Posted by: nickgerlich | October 14, 2007

Soul Survivor?

Today we went to church. Not that you should be surprised, because we do that most weekends. But this weekend was different. We went to church in a totally different place.

Las Vegas.

I realize that “church” and “Las Vegas” are about as far apart as night and day in most people’s minds, but I had scoped this one out for quite some time (thanks to a former student), and we purposely came out a day early to visit this particular church before my conference begins.

Central ChristianAnd so this morning we made the drive across town to the massive campus occupied by Central Christian, whose senior pastor is Jud Wilhite, formerly on staff at one of Amarillo’s large local churches.

Central Christian is the largest church in Las Vegas, with over 10,000 in attendance each week in its 8 services held in two locations in the Vegas area. Wilhite is also an accomplished writer, having recently released Stripped: Uncensored Grace on the Streets of Vegas.

The experience was everything I imagined it would be. Large stage. High-energy worship band. Lights. Volume. Jumbotrons. It was almost as if they had torn a page from the Mega-Church Playbook. Two songs by Chris Tomlin, followed by a special song covering a tune by Switchfoot, and then a dignified guest speaker, Lee Strobel. In and out in a little over an hour.

After church we all filed out quickly, making room for the next group of congregants waiting to be seated, and then reverently finding our way to the bookstore and coffee shop where we could purchase Strobel’s latest book.

And what a nice bookstore and coffee shop they were. Starbucks would have been proud, as would any independent bookseller. I did my duty, and exited with a sales slip and four books. Can I get an amen?

But you know what? I rather liked it all. I sense that for many people, Central Christian meets a lot of needs. You don’t get attendance like that by sheer Vegas luck.

We, too, attend a mega-church in Amarillo (read my earlier blog to read about that transition period a few years ago). In an era of Wal-Marts and Best Buys, I see many parallels with the growth of mega-churches (which are defined as congregations averaging over 2000 in attendance each weekend). I know all too well the attraction to join forces with the Big, and leave the Small behind. Big can seemingly do so much more than Small, especially with their in-house marketing departments and creative people. Everything is so much more polished and professional at Big, whereas Small is rough around the edges, struggling to get through today’s service, much less next week’s, and often suffering from the discordant tonalities of musicians and singers who couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket if you helped them lift it.

Never mind the fact that Starbucks and booksellers everywhere have a new competitor on the block. And let us not forget the well-meaning arm chair theologians who incorrectly invoke the “money changers in the temple” scripture out of context; there are simply some people who just don’t like the idea of doing business at church. Especially if the church is the business.

We will face this same issue in a little over a year when our new church facility is completed. A couple of weeks ago we had the opportunity to tour the construction site, and I felt more like I was in a convention center than in a church. And the children s facility will no doubt have Ronald McDonald drooling. Still, I am thankful for all with which we have been blessed. It’s huge, and it’s going to cost a lot of money. I just hope Jesus is impressed.

Which brings me to my point. Will we one day be left with just one Super Duper Church in our towns, the Wal-Mart of salvation? The Best Buy of faith? It’s hard for the smaller churches to survive. They’re closing about as fast as the mom and pop hardware store down on the square. Retailing and Church are converging, and before long we might find ministers studying Sam Walton instead of St. Francis.

Hey, at least I’ll be able to get cream with that sermon.

Dr “Make That a Grande” Gerlich

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