Reflections on a Mega Church Experience
Several weeks ago, I had the privilege of attending Bethel Church in Redding, California. For those unfamiliar with this church, Bethel was founded in 1952 by Robert Doherty and grew steadily from the 1960s to the early 1990s. Following the call of current senior pastor Bill Johnson in 1996, Bethel underwent a time of divisiveness followed by a period of tremendous growth. Currently, Bethel has approximately 9,000 weekly attendees—easily categorizing it as a mega church—and over 1,000 enrolled students at the Bethel School of Supernatural Ministry. Bethel’s emphasis on personal revival and kingdom impact has resulted in (among other things) a burgeoning music and worship arts platform, making it one of the more influential churches in America.
Now, I love visiting churches. I love experiencing how my fellow sisters and brothers in Christ worship and relate to God, learning about church history and the history of denominations, and hearing about church leadership and organization. So you might be able to imagine my (church nerd) excitement when I got to visit Bethel and get an on-the-ground view of how they do church. Below are some of my reflections from this experience.
Encounter with God
The atmosphere of Bethel’s campus is pretty standard mega church: oodles of parking, tons of people walking through crowded entrances, gigantic auditoriums which orient participants toward a well-lit stage filled with musical instruments, all with an air of professionalism surrounding those serving, whether they are greeters, ushers, sound and light technicians, or the all-important providers of donuts.
Once the service began, the emphasis shifted toward an encounter with God. In my experience, a person’s comfortability with a particular style of service or worship will influence how performative they think a church service actually is. Something of a sliding scale exists between “performance-ism” and “authentic worship,” and people are going to perceive which is which differently. A committed Catholic familiar with Mass will likely find a mega church service too much like a rock concert, while a charismatic Christian will probably think that Mass involves too much ritualism.
Personally, I found Bethel’s worship to be incredibly moving and—at the very least for those leading worship—authentically oriented toward God. I certainly have attended more showy church services, where the emphasis seemed to be on performance rather than worship. There were, of course, things that distracted rather than focused my attention on God—we had a flag bearer near us and a young lady was slain in the Spirit at the beginning of worship in the row in front of us. Overall, the atmosphere was one that encouraged us to encounter God and sing his praises at the top of our lungs.
Excellence in Teaching
Once the worship and announcement portions of the service ended, we entered the teaching time. Again, previous experiences with the messages you hear in church often influence perceptions of mega church preaching. If your priest speaks for ten minutes as a prelude to the Eucharist, thirty-minutes of biblical examination and their connection to modern day experiences and stories will probably throw you for a loop. What does Steve Jobs have to do with the Gospel of Matthew? However, in a setting where (all too regularly) contemporary church attendees are exposed to irrelevant stories, heretical theology, or poor exegesis, the message delivered at Bethel was excellent, both in terms of content and focus.
The message we heard was biblically based, engaging, relevant, and applicable. Especially compelling was the need to move beyond denominationalism toward mere Christianity. This was not “our way, our brand, or the highway” perspective, but an expression of big tent Christianity that is active in showing God’s love to those outside the church. Too often American Christianity will speak about our need to be missional or engaged, but without palpable results. The message delivered at Bethel not only emphasized the need for incarnating the love of Christ in Redding, but also showed where God’s love was already in action and the way forward for those ready to follow Christ’s command to love their neighbors.
Some Bookstore Concerns
Internet trolls and theological watchdogs regularly go after Bethel for a variety of things (just Google it). Since any sufficiently large or popular entity is going to have its detractors, it seems wise to engage such entities with both informed caution and an open mind. On many issues, my overall impression was that most of the online punches thrown Bethel’s way fail to land if you give the church a charitable chance to tell its own story. Theological distinctions and cultural differences are real, to be sure; but so many of these concerns are on issues of secondary importance, not corruptions of the Gospel of Christ.
However, I did grow concerned over some of the content that was available in the Bethel Bookstore. To be clear, I have no problem with a bookstore (or a coffee shop, for that matter) in a church building. I would argue, however, that what is sold at such locations needs to be above reproach. Unfortunately, there was far too much prosperity gospel for sale in the Bethel Bookstore—including an appearance by (in)famous televangelist Benny Hinn—to qualify as sufficiently beyond reproach.
Admittedly, there is a fine line to walk when talking about prosperity and wealth and its connection to the good news that God has intervened in history and sent his Son to restore all that is broken in our world. God certainly wishes to bless his people. But to diminish the reality of human experiences—including suffering and loss—and to claim that a central reason why God entered our world was to provide financial blessings and abundance, is tantamount to rejecting Christ’s message—that following him involves picking up a cross—and Christian hope—that Christ will make all things new.
Now, do a couple of books disqualify Bethel from existing as a legitimate gathering of the People of God? Of course not, and those who make such claims are falling prey to concerns other than the spread of God’s Kingdom. As with all Christians and all churches, there is probably room for improvement, refinement, and greater theological precision at Bethel. In fact, we all can—and should—perform regular inventories on the bookstores of our own hearts and minds.
Perhaps we still have ideas from our upbringings that don’t quite align with the Gospel. Or maybe we have come to a deeper, more robust, or broader understanding of how to love God and love people but still have theological furniture to the contrary. Perhaps we treasure an experience or expectation that is unhealthy or distorted. And maybe, just maybe, it takes exposure to a different expression of Christian faith to recognize and address those realities in our own lives.
How about you: What have you learned by experiencing a different form of Christianity than you are used to? What other encounters with difference have helped you understand God, humanity, or the world more fully?
Image courtesy of Bethel Music.