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Memphis Flyer Theology Lite

Why Al Green should give up preaching

By Phil Campbell

DECEMBER 21, 1998:  Why in God’s name is Al Green a minister?

This thought struck me with a peculiar, harsh force as I stood in Green’s church, Full Gospel Tabernacle in Whitehaven. It was one of those tingling sensations I get in my spine when I find myself in an uncomfortable situation. I closed my eyes, and I had a vision. I saw myself in front of the church, my sister snapping photos of me standing next to a giant cardboard image of a burning bush. I was wearing Bermuda shorts.

In reality, my sister was visiting from out of town, and I was obliging her by taking her around to see the sights, from the popular to the more obscure. I’m not sure where Al Green’s church fits into the hierarchy of hot tourist spots in Memphis, but it’s up there.

When we first entered the church, I couldn’t help but notice the crowd of tourists scattered around me. Later on, Green would call on them to say where they were from, and they would answer him with calls of Chicago, North Carolina, and Oregon. There were about 30 of them in all, only about 20 fewer than the regular parishioners present. The tourists stood contentedly and shuffled their feet to the godly groove, which Green was happily providing. A woman from Australia looked particularly happy. She occasionally looked down at her camera, which was tucked away in the pew. Her temptation to turn a moment for Jesus into a Kodak moment was growing stronger with every beat.

Green was doing the same thing he does every Sunday: He turns the service into a three-hour concert for Christ. Suddenly, I was struck by a rather obvious thought. People came here to see Green. God’s role in the matter seemed peripheral.

They want to hear Green hit one of those impossible high notes, to see him burst into a grin so large even his shadow has to laugh. They want to hear Green make those emotional appeals to a higher power. It doesn’t make any difference to them what kind of love he’s calling for, just as long as he’s doing it with feeling.

Perhaps God is in the songs that Green pumps into your soul for three full hours, but, after the interminable service is over, the only thing I can think about is feeding the physical hunger I’ve spent a good hour trying to stave off.

To see where I’m going, you have to look at this in utilitarian terms. Where can a person in society do the most good? As much as the Lord moves within him, Green is a singer, not a minister.

A minister is someone like Alvin O’Neill Jackson, formerly the pastor of Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church in Midtown. Jackson raised his church from a few hundred people to a several-thousand-strong congregation. There’s a reason for that. They say a good sermon is something you still remember an hour or two after you leave the church. I still remember seeing him in December 1995, railing against materialism during the holiday season. Jackson wanted to “bury Santa Claus.” By the end of that service, I was ready to run down the street to the hardware store and buy the shovels.

Al Green is Theology Lite. A sermon? His love for Jesus has to be expressed in song, not a morally uplifting message for the congregation. His services leave you sweating and emotional, but with very little to think about.

Jackson recently moved to a church in Washington, D.C., that’s even larger than Mississippi Boulevard; there, he can reach more people. Green has a national audience awaiting him. He needs to return to the recording studio and the tour bus full-time. The tourists will become paying concert-goers. If being rich makes him uncomfortable, give all the proceeds to charity. If singing about loving women makes him uncomfortable, make it an inspirational gospel tour. He just shouldn’t deny the gift he has by passing it on to a handful of parishioners and a bunch of tourists in search of the “real Memphis experience.” I doubt God would disapprove.

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