Sunday, November 27, 2016

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.

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