Monday, December 26, 2016

The Reformation Project: Visiting St. John Baptist Church

GRAND PRAIRIE, Texas, March 2, 2014 -- Located in a working class neighborhood in Grand Prairie, the church has only small parking lots, and many of those arriving for the service are forced to park on small neighborhood streets.  The church holds multiple services in order to accommodate its crowds, and it was of interest to realize when arriving for the 9:00 a.m. service that the earlier service, which began at 7:00 a.m., was relatively full.

Entering the front of the building, one finds himself in a small, crowded lobby. As the 7:00 a.m. service was still ongoing, those arriving were asked to line up along the right side so that those in the earlier service would be able to file out. Other attendees waiting were friendly. A woman standing near me struck up a conversation, asking if it were my first time attending and telling me how much she liked coming to church here. Several ministers wore clerical collars. When, after entering the sanctuary, I asked one for help finding a restroom, he started to give directions, realized it was getting difficult to follow, and took the time to walk me in the required direction.

The sanctuary was by far the smallest of the churches attended for this study, and at first I wondered if the attendance figures reported by the Hartford Institute were inflated. However, the church has two campuses, multiple services, and children meeting elsewhere for separate services, making the claimed attendance possible. The pulpit area was also relatively small, with a band and choir squeezed in behind a traditional pulpit area that included a white marble podium. For some reason there were NFL football pennants attached around the pulpit.

The facility is aging, but well-kept. Banners, which appeared to be home (or church) made, hanging along the side walls contained titles for Christ such as Lamb of God, King of Kings, and Lion of Judah.

The choir entered around ten minutes after the stated starting time wearing white and navy choir robes. The service began with two energetic songs, led by a song leader and praise team and an instrumental band of guitarists, drummer, and keyboardist. The songs were repetitive, but contained gospel content. One entitled “I Just Want to Bless your Name” included a verse discussing being ransomed by the blood of Jesus. The song leader led in prayer.

After those songs, several announcements were delivered via video. The St. John Bible Institute has the purpose of providing more detailed Bible study for laymen. Other announcements concerned an upcoming mission trip, a class for those planning on getting married, an upcoming emphasis on fasting, discipleship groups, and a holy week revival featuring a speaker from out of town. A short video highlighting the church’s singles ministry talked about focusing less on who to marry than on why.

Another video featured the work of a scientist named George Caruthers, who is a black Baptist and a renowned scientist. A prayer of Thanksgiving was offered.

After one of the ministers made some additional announcements not on video, visitors were asked to stand. Only a few did so. This was followed by a fellowship time in which members milled about shaking hands while music played.

At this point, the choir performed an animated anthem, with much rhythmic clapping and swaying involved. Some in the congregation stood and clapped along with the choir during the performance. After that, Pastor Denny Davis came to the pulpit and asked for those having March birthdays to stand. After leading the congregation in singing Happy Birthday, he made some additional announcements about upcoming meetings. A soloist, along with the choir, then sang a song entitled “God Is Real,” which claimed that “God is real because I can feel Him in my soul.”

By the time Pastor Davis stood to preach, the service was nearly an hour long. Wearing a Geneva gown, he announced after a prayer that the title of his sermon was “Whatever it Takes,” taking for his text Luke 9:57-62, which reads as follows (ESV):

57 As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” 58 And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” 59 To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” 60 And Jesus[a] said to him, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” 61 Yet another said, “I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” 62 Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

Rev. Davis pointed out that in the text Jesus was exposing shallow commitments by some would be followers. After humorously referencing some secular love songs that make verbal commitments to one’s love that go well beyond what most men will actually follow through on, he pointedly stated that many Christians will sing, “I surrender all,” when they mean: “I surrender some.”

From this text, the pastor first talked about “the cost of followship.” He contrasted Jesus’ promise of the possibility of homelessness with the claims of modern prosperity preaching. He contended that Christians should not expect prosperity, but hardship, but added that rather than complain about our plight, Christians should remember the things that Jesus endured for us.

Second, the pastor spoke about “the urgency of followship.” Acknowledging that verses 59-60 appeared to be harsh, the pastor told the congregation that he had relied on a book entitled The Hard Sayings of Jesus (F.F. Bruce) to help explain the passage. Ultimately, he urged upon the congregation that we must move beyond past pain and be ready to move forward to the future in order to follow Jesus.

Finally, he spoke about the “commitment of followship,” which is to the King. One cannot follow Jesus and follow self at the same time. The pastor contended that no one can follow him and follow self at the same time. He argued that Jesus is saying here, “I have developed the rules. If you want to follow me, you have to live by the rules.”

From this point through the end of the sermon, the pastor began to use a melodic delivery that was punctuated by chords played by the organist. He closed by relating children’s games such as Simon Says to the necessity of following the words of Jesus and praying for the congregation.

An invitation for people to come forward was then made as the choir sang. The service concluded with an offering and communion taking place simultaneously while the choir and a soloist sang “The Blood Will Never Lose its Power.” Prayers were made both prior to and following the offering/communion ceremony.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

The Reformation Project: Analyzing my Visit to Watermark Church

In my previous post, I described my visit to Watermark Church. In this one, I will provide some analysis of that visit. Because the prior post is foundational to this one, I would recommend that the reader look back at that one prior to proceeding here.

Watermark Church, with a reported average attendance of just under 9,000, is the 9th largest church in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, according to data compiled by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research. The nondenominational church was founded in 1999 with a determination to evidence authenticity of their faith in Jesus Christ. That focus on authenticity is the reason for the church's name. While the church is not a part of a formal denomination, its beliefs are baptistic and dispensational.

While some of the music used in the service contained good content, it seemed overwhelmed by the performance focus of the service. In fact, the entire service, from the pop style performance music to the emotionally anxious lead singer to the preacher clad in untucked shirt telling 10 minutes worth of jokes before giving practical advice from the Bible gave the appearance of a giant youth retreat. That is not to suggest that all that happened here was bad; it is just that the service, for better or for worse, had a vibe to it.

So, the minister on this Sunday offered up practical advice on the subject of marriage. This is something that the Scripture certainly addresses, and to the pastor's credit, he utilized a lot of Bible passages in his sermon. Even so, the sermon left me with a somewhat vague sense of uneasiness. In thinking through it later, I realized that the uneasiness largely came from the realization that the minister over promised: that is to say, in his zeal to offer therapy in the midst of our therapeutic culture, he stated assurances in a way that goes beyond what God has promised to us.

Consider the following ideas expressed in the sermon:

  • If the church started getting marriage right, it would be the most earth shattering thing that the church could do;
  • Marriages can't be made right unless the Gospel enters the marriage; and
  • In a list of characteristics of successful marriages, he stated that they radically depend on Christ.
While no one should doubt that good marriages among Christians would be a positive for both church and world, the first of those bullets is biblically false. Jesus himself pointed out that even if one rose from the dead that many would not believe, and the truthfulness of that statement was demonstrated in the aftermath of his own resurrection. If the resurrection of the dead and the proclamation of the gospel lack earth shattering impact, what makes us think that our marriages would have the same? We should encourage one another in our marriages without giving to ourselves such a sense of self-importance.

The second and third bullets are demonstrably false. All of us, I suspect, know non-Christians with wonderful marriages, and we likely know Christians that have struggling ones. None of this is to say that the believer's relationship with Christ makes no difference to his marriage, nor would we deny that the Bible offers practical guidance in this area. However, in this age of the already and not yet, God's common grace to all men frequently permits them to enjoy happiness in marriage, just as the incompleteness of the sanctification of believer's often means we do poorly at marriage in this fallen world. Again, none of this should be used to excuse Christian failures (I certainly don't want to be guilty of excusing my own). However, the situation is simply more complex than the minister described it, and all of the above thoughts need to be included in wise pastoral counsel.

Good pastors should give wise counsel from Scripture about our family life. The Scripture, and the preaching of law and gospel, form the center of the pastor's message and expertise. Getting the gospel right is the most potentially earth shattering thing that the church can do. This is what must be offered to both the church and the world.

In my next two posts I will conclude this portion of the study by looking at the tenth of the largest churches in this region.

Friday, December 16, 2016

The Reformation Project: Visiting Watermark Church

DALLAS, Texas, February 23, 2014 -- Watermark Church had taken over and renovated an office complex on the south side of the Lyndon Baines Johnson freeway in North Dallas. At the time of my visit, significant construction had been ongoing, affecting both the freeway and the frontage road along which the church facility was located.  While that certainly could not have helped attendance, the church seemingly has flourished during this time of extended inconvenience.

Entering the building, one finds an enormous lobby that once functioned as the central lobby of the office complex. A large section to one side is filled with small tables at which people are seated chatting and drinking coffee. The coffee is free. Unlike many of the other churches visited, the café space in the center of the lobby is closed for Sunday. Around the café area, one can find brochures about various church activities and functions, including one describing a ministry called “re:generation.” This is a sort of recovery group. It was interesting to note that an important theological term was reappropriated for the purpose of branding that ministry.

From one side of the lobby, one can also see a children’s area that includes a jungle gym. Going through a door to that side, one finds a small pool such as is common at suburban office complexes. 
Going back inside and into the church auditorium, one finds himself in a large, semi-circular room that has a small feel due to the width of it. The room is crowded, as the passage ways between the seating sections are small. The large stage has faux wood paneling on either side, as well as two large video screens running a series of announcements about church ministries and events. At some point, a countdown clock begins displaying when the service will begin. The eight member band comes to the stage, and music promptly begins to play when the clock hits zero.

The service began with a set of five songs mingled with some talking by the worship leader and a prayer. The first song did contain some gospel content. At one point, the leader urged unbelievers to pay attention to the next song, as it would teach about who God is, but the song actually had little to say about God. The group of songs concluded with  “Cornerstone,” which consists of the lyrics to Toplady’s  “The Solid Rock” with a new tune and chorus that strings some thoughts together without any discernable purpose. Seemingly coincidentally, this song had now been sung at four of the nine churches visited to this point for the project.

In addition to the video screens, sections of the wall behind the stage changed colors frequently.
Following this singing, Pastor Todd Wagner came to center stage, using no pulpit as he spoke to the congregation while dressed in an untucked white shirt with light patterned stripes, jeans, and sneakers.

Wagner said that he would be talking about marriage today. He declared that if the church started getting this issue right that it would be the most earth shattering thing that the church could do. He claimed that marriages can’t be made right unless the gospel enters into the marriage. Citing statistics showing the impact of divorce on children, he quoted from Malachi the statement that “God hates divorce.”

Before launching into the body of his sermon, Pastor Wagner told a series of jokes about marriage, each concluding with the statement “…that’s when the fight started.  He then quoted and made brief comments about several scriptures related to marriage relationships, though he didn’t really expound any of them. Ultimately, he did use a variety of Bible passages to support his contention that there are five characteristics of individuals that have successful marriages:

  1. They resist the lies that push them into a bad relationship in the first place;
  2. They ruthlessly commit to their marriage;
  3. They regularly consider themselves to be the biggest problem;
  4. They radically depend on Christ; and
  5. They relentlessly live humbly in relationship with others.
While dwelling on the first point, Rev. Wagner made an extended and passionate argument for sexual purity prior to marriage. He closed the sermon with prayer. He mentioned that he had a video that he wanted to show, but they were out of time. Instead the service closed with a pictoral montage on the video screens of the pastor and his wife, as well as others, while the band played music.

In my next post I will provide some analysis of the service.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

The Reformation Project: Analyzing my Visit to Friendship-West Baptist

I previously described my visit to Friendship-West Baptist Church in this post. In this present essay, I will provide a bit of analysis of that visit. Readers are encouraged to read the earlier post, as it provides the basis for this one.

With a reported average attendance of 9,000, Friendship-West is the eighth largest church in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, according to information provided by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research. The church is in the southern part of Dallas, an area which has long been predominately black and economically deprived. The area has long been a center of political controversy, as it is widely alleged that economic and social policies promoted by the city favor downtown and the more affluent areas north of downtown to the detriment of the southern part of the city. This is the social environment in which Friendship-West exists and it serves to explain the reasons for some aspects of the worship service I visited.. While these factors do not excuse aspects of worship ministry that are unbiblical, they have to be considered when seeking to understand the church. After all, as will be elaborated on below, all of our churches reflect the cultural values of the people drawn to any given church, and sometimes those values, which often go unchallenged because we remain largely unaware of them, are not biblical.

This blogger has lived in the Dallas area for the last 10 years. I first became aware of Friendship-West in 2008, when then presidential candidate Barack Obama came under criticism after the release of tapes of the preaching of his minister, Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Although Mr. Obama ultimately cut ties to his minister, Friendship-West's pastor, Dr. Frederick Haynes, was a vocal defender of Rev. Wright, who he described as a friend who had preached at the church.

Three of the ten churches I visited during this study were predominately black, but those churches reflected widely divergent traditions of black Christians in the United States. Earlier, I wrote about the Potter's House, where Pastor T.D. Jakes promotes a prosperity gospel of health and wealth -- arguably Rev. Haynes criticisms of the prosperity gospel in the sermon I reported on may have been directed particularly at Rev. Jakes. A church I will write about in the near future, Saint John Baptist Church, represents a mainstream expression of the black Baptist tradition. Friendship-West Baptist places a significant focus on social justice issues and ministry.

I suspect that the church would deny that its focus on social justice comes at the expense of personal evangelism. In its favor, I would note that the church's statement of beliefs on its website is more lengthy, specific and orthodox than many of the evangelical church websites I have looked up. During the service I attended, the pastor explicitly stated that the church stood for both evangelism and social justice, though the service did not reflect such a dual emphasis, as it focused almost entirely (some of the music providing the only exception) on grievances against social injustice. In addition to material in the sermon, the use of the church service to provide an advertisement for professional services, as well as the use of church time to promote candidates for secular office, should both be questioned. The pastor used the sermon to express strong disagreement with a court decision, urging an angry response in the process.

Of course, white Christians find it easy to disagree with these types of practices, but one might point out that we do not notice the way that our own cultural expressions get in the way of biblical fidelity. In fact, because our expressions reflect majoritarian culture, they may be even more difficult to identify. Thus, it is common for churches in the United States to have American flags in their churches during worship, in spite of the fact that there is no biblical rationale for doing so, and, in fact, the presence of such flags confuses allegiances, as God's people gather to worship a King whose kingdom extends beyond national boundaries. The practice is so common I rarely even notice it. Another example, expressed directly by Dr. Haynes, is the common pictorial expression of a white European Jesus. While I disagree with Haynes' rather extended but spurious argument that Jesus was actually black, he is certainly correct that Jesus did not look like the white portrayals. Dr. Haynes argued for black portrayals of Jesus. To the contrary, I would argue that we should stop altogether remaking Jesus in our cultural images. Both the white Jesus and the black one, for many reasons, are violations of the Second Commandment.

I appreciated Dr. Haynes' criticisms of prosperity preachers, who promulgate a message that is harmful to all people, particularly to the many poor people who live in the community around this church and compose, no doubt, many of its members. However, the message he preached also gave focus to a different gospel of cultural grievance. By looking to an eschaton that will come about through hostile political activism, the pastor seems to have buried the transformational hope that only comes about through the real Gospel of Christ, who himself experienced oppression in spite of living a sinless life, and who was crucified. That Christ rose again and is seated at the right hand of the Father making intercession for us. Those who suffer for him also reign with him.

That is not to deny that social ministry can be an aspect of the church's ministry, particularly as it equips its members to work actively in their vocations for the good of the community. Indeed, using many New Testament passages as an example (several of Paul's letters highlight a , this should be a cooperative enterprise among believers. Sadly, the churches on the northern side of the DFW north/south divide don't seem to have much interaction with those to the south. One might wish that could change.

Finally, because many aspects of the service seemed openly hostile, with a generalized anger directed toward whites, I want to state that the people around me in the service treated me graciously during a fellowship time, as well as both before and after the service. In the pews, we were brothers and sisters in Christ.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

The Reformation Project: Visiting Friendship-West Baptist Church

DALLAS, Texas, February 16, 2014. The campus of Friendship-West Baptist Church sits along the north side of Interstate 20 to the south of downtown Dallas.  This was the only church visited for this study that had traditional pews. The large, elevated stage and choir loft was framed by two large video screens to either side that scrolled various church announcements as the congregation filtered into the sanctuary. As the early service started, the lower level was mostly full, and the balcony would largely fill in as the morning went on.

As the service appeared to be formally beginning, a video was played in which a physician, Dr. Andre Graham, advertised his professional services.  This was followed by an advertisement for an upcoming conference that was taking place that week and which would be discussed further in the service. In fact, a large number of visitors prominently seated near the front would be playing leadership roles in that conference. Other advertisements played, as well.

This was followed by another video of roughly five minutes length featuring a black woman describing various forms of racial injustice that she had experienced throughout her life, going back to her birth in Temple, Texas, for which her parents had relied on the services of a midwife because doctors refused to see blacks in that area.  She described numerous experiences of discrimination, both in employment and as a would be consumer of services. Explaining that she had lived in other states, she added that the worst of her discrimination had occurred in Texas. As the taped testimony concluded, she exhorted the congregation that education was something that could not be taken away.
This was followed by a long, vibrant prayer by a female minister of the church.

An energetic song leader, assisted by a band, praise team, and full choir, led the musical part of the service, which began with songs declaring “It’s all about Jesus” and “When You Call upon Jesus, Something Happens.” The music was repetitive and emotional, consistent with black church traditions extending back throughout American history. Interestingly, an organ was not heard during most of the congregational and other singing, but it did play in accompaniment to persons speaking.

Pastor Frederick B. Haynes, III, who, it was noted, had just celebrated his 31st anniversary as the pastor of the church, welcomed those in attendance.  During these opening remarks, he made mention of “nonsense in Florida last night.” As I had not seen the news that morning, I was uncertain as to what he was speaking about, but as it became clear that this subject would be a significant point of discussion in the service – Pastor Haynes indicated that he had changed his sermon plans in light of the news -- I quickly scanned the news on my smart phone and learned that a jury had returned a verdict of guilty in 4 of 5 counts in a case involving a white man shooting into the truck of a group of black teenagers. The fact that the not guilty count involved the most serious charge enraged the minister, and he would discuss the nature of his anger through the course of much of the sermon later in the morning.

At this time, he mentioned that many guests were in attendance for the upcoming Proctor Conference, an annual event encouraging political activism on the part of the black church. Attendees included a representative from the World Council of Churches. The minister also worked in a reference to Fox News, who he identified as Fake News while expressing unhappiness that a story critical of a black minister had appeared on the network in the previous week.

The pastor then used a portion of the service for the purpose of introducing the congregation to members of the church who would be up for election in primaries to be held the following week. The candidates had completed cards about their candidacy that were read by the pastor, who expressed his approval of them to the congregation – he took care not to actually endorse anyone, but wanted the congregation to be aware of their presence on this Sunday. In addition to individuals who would be on the ballot, Rev. Haynes also asked controversial, but popular, Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price to come to the platform. At the time of this service, it had been widely reported that Commissioner Price was under investigation from the Justice Department for various crimes associated with his position (he has since been indicted and is awaiting trial), but Pastor Haynes provided his enthusiastic endorsement for Commissioner Price’s work to the applause of the congregation. For the remainder of the service, Commissioner Price would be seated prominently near the front of the congregation, enthusiastically raising his hand or standing to show approval for many of the pastor’s most controversial statements.

Pastor Haynes additionally spoke about his work along with Pastor Jeremiah Wright, the controversial former pastor of President Barack Obama, in encouraging churches to combine an emphasis on individual salvation and social justice in the same manner as Wright’s Trinity United Church of Christ and Hayne’s Friendship West Baptist.

After an announcement by Dr. Iva Carothers promoting the Proctor Conference, the congregation was treated to a violin solo by Daniel Davis. Only in his early 20’s, Mr. Davis showed considerable talent and poise, continuing to work flawlessly after the microphone on the violin failed and required changing. This was followed by an offering, which essentially required everyone in attendance to file to the front. This enormous undertaking for a large crowd was handled in an organized and expeditious manner. The choir then performed “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah.”

The text for Dr. Hayne’s sermon was from Matthew 2, the text recounting Herod’s murder of the innocents following the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. He criticized Christian groups that claim to be pro-life while cutting funding for government programs and otherwise displaying a failure to value black life. Along those lines, he suggested that the jury verdict in Florida furthered an attitude explicit in American culture, as revealed by provisions in the U.S. Constitution as originally ratified that counted blacks as 3/5 of a person.

Dr. Haynes sharply criticized ministers that failed to address these issues, saying that “Herod always has some preachers on payroll that he can pimp.” In particular, he resented those ministers that preached prosperity instead of prophetically speaking truth to power.  The church needs more preachers like Moses and Nathan, he urged, and, in that vein, he offered criticisms of President Obama for his drone policy, suggesting in the process that the President had been duped by the Jewish lobby. Nonetheless, he urged that God’s people also have the faith to see beyond the troubles of right now to a better not yet.

Returning to the Matthew 2 text, the pastor pointed out that Joseph found safety in Egypt, argued that Egyptians were black Africans, and contended that the fact that Jesus could be hidden there proved that the Messiah was also black.  He expressed disdain for white depictions of Jesus, but instead of opposing images of Jesus as violations of the second commandment against the use of images as aids to worship, he insisted that depictions of Jesus should be of a black person.

He used those thoughts as a further springboard calling on blacks to rediscover the achievements of African culture, including medicine and the building of the pyramids.  He then returned to the subject of the Florida trial, complaining that other preachers “will not say one damn word about what happened last night.” Anticipating criticism for the use of the curse word in that statement, he expressed outrage that there is no controversy around damning black children. While continuing to express anger toward the verdict, he offered hope that God has the last word regarding all injustice.

Following a prayer addressed to God, who was described as “our Father and Mother,” he offered an invitation for those who need “to give your life to the Lord.” This was followed by a video promoting the work of St. Jude’s hospital, for which the church received an offering, and a benediction based on the Aaronic blessing.

Monday, December 12, 2016

The Reformation Project: Analyzing my Visit to The Village Church

I previously reported on my visit to The Village Church in this post. Readers who did not view that post are encouraged to peruse it prior to proceeding through this one, as I am now analyzing the information previously described.

The Village Church, with a reported attendance over 10,000, is the seventh largest church in the Dallas/Fort Worth area according to the Hartford Institute for Religion Research. Prior to the arrival of pastor Matt Chandler, the congregation was known as the Highland Village First Baptist Church. It has since changed its name and moved its primary location to what was once an Albertson's grocery. In addition to promoting growth at its main campus, the church has maintained an aggressive program of working with satellite churches in the DFW metroplex as well as providing resources for church starts elsewhere.

The church remains affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, though more important to understanding its identity is its affiliation with the Acts 29 Network, of which Pastor Chandler became president of its board following the removal of Mark Driscoll. Acts 29 is coalition of generally Calvinistic and often Baptistic churches committed to planting like minded congregations.

Given those connections, I will admit to looking forward to my visit at The Village Church, as this was the congregation in my study with which I would personally have the most in common. That sense of expectation would be both met in some respects and in other ways disappointed by the service I attended.

As I left the worship service along with my wife and son, my wife suddenly asked, "Is this church really Reformed?" It is an interesting question that can only be answered by asking what the meaning of "Reformed" is.

For many, the term "Reformed" simply has to do with whether one accepts the five points of Calvinism. By that definition, the church would be considered Reformed. Others will find that definition to be insufficient from a historical and theological perspective, insisting that the historically Reformed churches held to certain views with regard to the sacraments and church government. By that definition, no Baptist or Baptistic churches could be considered Reformed (in earlier generations, Baptists who took what we now refer to as Calvinistic views referred to themselves as "Particular Baptists, not Reformed). More important to the present discussion is this: historically, the Reformed churches, in addition to having doctrinal confessions, have made use of directories of worship. By that standard, as well as the second one, The Village Church could not be considered "Reformed." The regulative principle of worship adhered to by historically Reformed churches, including Baptist ones, was no where to be found on this Sunday morning.

That is not intended to be overly negative toward the church. Certainly, I found much to agree with in the sermon. The principles outlined for understanding and applying the teaching of the book of Acts were certainly sound and worthy of the attention of any Bible reader. Though I had one minor quibble, I also thought that the teaching surrounding the work of the Spirit in Acts was also very good. Additionally, the pastor mentioned that for those who wanted additional study material that he would be posting more resources on social media. This is an enormously valuable tool available to churches. More should make use of it.

So, unlike some of the other churches I visited, in which I have expressed harsh thoughts regarding the preaching, I thought Chandler's message, which was intended only as an introduction to a series on the rest of the book, was sound. Unfortunately, there was an enormous disconnect between the sermon and the worship.

Over the course of this study, I visited churches with a wide range of free church traditions -- Baptist (both Reformed and Arminian), charismatic, Pentecostal, nondenominational. However, in terms of what happens during worship, for the most part these churches share less in common with their traditions than they do with one another. Thus, a member from the charismatic Gateway Church walking in on the first part of the worship at the Reformed-ish and Baptist The Village Church would feel right at home (though, truthfully, the music at Gateway was better in the services I attended). On the other hand, someone from a historically Reformed church would not be sure of what in the world he had come upon.

It is an open question whether Reformed doctrines divorced from Reformed worship can be sustained across generations. It will remain for future studies of this church and others like it to know.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

The Reformation Project: Visiting The Village Church

FLOWER MOUND, Texas, February 2, 2014 -- The Village Church is one of only two visited for this study in which the main campus is not in a building originally built to be a church.  The church facilities are found in a strip mall.  The church’s portion has been significantly renovated.  After parking in the busy lot, those attending make their way into a fairly narrow entry way before making a right turn into the sanctuary.

The worship area is a large, simple auditorium with beige, theater style seats and carpeting.  A large video screen is located above the stage.  On one side of the stage, there are musical instruments along with a large wooden cross.  There is no podium or pulpit of any kind.

This is the earlier of two morning services – there had also been two services on Saturday evening.  As the Connections Pastor came on stage to begin, the auditorium appeared to be about half full.  We were urged to complete a “Connect Card” to help us become more connected with the church body or receive answers to questions.  This was followed by a videotaped advertisement for an upcoming “Revive Weekend,” a large scale evangelistic event directed toward middle school and high school students.

During the announcements, which continued to emphasize the importance of involvement in a community group, the band and singers came on stage.  As the music began, we were asked, “How many of you came to get after the Lord?”

The lights were lowered, and the band began to play, but instead of singing, varied voices read passages of scripture that were also posted on the video screen.  The scriptures used highlighted various gifts given to believers by virtue of the work of Christ. The selections and their presentation was well done.  This was a moving part of the service. Following the readings, the band led in a song for congregational singing.  The band was loud and the music fervent, but the lyrics were repetitive and forgettable. With that – at this point the service is barely 15 minutes old – the first portion of the service is done, and Pastor Matt Chandler walks to the center of the stage.

Dressed casually and speaking rapidly, Pastor Chandler began with a largely self-referential account of the church’s history going back to his calling to the church at age 28.  The church had grown rapidly, and the pastor pointed out, at times to laughter, that over the years he had encouraged people living more than 20 minutes from the church to attend other congregations closer to their homes.  That counsel had frequently gone unheeded, but the pastor emphasized that The Village Church had never sought to create one large church, but that they were more concerned about the expansion of the church eternal. 

From this historical background, the pastor then talked about plans for their satellite campus in Denton. The elders of the church had recently voted to release the Denton group so that it could become a separate church, and church members would be asked in the future to ratify that vote.  Pastor Chandler wanted to emphasize that this was a change in direction, but it was not a change in the overall strategic vision of the church.  He also stated that while they might do the same with their other satellite campuses in the future, that as of now the elders had only addressed the Denton campus. Other satellite ministries would be considered on a case by case basis.  Thus, while they were looking at releasing the Denton campus to form as an autonomous church, this action did not constitute a wholesale rejection of the satellite church model.

Pastor Chandler related these developments to the twelve week sermon series that he was beginning this morning in the book of Acts.  While the actions with regard to the Denton campus would be looked at in light of these sermons, the pastor wanted the congregation to know that his sermon was intended to look well beyond that single issue.  He would not be talking about what their approach should be to the Denton campus or other satellites; rather, the series would be addressing the mission of the Village church.

For the sermon this week, the pastor read the first eight verses of Acts, but the sermon was designed to be more of an introduction to the series as a whole than an exposition of these particular verses. Nonetheless, the pastor gave some helpful principles for understanding Acts, particularly emphasizing that some of the events described in the book were prescriptive of what the church should always be doing, while other sections of the writing were merely descriptive of what happened then and not necessarily things that we should look for in our churches today.  He indicated that he would write further on his blog about how to tell the difference between descriptive and prescriptive intent when reading Acts.  Focusing on verse eight, “you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you,” he also provided some helpful discussion on understanding the work of the Spirit in the lives of individuals. He acknowledged that “covenant members” of the church had varying understandings of the work of the Spirit, including some who held charismatic views.  

Nonetheless, he emphasized that the Holy Spirit comes upon or dwells in all who know Christ as Savior while also noting that at times the Spirit provides periods of increased delight in God’s assurance to us.  He warned, however, against seeking miracles as a means of attaining spiritual growth. Arguing that “the supernatural [meaning miraculous events] has never anchored anyone to long term faithfulness,” he pointed to the experience of Israel’s unfaithfulness in the aftermath of crossing the Red Sea as evidence of that principle.

He additionally warned against Christians imagining that they could manipulate the Spirit, relating the way some erroneously speak of the Spirit to the story of Aladdin and his magic lamp. Nor does the Spirit guarantee success as an evidence of God’s blessing. Rather, the Spirit’s power is related to power to witness to others and for ministry, and it functions to remind us of Jesus (Jn. 14:26).

Without knowing that the Denton campus would be the subject of much discussion this morning, I had made plans to attend the 10:45 service there. The facility was crowded on a rainy morning, forcing me to park down a busy side street. The satellite had its own announcements and music before showing Pastor Chandler’s sermon live by video.  Following the sermon, the campus observed the Lord’s Supper, which they did using the practice of intinction. Communion was opened to believers in good standing with any church, but I did not participate due to what I regard to be an unbiblical practice.

Thursday, December 08, 2016

The Reformation Project: Analyzing my Visit to Covenant Church

I wrote a description of my visit to Covenant Church here. This post provides further analysis of what I described. Because that post is foundational to what I am analyzing here, I would suggest that the reader look back to the previous post if he has not already read it.

Covenant Church, with a reported average attendance of 11,000, is the sixth largest church in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, according to information gleaned from the Hartford Institute for Religion Research. It is located in the suburbs to the north of Dallas, and physically it is not far from Prestonwood Baptist Church, which has already been studied as the fourth largest church in the region.

Because charismatic churches focus on the ongoing availability of miraculous divine power to Christians in the present day for healing and to meet other needs, a common assumption would be that they honor God's supernatural power and authority. No doubt, in many cases there would be truth to that assumption, but in the case of Covenant Church, it would be mistaken. Consider, from the service previously described, things that were stated about God and the issue of power:

  • A unified body (church) creates a demand for God to remove a mountain.
  • "Humility, confession summons grace."
  • "Your strong vows summon God's grace."
What is clear in these statements, two of them by the senior pastor and one by the associate, is that God is the pawn waiting to be commanded what to do. Two readers of my earlier post compared this type of language unfavorably to what happens in witchcraft and pagan worship. Certainly, this does not represent a Christian view of God, as the view presented at the church pictures a God ready to be yanked out of the closet if his people decide that they are willing.

Thus, it is not surprising that they divorce the ministry of the Spirit from the ministry of the Word. Indeed, in ministering the Word, the pastor took Scripture that meant that David would not have an impressive appearance like Saul, and instead he related it to David's confrontation with Goliath. This brazenly inaccurate use of the text was accompanied by the gnostic explanation that the Spirit had given him a new interpretation, ignoring the fact that the Spirit inspired Scripture in specific historical contexts. Indeed, Scripture -- and scriptural history -- were further dishonored by essentially reducing the biblical characters (Jacob and David) to fables for our moral instruction. The view that Goliath was actually a malformed weakling was an interesting take, but I could not find any biblical scholar that spoke favorably of the article that originated that view.

The Spirit was also blamed by the primary music leader for his odd behavior -- he said that the Spirit's movement of the praise team at a retreat might cause him to behave in a way he would have to apologize for, but there is not scriptural foundation for such a claim. Indeed, the Spirit, according to John's Gospel, is here to glorify Christ, and the music leader's conduct detracted from that goal by creating distractions that overwhelmed even a song that actually contained gospel content. In addition to his constant bouncing and occasional odd statements, the individual in question took musical leadership as an occasion for exchanging frequent flirty eye contact with another member of the praise team. I am not suggesting anything morally inappropriate -- she may have been his wife for all I know -- but it was strange behavior for one leading worship, and one should not blame the Spirit for it.

For readers just discovering this study, I want to point out that I began it on October 30, and I would encourage you to read through the earlier posts to note my intentions, as well as where this is going. To help readers finding this in midstream, I hope to create and begin referencing a table of contents soon.

Sunday, December 04, 2016

The Reformation Project: Visiting Covenant Church

CARROLLTON, Texas, February 9, 2014 -- As viewed by passing cars on Trinity Mills Road, Covenant Church has an impressive cathedral like appearance.  Upon entering the building, one finds beyond the friendly greeters at the door an unexpectedly small lobby with an information desk in the center and an enclosed welcome center to one side. Automated offering kiosks can also be found in the lobby. One immediately can’t help but notice the ethnic diversity of those attending.  It is difficult to tell whether more attendees are white or non-white, making this easily the most diverse of the churches that I would attend as part of this study. At a satellite campus in Colleyville, on the other hand, the congregation was majority black by a large margin.

The sanctuary also appears smaller than expected on first glance, though upon reflection it becomes obvious that the seating capacity is quite large.  Balconies and gradations in the seating have given it a small, intimate feel, though the congregation is, in fact, quite large. Twenty minutes prior to the beginning of the service, Christian rock music blares from the speakers while a church logo appears on a large screen behind the stage.  Two smaller screens to either side of the front scroll announcements about various church functions, including a Valentine dance, a divorce care group, a Toastmaster’s club, a Celebrate Recovery ministry, how to get the church’s iPhone app, and other items.

As the time for the service arrives, the band and nine singers spread out across the stage.  A man in the center of the stage, who turns out to be “Pastor Dave,” calls out, “This is the day that the Lord has made. We will rejoice and be glad in it.  He starts clapping, and the congregation stands for what turns out to be a medley of three songs.

While the second of the three songs had some positive gospel content, any messaging tended to be overwhelmed by the behavior of the singers on stage. Pastor Dave bounced and hopped spasmodically during the songs and said between the second and third songs that the praise team had been on a retreat at Camp Freedom and that he was so moved that he needed to apologize in advance for what he might do.  The song that followed promised that “everything changes when your kingdom comes.” While that may be true, properly understood, neither the lyrics nor what came before or after really provided any information about either what the Kingdom was or what those changes might be expected to look like.  Perhaps, Pastor Dave stops bouncing?

Following this music, Associate Pastor Stephen Hayes came to the stage and explained his understanding of Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed.  Mr. Hayes offered that this was about unity in faith. He contended that a unified body creates a demand for God to move the mountain. This was followed by an offertory prayer, the first prayer of the service.

After a video about a mission in India using basketball to spread the gospel, the pastor, Mike Hayes, walked to the platform, standing at a traditional podium that had been brought to center stage for his use. He was dressed nicely, wearing slacks and an open collar gray shirt under a sports coat. His presence and delivery were calm and confident, in stark contrast to the rather manic music that preceded him.  Before launching into his sermon, he announced that he had a “public declaration that I believe the Lord gave to me this week.” The declaration was an announcement that he was asking God to provide $20 million for a mission building presence in Washington, D.C. and Jerusalem.  He wanted to have the funds to purchase a church building that he said was within three blocks of the capitol in Washington, as well as a high rise building in Jerusalem.

That announcement completed, he read his primary text for the sermon that morning, I Samuel 16:7 – “But the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.’” A large cartoon drawing of the confrontation between David and Goliath appeared on the video screen behind him. As the text that he read concerns the anointing of David as king by Samuel and has nothing to do with Goliath, it came as a surprise that the pastor intended to apply this text to the problem of killing our external giants. Nonetheless, the pastor instructed the congregation that he had a new interpretation of the text that they had not likely thought of before. It was hard to dispute him on that.

Nonetheless, the pastor proceeded to state that these external giants could not be slain until after people had defeated their internal giants. As a result, before delving into his text about David, he took his congregation back to the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel of the Lord, a story that he took as prescriptive of how Christians could defeat those internal giants.  He argued that for that internal slaying to occur, it was necessary for a person to come to a place where he has nothing left between him and God. In that circumstance, it is incumbent upon the one struggling to refuse to let go of God until he is changed. He declared, “Jesus came and offered himself up because he realized that we can’t change ourselves much.” We need God in order to change.

Nonetheless, while we may need God to change us, in Rev. Hayes paradigm, it is clearly the people who are in charge. Thus, it is up to us to press the right buttons so that God’s grace is released:  “Humility, confession summons grace.” Mr. Hayes explained that while grace is wonderful, it does us no good if we don’t appropriate it. 

Thus, having used Jacob’s life as a sort of prescriptive Aesop’s fable, he then turned to that of David, saying that he would show the congregation that the giant facing the believer isn’t necessarily all that he appears. The true giant is truly beatable. This statement was intended as the application of a study that suggested that Goliath may have had a condition called acromegaly, which would have rendered him physically fragile and nearly blind. Telling his congregation that “you were born to be a giant killer” of enemies such as addiction, greed, and lust, he then concluded that the lesson of the story of David and Goliath was that “your strong vows summon God’s grace.”

At the close of the sermon, the pastor gave the Aaronic blessing. People were invited to come forward and pray with ministers at the front as the congregation departed through the rear, but there was no distinct invitation.

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 café. 

                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.