Monday, August 12, 2013

Visiting a Mega-church

Or “In which I go to a mega-church and only say ‘dammit’ once”

As we turned into the church parking lot, an abundance of orange cones led us up the lane, forcing us to the front which had a sign for guest parking. A tent was sent up in front of the door that said “Welcome Guests” and a man stood nearby with bright orange pamphlets. My friend made the smart decision to keep driving and loop to the back. We just want inside, not your name tags and pamphlets. Who determines a guest? Do I have to keep parking in the front until I’m a full member, or is that only for the first three visits?  There’s being welcoming, and there’s being pushy. This felt pushy. I was being identified, labeled, and targeted before reaching the door. We didn’t want to be labeled as guests; we just wanted to sit in the back and observe. You aren’t going to attract any introverts with such a method; you’re just going to make us keep driving.

We get inside, and the area looks like a conference center, with a resource room, bookstore, coffee shop, and information desk. We go into the room labeled auditorium. We think we’re 10 minutes early, but the room is already packed, and a man is speaking. Maybe this is a Sunday School class before the worship service? We climb up to the top of the theater seating. I later figured out that this was the main service; just this week they had changed their service times, so we had arrived 20 minutes late and missed out on the praise band music (which we were looking forward to making fun of, but happy to miss).

Now it took us a bit to figure out that the service time had changed. We looked in the bulletin, and after ticket info for a man from America’s Got Talent and the time for the Men’s Breakfast was a section called Joining God. We deduced this to be the Sunday worship service, even though the section didn’t use the word like “Sunday” or “worship.”
Despite being late, we still caught 40 minutes of the sermon. It seemed he could have gotten to the point a lot quicker instead of re-iterating it in six different ways. A message that runs over 20 minutes is really just a ramble in my book. I like long academic lectures, but this wasn’t academic, and this was on God’s time, not school time. The preacher’s message was about slowing down and not feeling so rushed, which I thought was a good message. He tied it into the story of Mary and Martha, which was also good. But then he mentioned how Jesus speaks to Martha by saying her name twice, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things.” (Luke 10:41)

He then said, “There are only two other places in scripture where Jesus speaks like this,” meaning repeating the name twice.

Oh, no, I thought. Please don’t try to tie in Martha’s story with Christ’s last words on the Cross. Yes, that might be an interesting fact, something to be unwrapped in another sermon. But that isn’t the point of the message you’re giving. Don’t toss “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” out there without any context or point. Don’t diminish those words with a casual tie-in. Don’t give those two phrases equal weight. Don’t go there.

“Don’t say ‘on the cross’” I muttered repeatedly under my breath.

“…and on the cross…” 

“Dammit.” Only after the word was out did I realize that part was definitely out loud and audible although I really did intend to keep it in my head. I wondered if I should feel bad that I said dammit in church, but then I realized I was in an auditorium and not a sanctuary and there was a good chance no one but my friend heard me, so I was probably ok.

After the message, there was a quick prayer that I felt like only existed as a transition for the band to set up on stage and the lights to dim. They played a couple of songs that weren’t bad, musically or theologically, but were way too loud. There was a quick benediction, and the service ended. 

My biggest problem with the church was the building itself. It didn’t even try to pass off the space as holy, calling the gathering space an auditorium rather than a nave or sanctuary. It looked and felt like a bland performing arts center. If not for the wooden cross on either end of the stage, there would be no indication this was a religious place. The center of the stage, the focus, was a set made to look like a gas station, with old pumps and a 7-Up machine. The band’s instruments were set up in front of this. Who in the world thinks giving more prominence to a soda machine than a cross is a good look for a church? It certainly sent a message to me that the band and the “hip” theme were more important than the cross.  

I’m pretty critical of the whole mega-church style, so I promised myself going in that I would find three things I genuinely liked:

  1. The theme for the six-week series and the message delivered was about being spiritually stalled. I thought it was a really good theme, and for the most part, thought the preacher was good. 
  2. I noticed this in the bulletin and really liked it: “Colored candles may be lit before, after, or during the time of worship. Blue represents a need for which we see the Holy Spirit’s strength. Amber expresses gratitude for an evident work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Red is for someone we desire to come to faith in Christ.” The candles were placed near the crosses in the auditorium. 
  3. They used really nice card stock. I know this sounds sarcastic, but I kept commenting on how nice the card stock was for the bulletin insert and the cards in the back of the seats. Thick, some glossy, raised letters. I geeked a little. 
  4. Because I feel like card stock isn’t a good one, I’ll add that I was pleasantly surprised that there was no altar call. I had the misconception that all mega-non-denoms were all about altar calls, all the time. And that’s why I wanted to do this church hop, to shake some misconceptions and be pleasantly surprised.
Score: 46

[And here’s a special message to the couple getting way too touchy-feely during the last song: No matter the noise level or the lighting, this isn’t a rock concert. It’s Sunday morning, and you’re with your kids. Keep your hands off your spouse’s butt and try not to make-out while the praise band version of “All Creatures of Our God and King” is playing.]

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