awe and agreement, with bated breaths throughout the sermon’s delivery. They contribute  their ad-libs, nods of approval, moans, knee slaps, and encouraging shouts of “tell em again”, “I don’t think they heard you pastor”, “Yeah!”.

It reminds me of a HipHop Cipher. The rapper with the floor is freestyling from the depths of their soul. The circle of individuals that surround the rapper are similar to the church deacons. They support the rapper like the deacons support their pastor. They encourage. They respond. They agree. They confirm. They bob their heads, they nod in disbelief at the impact of the moment….the cadence…right before the mic drop. The organ/piano player begins to join the tempo of the sermon, fueling the pastor’s volume and enunciation…who is literally breathing a thunderous roar of reaction into the room…and if successful…if the sermon has been delivered with the intent in which I’ve come to learn that all sermons much reach to be deemed successful…someone or maybe even a few, will be immediately contacted by the Holy Spirit. An energy—provoked by the delivery of the sermon, coupled with one’s ability to “testify” in the presence of the relevancy that rests in the words of the sermon. This energy will surge throughout the body and command one to jump, sing, shout, moan, praise, run, raise hands, and if the Holy Spirit is really strong, someone from the congregation will have to restrain the member to avoid injury.

Climatically…just like the beat builds in a freestyle…as the pastor continues to speak, sometimes harmonizing syllables. If the message is making its way to the intended destination within the congregation, the crowd becomes anxious, louder, and anticipating. “Amen!” and “Halleluja” should be repeatedly shouted at this point. A few members may even be rocking themselves as well. The ego is consuming the adrenaline that has begun to flow back and forth.  A few of the deacons have now began to pace a short but small circle in the pulpit, nodding and agreeing. Some have wiped the pastor’s face because this has been an exercise!

As the pastor recovers and slows the pace in preparation for the close, so does the congregation. Those who have stood to display their exuberance are now taking their seats. The pastor has slowed his tempo. The organ and piano music follows the pastor’s lead. The excitement is calming. At this point, the church choir maintains the steady until the event has commenced.

Undoubtedly as parishioners exit…the church…they will speak to one another and maybe even the pastor, voicing their delight and approval of what just occurred.

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve witnessed these events but no matter the church, the pastor, or the congregation it’s almost exactly the same. It all views the same for me…a performance of egotistical display and feeding frenzy.

The ego partakes and then subsequently regurgitates to the baby birds with hungry souls…hungry little souls with an appetite of mass proportion seeking to be fed reassurance, salvation, and wholeness.

Perception is reality.




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