Posted by: Kenn Hermann | February 15, 2006

Was I in Church?

This past weekend I visited my in-laws in a large southwestern city. On Sunday we decided to visit the church that my niece’s family has recently begun attending. Since they have not been regular church attenders for quite some time, I was delighted that they had finally found a church. But my experience last Sunday has left me numb. I am still wondering: was I in church? Was I actually worshipping our Lord?

As we drove up to the ‘campus’ we were met by a squadron of police officers directing traffic and orange cones marking the lanes to the parking lot for the second service. (Each service had its own parking lot.) The combined parking lots took up many acres. Dotted across the campus were domed buildings which I learned were facilities for different ages of children. (A later tour would show that each building had a sound stage, small groups of children for Sunday School, and video arcades.) All of this in only six years at this site. They must be doing something right — right?

The main building . . . . hmmm, what to call it? It was clearly not a ‘sanctuary.’ There was nothing to indicate that it was a place of worship — no cross, font, pulpit, stained glass, open Bible, or any other Christian symbols. There was no denominational affiliation mentioned. The word ‘Christ’ did, though, make it into the name. There was nothing to offend the wary. It was an ordinary dimly-lit auditorium with stadium seating in a semi-circle for 8000. Up front was a massive stage with a small rock band playing in front of a colorful and hypnotic laser light show. The only furniture on stage was a small round table with a stool, like you would see at Starbucks. There was also a gayly colored banner haning overhead urging us to “make waves.” Two large video screens were mounted high on the wall on either side of the stage with the words to the (unfamiliar) choruses the band was playing. Oh, and when the band finished, the . . . what? congregation? audience? crowd? applauded.

The pastor–I assumed that’s who he was, wearing a golf shirt and slacks, came on-stage, walked over,leaned on the table, and thanked us for coming. Hmmm, was this the ‘invocation’ I was waiting for? He then mentioned the building campaign they were gearing up for: 20 million dollars for a new youth building. (I heard later that they fully expected to raise 10 million during the upcoming kick-off weekend.) I then heard him mention the word ‘elements.’ The next thing I knew plates, with tiny chips of crackers heaped in a dish in the middle and grape juice in plastic cups surrounding it, were being passed down the aisles. The band played while a few verses from the Psalms were flashed on the screens. Each person served themselves and passed the plate to the next person. Was this ‘communion’ or a light snack? Hard to tell.

The pastor then welcomed his good friend and former NFL chaplain to the stage. I thought he was going to offer a short greeting, but, it turned out that he was going to speak on having a willing heart for service, all the while relaxing on the stool with his Bible — I assumed that’s what it was — on the table. Yes, he did mention the word ‘Jesus’ during his . . . . what? talk? infomercial for the new youth builing? There were a few verses with ‘willing,’ ‘heart,’ and ‘service’ flashed on the screen. He closed with a prayer — I think that’s what it was — that included the main points of his talk. He was an excellent speaker, but was this a ‘sermon’? Had I heard the Gospel or any ‘Good News’?

The pastor returned, thanked his friend, and reminded us again of the building campaign. The ushers immediately started passing the offering baskets down the aisles. (They are currently averaging $230 k/week.) As soon as the baskets were returned to the ushers, we were thanked for coming and dismissed.

Oh, I almost forgot the major key to their success. The pastor had read the statistics that in families where only the mother initially attends church, only 10-15% of her family eventually comes to church. However, when only the father initially attends church, over 80% of his family eventually comes to church. The lesson was clear to him: make men and masculinity the focus of the programs. Get men excited and involved and their families will follow. I was told that Father’s Day was a highlight of the Church Year with classic cars and motorcycles filling the parking lots. It seems to take plenty of testosterone to attract manly men to Jesus.

I was stunned. I have been in other large, even mega-, churches, but never with a ‘liturgy’ like this. It was as though 2100 years of the Church’s rich history of worship had vaporized. Is this what the Reformation has come to? When my niece eagerly asked me what I thought, I hemmed and hawed, and then lamely stammered that “It was certainly different.”

Ironies abound in this experience. I am almost sure, though I do not know, that the pastor came from a conservative evangelical background and would identify with many ‘conservative’ causes and concerns. Yet here he was adopting the worldview and marketing strategies of the corporate world to insure that visitors not stumble over the Cross, hear a call to Confession, receive Christ’s Word of Forgiveness, or welcome the guidance of the Holy Spirit. They must feel Accepted And Comfortable, at all costs. Is this what the apostle Paul had in mind in being all things to all people in order to save some? This ‘service’ was far more devastating to the life, mind, and experience of the Church than anything that ‘Liberals’ have managed to do over the decades. What has my niece ‘found’ in this venue?

Was I in ‘Church’? It grieves me to say ‘no.’

. . .we finished the morning with a lovely brunch at the food court.

If this was an ’emerging’ church, I fear for the life of the Church what it may be ’emerging’ into.

I found the following apropos similar commentary at Touchstone. Were we at the same facility? Sounds like it.

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Responses

  1. Years ago we spoke more about the American Civil Religion than we do today. We discussed it most often in terms of the equation of the Christian faith with the national political symbols and interests of the US. But I wonder if this church is another form of the American Civil Religion, not so much political, but cultural. (Although my guess that if political issues were ever mentioned from the non-pulpit, the positions advocated would reflect those of the current US Administration) This religion is more like the shopping mall experience than a worshipful encounter with the living God–the mall being the icon of America’s consumer religion.

  2. Acceptance and comfort. Nothing is wrong with those things. It would be worthwhile to ask your neice what appealed to her about this church. What was meaningful about the “worship?” In what other ways was she involved in body life? Does she believe that Christ has purchased her life with his sacrifice?

    While I share Kenn and Bills concerns on so many levels, we must appreciate that this is but one form of the way the modern church is unflolding. For everyone of these mega churches there are many smaller ones touching peoples lives in a dramatic fashion, shaping kingdom livers. I know I am prone to judge the form instead of the heart.

    Is what they do with the symboless, non discript pulpit, project screens and light shows any less meaningful to them than all of the liturgy, fancy hardware and somber tones and correctness of other worship services? Is God praised any less? Does superfiality here lead to depth elsewhere? Is this too easy when we expect this church thing to be hard? Are we being too particular, keeping people out when we should be gathering them in? Is there more depth in the lives of our average churches than in these mega churches? Are we more faithful?

    To me the issue is more cultural than spiritual. Modernity has brought us to the logical concusion of protestantism…the church of one, random atoms gathering, attracted not to the power of the word but the experience of being with like others. When they get back into their cars after this experience, are they going anywhere differently than we? When they are done church shopping, are they any less satisfied with their purchase than that of a toaster?

    R

    I ask theOn the face this seems

  3. as-94783-sa

    nice blog.. i ll come back again :] greets


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