Thursday, September 06, 2007

Bells, Whistles, and Huge LCD Screens

As you know, I traveled home to Oklahoma during my vacation last month. While there I had the wonderful opportunity to visit and spend some quality time with my family and friends. I ate, drank, and was merry. As the teacher of Ecclesiastes reminds us, let us enjoy food and drink for these pleasures are from the hand of God. (Eccl 2:24). And to enjoy them with family and close friends makes such merriment all the more joyful.

While home I was also afforded a rare opportunity to worship in different houses of faith. On one particular Sunday, I worshiped in two different churches: LifeChurch, one campus of 14 in the northern metroplex of Oklahoma City and Heritage Presbyterian Church, which is located in the same area. I'll write more about my experience at Heritage Presbyterian Church later. In this post, I want to tell you about LifeChurch (this is a different link than the one above).

At LifeChurch, I was impressed with several factors. Notably was the church building itself and the parking lot. Here in NJ, parking space is a premium and many churches don't even have a parking lot. This church, however, had parking lots bigger than most churches around NJ. It is so big, in fact, that the church employs a zoo-like tram-like golfcart that seats 8-10 persons, that takes parishioners from their car through the parking lot to the church door.

Once entering the facility, I noticed that my search for the sanctuary ran into a snag: there was more than one. Actually, it had several. Upon entering one of them, it looked less like a sanctuary and more like an auditorium, I guess because the space was so large. The one auditorium I entered was for the children--yes, it was big but in comparison, it wasn't as big as what I was about to experience later. In the one I visited, it was an impressive children's area with Walt Disney-like caricatures, climb up ladders and swirling slides, information booths and a Garden of Eden section with talking trees in the style of Universal Studios. I found myself wishing I was 10 years old again. It was quite amazing.

Being directed accordingly, I walked into the main lobby (and this is tough to discern since there were many lobbies throughout the facility), there was a huge coffee bar with every flavor and condiment one could think of. I zeroed in on the large assortment of donut-holes with Greeters encouraging me to "eat all you can". And I did. There was also a gift shop, several information kiosks, and about 15-20 Greets and Information attendants to answer any question and help in any way. All around the lobby area were huge LCD television screens in every corner and right smack in the middle of the lobby area that projected cute Scriptures interspersed with announcements and information about the church.

Upon entering the main auditorium, I noticed that it could easily sit over a thousand attendees. It was a huge space. Glancing at the Order of Worship, I noticed there were 5 other service times, I was at the 8:30 AM service, which was explained as the lowest and most intimate setting in terms of people who attend. Looking around the space, there must have been about 200 or so people. And then the band began to play. The band was a worship band and it sounded very much like the Irish rock band U2. Yes, they were really 'that' good. The worship leader was the lead singer accompanied by a electric piano player, a drummer, a bass guitarist and a regular guitarist. Surrounding the singers were other incredibly large LCD screens, three to be exact. One above them and two on either side. In the auditorium, there were additional LCD screens, huge ones too, in the corners of the space as well as behind me in various locations.

The band began to play and the worship leader took to the stage and for 15 minutes or so, the audience stood, sang, worshiped, lifted their hands in the air, swayed to the music, and generally participated wonderfully. The music was carefully chosen/written to include a Call to Worship, Prayers of Confession, and Assurances of Pardon, as a more liturgical setting might envision. And then, as quickly as it started, the band finished, a curtain came down, and the pastor took to the stage. Dressed in jeans and a cotton pullover shirt with simple loafers and a microphone attached to his ear, he casually welcomed everyone and began his message.

Craig Groeschel, the founder and pastor of LifeChurch, preached for about 20 minutes while stepping back from time to time while videos were shown on the monitors that corresponded to the sermon. These videos were interviews and conversations with people. After the video segment would end, a spotlight would come on and the pastor would continue his message. His message was very biblical, organized well, and had memorable quotes and bullet statements. After he preached, an offering was taken. Following the offering were a few announcements and the worship team returned (a curtain went up) and they played their parting music. And it was over. 60 minutes. Timed perfectly. And it had to be.

For you see, at LifeChurch, the sermon and service were broadcast via satellite to 11 other campuses throughout Oklahoma, Texas, Arizona, Tennessee, and now Albany, NY. The video screens at each campus, like the one I attended, sees the same sermon that everyone else sees although at each campus they have their own band and worship team. And this is the novelty and unique ministry LifeChurch offers. Other churches, some who have smaller numbers and cannot afford to hire a full-time pastor with benefits, are joining LifeChurch and the Evangelical Covenant (the loose denomination of LifeChurch) to share resources and technology to share the gospel, or their ideology. Presently, over 19,000 people attend all the services each weekend at the various locations.

After I left, it took me a while to actually process this experience. There was a lot of things happening in it--and some of it I am still unsure about, probably because it was just an incredibly different worshiping experience for me. I would like to offer a few observations, both good and not-so good. Judgment isn't intended, mostly my opinions are simple reactions.

First, the space must've cost a bundle to set up. One friend who attended with me is an architect who works with both commercial and residential projects, estimated the space, with the huge satillite, the LCD screens, and the various technology must've run into the multiples of tens of millions of dollars. It was my friend who also told me about LifeChurch's way to electronically monitoring each child in their Children's Church with surveillance microchips so that the church and the parent can know exactly where each child is at all times. Such a feature isn't cheap--and the church obviously embraces the expense. Also of note were the offices, available to see as you walk towards the main auditorium which had an open cubicle system, so that you could see all the desks, and their were about 25 different desks in this one office. How much does it cost to maintain and run the already expense digs? I have no idea but the thought made my stomach uneasy. I am not saying there is anything wrong with it, only that obviously there is great expense in what they are doing.

Secondly, the idea of a satellite broadcasting church to thousands of people without the physical presence of a person seems too "George Jetson" to me, and I hadn't realized we were 'there' yet. But obviously they are at least, and it works for them. In my church, we all know each other and we worship in a way that makes us experience one another throughout the service. I interact wtih them, they with me, and all of us with each other. At LifeChurch, it's an audience much like a rock concert. You don't really interact with anyone--you're not there to get to know them, you're there to enjoy (or be benefited by) the show. Still, the gospel was preached and the music was edifying and it felt good. Sort of.

Thirdly, and lastly, I can't seem to shake the church-as-community-as-me-included idea that the whole worshiping experience seems to cater to an ideology that seems less like the idea of a church I am accustomed to and more like an entertainment event, like a Christian Rock concert (which I attended many in my youth) or an evangelist's message (like something you'd see at a Billy Graham Revival) or a Christian gathering of famous speakers (like the Fosdick Convocation). While I enjoyed the experience, it left me feeling different than coming to church where I know everyone and we spend the time afterwards getting caught up with everyone in the church's life. I felt entertained and enlightened, but in a way that missed the energy of meeting old friends again each week.

All in all, I mostly enjoyed myself (and the donut holes). I wonder if I'll ever get back there. I may. While the experience was somewhat unsettling, it did offer an interesting worship. While the setting and theology was more conservative and evangelical than I enjoy, it did offer a perspective and opportunity of outreach that was a refreshing source of newness. And, the technology employed was and remains impressive.

And, I noticed something that was also impressibly absent: there was no reference to a health, wealth, or prosperity gospel. I was worried about that and was glad it was absent. Surely Groeschel's theological development wouldn't take him in that direction (he was educated in a Disciples of Christ seminary) and yet, one wonders how the money was raised to fund such a ministerial endeavor. Still--I didn't hear how being faithful will make you rich and that encouraged me greatly. (Go here to see a powerful video message against such a theological presentation, it's only about 2 minutes long and it is well worth watching).

I like to think I am open to new ways of experiencing God--and hopefully wise enough to know when one way may not always be as good as others. Still, I live in a changing world and the older I get, the more it changes. I am just glad that in some of those changes, the gospel message can still be heard and is proclaimed.

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