Monday, January 4, 2010

What Mclean Bible Church Does Right

Being open to the positive is important, so let's take a look at what MBC does well.

The first moments of my arrival at Mclean Bible surfaced the first thing they do right: parking. They have parking down to a science. They have to. When you're trying to transition thousands of people out of the 9:00 AM service and transition in thousands of people for a 10:45 AM service, things need to go like clockwork. That's some serious believer volume to turn over. I arrived a tick early, so finding a spot was easy. It was a bit of a zoo when I left...I'm not used to sitting in traffic for five minutes just to get out of church...but the whole experience had a "leaving the stadium after the big game" sort of feel. The combination their parking lot volunteers and the law enforcement folks directing traffic for the church out on Route 7 make things work as well as you could reasonably expect.

As I walked into the campus from the two-level parking garage, I noted the next thing they do right: facility. It's highly functional, and very familiar. From the exterior, the building gives off none of the classical visual cues that would make you think "house of worship." Honestly, it looks more like a Nordstrom. When one enters, the interior is instantly familiar to any American. It's like some combination of a Cineplex and a Mall. There are nicely produced displays everywhere. The smell of coffee from the coffee bar fills the air on the lower level. Wending your way upstairs, the large airy lobby has arrays of volunteers sitting behind an elegantly curving information desk. It's like the rental car booths at a nice airport, only nicer. Entering the cavernous primary sanctuary is like entering a theater. It is an immense windowless auditorium, festooned with a half dozen large screens. At the front of the sanctuary, diaphanous scrims were illuminated with simple images of vines. On the walls of sanctuary, crosses were integrated into the sound damping elements. The sanctuary was designed by the same architectural firm that created the Strathmore theater. The firm lists Mclean Bible Church as one of it's "performing arts" clients. It's very well done.

The displays tastefully distributed throughout the building told the story of another MBC skillset: breadth. They do everything. There's a ministry for everyone. There are ministries of service. Ethnic ministries. Cultural ministries. There's a gigantonormous hippity happenin' youth ministry. There are small groups and a "university," there are umpty-zillion support groups and book groups. I suspect they may be lacking a Gay Men's Chorus, but outside of that, there's something for almost everyone. They have a ferociously entrepreneurial approach to ministry...and it clearly succeeds in building up the church.

As I settled into a seat in the upper tiers, I waited for things to begin, and when they did, I discovered the next thing that MBC does right: music. The guitarist who opened up with an acoustic version of a hymn precisely five minutes before the service was really very solid. The praise team that came out to begin the service with several Christian Contemporary tunes was also solid, and not nearly as overbrimming with weepy-emo Jesusness as I'd feared. Unlike many of my Presbyterian comrades, I know this music now. The only song I didn't already know was one that had been written for the church, and it was melodically simple enough that I could follow it even on the practice run-through. CCM is not and will never be my first preference in worship, but I like it well enough, and sang along robustly. It worked.

With the service now cranking into full swing, another MBC strength surfaced: choreography. I'm not talking about dancing, although there was a troupe of multiethnic munchkins who came out and did an It's-A-Small-World-After-Jesus routine that wouldn't have felt out of place at Disney. I mean the seamlessness of the event. Everything worked. The timing of transitions between one element of the service and another was perfect. The transitions between worship leaders was without flaw. The highly complex presentation used to augment the service...which required coordination of varying images across multiple screens...were sharp, seamless and thoroughly professional. MBC openly declares excellence as a primary governing ethic, and it shows throughout their worship. It exudes a sleek competence. As toight as a toiger, as they say.

Related to this focus on excellence is another evident strength: brand identity. The service I attended was running simultaneously with an EXTREEEME youth service in a smaller, 500 seat venue on site. Other services on other campuses in two neighboring counties were also cranking at the same time. But when time comes for the message, it's exactly the same everywhere. Outside of the primary sanctuary, MBC worshippers look up at the big screen at the appointed time, and get the same perfectly produced and packaged message that you'd get at the auditorium in the mothership. It's all MBC...and that's smart branding.

As the service progressed, I looked around at the now-packed sanctuary. Here, I saw yet another strength, one that's a serious kick in the ovaries for progressive Jesus people: diversity. MBC is a poster child for the multiethnic church. The largest group in attendance was Anglo...but just barely. There was a large Asian contingent, many African-Americans, and an impressive array of families that mixed ethnicity. There were young adults, young families, and middle-aged folk. The only group that seemed underrepresented were old white people. Guess we oldliners have to have some niche. It was as diverse as the throng you might see milling about in a mall in a major metropolitan area.

Let's see. Hmmm. Anything else? Possibly...but those are the primary strengths I observed. Next up:

Where Mclean Bible Church Might Need A Little Help.