I recount my experiences at a Restored Church service and offer some critical analysis from a non-religious perspective.
My engagement with members, pastors, and messages put forth by the Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania-based Restored Church continued today with my attendance at their September 21, 2014 church service within their four-part sermon series on sex which included a sermon titled Sex and Singles.
On August 15, I wrote a response to Restored Church’s ‘God <3 Sex’ billboard which experienced attention in national and local media . Following my August 15 piece, I participated in a recorded discussion with Pastor Dan Nichols concerning the billboard and related topics. Prior to this, I spoke alongside Pastor Nichols in an open-to-the-public discussion about atheism & theism and enjoyed several lunches and dinners with Pastor Dan.
Today’s church service was quite different than Catholic masses I had attended. Most prominently, rituals were absent and people were dressed casually. The service started with an icebreaker question — what would you do with one million dollars — prompting audience members to discuss this question and was followed by Christian music from a local band.
The music had glorified the alleged human sacrifice of Jesus with lyrics such as ‘Your cross, your cross, it draws me to your heart’ and ‘For the world’s salvation you bled.’ A continuing message throughout the music and other presentations was that humans, without belief in God and total submission to God, are worthless – that only with belief in God and total submission to God people may be ‘saved.’ The implications throughout the service were very clear – that a fulfilled, meaningful life without belief in Jesus is impossible.
Restored Church, claiming to echo words from God, proposes a problem humans have — that they are in sin and may only be saved through Jesus — and offers cures: belief in Jesus, immersion in the church community, and dedication to what they believe are directives from Jesus. There was no room in the service for a meaningful life without Jesus nor personal efforts absent divine intervention/inspiration being credited for improvement in quality of life.
Following the initial music, a woman presented about her personal experiences and how she believed God intervened in her life. She spoke about how God “used moments” in her life, “erased” some of her memories from [an abusive] childhood, intervened to prevent her from being assaulted (apparently infringing on the free will of other human beings in the process) and places people in situations for “reasons” even though they don’t understand what they’re going through. Even though, as she explained, she was “saved” at the age of five – “plac[ing] faith and trust in Jesus Christ” she believed she was “wicked and evil” – having “evil, impure, wicked thoughts about boys.
Her response to what she considered “evil, impure, wicked thoughts” was to have an “intimate and personal relationship with God” which she believed resulted in God giving her a patient loving husband. She explained that God had brought her far – that she couldn’t imagine a life without Jesus and that it was “because of God that [she is] where [she is] today.”
Following this speech, prior to the Singles and Sex sermon, the band again played echoing similar themes with lyrics ‘Lord I need you, in every hour I need you,’ ‘You are my one defense, my righteousness,’ and spoken words ‘He who doesn’t have the son doesn’t have life’ and ‘You sent the son to die for us so we can live fully.’
Pastor Tim then started the Sex and Singles sermon with a message of ‘normal isn’t working’ — a rebuke of what he proposed as cultural influences, expectations, and messages concerning sex – some of which include sex is everything, sex is everywhere, sex is casual, sex is recreational, sex is fun, and sex is bouncing from person to person — and clarified that he was not approaching his sermon from his opinion, but rather said that the sermon was “truth from God’s word” and “coming from God’s word.”
Another component of the ‘normal isn’t working’ message that Tim argued for is that sex is viewed by people “as the pinnacle for humanity” and that particular expectations exist for men and women. Women, Tim explained, are influenced to find identity in their sex appeal and should resist this by not showing off skin. Men, Tim explained, should stop “checking out” women and not rank themselves according to sexual exploration and conquests which determine whether men are ‘real men’ or ‘manly.’
Tim said that no one in the church was perfect because church members believe Jesus is perfect for them only only by Jesus can they find freedom and release from guilt, despair, and depression [surrounding sexuality]. Tim prayed, expressing that we need God and his wisdom “desperately.”
Slippery slope arguments, too, were advanced within the sermon – that people, although they believe they enjoy sex [outside of marriage], will be less fulfilled, sell out, be horrified at the people they become, tear themselves to pieces, be consumed by cultural messages whether they realize it or not, go into a downward spiral [as a result of seeing nudity in movies], binge on pornography, and cheat on partners.
Tim suggested that — in addition to following God — people need to look to scripture to deal with sexuality as a single person by following God’s original design for relationships of ‘woman as helper to men, inside marriage’ [Genesis 2], refraining from stirring up desires we can’t control, living the life God designs for you [1 Corinthians 7], recognizing extra opportunities the single life provides but not using your time for personal matters “selfishly” (it should instead be used in accordance with God’s will), guarding thoughts, “fleeing from sexual immorality,” “setting wise boundaries,” and “asking others for help.”
Again, during the sermon, the message of ‘worthless without God’ was echoed with Tim saying “we need Jesus desperately, every single moment of every single day;” “because of Jesus we have confidence;” “without you we are nothing;” “live for Jesus and not yourself;” Jesus died so people would no longer live for themselves and so people instead could live a fulfilling life in living for Jesus; there is always hope because of Jesus; you can find identity in Jesus where you can’t anywhere else; and explaining that people believing that life is dry, boring, and empty should follow Jesus and make “difficult sacrifices” ‘setting the mind on the above rather than on earth.’
Following the church service, attendees were invited to attend ‘Pizza with the Pastors’ in the rear area of the church where people were provided complimentary soda, pizza, vegetables, and snacks. The leadership team of Restored Church explained its mission, informed people about church-related opportunities, and answered several questions.
I spoke with Pastor Dan about some concerns I had with the messaging within the service and some questions I had. I was also introduced to some of the church members. As always, Dan was friendly and willing to answer questions. He even informed me that my writing and experiences with Restored Church would be mentioned in next week’s sermon concerning disagreement not being disrespect – a topic many of my readers should be familiar with.
Restored Church offers hope in its services for people who want to follow their message, but I consider it a false hope (because I find no good reason to believe that the promises they believe put forth by God — particularly eternal bliss following death — are true…and that the Christian god does not exist) particularly pernicious because of their low opinions and low hope for humans who, without Jesus, are extremely [if not totally] depraved.
At best, religious individuals will find wisdom in religious texts (surely after ignoring some of what they consider to be nonsense) and may improve their quality of life as a result of interaction with religious communities and/or reflection the religious texts — just as a non-religious person may in a community organization or studying philosophy, for instance — but it hardly seems to be the case that miracles happen and/or Christians have a privileged sort of life in which their belief results in exclusive benefits non-believers lack.
The women who spoke at the beginning of today’s service took no time to acknowledge personal effort in improving her quality of life, but rather attributed her success to divine intervention. Sadly, only consider the presented speech, her religious beliefs — and those of others — strip away any semblance of personal accomplishment and continue [ultimate] dependence on God to whom all success is attributed.
It is not the case, on the view of this woman and other Restored Church members, that the Bible has just some good ideas or that there is some helpful advice to be gained from religious tradition, but rather is that God is necessary for a good life – a slight and denial of the good lives many others, many of whom are non-Christian, are experiencing. Surely not all Christians believe this (some may simply thank God for living and/or find some personal accomplishment while thanking God.)
As an atheist, I highly regard many philosophers, public intellectuals, and worthwhile advice from friends. I don’t, though, say that my accomplishments are solely due to their influence nor do they say that I need them. Should I break ties with those whom I highly regard and/or vehemently disagree with others, there will almost certainly be no punishment – certainly no eternal torture in Hell. Christian belief, though, at least as practiced by Restored Church, valorizes the love of God – the same being, said to be all-loving, who will torture or otherwise allow the torture of people for eternity merely for the ‘sin’ of disbelief…and many can sleep at night and/or otherwise be okay with this fact while still believing in an all-loving God.
As an atheist audience member in Restored Church, I found no hope in the sermons, music, or speeches, but rather found tremendous despair – a worldview casting humans as corrupt and depraved individuals who may only live actualized lives following complete submission to Jesus — upon threat of eternal torture in Hell — whether they like it or not.
I did, though, find some agreement within the service – that people ought to reject cultural influences and not derive their worth based on cultural expectations. I don’t, though, think submission to God is required — or is otherwise the only legitimate response — to this conundrum. Let us determine for ourselves what is worthy, finding our own values and pursuing them, while not harming ourselves or others and living a good life.
We can engage in sex without going down the slippery slope of ‘being consumed’ by acting in moderation, making informed, responsible, and reasonable choices about ourselves and actions with others. We need not pedestalize sex by confining it within marriage — most of which fail and lead to unhappy endings and/or unhappy relationships which dissolve only upon death — and limiting it to the narrow standards believed to have been set by God.
As always, feel free to leave comments below. This piece could have been lengthier, but 1800 should be enough!