Exactly one week ago this morning, I woke up to find this article from The Tampa Bay Times (TBT) on the Google News tab my cell phone has oh-so-conveniently set up for me (I try not to think about how it did that too much, and would greatly appreciate it if Dr. Friend doesn’t try to explain it to me). The article is about my home church, my pastor, so I thought it was cool. But as cool as a front page, above-the-fold article is (just ask the cast of Newsies: the Broadway Musical), further reflection shows that the article is not quite as great as it seems.
Ever since around halfway through my seventh grade Civics class, when we temporarily took out a subscription to the paper for the coupons, I have regularly heard that the TBT is considered a very liberal (lately borderline Socialist) newspaper. Lately, I have realized that to be very, very true: big, bold headlines proclaiming the glories of the likes of Nancy Pelosi and Senator Bernie Sanders, even bigger headlines with half a dozen exclamation points defaming the character of President Trump, and every kind of accusation that any and all Republicans in office be held responsible -and take the blame for- the coronavirus (COVID-19) and its rapid spread across the country. Only recently did I realize that, even while putting out articles about the great things churches are doing, they come across as very skeptical of Christianity in general.
Take, for instance, the article above. The reporter says that Pastor Randy (for that is how I know him and, thus, will be addressing him in this piece) started out by praying and reading his Bible to get a message from God for the topic of the week’s sermon. “Then,” the article continues, “he Googled.” This implies that the author of the article, though trying to be neutral and present only the facts, seems to feel that Google is more powerful than God, that it can answer any question, even the ones that He can’t. Especially the ones that He can’t. This goes against the concept of Christian belief that God can use anything to get His message across, even Google. Instead, the article makes Google seem like the savior of the universe.
Even the pictures they chose to use created a conflicting image: one, the first shown online, is of Pastor Randy on the stage, behind the pulpit. The lights are focused on him; he holds a brave and daring pose. But the other shows him slightly lost, kind of confused in his office chair. His eyes are closed, his head bowed, maybe in prayer, but still looking hopeless. Like not even a man of God, not even God Himself, has the power to explain the coronavirus, to encourage people in such times as these. It’s almost as if they want to confuse readers, to make them question their faith (if any), and to doubt. To doubt the credibility of preachers in general, this one in particular. After all, if only about 2/3 of your church shows up to online service, what’s to say his preaching is actually any good?
The article couldn’t have come at a more perfect time: all churches had been just about shuttered until further notice (although I saw on the news this morning that one Tampa congregation made the foolish decision to ignore that order) and people from all over have been asking questions: why is the coronavirus out there? Is there even a God who cares about us?
There are two answers to those questions. The first comes from the TBT. Put out an article about a church, any church (bonus if the youth pastor happens to be a former sports reporter from LA who might be able to tip us off (not that I’m saying Pastor James had anything to do with it; I have no idea)). Make sure you sugarcoat the piece, put out the same Christian message of “Don’t panic, God’s got this.” Then wait. Most atheists or people of other faiths won’t so much as bat an eye. The Christians, fingers crossed, will read it as a positive piece about their faith and ignore the implications. The curious? They’ll see the underlying subtext: God’s not all He’s cracked up to be, churches are crazy to try and stay open now. And, hopefully, most importantly, technology is the god of this world now.
But little do they know that they’ve just pulled an early April Fool’s Day joke on themselves. All they’ve done is draw more people in. There were at least 200 at the drive-in style service held on their property last Sunday, and at least 58 Facebook accounts tuned in live (which would account for at least another 100-200 people). More than twice the week before. And they’re ready for all the people to use that great search engine called Google. Pastor Randy recorded a message almost a month ago. It’s the first thing you see on the church website. He and his church are ready for God to move in a big way. The TBT might have tried to stop it (whether they know it or not). But they’re just no match for the Creator of the universe.