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.

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