Recently I went to a Protestant church service with a friend whom I was visiting. (No, I am not second-guessing my conversion to Catholicism, and yes, I did make it to a High Mass before I attended the other service.) As we found our seats and the music began to play, it occurred to me that this was the first Protestant service I had been to since my conversion. And although the format of the service was not much different than my old church from my childhood, it was still weird. Some thoughts:
The song/worship service was nice, and the musicians talented, but the whole time I was waiting for a real encounter with Jesus. A song service, no matter how contemporary or sensual, is no different than the entrance hymn for the Catholic Mass. It's pretty, and it can prepare our hearts to receive Jesus (in a physical sense for Catholics, and a spiritual or intellectual sense for Protestants), but I felt a lack of depth and profundity that a liturgical celebration of the Most Holy Body and Blood holds.
The testimonies of speakers became too self-absorbed too quickly. Many of the speakers described how Jesus had saved them from a sinful lifestyle, or hopelessness, or some other significant struggle. And I most certainly rejoice! In my own conversion story I was battling depression and searching desperately for my identity in Christ, and God answered my prayers in a way I never would have suspected, by leading my back to the Catholic Church. God is the author of redemption stories, and I love to hear them. Nevertheless, I have admired the focus of Catholic teachings, and words spoken by Pope Francis I in particular, to serve the poor and less fortunate. Love God and love others. It is the simplest of teachings in a most complicated world. I don't deny that this particular church has programs in place to serve others, but it is easy to overlook the importance of serving others when there is so much emphasis on what God has done for ME.
Most of the attendees were "transplants": they had not grown up in that particular church. It was hard to sense a long history of family tradition and heritage in that particular church. There were some young families, but not many, and very few elderly people. This made me conclude two things: 1) Many attendees were probably new Christians or dissatisfied with their former church, and 2) a great danger lies in a possible a "fizzling out" for many attendees when the music is over. Somewhere along the way the stimulation is not enough, resulting in less attendance among the older generations. Perhaps I am too quick to judge, or perhaps there is another reason to explain the demographics, but there is undeniably a similar pattern in many other Protestant churches I have attended.
To summarize in a sentence, the service was certainly inspiring and uplifting, but lacking in divine purpose. If the church service is merely singing, some prayer, and an inspirational teaching, then what is the purpose of coming to church, if not for the social interaction and support of our spiritual journey? If that's all it is, then I can stay at home, watch a televangelist, and pray with a friend over the phone. Attendance at a Catholic Mass, contrarily, has a much deeper purpose: the partaking of the Eucharist. That is the most real encounter with Jesus, and much more spiritual than becoming lost in the music of a young guitarist.
All that being said, I reminded myself that Protestants and Catholics belong to the same Christian family. At the same time, I had to applaud this church for supporting new Christians who had recently made a decision to follow Christ. The atmosphere was contagiously encouraging to remain close to God. What is it about that spiritual music, and friendly (albeit perhaps overexagerrated) greetings that draw in so many new Christians? And what is it about the Catholic service that feels so distant to someone who has never experienced it? Have we become so much a culture of sensationalism that we need this sophisticated music with fancy equipment to get us to a state of worship? Are we that much in need of stimulation that a tradition reverently adhering to the command "Be still and know that I am God" is mistaken for a boring, or even a dead church?
I often wonder why God allowed the Reformation to happen, and why He allowed so many Catholic vs. Protestants battles to ensue, not just between countries, but also between individual families. The divisional effects between countrymen and family members result in the same heartache. God knows it has caused great pain in my own personal life. I wonder, though, if Protestant Christianity is at least serving as the first intervention between God and sinner in this modern world of emotional spirituality. Atheistic and modern thinking has lead to a collective rejection of religion all too easily. Perhaps the sensationalist approach is at least getting people talking to God. Perhaps my own experience in a very fundamentalist, Bible-believing, fire and brimstone style Protestant church shocked my system so much that my Christian faith became a priority because it was tied so closely to my emotions. I honestly don't know if going to a watered-down CCD class once a week would have encouraged me to seek God daily. That's right, all you Catholics reading this, I can't say that I would have implemented personal habits like daily Bible readings and fervent pour-out-my-heart-to Jesus-prayers-at-the-foot-of-the-altar without that fiery and constant force in my life. I could never fathom being a "lukewarm" Christian or never reading the Bible, and unfortunately, the example of too many Catholics leading such a life scared me too much from examining the Church's history and teaching. I may sound too harsh, but too many Catholics need to wake up and get fired up about the immense treasure we have in our faith.
Don't get me wrong: there are devoted and noteworthy institutions within the Catholic Church that do a tremendous job in faith formation. I worked at such an institution, Montrose School. It was my experience at Montrose and the non-judgmental way the faithful (and even charismatic) Catholics there included me in daily Mass that led me to question my own Protestant prejudices against the Catholic Church and her teachings. The thing that attracted me to the Catholic Church while I was at Montrose was the depth of the teachings, the rich and long history (both written and oral), and the universality of the faithful throughout the world despite cultural and generational differences. Scott Hahn describes Protestants looking into a restaurant from a big glass window, watching the Catholics enjoying the feast. At least the Protestant church has shown non-believers that the restaurant exists. The problem is, they may not realize how nourishing and essential the real feast truly is, because they are too busy hugging each other and singing about where they used to be. To any Protestant reading this, I challenge you to come inside the restaurant and experience a true, physical and spiritual encounter with the Holy of Holies. It will take you closer to God than even the most beautifully written and performed lyrics.
I left that particular Protestant service relieved to know that my Catholic conversion stood the test: I was just as confident in my faith leaving the building as when I had walked in. I was also relieved that I was not angered or offended by anything that had happened in the service. The people I met were nice, and I would feel comfortable asking them to pray for me. Undoubtedly they are my Christian brothers and sisters. Nevertheless, I did leave a little diappointed that the service lacked the spiritual depth and thought that I had experienced at the Mass earlier in the day. I don't want to use the word "shallow", because that word infers the people in the church were disingenious. But let's face it, 2000 years of thought and history has a greater profundity than a tradition that only dates back to Martin Luther. I won't claim Protestantism as wrong, just incomplete.