Since we issued the “Charismania Challenge” the other day, we’ve been thinking about some of the questions we posed for “story starters.” One of them – question 2 – got us to talking about our own experience, got us asking ourselves when we first sensed that something wasn’t quite right at Living Word Church (again, for the record, NOT THE REAL NAME OF OUR FORMER CHURCH).
Since we were ultra-faithful and loyal members of Living Word for four years, and since we only really began to allow ourselves to question things there perhaps 8 or 10 months ago, my husband and I were shocked to realize that we’d noticed something odd about the place during our VERY FIRST Sunday morning service.
I’ve mentioned before that we first visited Living Word on a Sunday night. In that service, I responded to an altar call and received “the baptism of the Holy Spirit,” which radically changed me.
So when, the following Sunday, we decided to attend a morning service at Living Word, we were already much more than casual visitors. We were primed and ready to see everything at this church in the best possible light. Because of the experience I’d already had, I was practically in love with Living Word Church. I would have given almost anything the benefit of the doubt at that point.
So that is a bit of an explanation for why we so enthusiastically embraced the place despite one of the oddities that we noticed during that very first Sunday morning service.
During that service, Pastor Smith (again, a pseudonym) proudly introduced his son Tommy and explained to the cheering congregation that Tommy, who had been the church’s worship leader for 2 years already, since the tender age of 17, was going to debut his second CD that very morning. Pastor Smith hyped Tommy’s CD, proclaiming it to be both anointed and incredibly well-done. He described how Tommy had written all the songs, had recorded every single track all by himself, had done all the mixing, all the singing, all the producing, and had played all the instrumentals.
Sitting there that morning, listening to all of this, we were quite impressed. Everyone else in the crowd seemed to be impressed, too. They were all clapping and shouting, making far more noise than we’d ever been used to in a church service. When the CD’s title track began to play over the church sound system, everybody started to move and dance to the music.
We fell in line and stepped and clapped along with the rest of the crowd. But almost immediately, I felt disappointed. Because the track – which was cranked so loud that my teeth vibrated – was, honestly, nothing to get all that excited about.
And OK, I know that a lot of you are going to shrug and say that what passes for “good” music, like all other art, is in the eye (or in this case the ear) of the beholder. You’re right, of course. I’m not going to say that my tastes would be the same as yours. Maybe you’d have liked Tommy’s CD.
But I kind of doubt it.
I don’t consider myself some big music connoisseur, but I know enough to be able to hear when something sounds like it was recorded in a tin can. I also have enough musical training to discern when someone can’t sing on key. Moreover, there wasn’t anything particularly memorable, catchy, or, most importantly, MEANINGFUL, about the song. If we weren’t in church and if we didn’t know that Tommy Smith had penned the lyrics and was a Christian artist, I’d never have been able to discern anything sacred about the song at all.
(At this point in the story, I need to mention that in the months and years to come, we were to find Tommy Smith to be a pleasant and nice individual. We have nothing against Tommy. We appreciate the effort he put into the music ministry. He was also a talented pianist. In no way do I mean to imply that he didn’t have some level of ability. He did, particularly when he just stuck with the keyboard and left the singing to others. We are only mentioning Tommy and his CD because it illustrates something far more important about the PEOPLE at Living Word, NOT because we see ourselves as music critics!)
But on our first Sunday at Living Word, by the time Tommy had performed the second and third tracks from his CD, I was starting to wonder what was wrong with the people around me. I almost felt sorry for Tommy, because after such an excruciatingly generous and over-the-top positive reception from his home audience, he was going to have a painful reality check if he ever played this music for people who didn’t know he was the pastor’s son.
After this mini-concert was finished, Pastor Smith made sure we knew that Tommy’s CD would be for sale for $10 in the lobby after the service. We were all exhorted to buy a copy, and if we did so that day, Tommy would autograph our CD for us.
I remember being really surprised at the huge line that formed in front of Tommy’s CD table. After the service, a few hundred people were waiting patiently, their $10 bills in hand, for the chance to buy Tommy’s music and have him autograph their purchases.
Even then – and like I’ve said, at that point, I was totally and completely sympathetic to anything that anyone from Living Word Church would have said or done – I remember wondering to myself, “Just how bad would that CD have had to be for the people NOT to buy it?”
The answer to that question was, I’m afraid, that it honestly wouldn’t have mattered how bad the CD was. If Tommy Smith recorded it, and if Pastor Smith said to buy it, that’s all it took.
And there you have it, folks. The first time we attended a Sunday morning service at Living Word Church, we saw a prime example of the type of control that Pastor Smith exerted over his people. We saw a prime example, too, of the extreme “pastor love” that characterized the place. Later we were to realize that for most of the people who attended Living Word, pleasing Pastor Smith (and his family) and looking good in Pastor Smith’s eyes mattered more than just about anything else.
It also was a taste of the strange hype and reverence that surrounded every member of the Smith family. For reasons we still can’t figure out, the Smiths are like celebrities in the little world they’ve created. People put them on a pedestal. People vie for the “privilege” of getting to stand around on a rainy Sunday morning and open their car doors. People stream forward to give them “love offerings” on their birthdays. And people accept just about anything as long as it comes from a Smith.
We still don’t understand it. But there it was, plain as day, on our very first Sunday at Living Word Church.