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.

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