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.

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