O Me of Little Faith

I just finished participating in a bit of immersion journalism that’s slated to appear in the May/June issue of Relevant Magazine. For those who aren’t hip with the supersecret writing lingo, immersion journalism is the kind of writing where a journalist embeds himself (or herself) in an activity, event, or experience and then writes about it from a personal perspective. As opposed to the objective, detached perspective common to most types of journalism.

A good example of immersion journalism is the work of Barbara Ehrenreich. Her popular books Nickel and Dimed (2001) and Bait and Switch (2005) chronicle her experiences going undercover as, respectively, a member of the working poor and a middle-aged job hunter. She does all this stuff and then writes about what happens. Morgan Spurlock’s Super-Size Me is a good example of immersion journalism wrapped into a documentary film.

I’ve always loved these kinds of books (and films) because they provide a window into places that are new — places I’ve not been and situations I haven’t experienced — and getting to view those places through someone else’s eyes is a good, vicarious exercise. When done with the right combination of opinion and reporting, the results are usually pretty educational. In the hands of a talented writer, it can be really entertaining, too.

Anyway (long introduction)…my foray into immersion writing wasn’t as dramatic as going undercover for months at a time, or eating too many Big-Macs. What I did was simpler: I attended six different churches — six different denominations — over the course of six Sundays. The purpose was to describe what the services were like, how I reacted to them (based on my primarily Southern Baptist churchgoing experience), and what I experienced and learned in the process. The denominations I visited were pretty diverse: Assembly of God, Catholic, Episcopalian, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Southern Baptist (not my own church, of course).

It was quite enlightening. I consider myself pretty ecumenical when it comes to the various corners of Christianity, so I don’t generally carry too many prejudices and misconceptions with me about, for example, Catholics or Pentecostals (at least, I try not to). I certainly have my personal preferences when it comes to worship formats and styles, though. And at this point in my life, they’re beginning to shift.

I won’t give away the farm on this one, but here are some random takeaways and teasers from the project:

1) It was a big stretch for me, personality-wise. I tend to be pretty introverted in new settings — unless I’m on-stage speaking, which is weird — so making myself attend an unknown church service by myself was a good personal challenge. It actually made me nervous.

2) Other than the fact that the project took me away from my family on Sunday mornings, I really enjoyed it. The variety of ways we worship is very interesting, to say the least.

3) I tried to go into it with an open mind, but a couple of denominations’ services did nothing to dispel stereotypes.

4) I still have a big problem with pastors who wear toupees, and I’m sorry, but I’m not a big enough person to get over that prejudice. If you are trying to trick me into thinking you have real hair, when in fact you do not have real hair, then how am I supposed to trust anything else you say?

5) I’ve decided that the quality, subject, or length of the sermon has very little to do with how much I like or dislike a church. It’s not as important as it used to be.

6) Other than the forced greet-your-neighbor times in a couple of church services, I was not approached or welcomed by anyone, on their own accord, until week six of the project. That’s five church services, as a visitor — a visitor with a winning smile and ruggedly handsome features, I might add — without being spoken to.

7) If left to myself on a Sunday morning, with no other obligations or church services to attend, I can tell you exactly which church I would go to.

8) It’s not the Baptist one.

This blog is still fairly new, but it attracts a few dozen people every day. I want to know who you are…and what is your denominational background and/or preference. So this is your opportunity to quit lurking and leave a comment.

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