I know a person who, a little over seven years ago, along with his wife and several other couples, sold their homes, left their jobs and moved from all over the country to a city in the southeastern United States where they felt God was “leading them” to start a church. This group of less than twenty people studied Scripture together, prayed together and dreamed together. None of the folks in the group were much over 30 years old at the time. Only one had received formal theological training. But they felt their call from God was simple — to plant a congregation to reach the generation of folks all of the pollsters say aren’t interested in “organized religion” or “attending church”.
Five years ago, with on a Sunday morning, in a borrowed high school space, the fledgling congregation had its first worship service. Slightly over 200 people attended. From these roots of faithful action a full-on “mega-church” with multiple locations has blossomed. Last year, the average total weekend worship attendance was slightly over 7,500. There are 18 “worship experiences” in six different locations across their city. The revenue of the ministry exceeded $11,000,000, of which 12% was distributed to outreach ministries and mission partners across their local community and throughout the world. Over the course of two weekends in the fall of 2012, over 2,000 people were baptized (by immersion!). This morning, I watched a few of the dozens of videos that populate the church’s website — a website that is engaging, intuitive, hi-tech and hi-def — a website which projects the energy of people who have been transformed by the Gospel.
The mission of this mega-church is simple: “So that people far from God will be raised to life in Christ.”
As I watched one of the videos highlighting the 12-day revival this church conducted in January, I found myself staring at my computer screen through tear-soaked eyes, thinking, “What if something like that could happen here in Wauwatosa?”
Of course, the thought of what might be possible with God was immediately countered by everything I’ve learned in nine years of ordained ministry in the Episcopal Church. I know “large numbers” aren’t in our ethos. I learned that in seminary. I know that the “Mainline is in decline from the sidelines of the culture.” Every document I receive from our “national office” seems to underscore this alleged reality. I’ve been guilty of quoting those statistics myself. I’ve certainly gotten the impression from many “in the know” that our job is to accept our fate as an increasingly marginalized, anachronistic ecclesiastical species of Christians and occupy ourselves with answering questions no one in the culture is asking: “Will the liturgy be Rite I or Rite II? Why do we bow when the Cross carried in procession arrives at our pew? Why do people cross themselves? Will there be incense on Christmas Eve?”
Yawn. And we wonder why we’re an afterthought? And we actually have to theorize about why people would rather curl up with a loved one, the New York Times and a cup of Starbucks on a Sunday morning after a week of being overworked, over-stressed and over-stretched than trudge through another cookie-cutter liturgy (albeit thoughtfully arranged and flawlessly executed in accordance with the rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer)?
While watching those videos this morning, I’ve been confronted with the awareness of how I have unintentionally colluded with an attitude I’m coming to believe is unfaithful to the Gospel. This attitude, so prevalent in many quarters of our Church, seems to be that it’s more important to fit in, keep quiet, move along, not make waves and avoid failure at all costs (even if avoiding failure means never doing anything other than next Sunday’s liturgy). In spite of all of our linguistic gymnastics to the contrary, our denominational behavior witnesses that, “It’s better to settle in for the long slow decline towards death than to take any sort of REAL risk that might end in failure.” We have confused the worship of God, supported and nourished by our Episcopal ethos, with the worship of the ethos itself.
I’m not ranting. I’m lamenting. I love this Church! I just happen to love God more. I believe the Episcopal Church has a message for those who are hungry, hurting and dying (literally, spiritually and metaphorically). I believe God can actually work through all of our idiosyncrasies to feed, to heal and to bring new life. And, yes, I believe when some of that stuff happens, people will actually be lined up outside of our Red Doors EARLY — for fear of not being able to find a seat when the liturgy starts. Can you imagine?
I’m not suggesting “mega-church” status should be a goal for the parish I serve or any other parish for that matter. I simply wonder why we seem to be so proud of “micro-church” status. This morning, for a few minutes I was inspired by the possibility that we Episcopalians don’t have to accept the fate the pundits (inside and outside our denomination) have been assigning to us for the past twenty years. We can make a difference. If a few souls in Jerusalem “turned the world upside down” (see the Book of Acts), and if a couple of dozen crazy, idealistic young people started from scratch and in a few years have a congregation the size of a small town in Wisconsin, then what could happen if only a few Episcopalians took the denominational blinders off and believed God for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit?
Oh, that will never happen, Gary!
What if it did?