Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Six Flags Over Jesus

I am from Texas. I love Texas. I get Texas.

I lived half my life in Texas, grew up in Texas churches, ministered in 3 of them, accepted the gospel of Willow Creek (which is from Chicago but is Texas-sized) in one of them, and know full well what Jesus meant when he said a prophet is not accepted in his hometown.

Most every time I talk "church" with Texas folk who are still in Texas, the leading question is "How many are you running?" or "How big is your building?" It would be an exaggeration to say every conversation begins this way but it would not be an exaggeration to say most of them do. I have been in Tennessee for the last 12 years, and the Bible Belt is in full cinch there, along with its focus on bigger, better, and faster. Your church is not taken seriously by most in Nashville if you're not big. But nobody makes bigness the looming necessity that Texan evangelicals make it. In Nashville, the bigness is an unspoken rule while people are talking about small groups and spiritual formation and music, but in Texas they talk about bigness without apology, without any trace of irony, without any sense that it's utterly ridiculous to assume the church growth movement. Most of them don't know what irony is or what the "church growth movement" is. But they know what church is, and it's big, dang it. Or else you're not doing something right. Or, bless your little heart, you sure are giving it a go.

In Nashville, the people might think your small church is cute but in Houston they will tell you it is, as if this is a compliment and not a condescension. The second pastor I was a youth minister for planted his church in 1995 in Houston. He's been there 15 years now with a regular attendance of about 100 for the last decade, and our mutual friends consider this as "Hanging in there." As if 15 years of existence with 100 people constitutes the verge of death.

This isn't just a Texas problem, but it is a Texas-sized problem in evangelicalism. Enter First Baptist Church of Dallas, Texas and their new $130 million building campaign. Normally I don't give one whit about how much a pastor is being paid or how much a church spends on whatever; I get my ire raised more by other things. And what FBC Dallas is doing doesn't really raise my ire. But it is reflective of something that, yes, is bigger than FBC Dallas, bigger than $130 million.

Do we even know what $130 million looks like? Well, we do, actually. It looks like this.

What is at stake is what church is. In the building Q&A linked above, we find this gem: "[T]he glass walls have an evangelistic effect: people walking by have a view in from the street and feel drawn in."

In the same way a hobo on the sidewalk might press his face against the window of a fancy restaurant in a Norman Rockwell painting, no doubt.

Nobody should fault FBC Dallas or anybody else for building a building. But this isn't a building. This, and a bunch of other stuff, is Bible Belt Disneyland. This is evangelicalism with more cowbell. This is Field of Dreams attractional church. And it stinks to high heaven. I was directed to a church website once while doing some research that had in its mission statement this sentence: "We will be a missional church, reaching out to the community to invite them to come see what we're doing at ___________."

Not go and tell.
Come and see is the "mission" of megachurchianity. Which is why you need evangelistic windows.

(Ever heard of Francis Chan? May his tribe increase.)

18 comments:

Dan said...

I hear you, my brother, and while I think church growth through conversions (making disciples) is good, it frustrates me when churches think of buildings as missional. I used to do that too, unfortunately.

I know that I don't have a church to preach in, just the deck of a ship, so I might be biased, but this is unfortunate, to say the least. We're making some big mistakes here.

prin said...

From that FAQ link:
"There is no doubt that this is a “God-sized” project."

Um. I think that's blasphemy right there. Is it not?

And as a girl who grew up with a disdain for the church, this stuff makes me cry inside. It is what everybody up here hates about Christianity all tied up with a big bright blue $130 million bow. And a cherry on top. But some sort of rare, expensive cherry that tastes the same as any other cherry.

The fact that this giant church among others turns non-believers so off the church is a giant beacon to me about how Gospel it is.

/end rant (sorry)

co_heir said...

The impression I get from watching the video on their site, is that of a private club that is building state-of-the-art facilities for the benefit and comfort of their members and guests.

It also looks like the only thing passers-by can see through the glass is people walking.

I'm sure the church does some good in the community of Dallas, but I wonder how many of the least of these in that city could be helped with $130 million.

Jason_73 said...

Amen, amen, and amen. May Francis and his tribe increase indeed.

Doug said...

"As I look around downtown Dallas, I see spectacular temples of commerce, of culture and of government – many new, some restored to former glory, and all intended to stand for generations. The Kingdom of God needs a home to equal them – a spiritual oasis in the middle of downtown."

-cut and pasted from their home page.

So unbelievably sad-the Kingdom of God needs a home? Really? Arrrggghhhh

William McMurtry said...

Gross

rdsmith3 said...

I can't help thinking like a numbers guy at times, because that is what I do. How big is this church? I have no idea. Let's assume there are 5,000 families willing to contribute. They would need to ask each family for $26,000 -- yikes!

Fred said...

So, everyone who is commenting negatively about this building, you all meet in a your home-church leader's garage or a high school gym, right? No, you meet in a building. I'll bet your church just isn't growing like this one, and there's nothing wrong with that....unless you're comfortable with the same 100 people in a church for 10 years, which seems to me like if noone new is coming in, there might be a problem, especially in a big city. Maybe the Dallas church focuses on growth, which could be bad, or maybe God is blessing them with thousands of people who want to worship God together at the same place at the same time. Is there something wrong with that in and of itself? I love worshiping with 10 people and with 10,000, but they are very different experiences. Not better or best, but different.

Jared said...

I'll bet your church just isn't growing like this one

Fred, that's the freebie.

Anything else along this line -- which does not serve the cause of the bigger/better/faster church growth mania anyway -- and your comment will not be approved.

Joel Osteen's church is growing like crazy. So is the Reverend Moon's. The Mormons are growing in number.

Praise Jesus for all that, eh?

Numbers = success, or Big buildings = success is the lie at the heart of this sort of extravagance.

Drew K said...

Though I am not as young as you Jared, I am as restless and reformed. My heart couldn't be more with you on this issue. I think you can be large without being idolotrous,(witness Mark Driscoll) which is what most megachuches are. They are working FOR God. But He is not "served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything." Acts 17:25 We need another Reformation. Semper reformanda!

Kevin in Manila said...

I've always thought too much emphasis is put on buildings in the American church. How much is too much money to spend on a building? I don't know. But I think we should ask that question a lot more than we do.

Brian said...

Like you said Jared, this isn't just about building a building. We all recognize the need to have a place to meet and sometimes(but maybe too much?) we build a structure for this purpose.

Its that spiritual growth is being inextricably linked to bigger numbers and bigger structures. Its that we think we need glitz and flash in order to attract those on the outside to come in - where they can then receive the good stuff that can only be found inside. And which is dispensed by the paid professionals.

Ragamuffin said...

fred said: So, everyone who is commenting negatively about this building, you all meet in a your home-church leader's garage or a high school gym, right? No, you meet in a building. I'll bet your church just isn't growing like this one, and there's nothing wrong with that....unless you're comfortable with the same 100 people in a church for 10 years, which seems to me like if noone new is coming in, there might be a problem, especially in a big city. Maybe the Dallas church focuses on growth, which could be bad, or maybe God is blessing them with thousands of people who want to worship God together at the same place at the same time. Is there something wrong with that in and of itself? I love worshiping with 10 people and with 10,000, but they are very different experiences. Not better or best, but different.


FBC Dallas runs about 10,000 in membership. I'm betting they average a good bit less than that in actual attendance. According to this, there were 3200 in attendance the day their current pastor started two years ago: http://www.dallasnews.com/sharedcontent/dws/dn/latestnews/stories/081207dnmetjeffress.29472158.html

And according to this, they don't average 5000 a week in Sunday attendance: recenter.tamu.edu/pdf/1809.pdf

By comparison, a church I attended in Nashville that averages over 3000 in Sunday attendance spent about $12 million on a facility. It's very nice and quite comfortable...not opulent, but not some cheap metal building thing either. They'll probably be expanding within the next 5 years, but it'll probably involve another $12 million max to accommodate growth.

$130 million is just insane. I've seen local Anglican and Catholic parishes build amazingly beautiful Gothic-style churches complete with pipe organs for less than a fifth of that.

To me, this is just a stunning lack of good stewardship. The only two options aren't "meet in a rented storefront or high school gym" or "build Happy Funtime Jesusland" for a bazillion dollars.

Sara's Soaps 'n Such said...

We used to belong to a small church with a pastor who was obsessed with building a family life center, believing that the location of the church at an intersection would make this growth visible to passersby and they'd come to our church. He had a whole "If you build it, they will come" mentality. However, he rejected all suggestions to put showers in the FLC so we could host the local homeless through Interfaith Hospitality Network; he only wanted college kids and young professionals.

The building still hasn't been built and that pastor has left the church to work in a secular position. By contrast, the church we attend now has a FLC; the gym also serves as dining area for Wednesday night dinners and the Sunday morning early worship service. Would bet it didn't cost anything close to $130 mil.

prin said...

I think The Village in Dallas is growing pretty fast and they managed to get a massive new building for 10ish million. (Not 100% sure of the numbers.) And they were refusing to go into it if they didn't meet the number of pledges they needed because if the members for whom they were creating this space didn't feel the need to contribute then obviously they weren't making the message about what church membership is about clear to them.

And the church I go to up here is tiny and meets in the Sunday school area of a bigger church. But it's growing and it's attracting young people, which up here in anti-religion Montreal is nearly an impossibility without Jesus moving.

It's not about the building. It's about the message within it. Jesus attracts. Giant gaudy buildings intimidate and create resentment.

C. Holland said...

I may be ministering in post-Christian Western Europe, but "How many are you running?" gets asked just as much over here. It comes from both nationals and Americans, and as a missionary it's one of the constant questions were asked from our supporters. Honestly, if we were able to report hundreds of conversions here, it would generate more donations to our ministry--for a building.

Steve said...

I am sure you know by now, but your post made it to Challies! You the man!

Amber Lee said...

When I lived in Knoxville I attended one of the megachurches. Our youth group had to run in the 150's - at least. When I went to college the whole congregation was 300. I didn't know what you could possibly do with that few people. Now I know :)