Wednesday, April 29, 2015

DSDN 481: Project 5

Participant Observation: ARISE Church

Part 1 ~ Notes on Participant Observation

ARISE church takes a much more modern approach to collective religious gatherings. This non-traditional experience involves a live band, catchy Christian pop songs, dancing, extravagant light shows and other special effects. The experience began the moment my informant (Matt Band) and I stepped over the threshold of the Michael Fowler Center (MFC). I was greeted by an excited young man giving out high fives. Stepping into a space full of smiling, cheerful young people felt more like the pre-show to a pop concert than the more somber church gatherings I was familiar with.

My informant told me that I had chosen a very special week to come to the service, as ARISE’s main band would be in Wellington for the middle stop-off of their New Zealand wide tour, as well as this week being a week that baptisms took place. I was told that the evening service we were going to was one of two that would be held that day, and that ours was the less populated and less formal of the two, as well as being more popular with younger people. My informant is heavily involved in the community of the church, so it meant that I got to meet a lot of strangers. It was fascinating seeing this  new-age take on an age-old tradition and the way it brought people together. The response to a new “member” was extremely positive, with a lot of people eager to introduce themselves to me. Despite myself introducing myself along with my lack of religious alignment and my intentions, people were still very receptive to my presence and curious about the implications of my cultural exploration. I did notice that my informant was behaving a little more reserved than I know him to be. This could possibly be due to the fact that religion isn’t an aspect of our friendship that we share. Resultantly he might have not been as free with his actions.

Handshaking, fist-bumping and hugs were dished out constantly from people I didn’t know while the constant hubbub of close to 600 people droned. The conversations turned to anticipation for the nights sermon as we entered the auditorium. The stage was decked out in a large luminescent cross and accompanying setup for a large band. Three projected screens dominated the overhead space, counting down a timer. Smiles and waving were ever present, and a large collective took up the space between the seats and the stage. As the timer reached its final seconds, the huge space went black, before erupting in light and sound, with the band entering with a thumping bassline. The projector screens leapt into action with telephoto footage of the band in action and overlaid lyrics. Before I knew it, I joined in clapping to the beat of the drum, despite not knowing the tune. The volume of the music was nigh-excessive, and the bass from the drum pulsed in my chest and against my skin. The colourful lights flicked back and forth across the jumping, chaotic audience, casting long shadows between the upturned faces of the crowd. Matt elaborated that the songs and singing were the primary avenue of worship, and formed the basis for a collective experience; one that a lot of the audience got very visibly engaged in. The entire sensory experience felt specifically designed, as if almost every facet of the service had been chosen to culminate in a highly suggestive environment. I found it slightly unsettling that the atmosphere was possibly being tailored to elicit such strong emotional responses.

The cultural importance of religion on an individual level makes sense, but seeing the way people outwardly show their emotions so readily in a semi-public space hinted at the power this kind of collective experience has at generating community. I’ve always thought of church as a very somber and boring experience as it was always something I dreaded going to. Angling religion towards younger people in this way seems to work well. That said, my predisposition against religion prevented me from committing to the experience and I kept my distance from what was being said with a degree of skepticism.

As the show settled, the smell of perfumes, sweat, and dry ice took over. The direction of the service was then carried by a youth pastor, animatedly talking about his experiences over the last week and relating them to passages and lessons from the bible. His readings and grandiose talk provoked affirmations and agreement from the audience. He then led the congregation into more songs while some of those present were taken into another room to fulfil their baptism. These were then displayed on the projected screens as a means of sharing their experiences with the rest of the audience. I found this strange, as I thought it seemed a very personal choice that you might not want to share with an auditorium of people. My informant explained that this was an outward display of devotion to God. The service was then closed off with more song and dance, after which everyone drifted out of the auditorium.

Part 2 ~ Questions on Participant Observation

1 ~ What understanding was gained from participation compared to just observing?
Participating in the service put me right into the heart of the action, giving me a fully rounded sensory experience. I was able to form connections with the people around me, watch their facial expressions, motions, and interactions up close and ask my informant specific questions about everything. Solely observing might have made me miss the intricacies of the audiences responses, which could have led to misinterpretations. I was able to develop empathy for the participants, as well as generate a formative understanding of the experience and its cultural significance.

2 ~ What did having a key informant add to your understanding?
I was able to get immediate responses explaining the service as well as a run down of the kind of things to expect in that environment. My informant provided an insider perspective, which I used as a mirror against which to hold my impressions and preconceptions. Matt gave me the opportunity to gain understanding of the importance and value that this community provided.

3 ~ What was learned from participant observation at this event that a questionnaire or interview about it might miss?
Gaining a unique personal sensory understanding of the experience would be impossible without physically being there, even if the interview or questionnaire included a sense question. Going into the service knowing little about it and participating revealed interesting facets. The questionnaire might fail to capture the conviction and emotion witnessed, while an interview might miss the dynamism that the presence of so many individuals brought.

4 ~ For what purposes might a questionnaire or interview be better than participant observation?
I might have been able to get a broader look at the collective personal experience of the audience and gather from a more diverse set of viewpoints. I could gather a broader, yet shallower perspective of the experience with a questionnaire. The rest of the participants had superior understanding of the event than myself and could offer angles on the service that one informant might not have knowledge of. The nature of self-reporting could reveal thoughts and feelings participants might not show to another person or the interviewer, which could begin to aid in drawing out differences between individuals in the collective

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