This morning I went along to two church services with a visiting academic, Hamed, who is over in New Zealand from Iran. He had never seen a Christian service before, and had been told to ask me about taking him along to a service. I decided to show him two extremes of what church can be. We started at the Cathedral of St Paul, and then went to Arise evangelical church.
Here's an audio clip contrasting the music and sermon of both venues:
We talked about Hamed's impressions of the two services. The first one was much closer to what he was expecting, and he had lots of questions about the meaning of words and phrases, which parts of the text were from the bible and which came later, the robes that people were wearing and the congregants. He thought, correctly, that the congregation at the cathedral were older and wealthy. He also found it interesting how, although the priest was obviously trying to sound relevant to his audience, the sermon was fairly irrelevant and boring.
In contrast, the Arise service was loud and exciting, warm and friendly, but Hamed noted that it seemed devoid of substance. There was no theology, just modern music and a very charismatic visiting preacher telling his story (testimony).
We talked about being a believer in Iran - that there's an expectation that muslims take part in daily prayer 5 times a day, either in public or private, and that they fast for the month of Ramadan. But, outside of that, all other attendance at the mosque is optional, and people aren't judged for not attending the three daily services or the Friday prayers and teaching.
One interesting question, after I'd explained how Arise church focus heavily on Prosperity Gospel - give (to the church) and you shall receive - was whether the government ever does something about unethical churches and preachers who push people to give a lot of money to the church. Of course this doesn't happen, often because even if a person regrets having handed over a lot of money, they don't want to have to publicly admit that they did something they regret.
Hamed said that in Iran, the mosques don't ask for money - quite possibly they're funded by the state. Instead, people are encouraged to give directly to the poor. Given how little money that is given to churches in New Zealand ends up in the hands of the needy, I wonder if churches could learn a thing or two from this!