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.


  1. Pastor David,

    I aprreciate your commentary on MBC. Two things I wanted to comment on:

    First, it is true that in a church our size, building community is a challenge, and it is also true that we rely heavily on Small Groups to accomplish this. Our first core value is that people matter to God and to us, based on Luke 15. While we understand that it is easy to hide in the crowd at MBC, we work hard to get every person at MBC into a smaller community where they can grow and connect.

    Second, I believe the Chick-Fil-A story was used to illustrate how God had orchestrated a meeting between the two women that blessed them as a result of starting a relationship with one another believer. Knowing Pastor Jim well, I can tell you without any hesitation that he never meant for the story to illustrate superiority over unbelievers.

    I invite you to attend MBC again if you get a chance. Our senior pastor is back this week, so it would be a good opportunity to experience Biblical teaching at MBC.

    In Christ,

  2. @ Brandon: Thanks for your responses! I'm sure that was the intent of the Chick-Fil-A story, and Pastor Jim seems like a pleasant enough soul. But the spirit of the my admittedly sensitive heart...seemed insular. I hoped to hear something different, something that did not focus on "oh, you're one of us," but instead involved a reaching out to someone different in a way that mattered. Ah well. Lord knows not every sermon illustration works the way you hope.

    I'd hoped to be able to experience Pastor Lon's message Sunday. My own church has a tendency to take most of my time. As you pointed out in your last comment, y'all do a great job of getting stuff up on the web. It'd certainly have been interesting to have heard him in person.

    Peace of Christ,


  3. David

    How much I loved reading your last two blogs. It is always good for us to get a clean and clear image of what we are doing and need to do. You made me laugh and made me want to continue to do as good a job as possible for the glory of God.

    Rich Hurst
    Leadership and Staff Development
    Phil. 2:12,13
    McLean Bible

  4. Pastor David

    I appreciate your boldness in writing an accurate post about MBC.

    As someone who has attended this church and has been a member for over 15+ years I can say that this is a true accurate representation of the pridefulness and worldliness of McLean’s staff. I would think that a church as large as MBC, that Lon would want to keep his staff and his Pastors in check. Especially if they are going to speak on his behalf when he is not present. I would think he would want to make sure that the messages align with scripture and not with just personal experiences or relate to things they saw on Veggie Tales.

    I wish someone would dig a little deeper into the staff backgrounds/secrets they keep from the public eye. If only people knew what was truly going on I do not think they would be attending this church.

    From staff members having felonies and criminal records and who can not keep their hands off of other females when they are married, people who you would think have a background degree in theology and claim to know Christ but do not act live or serve him in any way but just use Jesus’s name as an outward appearance to manipulate the congregation.

    Maybe one day Lon will get a clue as to what is really happening and we will no longer be fooled by wolves in sheep's clothing

  5. One more traffic jam on Sunday and horns will be honking and the Fairfax county board will be involved. There is a light at your intersection and Christians can subscribe to the same traffic patterns and the general public.

  6. I agree that the message can be muddled with stories that lack New Testament spirituality and relevance but then I ascribe that to the senior Pastor being Jewish and formerly practicing Judaism. It seems he is mixing the two religions at times and presenting Judaic themes, stories and world views that have little to do with Christianity. It's why we stopped attending. We want our Christian message solely related to God and Jesus and what we can learn from and about them. Also the staff does present questionable qualities at times and left us feeling as though leadership could be simply any individual who enters the doors. I would say there needs to be a lot of improvement in these areas before we would consider attending again.

  7. I'm not sure what the person who accused Lon of preaching "Judaic themes, stories and world views" was talking about. I've attended MCB for 10 years and have yet to hear a sermon that fits that description. Lon does preach out of the Old Testament (it is, after all, part of the Bible), but he always relates it to how we live our lives for Christ today. He in no way, shape, or form preaches anything related to Judaism. In fact, he often explicitly preaches against it.

    As for "the staff" having "questionable qualities," what does that mean? We're all sinners and have have failings? Guilty as charged. No one is perfect, including staff members at MBC. However, I can tell you for a fact that there are high standards for being on staff there.

  8. The first two minutes of this sermon are breath-takingly false and should cause the hearer to flee:

    "God says more about money in the Bible than he does about any other single subject ... He says more in the Bible about money than He does about salvation, prayer, heaven, hell, evangelism."

  9. I realize you wrote this 2 years ago but wanted to leave a comment.

    I have lived in many cities and have attended many churches and in my opinion, the reason MBC is so successful is that they are doing it right! Lon Solomon preaches the gospel unashamedly and he is a tremendous teacher.

    I was a luke-warm Christian when I first attended MBC and I can't believe how much I grew in my walk with the Lord during my 8 years at MBC (before moving out of DC). You can be invisible in any church and I had an easier time making friends and finding community at MBC than anywhere else including smaller churches. For a couple of years, I sat on the sidelines but that was a reflection of where I was with the Lord ---on the fence. I decided to finally take the plunge and get involved and my life changed dramatically. I joined a small group, volunteered, went on mission trips, etc, etc. MBC offers something for everyone whatever your interests and wherever you are spiritually.

    The only problem for me now is that I feel I've been spoiled and haven't found any church like it since leaving the DC area. Also. Lon connects with people because he is authentic - his testimony is so powerful. This is difficult to find among pastors today. God Bless MBC!

  10. I attended MBC for many years and left 3 years ago. The general spirit of the church carnaval atmosphere at best. The Music is very loud and somewhat irreverent. I returned to my Independent Baptist Roots where worship is purer and less worldly.