Searching for God in the 7 Cities: Christianity, Part 2

A Growing Number Of People Are Seeking God Not In Traditional Churches But In Modern Venues That Feature Rock Bands, Video Screens—And The Message That Scripture Should Be Taken Literally



(page 3 of 4)

The major turning point, however, came after she moved to Arizona to be with a man she’d met at a conference.

“We’d had a long distance relationship for a while,” she said. “He was a Navy corpsman and a firefighter. He seemed like a solid guy. I went into the relationship knowing that he was an atheist, but I thought, well, this feels good right now.”

Four months later, however, she learned that he was addicted to opiates.

“That rocked my world,” she said. “I became someone I never thought I would ever be. I became super controlling because I thought I had to fix him—to make things right.” Committed to this idea, she stayed with him—and 8 months later became pregnant.

The pregnancy strengthened her desire to go to church. Her boyfriend couldn’t embrace it, but she did. She was especially struck one Sunday by a sermon in which the pastor said that no one is perfect. “That’s where our struggle is,” she said. “We don’t accept ourselves for who we are. On top of this, we’re always trying to control things that we can’t control. We don’t lean on God. I continue to struggle with this—but that’s OK.”

Christianity, Part 2, New Life Church, religion
Elizabeth Agbuya

Meanwhile, her personal crisis came to a head when they came home to Virginia for Christmas.

“He didn’t have any drugs with him, so he began going through withdrawal—and didn’t wake up for our daughter’s first Christmas. When it came time to go back to Arizona, I said, ‘You can go by yourself. Either go to rehab, or I’m not coming back.’ He refused, so I stayed. I was angry. I’ve never felt that angry, that sad, that alone. I kept asking myself, how the heck did things get to this point?”

Then, at Thanksgiving dinner, she had an epiphany.

“I remember saying grace,” she recalled, “and I felt so thankful. I remember thinking, I have a family that cares about me. My daughter’s healthy. We’re eating dinner together. I had never felt so much love, even though I actually felt like I didn’t deserve it since I’d been so angry at everybody.”

The following Sunday, her sister told her about The Rising and asked her if she wanted to go too. The experience resonated with her in a way that few other church experiences had. Indeed, within less than a year she went from being a visitor to being on the church staff. In particular, she said, the church changed her relationship with money.

“I used to feel tethered to my money,” she said. “It weighed on me.” After tithing (pledging to give 10 percent of your income to the church) she felt liberated. 

“I really do trust God with my money,” she said, adding that she now gives more to charity than she ever had before, above and beyond what she gives to the church. At the same time, money has come to her at unexpected times when she needed it most.

“Some people would call that a coincidence,” she said, “but I don’t think it is.”

Money aside, she said, she likes The Rising because of Davis’ gifts as a preacher.

“James knows how to make the Bible relevant,” she said. “He is just blessed with the ability to relate. I feel as if God is speaking through him directly to me.”

She also loves the people.

“It’s become like an extension of my family. You can say you love somebody, and they’ll say it back, and you feel it. You get the most deep and intense hugs. People really truly care.”

Perhaps the biggest difference for her, however, is that she has come to realize that “going to church is just a fraction of your faith. Yes, it’s awesome to have that fellowship and a pastor you can go to. But at the end of the day, it’s about being in constant prayer. I’m always talking to God and asking, ‘Is this your will?’ It’s a constant tug at the heart.”

Agbuya said that on occasion she still goes to mass with her parents. But in contrast to The Rising, she said, it feels too routine and too structured. She was quick to add that if other people find solace in it, she is happy for them. She simply prefers the more modern service.

“Our worship band is awesome,” she said. “I mean, you’re actually at a music venue. You’re feeling the bass; you’re feeling the drums. It’s always a memorable experience.”

None of that resonated with me, on a spiritual level—but after attending services at Wave and The Rising I had a deeper understanding of why it would resonate for many people.

The greater struggle that I faced was when I began discussing specific beliefs. Both Davis and Agbuya, for example, told me that they believe, quite literally, in the story of Adam and Eve.

The Theory of Evolution is “just a story,” Davis said. Nor does he believe in the Big Bang Theory. I observed that, to my mind, neither one is at odds with a belief in God. Indeed, I noted, the description of the Big Bang sounds an awful lot like the description of creation in the first chapter of Genesis. To him, though, these scientific theories suggest that it was all an accident—a suggestion which in turn implies that our lives have no meaning.

In a similar way, I had difficulty with Davis’ message on homosexuality, which he explored in a sermon that remains available on the church’s web site. On the one hand, it is strikingly different from the hateful rhetoric employed in some fundamentalist quarters.

“We have a number of gay members and gay married couples at The Rising,” Davis told me, “and they love it.” Moreover, he said, when he was preparing for his sermon on the subject, he made a point of talking with gay people about it beforehand, to get their points of view.

On the other hand, he is firm in his belief that homosexuality is a sin. “I believe,” he said in the aforementioned sermon, “that if you’re gay God is calling you to be celibate.”

How can these two positions possibly be reconciled?

“It’s not my job to change people,” he said. “It’s God’s job to do that. It’s my job to love people.” Moreover, he said, “we are all sinners” and shouldn’t emphasize any one sin over another. By sin, he added, he means simply a “separation from God.”

Striking that balance between openly expressing his belief that homosexuality is a sin, and openly expressing love for people regardless of their sexual orientation, hasn’t pleased everyone. One couple, he said, left the church because they felt he wasn’t strict enough on the subject. Another couple left because they felt he was too harsh. 

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