January 17, 2011

A Mega-Church Plant

Traffic started about a mile from the entrance of the church.   

Police and volunteers guided vehicles through the parking lot maze. At every door, greeters with genuine smiles welcomed us. They held eye contact and sometimes put a reassuring hand to a shoulder: "We're so glad you're here today." 

An usher who had grown up with me in a traditional United Methodist church handed me a bulletin. 

"So you go to church here?" I asked. 

"Yeah, it's home."   

Yesterday was the first Sunday of a new church plant in Louisville, KY. This non-denominational church attracts 17,000 people each weekend. They launched a campus in Southern Indiana and this one in my suburban hometown. They expected 1,400 or so -- about 600 of which were people from the main church committed to "seeding" this new location.   

Instead, 2,700 people came for the first official services. More than 300 people stood in overflow spaces for the 75 minutes of worship.   

I've been a part of an Episcopal church start. We hold our first service in a school cafeteria or a town hall and pray for 40. This group spent $5 million converting the grocery store where I had my first job -- that's a lot of money until you consider that their weekly donations for the churches average half a million. The church-plant team worked for a year, planning, praying, marketing and designing.   

I've often dismissed non-denominational churches as faith-lite -- a place where people go for Christian rock and self-help inspiration. But I tagged along with my mom anyway, only to have the preacher quickly upend my assumptions. He challenged the congregation. If you're an inspiration junkie, turn on Oprah's new TV channel, he said. If you're only here for self-help tips, check the listings for Dr. Oz.   

Even though the congregation sat theater-style, with comfy chairs and high-tech screens, he cautioned that this was not a performance hall -- and people were not the audience -- God was.   

To a congregation of all ages but mostly middle and upper-middle class, the preacher warned against experiencing church as a consumer instead of as a servant.   

There were things I desperately missed from my Episcopal Church: I yearned for the sacramental-ness of communion. I missed how singing the Psalms makes me feel like I'm touching a bit of heaven. There was no confession -- or opportunity to collectively ask for God's grace in the things I've done and left undone. 

But it was an opportunity for me to realize how much we can learn from our brothers and sisters in these mega-churches, just as we have things to offer them, if only we open our hearts and churches to the movement of the Spirit.   

And who knows, maybe then there will be a day when there's a traffic jam to get to my Episcopal church.

My question to you: What parts of the mega-church experience translate to the ethos of the Episcopal Church? What doesn't?