What happens when Orthodox kids visit a Megachurch?

My parish’s youth group meets twice a month, generally on Sunday evenings. Our cluster of regular youth activities includes community service projects, the yearly 0417161759.jpgpilgrimage to an Orthodox monastery, social events (trivia nights, game nights) and educational-formational events. This past year, our parish council (board) gave the youth leaders and me the green light to add yet another regular series of events to our youth calendar: visiting, as a group, a variety of non-Orthodox religious communities. We began weaving these visits into our schedule in the fall of 2015. The goal of these visits was neither to lionize nor disparage other religious communities, but rather to observe similarities and differences, being mindful of both the strengths of these communities and the ways in which our own faith seems particularly robust. The hope was that in noting the contrasts and similarities, the youth, as a group, would come to a deeper understanding of what it is to be Orthodox.

The first of these visits was to the local Reformed Jewish Synagogue in Lexington for a Shabbat service on a Friday night. The congregants were amazingly hospitable and our youth enjoyed not only observing the connections between our church and the synagogue, but also they were treated to a detailed tour of the temple and the rich collection of liturgical items preserved in the synagogue. The youth were riveted and the conversation that ensued was quite rich. While it was clear to the youth that Judaism is quite different  from Orthodoxy in its theology (e.g., not glorifying Christ as Messiah) the youth were able to detect a real kinship between Judaism and Orthodox Christianity!

In early winter, after our own morning Liturgy in Nicholasville, we drove across Lexington to visit a pre-Vatican II-rite Catholic parish. The idea here was to give the youth a taste of how Roman Catholics worshiped for hundreds of years (up until the 1960’s.) After the New Year, we also attended a modern post-Vatican II Catholic parish (the local Newman Center the University of Kentucky) for its “last call” Mass on Sunday evening. Our fourth visit was to a traditional Anglican-style Episcopal church service in Lexington (Sunday-night Evensong.)  Each of these visits was followed by off-site dinner and debrief. Very lively discussion has been a hallmark of each debrief. And, once again, the youth quickly discerned the fundamental kinship these communities and Orthodoxy have liturgically and theologically.

Our final church visit (of this year at least) was, from the very beginning, the most controversial to many of my parishioners. I suggested we go to a large Protestant-Evangelical  Lexington megachurch, which shall remain unnamed. I was particularly excited to visit this church in part because I simply have been “out of the loop” in terms of what a contemporary Protestant church looks like. Though brought up an Evangelical, I have not been to a Protestant Sunday “main event” worship service (excluding special services like a wedding or baccalaureate) in almost 20 years. Needless to say, I was not prepared for what I experienced at this megachurch. Here are some candid impressions:

The building glistened, clean and pristine. One of our teens, duly impressed, blurted out as we drove up: “This is a gorgeous shopping mall.” I replied to him, “That’s because it, in fact, used to be a shopping mall.” As we entered the vestibule area, the greeter met us warmly and exuded cheerfulness. She gave us a tour of the facility. The Starbucks-like coffee shop and the youth crash area were especially points of conversation among the youth. About half the the kids were immediately taken with the youth area with its 9-square court, basketball hoops, overstuffed couches, coffee-shop-like venue, loud contemporary Christian music piped in, and a top-of-the-line stage and concert area. The other half marveled at the same things, but complained of sensory overload.

As we were escorted into the main auditorium, we were met, quite literally, with a wall of fog, which some of the kids initially mistook for incense. All of a sudden, as the house lights dimmed, a group of youngsters emerged from the shadows, bodies gyrating to the beat: three or four guitarists, several vocalists, a keyboardist, and a guy in a big glassed-in drum chamber. A laser show commenced, every bit as colorful as the music. I was struck by the earnestness of these young musicians, visible to all, thanks to the multitude of cameras and the HD projection system. One of guys crooned away as a cameraman swept the stage, capturing close-up images of the singers from every angle imaginable. (Several youth mentioned that this was really distracting.) At the same time, I was barraged with questions.”Father Justin, why is one of the singers chewing gum?” “Why is that drummer in a glass cage?” “I’ve never been to a concert like this.” “Why is it so loud?” “What’s going on?” I had no responses for them other than: “Well, guys, I did tell you beforehand that this would not be like our services in the Orthodox Church.”

I also told them that soon the music would be over and we would get to hear the sermon. And, indeed, after a short musical interlude and stage adjustment, the pastor appeared. His sermon was well-constructed, well-timed, and artfully delivered–obviously the fruit of many hours of studied preparation. The pastor, a very accomplished speaker, gave a a practical exhortation about money and the need to steer clear of slavery to debt. His remarks were in the “key” of Christian financial specialist Dave Ramsey, whom the pastor referenced (and whose tips, early in my marriage, helped my wife and me to dodge some real financial bullets.) The pastor shared  two inspiring video testimonies (beautifully produced in-house, by the way) and creatively deployed props throughout his sermon. He proclaimed a number of foundational Christian truths: God loves you; God cares for you; He wants to be active in your life. At the same time, the pastor made promises that no Christian–least of all a pastor–ought to make (I think): that God won’t let you fail; that God’s basic purpose is for you to enjoy life; that whatever you set your hand to, you will be granted success, if you follow God’s path. Thinking as an Orthodox believer might, I couldn’t help but ask myself: what about the Righteous Job? What about the ascetics who labored and denied themselves in the desert? What about the holy martyrs who endured defeat and death (defeat!) for love of Christ? For that matter, what about Christ on the Cross? Even many “successful” people, I thought to myself, have had incredibly bumpy roads, paths quite unlike the ones the pastor was suggesting might be the norm. I considered what I have often observed as a priest: a faithful Christian often feels like a failure, at any given moment–cue St. Peter, St. Paul, St. Mark, Ss. Cyril and Methodius, most missionaries and monastics (not to mention virtually every Christian parent, who at one point or another feels like an utter disaster!)

I knew the kids were getting antsy with the sermon when one of the boys poked me and said: “Father, I am so sorry for thinking your sermons are too long!” At the 45-minute mark the pastor wrapped up his teaching, the lights dimmed, stagehands re-appeared, smoothly ushering the pastor and his props through the fog and off the stage. The band then re-materialized in a blaze of luminous glory. At the same time, the worship leader invited the gathered people to visit one of a dozen or so stations around the room: the front of the church for one-on-one prayer, the “prayer wall” for a more private encounter, or one of a dozen communion tables. The communion rite left indelibleProtestant Communion impressions with most of us in our group. Speaking for myself, I was shocked that the communion wasn’t blessed in any sense: no prayer was said over the elements, no offering of “the Gifts” was made, no reading of the account of the Last Supper was taken. There was no sense of setting the elements apart in any way. The youth were struck, rather differently, by two things they observed: that the communion cups were plastic and disposable, an unthinkable impiety in Orthodoxy; and that people appeared to them not to be taking communion very seriously. The kids picked up on the fact that the context in which communion was undertaken in this megachurch basically served to communicate how the congregation valued communion. One of our youth commented that, coming from our perspective, it appeared that communion in the megachurch just felt like an afterthought.

While the people were thronging these three different stations (prayer area, prayer wall, and communion tables), the lights were raised in what appeared to be a large jacuzzi with LED lights. In the jacuzzi, we could make out the pastor and several other people in the water. The pastor seemed to exhort a woman for a minute or so, after which she was let down into the water with a single immersion. The whole baptismal rite, if you could call it that, took about a minute, after which the jacuzzi lights were once again dimmed. The rock band continued to perform (because it was a performance and not congregational singing) and communion began to wrap up. As people began to head back to their seats, one of the kids commented that this “couldn’t have been a real baptism–because no one even paid attention.”

After everyone was back in their seats, a kindly-looking lady appeared on the screen. I soon realized that this was the announcements, complete with weblinks and tweets so that folks could follow on their phones. (I really liked this feature, honestly! It was so efficient. I’m sure my own congregation would prefer this system!) After the announcements and one prayer (once again said by the gum-chewing singer,) we immediately departed. No benediction or blessing as are accustomed to having. We just stood and left. Culture shock.

In our debriefing time (over Chinese food), I was impressed by the charitable approach the youth seemed to have in reflecting on our visit to the megachurch. About half of them enjoyed the style of music, they all picked up on some good themes in the sermon, they liked the sense that new people are clearly welcomed into this space. One of the youth, however, later told me: “Father, I really enjoyed visiting; but that just wasn’t church.”

When I was a Protestant boy attending Catholic school, my best buddy’s mom (a hilarious Roman Catholic lady) used to lovingly chide me about my evangelical church. She’d ask me, “How are things going over at the ‘Church of What’s Happening Now?'” As I walked out of the megachurch last week, I heard her words again. I came away feeling that this megachurch which admittedly does so many good works of service and charity, has so completely chained itself to pop-culture and the slavery to “what’s happening now” that it has simply ceased to be, in any meaningful or concrete way, the church. There are no Crosses, no icons, no symbols, no history, no ancient rites, no connection to any community outside of the megachurch itself. Ironically, most of the congregants would most likely celebrate the lack of all things things. It’s progress, I suspect they would say. It’s being free from “dead religion.” I want to cry.

Please hear me: I’m not saying that these people in the megachurch aren’t sincere followers of Jesus on some serious level. I’m not saying they are bad people. I’m certainly not saying I’m morally superior to them. What I am suggesting, however, is that the megachurch concept of church is such a departure from what the apostles founded, that any similarity to apostolic Christianity is at best incidental. Yes, the megachurch movement respects the Bible that the early church canonized, but everything else the early Church cherished–from Christian symbols, to imagery, to creeds, to Sacraments, to the church year, to hierarchical leadership, to a sense of the Sacred, to a concern for catholicity–the movement has recklessly cast aside in favor of “what’s happening now.” It seems to me that such a departure from the Church constitutes a new faith. How could I say this? Because the context of this megachurch is so radically unchurchly. Sadly, it appears that the megachurch movement might be the apotheosis of Protestantism–the future. We speak different languages. We have completely different contexts. We may have different faiths. Lord, have mercy.

Light moment: several years ago, I saw this video parodying the Seeker Sensitive Meagchurch model. When I saw this video, I thought it was a stylized (overblown) joke. After visiting the megachurch, I now realize… it’s not that stylized. It’s cuts close to the bone. What do you think?