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.

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.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

The Reformation Project: Analyzing my Visit to Fellowship Church, Grapevine

In my last post, I described my visit to Fellowship Church, Grapevine. While it would not be accurate to say that no analysis was included in the post, for the most part that piece was a play by play account of that day. With this post, I will provide more commentary. Based on this, I would urge any reader who did not see the earlier post to read it before proceeding with this one. The earlier post is foundational to what will be said here.

At the time of my visit, Fellowship Church was listed by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research as the largest church based in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex. Today, it is in second place, with an average attendance in excess of 24,000. Not all of those people come to the Grapevine location. Like most megachurches, Fellowship Church has satellite campuses, most of which are in north Texas, though they also conduct "worship experiences" in Miami, Florida. At the satellite locations, local musicians and other leaders take care of most of the responsibilities. The sermon portion is video of Ed Young.

The church is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, though one has to look hard to find evidence of that. I could not locate any denominational information on the church's website.

Over the years, the church has courted controversy, some of it unwelcome, some of it sought after. Unwelcome local controversy emerged roughly a decade ago with media coverage alleging that Pastor Young enjoyed a profligately lavish lifestyle for a minister. On the other hand, the church has issued press releases inspiring stories about its campaign to get married church members to agree to have sex every day for a month. Along with that campaign, the pastor preached in his pajamas with a bed serving as a prop on the stage of the church. Later, the pastor and his wife conducted a 24 hour sleep in, broadcasting from a bed on the roof of the church. There was nothing terribly salacious about it, but those outside the church were known to wonder about the ministerial fixation on this subject. The sex campaigns have drawn attention nationally from the New York Times, and blogger Ann Althouse has called Pastor Young "creepy" for the way he has dealt with this.

But, the pastor found yet other ways to make his church a focal point for talking about sex. Young invited to the church on a weeknight the CEO of a website that promotes adulterous affairs and a local woman who had written a book about her positive experiences of polyamory to engage in a discussion of sexual ethics. I am sure that the two others enjoyed the relatively free publicity created by the event.

All megachurches are to one degree or another built around the personalities of the lead pastors, but with Fellowship Church that seems to be more true than most, to the point that it is difficult to imagine the church apart from the dominating personality of its pastor. The sermon, which, as will be discussed, was weak on both biblical and practical content, mostly was built around the peculiarity of the pastor playing the role of food infomercial host. The service ended with him playing a rapper in a video. All of the church's press releases appear to either use his name in the headline or at the beginning of the first sentence of the release. If it is about Fellowship Church, then it must be about Ed Young.

It should be noted that visitors to the church are greeted in a friendly way. From the parking lot to every point through the beginning of the service, greeters and others were friendly and helpful. Obviously, the church has put a lot of effort into emphasizing the importance of a good first impression. Those involved in this work do it well.

It is often expected in the modern church world that a discussion of worship will focus on musical style, but in fact I will have little to say about the music. More interesting to me -- and this was reinforced at other megachurches -- was the utter disappearance of almost all elements of worship other than music, the offering, and the sermon (though the word "sermon" appears to be frowned upon). There was no call to worship, no confession of sin, no absolution, no confession of the faith, no Bible reading, no sacraments, and no benediction. There was very little prayer -- most of the prayer that was pronounced was done by the musical leaders as their songs wound down, and it was easy to miss it. There was nothing done along the lines of praying over the needs of church members.

While the church would likely claim that its musical program is a strength, I noted that more people seemed to be observing the performance of the band than were actually singing. Following the service, I looked up information about the church's approach to music and learned that their creative arts team writes most of the music that the church uses during worship. I have mixed feelings about that. It is a good thing to utilize the creative abilities of church members, so the church can be applauded on that score. However, in a church with no formal liturgy and no acknowledgement of an identity with a denomination or with others outside its own walls, using only its own musical creations furthers the isolation of the church from its larger Christian context. This strikes me as unhealthy.

Finally, I should say something about the sermon. I don't want to be guilty of being uncharitable toward the pastor, but it is hard to describe the sermon as anything other than incompetent. I do not say that lightly. The pastor used no text for his sermon, but he did bring bring Scripture into play in order to make his various points. However, each time he used Scripture in a way that would be difficult to parody, as he gave no attention to either a passage's context nor to whether his application of it was at all reasonable. The fruit of the Spirit have nothing to do with identifying good characteristics in a mate. The Spirit's work of washing those who come to Christ has nothing to do with cleaning up the messiness of blended families. The power of the Holy Spirit in Acts 1:8 has nothing to do with either electricity going to a blender or with power for blended families. It is just difficult not to call this laughable.

In addition, in talking about the sermon with a friend and a retired educator, I was urged to consider that the advice conveyed through the blender analogy is fundamentally unhelpful One of the fears of children coming into a blended family is the loss of their individuality. The smoothie metaphor actually promotes a notion of blended families that includes the loss of individual identity.

Unfortunately, the lack of ability to understand and apply Scripture, while perhaps exaggerated in Pastor Young's example, was hardly unique in the churches I visited. After I have worked through my discussion of all of the churches, I will write a few summary articles. One of those will ask "Why Megachurch Johnny Can't Preach.

Sunday, November 06, 2016

The Reformation Project: Visiting Fellowship Church, Grapevine

GRAPEVINE, Texas, October 13, 2013 --Getting to the Fellowship Church this morning turned out to be a bit of an ordeal.  Construction is ongoing on Highway 121, which is a limited access road, and the exit normally used to get there was blocked.  The pastor joked about the confusion during his sermon, claiming that even he had considered skipping church and going home. He decided that might be a bad idea.

Once an alternate route was navigated, those making their approach could note clear signage placed at key locations pointing toward the church.  Upon approaching the property, friendly traffic attendants in neon green vests waved and smiled while directing cars in the proper direction.  A sign urged first time visitors to flash their blinkers so as to get “VIP parking.” Not really wanting to be singled out, I did not do so.  As I walked toward the building, I heard an attendant greeting another driver who had:  “Hi! You’re a first time visitor? It’s great to see you!”

Next to the main church entrance on that side was the church’s bookstore and café, called The Source. Entering through that store, I was again greeted enthusiastically by an attractive middle aged woman who welcomed me.  Near the entrance, shelves were filled with books dealing with family life and other practical issues. On into the middle of the store, the shelves were filled with the books and sermon series of the pastor, Ed Young.  Opposite those books, the café offered coffee and pastries of various sorts for a price. 

Leaving the store, one enters a lobby that is actually surprisingly drab.  The lobby is rectangular, with exits on either end.  Above those entryways, electronic signs scrolled colorful messages related to various ministries.  The theme for the creative arts ministry was jarring:  “Always Been about You.”  The signs also featured a digitized clock counting down the minutes and seconds remaining until the beginning of the service.

As more people gathered, I walked around looking for Bibles. I only saw one.

Facing away from the bookstore, one looks toward multiple entrances to the sanctuary, but signage placed in front of the doors prohibited entry until the sanctuary was prepared.  Preparation was promptly complete and the doors opened precisely as the countdown reached seven minutes.  Entering the sanctuary, one was forced through a narrow corridor, as some of the seating was curtained off in order to prevent people from spacing themselves into the back.  A band was already on stage featuring a saxophonist, guitars, and drums with an upbeat, jazzy sound.  Greeters continued to enthusiastically welcome and direct those coming in.

In addition to the band, the upper part of the large stage was enclosed by an eight sided chain link fence.  Though the fencing played no role in this service, it was there as part of the ongoing preaching series of Rev. Young, “Family Octagon.”  As the countdown clock marched toward zero, several singers moved hastily on to the stage, with the leader bounding and bouncing on the stage, clapping his hands above his head and urging everyone else to clap to the rapid beat of the music.  He was quickly joined on stage by numerous other background singers, who appeared to do more bouncing and clapping than singing.  The group reminded me of the Texas Rangers bouncing around a runner that just scored the winning run on a walk off hit.  Among the congregation, it was difficult to tell how many people were actually singing – the lighting was dark, and the band was too loud to hear anyone else.  At one point I turned to my son, who attended with me, and catching his attention, I asked in a normal volume if he could hear me. He could not.

After a couple of fast songs memorable more for their beat than their lyrics, the worship leader welcomed us, urging the crowd to “make some crazy noise for our first time guests,” a demand that resulted in clapping and cheering.  He went on to assure us that we were “surrounded by some of the most incredible people in DFW.  The next song was a bit slower.  After being assured that Fellowship is “where life change happens,” we watched a video in which a couple talked about their marriage being saved after they were invited to attend the church.  Shortly thereafter, the worship leader informed the congregation that God has “incredible things in store for your life.” This was followed by announcements, delivered rapidly, but interrupted repeatedly by applause.  Clearly, they didn’t want the announcements to disrupt the momentum of the “worship experience.”

Introducing the offering, the worship leader reminded members that there were multiple mechanisms in place for giving, but then informed visitors that they were not expected to participate.  The offerings were received in large buckets for those who did participate.  While the collection was taking place, the congregation was treated to another video, this one intended to be a humorous look at “when a child takes over the house.”  Parents, after overcoming a large black man wearing shades serving as a guard blocking entrance to their son, finally were able to sit down with the child and plead unsuccessfully for him to accept a bedtime.  As the video wound down with ever more ridiculous antics, the band sang something about “What’s Going On” in response to this family’s plight.
Twenty minutes into the meeting, Pastor Ed Young walked on stage – to applause.

Dressed in skinny jeans, a medium blue shirt buttoned to his neck, and a sports coat, Young began by explaining that one of his hobbies was making smoothies.  This was relevant to the subject of the day, which was blended families, because, he said, both smoothies and blended families can be “delicious and nutritious,” because “God wants the blended family to be successful.

A blender and various prepared fruits and vegetables were on stage as Young talked, and he would use the remainder of the sermon to go about making a smoothie while imparting various words of wisdom regarding blended families. Traditional evangelical preaching begins with a text and uses illustrations to explain it, but Young takes rather the opposite approach. Beginning with the illustration, he occasionally sprinkles in a Bible verse to explain the meaning of the illustration to the subject at hand.  Thus, just as a person making a smoothie should choose the best ingredients, a person looking for a mate should choose a person who displays the fruit of the Spirit found in Galatians 5.  While expressing pleasure at finding the reference to fruit in order to amplify on his smoothie point, Young also managed to hawk a book that he had previously written on dating, urging any single people in the congregation to buy it.  He also used I Corinthians 6:11 – “but you were washed” – to explain that blended families can be messy and need to be cleaned up. This quotation marked his first reference to Christ in the sermon, which he managed to follow by singing, “Splish, splash, I’m taking a biblical bath.”

Finally, he talked about the power of the blender.  Acts 1:8, in which Jesus was telling the apostles that they would receive power to spread the gospel to the ends of the earth, was somehow used as proof that the Holy Spirit is the power source for blended families.  Blended families, though, must be hooked up with the power source and plugged into the church.

After passing out a few sample cups of the smoothies he had made, which he urged recipients to hold and drink together – like communion, he said – Young imparted other advice to the members, which included making a virtue of the large, impersonal nature of the congregation.  Talking about the need for ex-spouses to be united on matters of discipline, he suggested that it was easy for exes to be members of Fellowship Church and get their instruction for child raising from the same source, because, he said, the church has so many people, locations, and services, that you will never see each other here.

After allowing the samplers to drink their smoothies, Young had all of us quote from the Psalms:  “Taste and see that the Lord is good.”  He followed this by reminding us of all of the blended families in the Bible, listing Abraham, Jacob, David, and even Jesus.  Next Sunday, he would close this series by talking about how adult children relate to their parents.

The service closed with Young urging congregants to follow him on Twitter.  As the congregation headed for the exits, onscreen played a music video of “Parent Map Rap 2.0.”  The rapper in the video:  Ed Young.

I also attended the 11:30 service at the Keller satellite location.  Onsite leaders provided for the service up until the time of the sermon, at which time video of the same sermon from the Saturday night service was played on the large screens.  Services at different times and locations are designed to be identical.

Saturday, November 05, 2016

The Reformation Project: Outlining and Defending my Research Approach

As mentioned in my post from last week, this year long writing project will evaluate the state of the church before ultimately proposing theses designed to get us to think about meaningful church reform. The following outlines my research approach to evaluating the state of the church in the United States.

Over the course of the latter part of 2013 and the first quarter of 2014, I visited the ten largest churches in the Dallas/Fort Worth metropolitan area for the purpose of using them as case studies of the current status and likely future direction of American evangelical Christianity. I entered into the study with the theory that these churches provide clues as to where the church is headed and, having completed my research, I believe that to be the case more than before. Some may be heartened by this; others will despair.

 There is no doubt that the things I describe in the ten chapters devoted to those churches are prevalent in the American megachurch culture. However, I would anticipate criticism of the notion that these churches represent trends regarding the dominant direction of American Christianity. Would not the fact that they are extremely large churches – the 1%, one might say – suggest that they are outside the mainstream? It is a fair question, but one that is answerable in a compelling way.

First, it should be noted, for better or worse, that these are the churches that are numerically thriving during a period of decline in American church attendance. In fact, Thom Rainier of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Lifeway Christian Resources points out that 100,000 congregations will die out over the next quarter of a century. Most of those expected to die will be small or rural congregations that do not appeal to younger members because they either resist or are not capable of duplicating the methodologies and structures discussed in these chapters. In addition, churches in mainline denominations are dying out at an alarming, but unsurprising rate. Because the megachurches are thriving in a period of decline, they are regarded by many as the vibrant portion of American Christianity. These large churches claim to have answers to the question of how to appeal to the unchurched – and particularly to those who are young adults or youth. Thus, even laymen and pastors who have no wish themselves to attend a church with thousands of members will with increasing frequency look to those churches for solutions to what ails them. Pastors and church leaders who refuse to go along with the trends established by the visibly successful churches will be required to explain why, and many of their members will continue to abandon the churches where they grew up in favor of those on the cutting edge of change.

In addition, the pastors and staff of these churches are frequently held up as experts on how to build and grow churches. They speak at conferences and denominational meetings, write books about their accomplishments, and utilize social media tools to trumpet their methodologies and successes. Their stories of accomplishment and growth are presented to pastors and church leaders as the possible for their own situations. The pastors of these churches are seen as celebrities and role models in their mostly evangelical subcultures.

Social media amplifies the influence of these churches. While I was in the course of my research, I noticed that a friend of a friend, who I only know through Facebook, posted regarding his church’s upcoming series on the “family octagon.” Recognizing the title and accompanying art work as being the same as that used by Fellowship Church Grapevine during my visit there, and unsure whether the Grapevine church marketed its materials to other congregations, I emailed my acquaintance asking how they came to do the series.  His church, which is located in Missouri and is of a different denomination than the Grapevine megachurch, had come across the material online and decided to use it with some adaptations to meet their local situation.

My point is not to suggest that the Missouri church had done something improper – to the best of my knowledge there were no copyright issues at stake, and the church was quite open as to where they obtained the ideas.  My only point is to show the way that the programs and methodologies of these large churches are influencing the way that Christianity is proclaimed and practiced in other contexts.

To think about this another way, beginning in the 1970’s, the charismatic movement moved from the fringes of its Pentecostal origins into the mainstream of American evangelical Christianity. Along the way, the charismatics themselves were influenced by the wider evangelical culture and became more mainstream. However, they have had a remarkable influence on American Christianity, most notably in the areas of music and the way that people think about spirituality and the work of the Spirit. Of course, most American Christians are not part of churches that have healing services or speak in tongues, but the influence over the last 40 years of those who advance those practices cannot be denied. Similarly, the megachurch movement is having and will continue to have an influence that goes beyond those who actually participate in the movement.

One might similarly ask whether megachurches in the Dallas/Fort Worth area provide a reliable guide. Using these churches as my research platform was easy and inexpensive for me, as it kept my research local, but it is fair to ask if it provides anything of value from a research perspective. I believe that it does, and would suggest the following:

There are many cities across the southern United States that make a claim to be the buckle of the Bible belt – I have personally heard that phrase used with regard to Nashville and Atlanta, as well as Dallas. Certainly, the Dallas/Fort Worth area can make a significant argument for holding that designation.  Unlike other regions of the country, evangelical religion is a part of the social and cultural fabric of the region. While the area religious landscape includes both churches and institutions representing the mainline branches of Protestant Christianity, evangelical forms of belief and practice are dominant here, and those evangelical forms dominate the American religious landscape, including the megachurches, at a time when Protestant liberalism continues its steep decline. The area is home to an extraordinary number of megachurches, as well as to what has historically been the largest seminary in the world (Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary). Historic First Baptist Church of Dallas, located downtown, though no longer one of the largest churches in the region, was at one time the largest Southern Baptist Church in the United States – at a time before the numbers of these huge churches became a subject of national interest.

Geographically, Texas is near the southern center of the country, providing an intersection of southeastern and southwestern culture, and the fact that the Dallas area is a cosmopolitan region to which people come to live from all over the country allows it to in some degree transcend a merely regional culture. The area is also ethnically diverse, with the result that there was a significant amount of ethnic diversity in the congregations studied:  six were predominately (though not exclusively) white, three were mostly African-American, and one appeared to be evenly mixed between blacks and whites. All of the congregations visited additionally included Hispanic and Asian members. Notably, while most Hispanic families entering the United States are of Catholic background, a significant percentage seems drawn to the type of spiritual experiences associated with America’s evangelical culture.

In terms of method, I selected the ten largest churches in the Dallas/Fort Worth metropolitan area based on the information at the Hartford Institute for Religion Research’s website.  Other than accessing their list of megachurches in the United States, I began my church visits in October 2013, interrupting the visits during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays as I knew that the churches would likely be having special services associated with those days, and I hoped to experience their ordinary ways of worship.  I re-commenced my visits in January and completed them in March. With one exception to accommodate a family priority, I visited the churches in the order they appeared on the list, from largest to smallest, at the time I began my study. Because my order of visits was preset, I did not in any way try to visit churches based on what I knew would be a theme or occurrence in the service. My only advance preparation in that regard was to check the church’s website during the week prior to my visit to try to ascertain whether the senior pastor would be preaching that day.

Because I only visited each church one time, these are snapshots of how these churches conduct worship. I tried to be aware of this when performing analysis on individual congregations. Obviously, a pastor cannot say everything in one sermon, so it is important to approach emphases or areas of neglect with care.  While it would no doubt be of interest to do more long term analysis of these congregations, I believe that this snapshot approach has validity, particularly because the impressions gained from the individual congregations add up to a credible composite picture. While these churches present varied theological and cultural traditions, they share much in common, as well, and these commonalities will form the most interesting part of this study. In many ways, the megachurch culture supercedes the Baptist culture, the charismatic culture, etc., in these churches.

Many who care about the future of American Christianity have written jeremiads on the current state of things, with most of those based on either books by prominent pastors or individual experiences of the teaching of a pastor or church. With this project, I seek to go beyond the general expressions of concern by systematically outlining the experience of worshiping along with these individual congregations while thinking in an organized way about what their practices say about their beliefs of God, the Bible, prayer, worship, the Christian life, and so forth. The portrait that emerges is not pretty, and I invite all interested pastors and laity to grapple with where we are headed.

Sola deo Gloria.