I could remember only bits and pieces of Frank Valenti's message that first Sunday when I sat down to take notes later. I did not yet feel comfortable taking notes during the service, which I soon began doing, discreetly, from my seat in the back-right pew. Without the church's own routine tape recording of each service—the only physical record of Frank's sermons since he preached rather freely and spontaneously from rough notes—I would have had a very limited account of it.

I could remember him hitting out on public issues like abortion and a bill before Congress that would permit a child to sue his parents at state expense. "If you raise your child scripturally," he warned them, "and make him go to church, when he gets old enough, he can sue you for forcing your religion on him. And that bill is in the House," he growled, "r-i-g-h-t n-o-w!" He banged his fist on the wooden lectern.

But when he spoke of abortion as "murdering and virtually butchering babies," I forgot his effort to quickly reassure those present "who have been in that situation before" that "God's forgiven you." Above all, I had trouble following how his points of social criticism connected with the story from the text that day, about King Jeroboam, who made molten images for his people to worship and turned his back on God.

Frank, in fact, took considerable time to bring King Jeroboam's story to life, reenacting the experience of his wife, who, following the king's orders, disguised herself to consult a blind prophet. Since God had already alerted the prophet before she arrived, the blind man recognized the wife immediately. "Can you imagine the look on this woman's face?" Frank asked us wide-eyed. "Instead of having her hair up all in braids like the queen, she had it all stringy, made it kinda greasy." He cuffed his hand around his own head as if doing up his hair. "She wore ragged clothes so she wouldn't be recognized." He turned sideways from the podium, lowered his head and shuffled a couple of furtive steps acting her part. "And she walks to the door, she knocks and steps through it … and this blind old prophet says [Frank paused, then declared with contempt], 'Whaddya doin'? … Whaddya look like that for? … I know who you are!'

"Can you imagine the look on her face?" Frank paused, cocked his head and grimaced. "She probably turned around and said, 'I'm gonna kill whoever squealed!'" The crowd howled with laughter.

But what did this story, as Frank brought it to life from the archaic prose of the King James Bible, have to do with abortion or the despised bill before Congress permitting children to sue their parents? Listening to his sermon again, I realized the connection simply was that, just as God destroyed Jeroboam for his sin, so, too, we would be judged for abortion or for neglecting our children. Here Frank pointed to his own "sin."

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"I do not spend the quality time with my children that I ought to," he confessed, "and then, when I do spend that time with my children, it seems like they see it as a hurried time. You know," he said, rattling off the kind of attitude he took, the attitude of This-is-something-I-have-to-do-kids-so-hurry-up-and-let's-do-it-so-I-can-get-back-to-the-important-things.

"And I ask for their forgiveness at this very moment," he said, wrapping his two hands around the lectern and leaning toward the side of the sanctuary where the teenagers were sitting. "Pop's on the right road, Tim," he said, addressing his own son, and declaring he now had a plan to spend "good, pure, quality time" with his children.

I remember what odd mixtures of embarrassment, delight, and mortification came upon me as a child when my father used us children to illustrate his preaching. Unlike Frank, however, my father used us as examples to make a point, not to offer the kind of personal confession Frank made here in front of everyone.

God destroyed Jeroboam even though "the Assyrian kings were far worse," Frank explained, because Jeroboam was "messin' with God's people." By the same token, children are God's property, Frank asserted, yet "the National Education Association says the child belongs to the state, and the state agrees!" The bill permitting children to sue parents was just another step in diminishing parents' ability to act as stewards of the children God has given them.

I soon came to see how readily any passage of scripture could be applied to the problem of building what members saw as a "godly" order of family life, and the forces seen to undermine or interfere with it, like feminism, the "homosexual movement," moral relativism and so on. If members of Shawmut River spoke of the Bible as "our handbook for life," it was, above all, a guide for family life. Under the formula that falling out of fellowship with a spouse is a consequence and sign of being out of fellowship with God, virtually every kind of marital problem could be discussed in these terms.

The church's abiding concern with the problems of family life was closely related to what impressed me most about its distinct atmosphere of worship. It was saturated with the personal, the familiar, the "at-home." Pastor Valenti's willingness to kid his congregation and recognize visitors in public, or to confess his own failures as a parent for everyone to hear, all helped set the proper tone. A familiar, personal atmosphere permeated every aspect of the service: the sentimental and romantic tone of Scott and Sue's anthem; the preference for familial terms of address such as "Brother Phil," "Aunt Margaret," and, simply, "Granny"; the personal idiom of prayer and the absence of any recitation of set-piece creeds or prayers (even the Lord's Prayer) that did not have the stamp of the spontaneous, the idiosyncratic, and the personal.

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"The Lord's Prayer is given to us as a model," Phil Strong, an important lay leader, later explained to me, but the Bible says, "Don't pray with vain repetition." God is more interested in dialogue, Phil said, and it was daily dialogue with God that most marked what members had in mind when they spoke of "having a personal relation with Jesus Christ." Such a personal relationship was aptly expressed in the direct, informal, even tender way in which God was addressed in prayers offered aloud that morning.

Shawmut River's worship service was a gathering in which the personal was readily aired, in which the metaphor and mood of "family" prevailed, an atmosphere well served by the injunction Pastor Valenti gave to first-time visitors: "Make yourselves friendly and you will find you have a home here." Shawmut River was not the kind of church you could just walk into one Sunday morning without being introduced. That would be like walking into someone's living room and not being greeted. Once, Pastor Valenti failed to notice a first-time visitor in the crowd and was just beginning his message. Aunt Margaret, sitting next to me in the back row, became visibly agitated and vainly tried to catch his attention. Finally, no longer able to contain herself, she stood up and interrupted him in midstream. "Pastor! Pastor!" she sputtered. "Somebody's here who hasn't been introduced!"

I realized that one thing that makes television evangelists appear so untrustworthy to the uninitiated is their penchant for addressing their mass, anonymous audiences in such familiar ways, as if they were bosom friends and confidants. But experiencing a church like Shawmut River, I wondered how they could ever do otherwise if they sought to appeal to people churched in congregations like this.

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Shawmut River had the feel of village life, yet its members were drawn from all over the Worcester area, some driving as much as forty-five minutes to attend. If it was a community, it was not one anchored in a neighborhood. Indeed, some members had been attending less than a year, and some, I would see, were just passing through. How was this village like atmosphere possible under these conditions? How viable, or durable, could such a community be in late-twentieth-century urban America?

While Shawmut River's village atmosphere appealed to me in some ways, it grated against my sensibilities in others. The intimate tone of spoken prayer, Frank's personal confession to his children and the sentimentality of Scott and Sue's anthem—all these, whatever emotional tugs they had, caused me to wince. For many like me, religion should be more formal and permit greater privacy in people's experience of God. But those who came to Shawmut River had no difficulty acclimating themselves to its personal, down, home atmosphere. Though they spoke of many life changes engendered by being saved and coming to a Bible-believing church, this was never one. Instead, most spoke of feeling right at home at Shawmut River, or at a similar fundamentalist church they had first attended, as soon as they walked through the door.

On the other hand, some who had happened upon mainline Protestant churches during their spiritual search spoke of being turned off by an atmosphere they found "phony" or "unfriendly," as one newly saved ex-Catholic described his experience at First Baptist Church on the town green. "Pastor," he explained to Frank at a Bible study in his home, "I hate to sound bad, but I saw your church as the poor man's church and First Baptist as the rich man's. I can sneak in there, but I can't into yours."

These experiences suggested that something quite distinct from fundamentalist or evangelical culture predisposed members to this kind of sociability, where the boundaries between public and private were drawn differently from in the churches I knew, where people had to be publicly recognized, or a pastor readily singled out members of the congregation to joke with, or an anthem took the form of a love song to Christ. Why did these people, whether raised Catholic, Lutheran or in no faith whatsoever, feel immediately at home at Shawmut River, while others found such a climate immediately distasteful?

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Excerpted from Spirit and Flesh by James M. Ault, Jr. Copyright © 2004 by James M. Ault, Jr.. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Related Elsewhere:

Spirit and Flesh is available from Amazon.com and other book retailers.

More information is available from the publisher.

Reviews elsewhere include:

Welcome stranger | Liberal discovers friends in a fundamentalist church (Houston Chronicle, Sept. 24, 2004)
Getting down to fundamentals | 20-year study of working-class Christianity shuns cliché (San Francisco Chronicle, Sept. 19, 2004)