I attended a concert last Friday at a local large non-denom facility very nearly the size of what one would call a “mega-church.” (I’d estimate about 2,500-3,000 seats) The christian pop/rock band Sanctus Real and two others performed and my wife and I decided to go and enjoy. It was called “Life Changers International Church.”
In college (decades ago now), I spent a lot of time with non-denominational evangelicals, so I thought I knew how to feel comfortable with them, but that was at the dawn of the mega movement. I’ve not been in the walls of a large non-denom place, nor heard an evangelical sermon (universal in such concerts) in a long time and was struck by a few observations.
The ‘sanctuary’ made an excellent concert hall. Upon closer examination, it IS a concert hall and was obviously designed from the ground up to be one. From the giant projection screens that flanked the stage, to the elevated theater seating (seat numbers even!), to the acoustic clouds and catwalk system overhead to serve the changeable lighting system design. There was not one permanent architectural feature that would suggest that the auditorium was built as a worship space. Very bewildering. The very substance of the facility suggests that its purpose is to entertain its visitors rather than to direct their attention towards Christ. (Not that most modern catholic churches are doing any better, mind you.)
Catholic parishes are doing good to have a narthex or other basic minimal gathering space between the parking lot and the pews, but this place was over the top. I kid you not, there was a “Food Court”. Not just some tables and chairs, but a permanent concessions setup. It felt a little bit obscenely commercialized. Or maybe I was just looking to nitpick.
On the impressive side, I had been used to hearing little to nothing on the social justice implications of the gospel from my evangelical friends in the past and this occasion was marked by reminders about the poor in the third world (song lyrics, video images and sermon), pushes to sign up that night for child sponsorship missionary programs and reminders that faith is not just a feeling, but a life committment. As a catholic, I’m used to us doing a better job than them on social justice issues, but I gotta say that we don’t generally do as good a job of fusing our social occasions with our ministry as these guys are doing. (Ever had a conversion moment at Bingo?)
As usual, the music was enjoyable with an occasional lyrical “yikes” via my always active theological filters on such occasions. Can’t blame folks for incorporating what they believe into their lyrics though. Blame them more if the DIDN’T. And the evangelical community is doing a better job than us of coupling the commitment to the faith to musical creative talents of our respective constituents. Surely we have somebody more talented than Marty Haugen out there by now…
Overall, it was an interesting experience. Obviously this was a concert, not the usual Sunday fare, so I can’t say what their ‘liturgy’ is normally like. I’m guessing it is heavy on the praise music (architecture rule #1 is that form follows function). On the whole, it felt different from what I remember in college. More polished, professional, slick … and yet less somehow. The small, shoestring evangelical operations had a more genuine appeal to them. Again, maybe I’m biased but the sheer professionalism of the entire operation just seemed to emphasize the absence of the transcendent. No statues, no stained glass with images, no murals, no altar, nothing that made you want to kneel, just to be entertained and have your emotions tugged at.