Wading Through the Drama of Detachment: The Commendable and the Mindbogglingly Awful in the Megachurch

When the services at my church were cancelled two Sundays ago I was excited to sample the worship experience of another congregation and gauge the differences (both positive and negative) between them. I decided to visit a rather large church (so large that it offers four weekend services!) whose reputation (both good and bad) is founded upon its dedication to doing church differently.

All of the trappings you would expect from a megachurch bid us welcome: posh coffee bar annex, ultra sleek nursery, an abundance of name tagged staff waiting on our beck and call, video screens hanging from every corner announcing the countdown to the service… A wearying cynicism set in, hardening my heart and its biases in a fit of spiritual sclerosis. I was feeling very tired, very sorry for myself, only four steps into the building when a sudden flash of lucidity startled me out of my self-righteous malaise. My attitude is super bogus right now- I already hate everything about this place and I haven’t even seen anything to warrant it yet. I squeezed my skepticism into a sleeper hold, forced myself to choke down all my prejudices and found myself excited all over again to try this place out, to see all of these things through a more charitable pair of goggles. It was only a couple of minutes before the brute logic of it all compelled me to admit (not too loud, of course), “Huh. All of this stuff is actually pretty cool.” All of these amenities communicated an enthusiasm to welcome congregants and serve them with professionalism and flair. Is the flak some churches give these types of ministries a smoke screen for their ineptitude in conveying hospitality to visitors and members? By itself that would be too simplistic of an answer, but there’s no doubt in my mind that’s a factor in many instances. Envygelicals, I tell ya…

We made our way to the sanctuary and gawked at its immensity. Besides being fairly ginormous, it was fully loaded- not only with long lines of comfy, plush chairs, but with the choicest sound and visual tech you’re likely to find this side of Madison Square Garden. There’s no point in denying that everything about the stage resembled a high profile rock band doing their sound check; I expect that was precisely the feel the church’s leaders wanted to achieve. Why are so many people suspicious of these aesthetic elements? I thought to myself as I surveyed the auditorium. The postmodern, sound amplifying design of the room, the drapes behind the worship band, the vast array of lights, the massive screens flanking the stage, and the panoply of sound equipment conveyed the atmosphere of going to a rock show with your friends, that mysterious synthesis of the no big deal and the monumentally epic that the live rock and roll experience fuses together with primal, community binding power. It occurred to me as I watched people find their seats and the band finish their preparation that the rock concert may just be ideal for embodying the high/low paradoxes of the church. Obviously the church has something to say and be that not even U2 can do, but anyone who’s ever been to one of their shows can testify that the polarities of the reverent and anarchic, the sacred and the dirt-under-your-fingernails-earthly quixotically, heartmeltingly coincide interactively in that time and place. Maybe taking notes isn’t such a bad idea?

Again, just lay your prejudgments on the table. What critiques do you immediately want to offer as you picture all of this? What words come to mind? (I promise I’ve thought of them before, too.) Spectacle? Sure, call it spectacle. Entertainment? That depends on what you mean. Entertainment can mean something exciting that holds your attention, but it also frequently carries a pejorative connotation along the lines of “all flash, zero content.” Detractors would probably categorize everything about the worship team’s performance as gimmick but really: does a pop culture-informed methodology make whatever you do a priori inferior? Why does it seem that for many observers who share my doctrinal persuasion, simply noting that these elements exist in a church’s philosophy of ministry is enough to condemn it- where’s the warrant? What biblical principles make Ira Sankey pleasing to God but Hillsong United anathema? Or any of the other arbitrary non-issues that are inflated into ecclesiastical Maginot Lines to guard the borders of our precious, comfortable preferences? A fresh sense of the ridiculousness of much of the worship wars cascaded over my consciousness as I felt my spirit begin to soar with adoration of the God who delights in the exuberant singing of His people.

So yes, I discovered a number of things to like about this church’s style: it’s down to earth, intelligible to the average secular humanist who gets pressured into checking out his buddy’s church, non-threatening, and even has at least a modicum of orthodox theology. The people who attend this church look like the people you work next to Monday through Friday; none of them look like militia members who spend their free time field stripping their rifles and writing manifestoes or like the hysterical street corner shouters who distribute apocalyptic literature in their ankle length skirts even when it’s -20 degrees out. They seem so disarmingly normal. Normal, by the way, is pretty wide ranging: hip college dudes with flannel and skinny jeans, with it thirtysomethings sporting goatees and North Face vests, grandmas and grandpas in cashmere and corduroy… This was definitely not a big college age love-in we were attending. Here wounded, self-conscious millennials, Gen-Xers, and disenfranchised boomers could all come to hear answers to questions they’ve never been able to articulate and not fear they would be identified as pariahs upon entering. I found myself feeling incredibly at ease in their company, felt like the church’s existence as a maligned substratum of society really was due to the miracle of new birth and not due to reactionary tribal distinctions that have calcified within our various traditions.

Not everything was revelatory or praiseworthy though: two crucial aspects of the worship service were majorly disappointing, the second of them catastrophically so. The lack of congregational singing was the first to be brought to light. Calling it lackluster would be generous. It was so surprising, downright unnerving even, to realize that practically no one else around me was singing as second by second I was steadily getting more psyched to sing and, well, emote. I can’t even say that the style of the songs had anything to do with it; it simply appeared that the congregants were used to observing the band perform and not to participating themselves. This is a shame- the racket we could’ve all kicked up together would have been stellar, but even more than that I’m saddened that so many of them are consistently missing out (if that morning is a reliable indicator) on the experience of amplifying one another’s adoration of God and on ministering to one another by preaching in lyric and melody and movement. I think it’s a leadership failure that this apparently isn’t emphasized as a duty and a delight of the congregation- you can tell the opposite is taught (at least by example) when the worship leader shouts, “All right, now you!” and holds his mic out to the congregation to sing the repeat of the song’s bridge. The “contemporary music trains congregations to watch a performance and not to worship as a congregation” argument is often little more than a straw man, but it sticks here, I’m afraid. The disconnect was palpable; the spectacle onstage seemed no more entertaining to them than watching TV at home. How fitting then that the preacher offered his Law-disguised-as-Gospel platitudes chugging along on a treadmill from Who Knows Where via the behemoth screens commanding our attention up front. His offensively mediocre pep talk pumped decibels and data into the room without ever once engaging living, hurting human presences. The congregation tuned in, the recording ran, and- well, that was it, really.

As disappointing and mystifying as that was, the second was infuriatingly, heartbreakingly pathetic. After the Lord’s Supper, a nice, packaged in-flight snack with plastic wrapped wafer and a vial of grape juice that looked more like a little tub of creamer, was distributed (and I do mean distributed) with precisely zero fanfare it was announced that a number of new believers were going to be baptized that morning. It was so exciting to watch them stream across the gigantic room and assemble together, a flight crew of world defectors awaiting a new citizenship and a new mission profile. Rapturous applause greeted the first new disciple that emerged from the water and it felt so staggeringly right, so fitting and proper to celebrate and acclaim the symbol and the seal of new birth and adoption. This was a little revelatory in itself, the feeling of standing on the other side of a divide, waving to others to join us and ecstatically welcoming them as they cross and take their place among us. How many of their families are here right now, celebrating with them? I wondered to myself. I thought about how for many of them choosing to follow Jesus means estrangement from their families, that the church has become their only family now, and this amplified my applause, amplified my prayers of thanksgiving, amplified my love for these new brothers and sisters. I looked back to my own baptism, remembered how electrifying it was: the swirl of emotions was so heartwrenchingly palpable, I could almost physically feel the break between the past and the future as a new creation. I remember the comfort of knowing I had been adopted by a Father and an older brother who would never leave or forsake me, that my identity was no longer bound up with the ruined inheritance of my family’s background, that I finally had somewhere that I truly belonged. I could tell from the faces of many who were baptized that morning that the same things were echoing through their minds- the joy of new life, of finally belonging, of being on a course back home. The gestalt of emotion that baptism summons into being is so elevating and so down to earth at the same time.

Then, suddenly, everything sucked. The pastor up at the front returned to center stage after the band finished their final song to announce the end of the service. He told the congregation they could stay if they wanted to watch the rest of the baptisms but if anyone had kids in nursery to go pick them up. No sooner did he finish speaking then most of the audience rose, grabbed their coats, and filed out of the auditorium, scattering in ones and twos to wherever it was they had to go, all while baptisms just kept on going. I stayed and watched, clapping all the louder after each emergence, trying desperately to suppress the rancor I felt rising in my heart at this outrage. How can so many people completely miss the point like this? Don’t they remember the desperation of baptism, that plunge from the precipice of old life into the looming unknown of the new? Were all of their priorities so out of whack that they seriously thought being on time for lunch came before cheering on new believers and welcoming them into the fold? Have they forgotten what was so apparent in the expressions of those climbing into the baptistry, that mixture of fear, excitement, repentance, mourning and exuberance that is a part of every conversion? The giant screens captured the flurry of smiles and tears and earnestness that accompanied the minister’s questions and burst in ecstatic relief to come out the other side of the baptismal waters but few cared to linger and be caught up in the drama. The fragmentation we late capitalist moderns intuitively feel as normal beckoned everyone out of religious recess and back to the disordered, self-centered busyness of “real life”. It was a shameful thing, and my heart aches for those who climbed out of the baptistry to find only a few scattered onlookers and a camera crew watching, projecting silent images to no one in particular.

 
There are no happy endings on this one. It just is the way it is.
 
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