Saturday, December 03, 2016

Reformation Project: Analyzing my Visit to Lake Pointe Church

This post will provide some additional analysis based on the description of my visit to the church found here. Because this post elaborates on the earlier one, readers are urged to look at it before proceeding with this one.

With a reported average attendance of over 11,000 at multiple campuses across the east side of the Dallas area, Lake Pointe Church is the fifth largest congregation in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, according to the Hartford Institute for Religion Research. Like the previously described Prestonwood Baptist Church, Lake Pointe has a long history as a large congregation. However, it has made more changes in response to recent trends than has Prestonwood, the most obvious being the dropping of "Baptist" from the church's name. Both of these churches are affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention.

Most of my visit descriptions to this point have been light on analysis, but my earlier post describing my visit to Lake Pointe provides an exception to that, and I won't repeat that analysis here. I was particularly harsh regarding the pastor's sermon, suggesting that he spent far too  little attention on Christ in a sermon designed to get church members to become fully devoted followers of Christ. One reader made the observation to me that this was perhaps unfair given that it was based on a visit to a single church service. I thought that was an important point to which I would respond as follows:

My research approach for this study involved single visits to the 10 largest churches in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex. While that allows the researcher to pull together material from multiple congregations within a reasonable time frame, it also means that the researcher must be aware that observations are relatively brief and cannot take in all that a church teaches or does. Nonetheless, if things are missing that might be expected, or if patterns are found across the churches that arguably represent a trend, then those findings can be reported.

As such, this researcher finds it surprising that so much talk can be given to what Christians should do in order to become fully devoted followers of Christ with very little attention being given to what Christ has done or to the role of the Holy Spirit in uniting us to Christ. While not everything can go into a single sermon, one might suggest that teaching covered in previous weeks or elsewhere in the church might be summarized in order to give context to the present day's teaching. After all, this blogger was likely not the only visitor on that day.

Gospel centered preaching has been out of vogue in many ecclesiastical contexts for so long that many Christians no longer know what it means. For many, "Gospel preaching" means an evangelistic appeal telling people how to "get saved." Under that view, a sermon on Christian living might be expected to be lacking in Gospel content. However, a cursory reading of the New Testament reveals the extent to which the Gospel stands at the center of every aspect of the Christian life. Rightly preaching law and Gospel is basic to the minister's task, and proclamation of the Gospel of grace stands as the church's message to meet the needs of Christians and non Christians alike.

The other issue of note I found in worshiping with this church was the lack of congregational participation. I have noted in other churches that the music was hard to sing, the method of delivery was performance oriented, and congregational participation was mixed. That seemed even more true with this church. This tendency will be the focus of discussion in a later post when I synthesize various findings from the churches. If music is a central factor in appealing to modern "seekers," why is it that so few tend to participate in the congregational singing?

In my next post, I will talk about my visit to Covenant Church. Hold on to your seats folks: this one was interesting.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

The Reformation Project: My Visit to Lake Pointe Church

ROCKWALL, Texas, January 12, 2014 -- Lake Pointe Church sits along Interstate 30 in Rockwall, Texas, just across a large lake from Dallas County.  The ridge along the water where the interstate crosses the lake provides one of the more scenic views in all of north Texas.

                Exiting the interstate and pulling into the end of the lot past the church, one drives past a large number of portable buildings cluttering the campus. The unkempt outside of the church differs markedly from the well-kept interior.  A youth area where the kids are headed presumably for Bible study features an indoor basketball goal, ping pong table, and video games.  A children’s area through which we walked on our way into the auditorium had signs pointing toward various themed areas of rooms, with a jungle gym of red and yellow pipes, a la McDonald’s, also in view.  Just outside the auditorium, one could take in a bookstore, a “connection center” for people interested in further information about the church, and a cafĂ©. 

                The worship area was a long semi-oval with a large stage featuring a band and praise team numbering about a dozen members.  Three large video screens posted behind the stage featured various views of the band and singers, including close ups of anguished faces and guitarists' fingers picking at their instruments.  The opening song was an upbeat version of “All Creatures of our God and King,” which concluded with multiple repetitions of the word, “Aleluia.” Very few of the people in my area appeared to be singing.

                Following that song, Pastor Steve Stroope, a fit 60 year old man clad in blue jeans and a sweater, made some announcements.  He then indicated that for their fellowship time that due to the prevalence of flu in the area, the congregation should forego handshakes in favor of fist bumps and nods. He seemed to recognize that this was an odd request, and most of the congregation complied with a sense of awkwardness.  This was followed by two songs, which, again, few in the congregation bothered to attempt to sing.  “There Is Only One” celebrated God’s power to create and proclaimed our commitment to him.  The song was orthodox as far as it went, though the content lacked Christian specificity and contained no redemptive message.  The focus was on God as Creator and our determination to be committed to him.  “Thank you God for Saving Me” contained praise for salvation, though the only explicit mention of divine activity was found in the bridge of the song.

                During another song performed during the offering, the soloist, recognizing that the congregation didn’t seem to be joining in, implored us repeatedly to sing, largely without effect.

                This was described as “Commitment Weekend,” which is evidently an annual event for the church, in which they urge members to make commitments to be “a fully developing follower of Christ.”  Pastor Stroope explained that this phrase had been included in the church’s mission statement for decades and “is what we are about as a church.” 

                The text for the sermon was Ephesians 4:11-13, which the pastor used in order to say that his job was to equip church members for the work of the ministry.  His exposition of the text took no more than 3 minutes, and was followed by an extended discussion of five key areas in which they wanted members to make commitments in order to be fully developing followers of Christ.  Each of those areas featured a key word beginning with a “W:”
  1. What it means to worship God;
  2. Lives by God’s Word;
  3. Contribute to God’s work;
  4. Impact God’s world; and
  5. Walk with God’s people.
                The descriptions of each of these areas were fairly conventional, and the pastor used illustrations designed to help beginners take baby steps in each of these areas.  Thus, the congregation was urged to just try to read one chapter of the Bible and pray 5 days in each week.  Rather than urging a tithe, the pastor suggested they might just begin by giving a few dollars, or more than they spend at Starbucks. 

                Nonetheless, while the descriptions were mostly conventional, some issues did stand out.  The pastor defined worship as “our response to the revealed greatness of God,” a definition that seems deficient in a Christian context.  Christian worship ought to emphasize both God’s greatness and his goodness, and the failure to emphasize the latter along with the former is utterly deflating, as can be seen by Isaiah’s reaction to the vision of God’s greatness in Isaiah 6.  Before his experience of the grace of divine cleansing, Isaiah was overwhelmed, and it was his experience of God’s grace that reassured him and made worship and mission possible.

                Yet, this absence of grace was evident throughout the sermon.  I suspect that the pastor would suggest that I am being unfair, as this was only one sermon, but it is nonetheless astounding that an entire sermon on becoming developing followers of Christ made so little mention of Christ. His saving work was not at all mentioned, and even the part of the sermon about urging members to do evangelism instructed us only to share “a positive word about Jesus,” without clarifying what that means.  Thus, the grace/gratitude motif of sanctification was entirely lacking, and the list of “W’s” just provided us with law:  a bunch of stuff that we needed to do.  The pastor did say that these activities would be blessed by God, but the real actors were us, who needed to prove we were “all in” by pushing all of our chips to the center of the table. 

A brief prayer at the conclusion of the sermon was the only one offered during the entire service.  During a concluding hymn, members and regular attendees were urged to complete commitment cards and to walk forward to place them on tables set up for that purpose throughout the auditorium.

                I left the service thinking of how much Christians need the gospel, too.  That was a message that was not at all shared.

                A satellite campus in Mesquite visited at 11:00 featured an identical service, with music and announcements provided by local leaders to a crowd of several hundred.  The congregation did sing more there, and, in spite of the same instruction, handshakes seemed to outnumber fist bumps.  The sermon was provided via video.


The Reformation Project: Analyzing my Visit to Prestonwood Baptist Church

I wrote about my visit to Prestonwood Baptist Church in this post. Because this current post is analysis of that visit, readers that have not read the previous one are encouraged to do so before proceeding here.

With a reported average attendance of just under 16,000, Prestonwood Baptist Church is the fourth largest congregation in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, according to information from the Hartford Institute for Religion Research. According to the church's website, it has 41,000 total members.

Prestonwood Baptist makes for an interesting study due to the fact that it became a large church during an earlier time period than the congregations that have been studied thus far. The church was founded in the late 1970's at a time when the population of Dallas was moving northward and creating new suburbs. The church became a megachurch over the course of the 1980's, and it has continued to grow under the leadership of Jack Graham, who became the pastor in 1989.

Because of this longer history as a megachurch, it is a bit of a hybrid, bringing in many new features, but retaining some of the markers of large churches of a prior era. For example, one might notice that Prestonwood is one of the few megachurches that has kept its denominational identity -- some of these churches are nondenominational, but even those attached to a denomination tend not to include an identifying designation in their titles. The church also makes use of a choir and orchestra, which were common features of megachurches in the 1980's, but have mostly been dropped by churches that have grown since then. Nonetheless, in addition to the choir and orchestra, Prestonwood also uses a praise team and pop style band, such as are more in vogue among megachurches today. Sophisticated backlighting highlighted the high energy focus of the worship.

Christian content tended to be lacking. Even the baptisms -- this was the first of the megachurches where I saw a sacrament (to them, an ordinance) administered -- were performed with no real explanation of their meaning or significance. Most of the music was high energy and emotional, but vague on content. The audience was urged to worship, but the content never bothered to explain why. Our reaction to the message was paramount, though the message itself was perhaps assumed, but never explained.

The one clear musical exception to that was the "Cornerstone" revision to the traditional hymn, The Solid Rock. It appears to be a coincidence that I actually heard "Cornerstone" in four of the ten churches I visited for this study. I asked a friend who is a member of one of these churches, and he said that it was the first time that he had ever heard it in that church, so I am unsure why I came across it so much.

The sermon did expound a text, but as I pointed out in my previous post, it did so in a way that focused on our duty to be evangelists more than our understanding of the evangel. Unfortunately, I think that this sort of guilt inducing approach to encouraging Christian living is the logical result of an approach to ministry that makes the seeker king and that makes building the church's brand up to all of us. If it is really up to us, it is no wonder that prayer is an afterthought for people that really just need to get busy.

The worst statement of that came from the campus minister. His statement (it could have been a verbal slip, but it appeared to be consistent with the direction of the message) that "God is not able to show his supernatural power unless I step out in faith and allow him to” ought to be the sort of thing that would bring about correction from the church's ruling body, but one doubts that it was even noticed. This sort of approach to Christianity that makes ourselves decisive and God a bit player in the drama of redemption is unfortunately common in modern religious thought.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

The Reformation Project: Visiting Prestonwood Baptist Church

PLANO, Texas, November 3, 2013 -- The entryway and lobby area of the Prestonwood Baptist Church feature wide hallways that have the distinct feel of an upscale shopping mall. That is likely intentional, as the church was built during the hey day of the mall as a shopping destination, and megachurches have sought to create a comfortable feel for seekers, rather than a "churchy" one. Adding to that mall like feel is the presence near the sanctuary of a small Christian bookstore, featuring paintings, various kinds of knick knacks, gift cards, Bibles and books of a popular nature:  devotionals, books on various issues related to Christian living, and those on dealing with family life.  One modest shelf was devoted to works by Senior Pastor Jack Graham. I also noted titles by other area ministers:  Robert Jeffress, Matt Chandler, and James Robison. There was also a food area near the sanctuary.

The worship center featured a large stage with a small podium at the front serving as a pulpit, and space for both a pop style band and orchestra behind a railing.  A large choir space was behind it all, with a baptistery above everything.  Two large video screens filled the space on either side of the choir.  Sophisticated backlighting added additional ambiance.  For much of the musical portion of the service, the lighting consisted of light shades of purple and green.  It changed to varieties of red and gold during the sermon, and blues at the end of the service.

Pew racks contained copies of the ESV translation of the Bible.  As lyrics would be posted on the video screens, there were no hymnals.

The service began with the baptism of two adults and one child. No explanation of the meaning or significance of baptism was given, though each candidate was asked if his baptism resulted from his having “trusted Christ as personal Lord and Savior.  Applause followed each of the baptisms.
Music followed these baptisms, and a praise team spread across the stage.  At first, it was difficult to know if the congregation was supposed to listen or sing along with the praise team and choir (nobody in the audience seemed to be singing, though the words were posted on the video boards.  Eventually, the leader of the praise team urged everyone to stand, clap, and join in.  We sang choruses words such as “I will bless the Lord at all times with praise in my mouth” and “My soul loves Jesus.”  These words were repeated incessantly, along with others declaring our commitment to praise Jesus, though very little about Him or why we were praising him was included in the lyrics.  Another song assured us that God was “fighting for us” and mentioned “resurrection power,” though it was not altogether clear what either the fight or the power were about.  A contemporary rendition of “The Solid Rock” provided the first substantive content of the service.

A brief prayer quoted a portion of Romans 1:16, and that was followed by another chorus proclaiming that we are not ashamed of the Gospel.  Like the earlier choruses, the song emphasized our commitment not to be ashamed without giving any indication of the declarations explaining what the Gospel is in the remainder of that verse.

Jack Graham then appeared on stage. Immaculately coiffed and gravelly voiced, the 63 year old Graham explained that they had been studying the Book of Acts under the theme “Ablaze.”  Today’s talk was based around events in the latter part of chapter 5 (he never really read the text in its entirety, though he referred and summarized much of it over the course of the sermon), in which Peter and John were arrested and then miraculously freed, whereupon they began preaching again in the temple courtyard, much to the chagrin of the religious authorities. The first portion of the sermon discussed the fact that Christians continue to face persecution in various portions of the world.  Graham said that in the United States that we are fortunate not to face the kinds of physical persecution experienced by Christians elsewhere, though we do face opposition.  In the United States, people are not threatening to kill Christians, though they will seek to shame us. 

From there, Graham pivoted to discuss the apostle’s continuing boldness to share Christ, and he used the remainder of his sermon to urge (at points, the guilt was laid on pretty thickly) all of us to share the gospel more boldly with others.  Quoting an anonymous source, he claimed that “the problem with the church today is that no one wants to kill us any more – in America.” Some of us avoid persecution by doing good deeds without talking about Jesus.  It is talking about Jesus that is the need of the day – and that will likely get us in trouble with our culture.

Evangelism was emphasized as a human activity, and the primary motivation was guilt.
Following an invitation to which some people appeared to respond, the service concluded with a pray for an evangelism activity promoted by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.  A large number of people had committed to hosting events in their homes, and those people came forward for the prayer. An offering concluded the service.

Prestonwood operates two satellite campuses. * While sermons are sometimes delivered by Graham via simulcast, on this Sunday the campus minister, Chris Kouba, preached.  The text, themes, and related scriptures were the same for the two sermons, which were clearly coordinated, though the campus pastor clearly was permitted to use his own material, as well.  Whereas Graham had emphasized persecution for insisting on the uniqueness of Jesus for salvation (quoting Acts 4:13), the young campus minister focused more on the troubles of Hobby Lobby’s owners over the contraception mandate in Obamacare and issues related to gay marriage.  He also urged the congregation to evangelistic activity, arguing that “obedience to God leads to godly results.”  Even more questionably, he told the congregation of several hundred that “God is not able to show his supernatural power unless I step out in faith and allow him to.”  He did not appear to recognize that God in fact would not be God in that scenario.

* The satellite location I visited has since closed, with the property being sold to Gateway Church. They now only operate one satellite.

Friday, November 25, 2016

The Reformation Project: Analyzing my Visit to The Potter's House

In my previous post, I wrote about my visit to The Potter's House. Because this post reflects on that visit, the reader should read that account prior to proceeding with this one.

The Potter's House is listed by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research as the third largest church in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, with an average weekly attendance of more than 16,000. Its pastor, T.D. Jakes, is a nationally known figure in large part due to his bestselling books which can be found at both religious and nonreligious bookstores. He has been the subject of controversy, both because of his promotion of the prosperity gospel and also because of his past denials of trinitarian theology (he was ordained in a oneness Pentecostal church that believes a form of modalism). The controversy became heated in 2012 when Rev. Jakes was invited to speak at a conference along with a number of prominent pastors such as James McDonald and Mark Driscoll who had been associated with The Gospel Coalition. Prior to that, Jakes had indicated that he was moving away from "Oneness" theology, and during the conference in question he submitted to an interview with the aforementioned pastors. Pastor Jakes used the interview to affirm trinitarian theology, but no one seemed satisfied. Those prone to defend his invitation to speak at the conference were satisfied with his answers, while others argued that even in a contrived interview Rev. Jakes gave answers that were lacking and that evangelical leaders cared more for celebrity pastors of large churches than for adherence even to basics for Christian leaders. It is outside the scope of this post to resolve that controversy; however, I will note that The Potter's House, in its doctrinal statement, maintains a preference for describing God as existing in three "manifestations" rather than the more traditional language of "persons." The pastor claims that "manifestations" is both biblical and trinitarian.

That said, because much of this analysis will be negative, I thought I would begin my discussion of my actual visit to the church with a positive word. Of the three churches that I had visited to this point, Rev. Jakes was the first preacher that I heard include the Gospel in his sermon. Preaching from Numbers 20, a passage in which Moses struck a rock in order to receive water from it, although God had commanded Moses to speak to the rock instead, Rev. Jakes correctly described the typological relationship between the rock and Christ, pulled in Scripture from Isaiah 53 about Christ being "wounded for our transgressions," and used the term "justification," with a reasonably good definition, in order to describe the benefit of Christ's death received through faith. This was the sort of reflection on Scripture in light of the Gospel that I had not heard the previous two weeks. I would note that all three ministers had preached sermons that might be regarded as pragmatic about the Christian life, but only Jakes followed the New Testament pattern of making the Gospel foundational to orthopraxis.

While I am glad for that, I wonder that this Gospel message for many was lost in a cloud of confusion. The three hour church service -- though a fair percentage of the congregation came late and left early, so they had a somewhat briefer service -- largely took the form of a variety show. Opening songs using the imagery of slavery were moving and connected the predominately black church with its history, but the combination of such imagery with a prosperity gospel message felt strange. Most of the music was performed by capable singers and musicians to whom the congregation listened. Other than a bit of congregational singing, most of the participation in the pews came from emotional reactions to what was happening onstage, as well as multiple requests to hug our neighbors -- my neighbor to my right was my son, who had no interest in hugging,but the neighbor to my left was an attractive woman who seemed to relish following her pastor's instructions, making it a positive experience for this blogger, though perhaps not one that encouraged worship. Besides the performance oriented music we were treated to a 40 minute play. While the message related to domestic violence is one of importance in our culture, I am not sure that a lengthy play devoted to the topic could be described an appropriate use of worship time, and the use of the play to hawk one of the minister's books -- while less offensive than the pastor at Fellowship Church using the sermon to promote one of his books -- was also problematic. The lengthy offering collection was blatantly manipulative, with a message that giving more would result in receiving more blessings.

I was gratified to hear that Pastor Jakes had changed his mind about proper counsel to those suffering domestic abuse (he now says to "have faith," but do it from a safe place). The willingness to change his mind -- and to say so publicly -- is a sign of humility and strength, and advising people in dangerous, abusive situations to remove themselves from them is wise, but I wondered about his definition of "faith" in that statement.

As mentioned previously, the sermon included a solid statement of the Gospel early on; however, the message as a whole concerned the topic of how to deal with frustration, and it reduced Moses to a sort of Aesop's fable designed to make points about how we should react when life becomes frustrating. Of course, this sermonic theme went along with the theme of domestic violence in the play, and the pastor concluded his sermon with an invitation for those that needed healing with regard to frustration and anger problems. As was stated previously in my post about Gateway Church, this is problematic pastoral counsel. Does God sometimes instantaneously heal us of besetting sins? Undoubtedly, he does, and we should be grateful when he does. However, dealing with stubborn indwelling sin often involves life long struggle as we make use of God's means of grace, through which gradually the Spirit teaches and enables us to die more to sin and live more righteously. Those being told that God will give instantly at the point of repentance what in fact he does gradually may well end up disappointed.

In my next post I will describe my visit to Prestonwood Baptist.

Monday, November 21, 2016

The Reformation Project: Visiting The Potter's House

DALLAS, Texas, October 27, 2013 -- The Potter’s House, which has as its pastor the nationally known author T.D. Jakes, sits on the north side of a four lane highway, with the largest of the parking lots on the south side.  A pedestrian bridge is available for attendees to move safely from one side of the highway to the other without stopping traffic.  Still, it is quite a long walk, and I was glad that by arriving 20 minutes early we would make it into the service on time. I wondered how people managed it when it rained.

As congregants made their way into the sanctuary a few minutes before the scheduled starting time of 9:00 a.m., a praise band and singers already filled the room with music.  Over 90% of the congregation seemed to be African American, and it appeared that at least 2/3 were women.  As is common in black churches, the congregation was for the most part quite well dressed, with both men and women in their Sunday best. While the extravagance and expense of what was taking place might have been surprising to past generations, the style and content of the music fit well with the heritage of Christian worship among black Americans.  The praise team sang:

“No more shackles, no more chains,
No more bondage, I am free….”

Shortly after my arrival, a female soloist led in singing, “There is power in the name of Jesus to break every chain.”

After about 15 minutes of singing – it was remarkable that there was so little congregational singing in this service – and a time of greeting (congregants were told to share hugs), a well-acted drama of about 40 minutes in three acts followed. In the first act, a husband and wife were preparing to go out with another couple in order to celebrate the husband’s promotion.  The husband showed some clear signs of controlling behavior that made the wife evidently uncomfortable.  As this act closed, text on the large video screen advised women of various kinds of behaviors that should serve as warning signs.  In act two, the husband’s new position caused much stress, which added to concern over his mother who was suffering through treatments for breast cancer.  Cruelty toward his wife increased, culminating in a scene where he began to physically attack his wife just as his mother walked into the room and passed out when she witnessed what was happening.  This was followed again by text, this time giving statistics and other information related to both domestic violence and breast cancer. 

Act three began with the couple separating and the husband’s mother advising him that he needed help dealing with his anger.  Unresolved conflict with his deceased father was blamed, and the mother gave her son a book, “Let it Go,” by Bishop Jakes (outside churches, this is known as "product placement") and urged him to read it and get counseling.  Further scenes showed both husband and wife getting counseling, and we were left with the implication at the end that they would be getting back together, though the ultimate ending was left to a time beyond the conclusion of the play.

At this point, the church’s pastor, T.D. Jakes, appeared, to applause, on stage wearing a gray suit, striped shirt, and bright purple tie.  Mr. Jakes talked at length about the problem of domestic violence, saying that women in the church had been murdered by abusive husbands.  He said that his views had changed over his years as a pastor.  Twenty years ago, he would have simply counseled women to “have faith.”  While he still counsels faith, he now says, “If you’re being beaten, have faith from a safe place.” The pastor then transitioned to talking about his aspiration for the church that it be a place where people are honest about the reality of life, rather than piously papering over the real problems that afflict them.

Bishop Jakes, worked through a series of announcements and prayer requests, which included mention of a service being broadcast on BET and a prayer request for the recently hospitalized Paul Crouch of TBN fame. This was followed by preparations for taking the offering, which turned out to be an extended affair. The minister emphasized that the church did not receive money from the government or corporations, pointing out that it should be funded by the people who benefited from its ministries.  At one point, those who would be giving a tithe were asked to stand up (this was a bit uncomfortable for those of us left sitting), and many waved large offering envelopes in the air as the minister continued to urge giving.  After the offering was received, a series of people began bringing to the front large checks, mostly over $1,000, to be designated for a projected youth building.  After bounding up and down the platform steps several times as additional people came forward, Jakes joked that this made up for time not spent on the treadmill that morning.  When someone promised to give again, he proclaimed, “Saying we will give again is a way of saying we will be blessed again. In all, more than 30 minutes was devoted to the offering.

The actual sermon began at 10:40, over one and a half hours after the service started.  Jakes took as his text Numbers 20:7-13 as a jumping off place for talking about “The Fight with Frustration.” While much of the talk used the story of Moses smiting the rock as a means of understanding why we get frustrated and act in bad ways, Jakes did take some time to explain the typology involved in the passage, pointing out that God’s command that the rock be smitten only once, and spoken to this time, signified the once and for all death of Christ as sufficient.  He followed this by quoting Isaiah 53:  “He was wounded for our transgressions; he was bruised for our iniquities.”  He later gave a reasonably good definition of justification, describing it as a merciful decree of exoneration.  This was the high point of the sermon, from this observer’s perspective, though one fears that it was subsequently lost by the emphasis on the primary theme of the sermon, which involved dealing with frustration.

At various points, Jakes urged the congregation to turn to each other and repeat things he said.  For example, at one point, he urged people to turn to someone beside them and tell them that you know it was like to be frustrated.

The sermon ended about 11:30, when a highly emotional invitation that ultimately would last about 30 minutes began. Jakes asked people who had been struggling with anger and frustration to make their way forward and be released.  It was difficult to know how many people were going forward, as a steady stream of people also began to exit at this time (a large portion of the congregation had also arrived late).  Once a large number of people had arrived down front, the minister began working his way among them, becoming highly emotional, claiming the Spirit’s power, and on multiple occasions speaking in tongues.  He put his hands on the foreheads of some, pronouncing them released.  With some, he held his hand in place until they appeared to faint.  One man shook vigorously from head to toe as the minister pronounced him delivered.

The service concluded around noon.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

The Reformation Project: Analyzing my Visit to Gateway Church

In my previous post, I described my visit to Gateway Church. Readers that have not yet seen that post are encouraged to read it prior to proceeding with this one. Because this post is an analysis of my visit to the church, this post cannot be properly evaluated without reviewing the account of the visit.

At the time of my visit, Gateway was listed as the second largest church in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex by the Hartford Institute on Religion Research. Today it is the largest -- and the second largest in the state of Texas, trailing only Joel Osteen's Houston based megachurch. Gateway boasts an average attendance of 28,000 according to the Hartford Institute. In addition to its main campus in the affluent suburb of Southlake, the church has several satellite locations across the metroplex.

The cars of members can be seen driving around town with a bumper sticker proclaiming the church's slogan: "We're all about people." This blogger must confess that he has often wondered while driving behind such a vehicle: if they are all about people, what, then does God have to do with it? The church attempts to rescue the slogan on their website, explaining that they are all about people because 'God is all about people." Even recognizing the limitations of bumper sticker theology, this leaves much to be desired. If God is all about the people, then perhaps the people are God. It seems easier to see that God is about his own glory, an approach to theology that makes for poor sloganeering, but that provides a better starting point for thinking about what God is doing amidst people.

That being said, I should say that my visit was not in its entirety negative, though in the end there was a great deal to be concerned about. The music was the one part of the church gathering where the gospel could be recognized (as will be noted later, it was not found in the sermon), though one might fear that it was lost in the performance orientation of the music.

Like most other megachurches I visited -- and as noted about Fellowship Church last week -- most liturgical elements (even the sort usually present in low church worship) were missing, except for singing and a sermon. There was an invitation at the end, which is an element of revivalistic church culture that most megachurches have dropped. Nonetheless, very little attention was given to prayer, and the only Bible reading was the text for the sermon. There was no call to worship or benediction, and no sacraments were observed, though the church's website does highlight two ordinances that they observe, baptism and the Lord's Supper.

Special attention needs to be given to the sermon.

The sermon was the latest in a series of messages under the theme of “Free Indeed,” with this one entitled “Believers in Bondage.” He had bondage associated with demonic possession in mind.  Pastor Robert Morris began with John 8:32 (“you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free”) and then worked back to verse 31 (“Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him,, 'If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples,….'”) to argue that the ones who needed to be set free were already believers. However, this interpretation does not hold up to careful scrutiny, as the people addressed in verse 31 are clearly a subset of the entire audience, and the people in verse 32 are the same unbelievers that Jesus says “seek to kill” him in verse 37 and are “of your father the devil” in verse 44.  Clearly, believers are not in view there, but Rev. Morris made similar simple interpretive errors in the other texts that he used.

The theological point that Morris was driving at was that believers might be in bondage because they have left doors open to Satanic influence through continued illness, continued iniquity, or continued occultic influences.  Two problems developed in the course of his sermon.  One, it is odd, in terms of orthodox Christianity, to separate deliverance from bondage from the redemptive work of Christ; yet, there was not a single mention of Christ’s death or resurrection in any part of Morris’ sermon.  Second, Morris seems to regard bondage as an absolute category, something that we are either in or not in.  While this reflects some emphases from Keswick and charismatic theology in the last 150 years, it differs in important ways from historic Christian teaching, and the impact of the theology on pastoral care is not unimportant. In fact, rather than regarding this as a minor disagreement between varying schools of thought, I regard this particular teaching as destructive of Christian faith.

Reflecting historic Protestant teaching, the Westminster Confession of Faith describes sanctification (that is, growth in the Christian life) as a process whereby we “are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness.”  Note that from this description it can be inferred that our putting away sin and growing as believers is a gradual process that in fact is only completed in the life to come.  It is certainly true that some believers are enabled by the grace of God instantaneously to overcome some sin in their lives, and one can be grateful when that occurs. But to say that is the universal way that God deals with the power of indwelling sin is not consistent with, for example, Romans 7, and one can easily suggest from Scripture that it is not God’s ordinary pattern with most sins.

Additionally, while our Christian growth in sanctification is a matter that is different from our justification, the two cannot be entirely separated either.  Not only is the sinless life, vicarious death, and victorious resurrection of Jesus the ground of our justification, but it is also the basis for our sanctification, and one should not ignore the emphasis of Paul in Romans 6 in grounding the Christian’s growth in Christian graces in our union with Christ in his death and resurrection.  

Finally, grounding satanic oppression in ongoing illness, as Pastor Morris does, sets the believer up for skepticism and depression. After all, even the most devout among us will grow sick and die, barring the Lord's return first. The Apostle Paul prayed for -- and was declined -- deliverance from some physical malady (a "thorn of the flesh"), and all Christians from the first 1900 years of the New Covenant period have all died. Contra Pastor Morris's theology, many among us will fight illness from which God chooses, mysteriously to us, not to deliver us. That is part of the ordinary Christian life.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

The Reformation Project: Visiting Gateway Church

SOUTHLAKE, Texas, October 20, 2013 -- Around the time of this visit, Gateway Church was in the process of opening a large number of satellite locations throughout the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex. Because one of the newer locations was only three blocks from my home in Fort Worth, the decision was made to visit it first before heading over to the main campus in Southlake.

Both locations were crowded -- meaning that several hundred people gathered at the satellite location; several thousand for the service at Southlake. The crowd at the large fan shaped facility in Southlake was so large that I felt fortunate when an usher helped us find seats that allowed my wife, son, and me to sit together.

Unlike other large churches with multiple locations, Gateway Church expects each of its sites to develop its own distinctive personality, with pastor Robert Morris’s sermons being the culmination of the service.  The vast majority of the service at the satellite campus was locally produced, with the sermon piped in by video feed. Thus, the 9:00 a.m. service held at its North Fort Worth location was substantively different from the 10:45 gathering at the main campus, though stylistic matters, as well as the sermon, were essentially the same.  Both churches featured music where the performance seemed to be the main thing, though it was more conducive to congregational singing than what has been experienced at other megachurches, and more people seemed to participate in the singing.  The music was loud enough to convey the idea that the performance was the main thing, but not so loud to cause congregants to stop singing; however, at the main campus, the addition of more sophisticated stage lighting and video gave the music a more performance oriented feel than the more simple stage setup at the satellite. Both services featured at least one song drawn heavily from Scripture.  In North Fort Worth, “Revelation Song” drew powerfully from the language and imagery of Revelation 4 and 5, proclaiming the worthiness of the slain lamb and the holiness of the one upon the throne.  The audience sang for the most part, at least until the amount of repetition began to quench participation. In Southlake, the lyrics of one song came from Romans 8, declaring that nothing can separate believers from the love of God in Christ Jesus.  Another song used lyrics from the Christian hymn, “The Solid Rock,” sung to a modern arrangement and a new refrain.  The refrain, notwithstanding, the arrangement of the song was good and, again, singable by the congregation. In these songs, at least, the Gospel could be heard; as will be noted in a bit, the same was not true of the sermon.

The service opened with a professionally produced video montage used to deliver announcements. Both meetings featured a band and team of gyrating singers clapping, raising their arms, and otherwise moving about in spontaneous ways.  While the satellite location, which is new, had a sparse stage area (other than the two large screens on which the service was projected), the main campus featured a backlit backdrop that was changed out during the transition from the musical portion of the service to the sermon.  The sanctuary appeared to be more than 90% full, and the musical performers played their roles with energy and skill. Their portion of the service had the feel of a pop music concert, with the audience singing along with the band. Shouting singers egging on the audience and rousing applause at the conclusion of songs add to this pop concert feel.  As mentioned before, some of the lyrics were actually quite strong, but I couldn’t help wonder if all of the gymnastics associated with the production succeeded in hiding the meaning and impact of what was being sung.  Singers mouthed prayers at the conclusions of some of the songs, but they were brief and devoid of content beyond generic promises to praise and love God.  Frequently, the prayers concluded with the beginning of another song about the time that a congregant realized that we were supposed to be praying.

A video at the conclusion of the 30 minutes of music at the Southlake service appeared to be primarily designed to distract the congregation while the stage was re-set.  Featuring a group of dancers that finally was reduced to one, it concluded with the message “Become Yourself,” and it was related to the church’s “Freedom Ministries.” 

For a megachurch pastor, Robert Morris was not much of a showman, and there was much about him that was easy to like. After casually strolling on stage wearing a shirt with open collar under a sports jacket, he was self-deprecating (he talked of being injured while engaged in a physically dangerous sport:  frisbee golf) and didn’t make himself the hero of stories he told.  He used humor effectively and to good effect in the sermon, particularly when remarking on a claim made by the audience of Jesus in John 8 that as children of Abraham they had never been in bondage.  “Have you read the Old Testament?” Morris asked.  “They were in bondage to everyone.”

Unlike the sermon discussed in my previous posts about Fellowship Church, this message was an attempt to explain and apply a text of Scripture -- I will have more to say about the pastor's explanations in my next post. The sermon was the latest in a series of messages under the theme of “Free Indeed,” with this one entitled “Believers in Bondage.” He had bondage associated with demonic possession in mind.  Rev. Morris began with John 8:32 (“you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free”) and then worked back to verse 31 (“Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him….”) to argue that the ones who needed to be set free were already believers. The theological point that Morris was driving at was his claim that believers might be in bondage because they have left doors open to Satanic influence through continued illness, continued iniquity, or continued occultic influences. 

At the conclusion of the sermon, Morris gave an invitation for those who struggled with any kind of bondage to come forward and pray or talk with a staff counselor.  The idea, based on his own personal illustrations, was that doing so could settle the matter once and for all. One can hope that is the case; however, for many, this churning of recommitments may be something that reoccurs over and over again.