Saturday, November 26, 2005

From the "Is bigger really better?" files and Yahoo! News...

Sudiegirl sez: The picture on the left is of the Little Brown Church in Nashua, Iowa...if you've heard the hymn "The Little Brown Church in the Vale", that's the same church. They still hold services in it, and have weddings occasionally and other ceremonies. The steps in front of the main entrance have a sign on them saying "Let me live by the side of the road and be a friend of man" or something like that. The last time I visited there, I took a picture of that sign because it really caught my attention. To me, it signified what a church is supposed to be...a friend of man (and woman)...a sanctuary. I grew up in a fairly big church and felt disconnected from it. Now that I'm here in a big urban area, I go to a fairly small church that is growing as we speak, but at this point is small enough I know my fellow parishoners by face if not exactly by name. That's how I feel church is supposed to be. Many friends from home are surprised that I found a church so intimate as mine, but that's where I guess God's grace is on Doug and I. When St. Nicholas grows, we shall grow with it but try to keep the welcoming spirit alive as well. That's what means the most to me in my church experience.

With that, I am going to comment on the article as reverently as possible, but if I use humor or sarcasm, it's because I'm wondering if big things are really better in this case. Please read along, and know I am not trying to be blasphemous. I'm searching just like everyone else.

'Megachurches' draw big crowds

By Joyce Kelly and Michael Conlon Tue Nov 22, 8:26 AM ET

CHICAGO (Reuters) - On a recent Sunday at Willow Creek Community Church, a Christian rock band joined by dancing children powered up in the cavernous main hall, their images ablaze on several gigantic screens. (OK, already I'm kind of grinding my teeth...I personally am not a Christian rock fan, and never have been. If people would think about it, God's message is in many types of pop music, and to me it's too much of a pigeonhole. But many people do like it, and I'm just one person.)

Thousands of worshipers from the main floor to the balcony and mezzanine levels were on their feet rocking to a powerful sound system. Outside cars filled a parking lot fit for a shopping mall. Inside some people drifted into small Bible study groups or a bookstore and Internet cafe for lattes, cappuccinos and seats by a fireplace. (I gotta admit, that's pretty tempting...especially the bookstore part.)

This church near Chicago and others like it number their congregations in the thousands on any given Sunday in stadium-size sanctuaries; but in the end a major appeal of America's megachurches may be the chance to get small. (Huh? See? What'd I tell ya!?)

Institutions like California's Saddleback Church, Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois and Houston's Lakewood Church, each drawing 20,000 or more on a weekend, offer not just a vast, shared attraction but a path that tries to link individuals on a faith-sustaining one-to-one level beyond the crowd, observers and worshipers said. (Yes, that is true. However, what they don't tell you is that sometimes it's not for everyone. D and I went to a larger Episcopal church before going to St. Nicks, and we joined the 20s/30s group there. However, it was quite cliquish and we felt like it was high school all over again because everyone knew each other and we didn't know anyone so we didn't stay. Our life experiences were too different, I guess.)

Rick Warren, founder of California's Saddleback Church and author of the best-selling book "The Purpose-Driven Life," told a seminar held earlier this year by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life that about 20 churches in America have more than 10,000 in weekend attendance. (Wow...I have gone to big church services, but nothing like that.)

"These churches can do a ton of things that smaller churches can't," said Nancy Ammerman, professor of the sociology of religion at the Boston University School of Theology. "They have the resources to produce a professional-quality production every weekend, with music (often specially composed for the occasion and backed by a professional ensemble) and video and lighting and computer graphics and a preacher who knows how to work a crowd," she said. (Yeah, but is that necessary for worship? I realize that many people need that to hold their attention in this age of lightning fast images and such, but sometimes, you miss the meaning of the message. Also, what if you have questions about the sermons and feel too intimidated to approach the minister because of the crowds and the general atmosphere are so dazzling?)

But they also support "dozens or even hundreds of specialized opportunities for people to get involved in doing things with a small group of others. If you want someone to talk to who really understands what it is like to parent an autistic child, you may find a whole support group in a megachurch," she added. (That's funny...I never did in a larger church. I grew up in a fairly large - not mega, but large - church community and I never really felt connected to them. The youth group was cliquish, and the emphasis from past ministers was on dollars, not hearts. When they were interested in me, it was usually because they wanted me to sing a solo and didn't want another church to ask me. Am I bitter? Yeah, but I'm getting over it.)

"Or if you really love stock car racing, but hate being surrounded by drunken rowdies, you can go with a busload of your church friends. I wouldn't say that there are fewer rules in most of these churches.
(So the church friends are insulation, so to speak? And who says you can't do that in a smaller church anyway?) Most of them really expect people to get involved in ways that can have a profound impact on their lives. It's just that there are so many paths into involvement that a smaller church just can't match," Ammerman said. (Again, Ms. Ammerman, it depends on the church AND THE PEOPLE IN IT. If you don't click, you don't click. A bigger church might be better but it depends on the spiritual need of the individual. A smaller church is also more open to try new things, especially if it can open up opportunities for growth.)

That's part of what Richard and Nancy Sauser of Schaumburg, Ill., said they found at Willow Creek where they have been members for more than 10 years. They attend regularly with their daughters, ages 5 and 7. The 30-year-old church draws 20,000 weekend worshipers. (I have heard good things about Willow Creek, and I would like to go there sometime just to experience it once. But you know, I think once would be enough. I'm trying to be open minded, folks, I really hurts my head.)

"Anything they put their minds to, they can pretty much do," he said, marveling at the power inherent in size. But he added, "Willow Creek has the resources to effectively execute on multiple facets of church life," through more than 100 different ministries.

Sauser said he does not attend Willow Creek for its size but for the teaching and the ministry. When the thousands at Willow Creek break into smaller groups for Bible study, the men's ministry, the special needs ministry and the adult ministry, a lot of life change occurs. "In the small groups, that is where it really gets good," Sauser said. (I'd have to say I agree with that...some of the best spiritual experiences I've had were in smaller groups where you could talk and discuss the sermons, what they meant to you and what they meant to others.)

When the crowds head for Willow Creek's parking lot, attendants in orange vests direct processions of cars into smoothly paved parking lots ahead of the 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. services. Inside, the throng moves through the hallways and up and down escalators and stairs, welcomed by smiling greeters. Some drop off children at Sunday school. (ESCALATORS? Wow...that is big.)

On the first floor Danielle Jackola of Hoffman Estates, Illinois, a mother of two who recently moved to the area from California, has come in search of a church. After listening to dynamic lead pastor Gene Appel speak on family and passing the baton of faith from one generation to the next, she liked the message -- and the entertainment.

"I had never been to something like that. I think that is one of the ways of getting your numbers up ... to get the message across but to keep it fun and upbeat. And more contemporary to get more young families involved," she said a few days later -- after deciding to join the church. (Now don't get me wrong...I'm a singer, and I love to entertain, and entertaining people can also help them learn. However, sometimes I think our society always expects to be entertained. Is that a good or a bad thing? I don't know, and I'm sure I'm not the only one.)

Scott Thuma, a sociologist of religion at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut, said his research indicates there are at least 1,200 U.S. Protestant churches which claim more than 2,000 weekly attendees.

Megachurches are addressing the needs of Americans who are disinterested in "traditional church" yet want to deepen a sense of meaning in their lives. Classes and volunteer ministry opportunities lead to a deeper commitment, he said. (But Megachurches aren't the only ones who do that. Smaller churches do too. You have to actually ASK where the opportunities are, or ask if an opportunity can be created where there wasn't one before. As my mother says, "Take Foot In Hand". OK...that's an Iowa saying...I'll provide translation later.)

"They have opened worship to the seeker and the unsaved rather than reserving Sunday worship for the saved and sanctified," Thuma added. (Well, again, smaller churches do too...churches, unfortunately, are composed of people, and people are fallible. And it seems like assumptions are being made about smaller churchse by Dr. Thuma that aren't necessarily true. Some churches are small but mighty, and other churches are large and impersonal. As the old saying goes, "It's not the size of the dog in the fight, it's the size of the fight in the dog." Maybe a bit irreverent, but true nonetheless.)

The three largest churches are Saddleback, Willow Creek and Houston's Lakewood. But Warren said the world has far larger churches, pointing to mammoth Christian congregations in Nigeria, South Korea and elsewhere.

Warren said U.S. Protestants have returned to the 19th century roots of the evangelical movement, emphasizing social issues such as caring for the sick, the poor and the powerless, and not just concentrating on personal salvation. (And that's a good thing. A VERY good thing. And sometimes one feeds on the other.)

"The small group structure is the structure of renewal in every facet of Christianity, including Catholicism," Warren told the Pew forum. He said his church has 9,200 lay ministers leading more than 200 different ministries all over southern California with 2,600 small groups in 83 cities. (That's a good thing too.)

Sudiegirl's final word?

I guess I just get defensive when one type of church gets hyped about than another. To me, when you're following a higher power (God, Christ, Allah, Buddha, etc...) and you follow a certain path to spirituality, it shouldn't matter whether one path is "bigger", "smaller", "better" or "worse". That's the biggest headache I go through with leading a spiritual life. Someone is always trying to tell you that their way is the only way, and that's not true. That's not what God is all about, and at this stage in the game, that's not what I want to be all about either. We can all learn from each other about the paths to spirituality, and that doesn't take away from what we believe in. If anything, whenever I learn something about a different faith, it makes my belief stronger.

And really, isn't that what it's all about?

Sorry it wasn't a yuk-yuk kind of post, but sometimes it's just that way.

Sudiegirl the spiritual