Monday, January 4, 2010

Where Mclean Bible Church Could Use A Little Help

To begin, a caveat. Mclean Bible Church is, by every worldly standard of success, an immense and glorious triumph of a church. My tiny, tiny church hangs on to existence by its fingernails. What MBC does, people want. It is big, prosperous, and diverse, and offers a cornucopia of ministries and services that fully meets the perceived needs of those who attend it's many worships and groups and studies. If you're looking for best practices for building a successful faith organization, you ain't gonna look to the revitalization struggles of Trinity Presbyterian Church of Bethesda. You'd be well advised to look to MBC. They've got a tried and tested business model.

So with full recognition of my utter unworthiness, let me offer up the primary critiques I have following my visit to this great golden Jesus behemoth.

First, Mclean Bible Church is not a community. It is simply too vast to serve that purpose. You are as acquainted with the people around you as you would be at the Multiplex, or as you wend your way through Black Friday crowds at the mall. Observing the behavior of most of the folks in attendance, that's precisely what was going on. There were little clusters of folks who knew one another, but there was no sense of connectedness between the clusters. It's an easy place to disappear, to be both nameless and faceless. That is, quite frankly, the challenge in any megachurch. MBC's leadership knows this, and relentlessly pitches small groups and study groups and ministries to help folks connect to a sub-community within the church. But it is easy, oh so easy, to move through the church like a shadow. Or, more significantly, to have nothing meaningful to do with folks who are different from you or don't share your particular interests. That's a problem in smaller churches too, of course. But a ministry that is intentionally structured around appealing to particular demographic categories or areas of affinity...and provides little opportunity for transforming relationships in the broader life of the church...runs the strong risk of being "diverse" in the way a high school cafeteria is diverse. Or, again, as a mall is diverse.

Second, and this is a matter of aesthetics, MBC's facility really doesn't present like sacred space. It is an unquestionably utilitarian building, and well-designed for it's purpose. But it's also essentially secular in appearance. There is no significant design feature in the building itself that contributes to a sense of being on holy ground, unless you consider Nordstrom to be holy ground. Ultimately, this doesn't bother most folks. Being American and all, we like the practical and the useful and the immediate. You can worship anywhere, and God is present whereever you seek God's presence. It is, as they say, what's inside that counts.

And that brings us to a third and more significant problem.

Mclean Bible the worship I attended...did a kinda meh job of teaching the Bible. The message wasn't badly delivered, mind you. The full-head-of-silvery-hair pastor who preached (not their iconic senior pastor, but the pastor of one of their satellite campuses) was clearly comfortable and at ease with his delivery. His slice-of-life description of googling an old buddy was very engagingly presented. He spoke clearly and confidently, and with exactly the right level of emotion. He repeated the sermon title catch phrase over and over again, just like yer s'posed to. It did not bite. It was, occasionally, quite uplifting in a motivational speaking kind of way.

But if the message is meant to significantly deepen our understanding of scripture, then..ah..this weren't it.

He was nominally preaching out of the Book of Esther, chapter four. Meaning he never actually read it, but instead meandered through a paraphrase of the text. As he cranked through the message, a few factoids were dropped into the paraphrase.

Like, say, the fact that Mordecai, the uncle who adopts Esther, was a bachelor. He repeated this several times. I've read, studied, and taught Esther, and know it well enough to know that this"fact" does not occur in any translation of the Protestant Bible. It also doesn't ever show up in the expanded and far more entertaining versions of Esther produced by first century Greek-speaking Jews, which we now find preserved in the Catholic Apocrypha. Having done a bit of googling myself afterwards to figure out where on the web this factoid came from, I found that there is within Jewish Talmudic debate a line of speculation that Mordechai might have been single. I found a previous sermon by the senior pastor at MBC that uses the "bachelor uncle" phrase. But the text itself makes no such claim. Um...guys? Aren't you the ones who claim to be sticking to the plain text of scripture? Hellooo?

Or his strange little aside about Vashti, the wife of Ahasuerus in the story. She's the one who gets the boot so that Esther can come on the scene, mostly because she refuses to be paraded like a piece of meat in front of her drunken husband's friends. Our intrepid interpreter suggested...without getting the expected laugh, I might add...that perhaps she would have been more obedient if she'd listened during MBC premarital counseling. Yup. That's gonna endear ya to the ladies. But then again, this is a church that, while diverse in attendance, is run entirely by men.

As we got to the the Necessary Four Bullet Points You Can Take Home With You, things got odder. From the Book of Esther, the pastor told us from four of the big screens that our takeaway is, first and foremost, bullet point number one, that God is Sovereign over our lives. I'm down with that, being Christian and Presbyterian and all. God is the Creator, and my King.

But...from the Book of...Esther? Esther, which famously and completely lacks any reference to God whatsoever? In which no-one prays, and no-one engages in any discernable religious practice? Yeah, I know, God does get referenced in the Veggie Tales version. In fact, I seem to recall the grape playing Mordechai singing a song about God's authority. But last time I checked, that ain't canon.

Esther, read as it actually presents itself, is so lacking in theology that it almost got dropped from the Bible. It was, in fact, the only book that was excluded from the Dead Sea Scroll collection. As it appears in our Bibles, it's a folk tale. It's an entertaining yarn of a gutsy Jewish heroine, but asserting that one of it's primary messages is God's sovereignty is just too much of a stretch. You can certainly read between the lines to make that point. But honestly, if that's a point you want to make, then preach from a text that actually and directly expresses that concept. There are plenty of those. Plenty.

Several of those text snippets were brought to bear as the point was made, but the connection, quite frankly, wasn't either developed or convincing. It's a common approach to scripture in the Bible-believing world, I know. Perhaps that works for most folks. I'm sure most of the thousands of others in the room had no trouble with it. But it's always felt a little Isaiah 28:13 to me.

Outside of the Bend-it-like-Bible-Beckham interpretive approach, there was also something else that I struggled with, a story shared during the message. Let's, for the sake of the Blessed Bullet Points, call it point number four. It was, on the surface, a cute little anecdote about the pastor's wife and son at a Chik-Fil-A. A little girl was acting out in the munchkin habitrail, and bullying/lashing out at their son. The irate wife went and talked to the woman who was in charge of the unruly girl, and discovered that the woman was 1) the grandmother and 2) a Christian. The grandmother, pleased to find a fellow believer, shared then her sorrow that the girl's parents were 1) having problems and, worse yet, 2) unbelievers. Aha! That must be why the girl is a nasty little piece of work. Her parents are unbelievers! Of course they're having problems. If they were like us, well, then things would be fine.

It seemed a strangely graceless and insular little story, one that my speak to the great challenge facing much of Big Church American utilitarian Christianity. Americans come to church so that we can succeed and prosper...which, of course, is the whole point of Christian faith. We come to Jesus so that we can be strong and feel important and better about ourselves. Isn't that what the Apostle Paul taught?

And what better way to feel better about yourself than to know that you're better than others? Marital struggles and brokenness must be something only endured by infidels and practitioners of "inferior" religions.

Honestly, the message wasn't a total fumble. There was some good carpe diem stuff in there. But for just came across as a bit too predigested and a bit too simplistic and a bit too smug.

I came away from my Mclean Bible experience in much the same way I came away from my reading of Joel Osteen's "Your Best Life Now." Meaning, I found in it more that was graceful and good than I'd expected. The essential teachings of Jesus were there, up to a point, most likely in enough quantity that lives are being transformed and conformed to His grace. Westboro Baptist it most certainly is not. But while it made for an interesting and very, very different Sunday, I cannot imagine attending a church like Mclean Bible, nor would I use it as a model on which to build ministry.

Ultimately, it felt too conformed to the world. In skillfully using the tools of the marketplace, it has wildly succeeded according to the terms of the marketplace. the early church learned when it conformed itself to the power of the state and reaped worldly prosperity...sometimes that comes with a cost.