What would you get if Zig Ziglar and Mary Kay mated and produced a business? Answer: The Mega Church. It’s bigger, it’s better – and it’s in-your-face for Jesus. Oh, but if you REALLY love Him you’ll need to fork over some major cash – so they can bring more people to God, of course.
I miss church. I loved my previous Texas church home and especially the pastor whose sermons I still remember. He could tell a personal story, connect it to the bible, intertwine it with the relevance in our lives today and most importantly, how to apply it. Before you knew it, an hour had zipped by and you left wanting to hear more. I’ve really wanted to find another pastor like that. So during a recent trip back to Texas and a random encounter with a furniture salesman, I visited a different church that sounded much like what I’ve been missing.
Upon arrival, it was apparent this church is a well oiled machine. Starting in the parking lot, there were attendants set up about every 10 feet to direct you to your parking spot and give you wave and a “howdy” as you drove by. “Aw, how nice” – until the 5th guy wave and “howdy” at which point I thought, “ok, calm down with the waving, Skippy” From there I was directed through the parking lot and past several open spots that guy #6 furiously waved his flag as an indication not to park in and pointed at the back of the lot. At this point I deemed them “the parking Nazis”. Once parked, you just started to follow the masses through a set of side doors directly into the children’s area, then continued through the zoo themed area around a maze of hallways (I likened it to the scene in Willy Wonka where the Oompaloompas tell the children to “come with us!”), and followed the smell of… what is that smell? Coffee? Popcorn? It was indeed the smell coming from the church coffee shop and restaurant, where dozens of people were bustling around getting their snacks and drinks for the service. At this point I spotted the front doors to the auditorium. There were several men standing in front of them and the doors were covered by some sort of construction paper that was painted with… oops, too late, the doors opened and what was experienced next can only be described as an assault on the senses. The auditorium was dark except for the strobe lights coming from the stage. The room was thumping with bass and there was a really loud band playing. Before you could get acclimated to the surroundings – “HELLO!!!! WELCOME!!!! WE’RE SO GLAD YOU’RE HERE!!!!!!” said the 50ish Stepford Wife who I’m sure passed herself off as 40 and dressed like she was 30. Now, I don’t have “personal space” issues like my daughter does, but this woman was wayyyyy too in-your-face even for my comfort. At that point a bronzed bouncer looking guy in the aisle with a headset on motioned to Barbie (that’s what I named her) with 2 fingers in the air, as in “seating for 2?” and motioned to come down the aisle, then pointed to the assigned row to sit. OK, now I can focus on the stage. Oh my, the stage. Let’s just say you won’t find a better produced set in Hollywood. On the first level (yes, you read that right) were 4 singers – three girls and a young man who was the lead singer. Justin Beiber’s got nothing on this kids hair. The girls were equally well coifed, tan and beautiful – and the one in the front was a dead ringer for Miley Cyrus (Disney era Miley, not foam finger waving, grinding stripper Miley). It was at this point I felt like I was at a Taylor Swift concert. But I digress – let’s finish with the stage set. There was some sort of treasure chest-type prop with all sorts of jewels and beads coming out of it, which I assume was the theme of the front door as well. There were trees and vines that led to the 2nd level, which is where the drummer sat behind his plexi-glass wall on one side and the guitar player was on the other side, rocking out. My Sunday companion said they were half expecting dancers in cages. OK, the music. It wasn’t *bad* per se, it was….. like a pop concert. I would almost swear they were lip synching. Yes, they were singing (ok, screaming) about Jesus and how He was the way, but it was eerily hollow. I found it amazing that the best singers in the entire congregation were all under 20, tanned, buff and beautiful. Now don’t get me wrong, I love worship music. It has the power to move my soul. But this was different – there was a slick, professional quality bubble gum pop band feel to them and it seemed like they could have easily swapped out Jesus for McDonalds. Then the wall to my left caught my eye because instead of a cross on the wall, there was about a 50 foot architectural drawing of “Phase 2” of the church. Thinking back, I don’t remember any crosses in the entire church. After about 3 songs, a tanned, good looking man came to the stage and introduced himself as the “Team Leader in Charge of Worship” or something like that. I didn’t catch his exact title because all I could think was, “holy crap, could his jeans be ANY tighter?” He welcomed the visitors and asked them to fill out the visitor card and the church would mail you a packet that included literature on the church along with a coupon to use at the restaurant for a free coffee, energy drink, protein shake (What Would Jesus Drink?), and a VIP parking pass (that explains the empty spots.) He talked about how the pastor was in my new home of NYC leading an event that 50,000 people attended and 20,000 people responded to the altar call to accept Jesus. The auditorium broke out into applause. I did the numbers in my head. Really? 20,000 people? Was there a turnstile to count them? Then he directed everyone’s attention to the JUMBO-TRON, where another good looking, tanned (do these people worship in the Bahamas?) appeared on the screen in a huge pit. He then explained that the pit was where they were going to break ground on “Phase 2” of the church, but that wasn’t possible without… wait for it… you guessed it – cash. And we’re not talking chump change here. He wanted 200 people to “answer the call of Jesus” and pony up a thousand bucks each. Say again? Now I’m looking around at steroid ripped guys in their skin tight shirts, women with highlights that rival the salons in NYC and thinking “I suppose they can afford it.” But is that really the point? What is the end result here? Then it hit me – we’re witnessing a MLM (Multi Level Marketing) plan. If you get 5 people, and they get 5 people, and those people get 5 people, before you know it, we’ll have a MILLION people for God! Great, then what? Well, then it will be time for Phase 3, of course. Then out came the collection buckets – yes, BUCKETS. White buckets like you see at the dollar store that hold 1,000 pieces of bubble gum. Barbie started running up and down the aisle collecting envelopes, and the pastor told people who were watching on the live feed cam at home not to feel left out – they could click the “give online” button and enter their credit card information. I think I wondered aloud if you got a free tanning membership with your contribution, and mused they should just charge a cover charge. Yes, I had resorted to heckling the pastor. It was about this time that my chest began to tighten and my neck started to turn red – and that’s always a sign it’s time to go. So I simply stood up,left and headed for brunch – where for the first time in my life I felt like I NEEDED a drink after church.
I think I have adequately described my disgust over this spectacle, but it also made me sad. Sad that there are people who think this is what Jesus was about and church “leaders” who peddle this, all in the name of “numbers.” Christ wasn’t about numbers –he was about ministering to the broken and giving them a way back to redemption. Yes, we’re supposed to witness – but about Christ and how He died for our sins so we could have eternal life, not free drink coupons and VIP parking spaces. I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen if the Leper from the book of Mark had shown up at this church. Would he have been welcomed or shunned? I know that the people who I admire most for their faith are the most humble, generous of spirit, compassionate people in my life. They all show unconditional love, look for the good in people, and give credit and glory to God for their blessings. They do not hold themselves out to be perfect, but instead as sinners who ask for forgiveness and guidance. I see the spirit of Jesus in each of them, and how they touch the people around them, day by day, one by one.
I don’t think all big churches are bad, however, I believe if your focus is numbers, then in a reverse of “you can’t see the forest for the trees”, you’re only focusing on how big the forest can be and the trees become irrelevant. In this day of excess and “bigger is better”, I’ll keep looking for the right church in Manhattan. Until then, I strive to remember and live by the words my former pastor used to repeat every Sunday to close his sermons:
“Go now in peace. Be kind. Lift up the broken hearted. Give hope to the hopeless. Love and serve your neighbor in the spirit of Jesus Christ. Amen”