Since vacation time gave me the opportunity to visit a local megachurch, the one everyone has been talking about for years, I took up on that opportunity and attended their second service.
The church has been around town for ninety years and has steadily grown those many decades. Some have estimated that the church has around 10,000 regular attendees.
Three words come to mind after having visited the church: big, current, and simple.
The massive “campus” sits on a large plot of land with plenty of parking and the local police directing traffic in and out of the property. I opted to take advantage of their 10:00 A.M. service. Even then the line of traffic waiting to turn onto one of the side streets and into the parking lot was long. As I was nearing the building I was struck by the streams of people flowing into the modern complex. I had not had this experience since my family and I were members of a megachurch back in the mid-1980s.
The official, elderly greeter was friendly enough, but I had to wonder how many times he had to say, “Good morning. Happy Mother’s Day. Glad you are here.” I almost asked him. Two ladies stood just inside of the doors handing out the bulletins.
The large, airy and brightly lit foyer, which they call the mall, was filled with booths, kiosks, and tables representing their numerous ministry programs. A large informational booth was in the center. A cafe and bookstore were also available. It reminded me of a small airport. The colorful signs were clear, simple and informative. One would have to be rather dumb not to find anything there. Outside of the greeter and two female ushers, no one else greeted me. For all I knew everyone else was a newcomer, except for the greeter and ushers, and perhaps the two cameramen, and the people manning the booths, kiosks and tables.
I followed the flow right into the huge worship hall. I chose a chair on the back aisle, center-right of the stage. At 9:55 the auditorium was nearly full. My guestimate was that there was seating for 3,000 people, yet many were standing along the back wall. Quite a few were entering with paper cups of coffee (they might have had other drinks) and plastic cups of ice and cans of soda pop.The overhead lighting was dim, much like a movie theater minutes before the previews are shown.
The congregation was a mix of all ages, and everyone dressed differently. One of the elderly ushers who helped people find seating was dressed in a 1970’s plaid sports coat, large tie, tattered dress pants and dirty brown dress shoes. Another usher looked like she was serving at a local bar. Perhaps she thought she was her own book of revelation? Given the fact there were only two noticeable children, they probably herded the youth off into their own programs. It also struck me how very white the audience was. I observed a couple of Asians, a few who looked Latino, but no Black people; yet inter-generational.
The two-minute warning came upon us with loud, prerecorded music while poetic words flashed onto two large screens up front. Words to encourage everyone to think about worship. I hardly noticed the music team coming on stage: a drummer behind plexiglass partition, a bass guitarist, lead guitarist and music leader, two female vocalists and another guitarist. Promptly on the hour the band broke out in loud music, while everyone stood and began singing. It was a big sound, with big words on big screens. Any music star would have been pleased with the set up. I was not familiar with the tunes or the words. Like everything else, you just go with the flow.
Needless to say, the property, the ambiance, the arrangement, the environment, was very much up-to-date and current. It was all familiar, but done “Christianly.” The modern structure could easily be translated into a mall, or huge mall-theater, or large contemporary high school. The colors were trendy, as were the signs, lights and other accoutrements. The brochures, TV screens and monitors, banners and all else were clean, classy and current. The only exceptions were the many ushers who did not fit the decorum. However, they did blend in with the variety of people attending the service.
Their programs were a mix of old and new, but all of them presented in the current trend. They have quite a few ministries available that would be considered missional, so to that extent they are ministerially current.
The music was also current – of course.
One thing that struck me was the simplicity of it all. The architect, while current, was also simple. The layout of the buildings was obviously designed to make it easy to find your way around. The signage was clear and simple. The brochure or bulletin, which did not have a written order of service, was trendy and simple. The music was very simple and the flow of the service was simple, hence the reason why they did not post it in their brochure. The only “complicated song” was one I had heard a few times on Christian radio. Even the message was simple, though not shallow.
I suspect that all this simplicity was deliberate. And why not? Our society lives in a complicated and complex world. It’s nice to have somewhere to go that is simple, isn’t it? Its simplicity complemented its familiarity. Any American suburbanite would have found the enterprise fairly familiar. It was reminiscent of going to a mall, or movie, or game, or concert, or convention. The only thing that could have seemed other-worldly would have been the music. Its simplicity and familiarity would have made believer and unbeliever from suburbia feel right at home; totally at ease.
The music leader led us in singing two five-minute songs that focused on a couple of the attributes of God. That was good. But the songs were probably composed with the tweenager demographic in mind. The repetitiveness and basic composition gave the sense of lightness, which in my opinion, did not fit the weightiness of the attributes of God of which we sang.
We could follow along quite easily as the words scrolled on a TV flat screen and two large screens, with the different music team members also broadcast on the screens. To my old brain it was a bit distracting reading the words rolling over singing faces or dancing bodies in front of colored backgrounds. It made me flash back to the early 70’s psychedelic music show (you ever hear of The Monkees or Laugh In?)
At the end of the second song everyone cheered and clapped; not sure why other than that’s what we do at rock concerts. The leader began praising God and asked him to bless the worship. He quickly segued into two more songs that was about how I or we felt about God, and what God has done for us. After ten minutes of singing, the leader encouraged everyone to clap for God, and again the audience cheered and clapped. As the noise died down he prayed that God would forgive us of our sins. Amen.
The music team quickly shuffled off the stage while the lead pastor entered. He surprised me in that he wore a cream-colored suit with a light blue shirt, no tie. It looked so much like a leisure suit from the 1970s. In other words, he did not appear current, though he did look simple. And everyone whom I have met who have bragged about how awesome this church is, makes it clear that this is the happening place, the contemporary place, the current place. They often imply, if not come right out and state it, that this church is cool and those other churches (like ours) are not. They are trendy, while other churches (like ours) are old fashioned, traditional or so yesterday. So, it struck me a bit humorous that such a cool church would have a cool pastor wearing what could have been construed as dated clothing (I was after all, an image consultant, so I notice these things). The pastor was, and still is, a big man.
The pastor gave a few announcements, welcomed everyone and somehow smoothly rolled right into the message by reviewing what the message was about the previous week. He pointed out the text, John 20:24-29, and stated he was going to explain it verse by verse. He didn’t do that.
The outline for the message was provided for you in your bulletin and on the screens. The message focused on Jesus’ disciple Thomas. The pastor is a good communicator. The message was basic, though at times insightful. It was definitely aimed at the skeptic or unbeliever, so it was a teaching lesson and an apologetic presentation that Jesus is the only Savior of our sins. In the middle of the talk he gave a simple, but correct explanation of the good news of Jesus Christ.
Theologically, his points were contradictory. One example was when he said that God has to bring you to faith, but it’s up to your spirit alone to come to believe in Jesus. I got the sense that he was that concerned about being consistent or logical. He was humorous, had a clear and pleasant voice. A few times he read from the Scriptures and gave a simple explanation for this or that passage. He did not explain the text verse by verse as he said he would.
This was not a message one could have heard in some Lion’s Club, the Elk’s Lodge or at an Amway meeting. It was tethered to the text. Though I would not say it was distinctly Christ-centered, the Gospel was made clear. There were plenty of illustrations, and he engaged the audience in a way that it seemed he was speaking directly to you or me. It was basic and light, and surely you would have been able to come away with five clear points in the outline, and with a few solid, biblical concepts. Though the message was non-threatening, he did aim at encouraging people to come to believe in Christ. At the thirty-minute mark he finished with a prayer, and then invited people to come forward to pray to give their lives to Jesus or to seek prayers for a need. This took place while the offering was taken and the music team sang. I left right about then.
No sooner did I get to my vehicle the throngs were filing out the doors just as they had filed in exactly one hour before.
This particular church, associated with the Assembly of God denomination, is “doing church right.” By that I mean, based on the gold standards of church life and church growth they have all the components in place. The leadership has steered the Assembly of God culture this church is rooted in toward a more broad Evangelical culture, so that on a presentation level one could not tell the difference between this church and a large contemporary Baptist or Bible or Evangelical Free church.
They have also blended what was clearly an attractional model for “doing church” with the now trendy missional model. It truly is like a Christian mall, in that this church seems to be the one-stop center for nearly everything American Evangelical Christian: cafe, bookstore, health club, programs for everyone, youth groups and youth camps, Christian music concerts, ministries to the poor, the local city, the military soldiers fighting overseas, for the drug addicts and alcoholics, the home-bound elderly… Phew!
If ever there was a church that is the perfect model of Evangelical Americana, this is it. No wonder – just on a mere sociological level it’s a mega church.