Sunday, March 11, 2012. Faith Church St. Louis, Sunset Hills Campus, 8:45 a.m.
Well, I decided I really should go to a megachurch, and the most prominent one, the one with more billboards than any other in the city, is Faith Church St. Louis. These are the billboards with that guy with the funny beard standing next to Joel Osteen. My partner and I have always joked that they look like lovers. They’re just looking too happy, and Joel Osteen is just too pretty to be straight.
But there’s nothing to laugh about when you look at the success of this church. Two large campuses in Sunset Hills and Earth City on prime real estate at the intersections of 4 of our 5 major interstates. 1000s of members. Between the two congregations, 6 services a weekend (plus two extra on the fifth Sunday of the month). Strong street, prison, and anti-hunger ministries in Missouri, as well as an outreach program to help prostitutes in the developing world find their way out of the profession and into jobs that can support their families. They are half way through a $2.5 million capital campaign for building improvements to the Sunset Hills Campus. Who knows what their annual operating expenses are.
I decided to go to the 8:45 a.m. service so that I could hightail it down to Soulard afterwards and catch the 10:30 service at the Metropolitan Community Church.
You know something is going down when you drive into the parking lot and you can hear the bass beat vibrating in your car while it’s still running and the windows are up. This place was rocking. I walked through a very old and in need of repair parking lot and through a side door and was greeted by someone with a huge smile and an order of service. As with other contemporary services, there was no actual order of service. These were announcements.
The first thing I noticed is that this is a multi-racial congregation. I wasn’t expecting that and honestly I really liked seeing it. St. Louis is a very racially segregated city so anytime I see a multi-racial setting it feels good to me, like there are places where the divide is breaking down. There were African American families and some Hispanic families. There were biracial families. I’ll be honest and say that the majority of attendees were still white, probably in the range of 60-70%. But in anti-racist UUA lingo, 20% racial minorities in a congregation is a major tipping point, and this congregation was way past our own standards.
I don’t think this just happened. I don’t know of one organization that becomes interracial just by wanting to. You make intentional choices about all levels of your organization’s life. Music is often one of the best places to start. You start at the level of culture. The band, composed of four musicians (bass, lead guitar, drummer, keyboardist) plus five singers was half black half white. The music had a strong r and b/gospel feel to it.
The attendance was sparse. Granted this was 8:45 a.m. on the day that Daylight Savings Time started. It certainly felt like it was 7:45 a.m. when I staggered in.
This church blew all the others I’ve visited out of the water when it came to multimedia. One huge screen in the center which focused on the stage. Two on each side with the lyrics to the music. We sang for about 15 minutes.
This church is led by a co-pastor clergy couple. David and Nicole. They are white. Nicole was the first to come forward and offer the prayer. While she prayed there was a constantly changing series of images on the three screens. She prayed for healing. There is absolutely nothing God can’t heal.
Then they introduced the theme via video. ”Catapult: The Big Finale.” Like most congregations, they are working up to Easter. It felt kind of like I was watching a Much Music video. The music was loud, the images came quickly, the colors were bright and flashing. Not unlike the visuals animating Fox News or MSNBC.
Then came four songs of non-religious popular music focused on the theme of love against all odds, including Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep.” A little boy sang one, the band sang two, and a little girl sang Adele. That girl can sing!
Then, finally, David walks on stage. You haven’t seen him up until now. I think what they’ve done is schedule their services so that he is able to do the sermon at one campus and rush to the next campus just in time to do the sermon there, and rush back to the other campus. I think he preaches at every single service. I cannot imagine preaching 6 times a weekend. That guy must have a limo, a hairstylist and a fashion consultant.
I checked on mapquest. On a Sunday morning it takes precisely 24 minutes (driving the speed limit) to get from one campus to the other. Maybe he has a TV in the limo. I’d get bored sitting in a car all that time. Maybe he’s watching the video of the sermon he just delivered so he can make it even better the next round.
I have to tell you, this was the best sermon I had heard to that time. I wasn’t prepared for that.
He started with a story of a father he met for coffee one day. This father has a son who is an addict. The father has pretty much devoted his life to keeping his son from hitting bottom and all his friends were telling him that he was enabling his son. But he just couldn’t let go. The last week, he had lost track of his son. Couldn’t find him for days. He had the police track him down through his cell phone signal, and indeed his son had been on a days long bender. He took his son for medical care and brought him home. The father wanted to know if he should back away, let his son face the consequences. He didn’t know if he could do that.
The minister said to him that if it was his own daughter or son, he would do the same thing. He just wouldn’t let them go.
Then the minister told us that this is what God is like. He’s always looking for the cell phone signal. He never gives up on us. Never ever ever. There is nothing we can do that will make God give up on us.
Then he went on to do some of the best and clearest theology I’d heard yet. No coded language. No subtle moral judgments.
Pastor David told the congregation in no uncertain terms that none of the struggles they face are caused by God because God is love. Pure and simple. None of the illnesses, none of the tragedies, none of the depression and loneliness. None of this is punishment by God, and don’t believe anyone who tells you so. This is part of life. So don’t be beating yourself up thinking you are a horrible person because your life is hard. God doesn’t make it hard. He is the one to hold onto, he is the one looking for your cell phone signal. He is there actively wanting to help you up and out of your suffering.
Then he talked about his childhood. He grew up Pentecostal with a father who did believe that God caused suffering and that you had to be good to get the love of God. So Pastor Dave spent an inordinate amount of time in his youth being afraid of God, and trying to please God, so he could have the assurance of being saved.
He basically said (I’m using my words here) that this is bullshit. We don’t have to earn the love of God. It is just there. So trust it. Trust it with all your heart. It will not let you down.
He used the story of Shadrack Mishac and Abednago in the furnace. This is an old testament/Hebrew Scriptures story about three men who are cast into a furnace because they refuse to bow to the king. They say they will only bow before God. No human has the right to ask for that. The furnace is so hot that even the men throwing them in die from the heat. The minister told us that it wasn’t God who threw them in. It was men. But, it was God who kept them from burning to death. It was their faith which kept them safe from the flames.
Now I ask you, if this isn’t universalism, the theology that our Universalist ancestors began to profess in the late 1700s, that made them the laughing stock of Christendom, that was seen as so threatening that the first Universalists in Britain came to the U.S. because they were tired of getting thrown into prison, if this isn’t the universalism that is our heritage, what is?
I really couldn’t believe what I was hearing. His sermon was about pure love. Unconditional unfailing love and he was saying it is all around us. That even when we do the worst things we can imagine, God is seeking our cell phone signal and in fact, he’s already found us. Are we going to let ourselves be healed with that undying love?
Just to do a double check, when I got home I went back to the website and looked at their statement of beliefs. Indeed, they profess a belief in the last judgment and the rapture. They believe in hell and that at the end of time the unsaved are going there. But it’s at the bottom of their statement of belief. Are they just too scared to say out loud that they don’t believe in hell? Are they themselves still in denial that the unconditional love of God is incompatible with the concept of hell? I don’t have an answer for that. I think some evangelicals are starting to get that people are done with self-flagellation. A hell fire and brimstone theology is no comfort in our increasingly alienated post modern world, unless it’s the morbid self-righteous comfort of needing others to suffer to prove that you are one of the good guys. We want comfort, love, and the security of knowing we are not alone and will never be abandoned.
What other impression was I left with?
This church has succeeded in using contemporary cultural mediums to profess their faith. The music, the videos, the multimedia, everything. It was almost as if I was sitting in front of a TV. Very little was asked of me. I could be a passive participant. I was offered information as if I was sitting in my living room with the blinds drawn. They have taken away every cultural barrier they can think of that could stand between their message and their congregation, made it as palatable as possible. Seamless really.
I will say that I did feel lost in the large auditorium. It’s been almost two and half months since being at Emerson and I have started to miss my people. I’ve gotten tired of worshipping with strangers. I miss the intimacy of our space and the relationships I have with the beloved members of our religious community. We are growing, there is no doubt about that, and we shouldn’t try to slow that down or stop it. But the questions about how to keep the intimacy when you grow are real.
Maybe someday I’ll be doing six services a weekend.
Do I get my own hairstylist, limo, and fashion consultant? This girl wants to know.
Well if I’d had a limo, I’d have told the driver to hightail it to Soulard. I had another worship service to catch.