(illustrations: Smell of Steve; photos: Brook-Pifer.com)
By Jeffrey C. Billman
is. Osteen’s Lakewood Church in Houston is the epitome. It seats
16,000, and based on the services I’ve seen on TV – the broadcasts
reach another 18 million or so viewers – those seats are filled week in
and week out. Lakewood is more than a church. It’s a mini-city, an
institution unto itself.
megachurches from churches of old. Call it the Wal-Martization of
church, where the big boys on the block swallow up their smaller kin.
Or chalk it up to the free market, where some churches have simply
pegged a formula to pack the pews, using the sizzle to sell the steak.
megachurches are about more than standing-room-only crowds. There’s a
reason people will seek the Lord in a room of 2,000 people or more
rather than attending a smaller, monotonous gathering that lets out in
time for lunch at Golden Corral and the NFL kickoff. That’s old school.
The new school is about excitement. It’s flashing lights and loud
drums. It’s dancing in the aisles and praising Jesus until your voice
goes hoarse. It’s energy; these places feel alive.
feeling goes beyond the music, which in some cases lasts for more than
an hour. The preaching is powerful as well; you don’t get membership
numbers in the thousands by putting everyone to sleep. The sermons
delve less into who begat whom and focus more on evangelism. There are
altar calls in which folks come forward by the dozens to be “born
again.” The collection plates are filled with thousands of dollars,
money used to finance huge buildings and rock-concert quality lighting
that, in turn, draw more people in.
share of megachurches. They’re typically Protestant, socially
conservative and evangelical. They want to change the world, one soul
at a time, and are amassing the resources to do it.
many to choose from, which megachurch is right for you? That’s where we
come in. Over the last few months, I visited five of Central Florida’s
biggest, loudest and funkiest churches. Some were rollicking; others
were more subdued. Some begged for money; others begged you to convert.
They all had their own charms, though some made me want to leave a
little faster than others.
the largest megachurches in Orlando; I know there are more, but I
didn’t have the time or space to go to every one. They are graded from
one to five (one being the lowest) in the following categories:
Did the light show and video screens blow my mind?
How much pressure did I feel to empty my wallet?
Fire and Brimstone
They all wanted my soul, but who made the best case?
How much does the Lord dislike homos, taxes and liberals?
Did I leave feeling warm all over?
And now my disclaimer, which will be ignored by those who believe writing
critically about any church is sacrilege, but here it is: I grew up in
a religious family and attended a Christian school and a megachurch
until my high school years. And while I’m not down with many
fundamentalist values these days, I respect the right of everyone to
worship as they please. The simple fact is that some churches are more
entertaining than others.
CALVARY ASSEMBLY OF GOD
its glass walls while driving on I-4. But more than that, Calvary is
one of the most politically important churches in Central Florida, as
it houses Exodus International – the group that wants to make gays
straight – and provides the set for the Liberty Counsel’s television
show. This was the first church I attended on my little adventure –
truth be told, the first church I’d attended in a while – and I
probably could have picked a better day. It was July 31, and as I later
realized, the Rev. Clark Whitten’s last day in the pulpit. After 10
years as Calvary’s pastor, he was leaving following a dispute with the
church’s deacons. So perhaps I didn’t get the full flavor of a Sunday
morning at Calvary; but what I did get was memorable.
relatively tame band that played music just upbeat enough to keep you
awake, but quiet enough not to make the mostly white suburbanites that
dotted the pews uncomfortable. What freaked me out was the flag corps.
This church has its own flag corps! That was something I’d yet to see
in my prior years of churchgoing. The corps wasn’t great or anything,
but who cares? Calvary also gets points for making the “announcement”
part of its service a truly high-tech affair, including a 30-second ad
on the huge projection screens above the stage that looked like a car
commercial but ended up asking men to sign up for Promise Keepers.
this case. That’s how they make money to build buildings and pay their
staff. It’s expected. And Calvary, like every other church I’ve ever
been in, took up an offering. But here, it was low-key; in this guide,
that will earn Calvary fewer stars (or money buckets, as the case may
be), but it will make me a little more willing to go back. I also
applaud the church for putting its financial information out for all
the world to see.
Whitten’s short (and final) sermon mainly consisted of a goodbye to his
congregants, reminiscing about how the church grew huge under his
watch, wishing them the best and assuring them that he was going to be
all right. There was no altar call.
and supporting groups like the Liberty Counsel that try to push their
worldview into politics. So Calvary gets its four stars mainly on
reputation, as Whitten’s only political reference was to “people who
hate God” who protested his anti-gay agenda one Sunday long ago by
making a ruckus inside his church.
and friendly and if you walk into the sanctuary Bible-less, they’ll
give you one. But it was the smoothie bar that I’ll remember. It wasn’t
the best smoothie ever and it wasn’t free, but so what? It was served
with a smile and a “God bless,” and that’s just cool.
FIRST BAPTIST CHURCH OF ORLANDO
3000 S. John Young Parkway
Payne Stewart Athletic Complex, named for the golfer and church member
who died in a plane crash a few years ago. The church also runs a
school, The First Academy, and holds an annual golf tournament, which
appeared to be sponsored by Harley-Davidson this year. This church is massive.
It looks more like a convention center than a sanctuary. As the crowd
filed in, the projection screen boasted advertisements for mental
health classes, a prison ministry, the anti-gay marriage amendment and
a dance troupe.
center of the stage. However, this was the “contemporary” service; the
earlier, traditional service had an orchestra and gigantic choir. This
service had a band that, like Calvary’s, was almost-but-not-quite
jamming in a Dave Matthews kind of way. The lights dimmed when the
first song kicked in, but the rest of the light show was unremarkable.
What I did notice was how perfectly the music ebbed and flowed with the
rest of the service, how it brought the audience to their feet, hands
raised, and then calmed them into a more gentle, contemplative state
just before the sermon began.
right, which it probably doesn’t because I’m rarely coherent on Sunday
mornings – it was pretty basic, or I took off before they passed the
plate at the end of the service.
specifically, signs that the end was nigh-ish. In essence, he said that
in every generation people predict the end times and they haven’t come
yet, so don’t worry. (Jesus is coming, but Henry’s not really sure
when.) He did say that 60 percent of Christians worldwide live under
some form of persecution – like a school bus driver in Maryland who was
fired after leading a prayer and an evangelical Hillsborough county
commissioner who was attacked in the media after pushing an anti-gay
vote. There was an altar call over a soft, almost weeping piano in the
although pushing a homophobic law in a political arena is bound to get
some pushback, wouldn’t you say? – was the only overtly political
reference I heard. But the pre-sermon “ads” endorsed the anti-gay
marriage amendment, and you just kind of got the feeling they weren’t
too fond of liberals, either.
people there looked like run-of-the-mill, suburbanite Christian
conservatives, and there was nothing in particular that struck me as
wrong, but I felt a little disconnected from the rest of the
congregants. Just my opinion – don’t crucify me for it or anything.
7601 Forest City Road
almost to the point of parody. I went in unsure what to expect, having
read media reports that painted Pastor Clint Brown as a money-grubbing,
Hummer-driving charlatan, and nothing that I saw dissuaded me from said
media reports. There is a huge emphasis on money, and while Brown is an
emphatic speaker, he isn’t well-versed in theology. But it’s a show,
and it’s entertaining, and for that you have to pay. I think that’s
what keeps the crowds coming back, no matter what Brown does with their
the lights that flicker and swirl like anything you’d see at House of
Blues, and the choir that sways and dances, hands raised high the
entire time, shouting on command. Add the audience, which sways and
shouts back (including one young lady a few rows in front of me who
looked to be on the verge of an uncontrollable seizure the whole time).
Top it all off with the mimes. Yes, FaithWorld has mimes; they
performed a 15-minute routine to a recorded version of one of Brown’s
sermons – which totally smacked of hero worship, or perhaps idolatry,
but whatever. In terms of pure, unadulterated entertainment, FaithWorld
wins hands down.
one for tithes – 10 percent of your “gross, not net” income, as we were
poignantly reminded – and another at the end for offerings above the
mandatory 10 percent. “Only give if God has blessed you,” the audience
was instructed. That’s a loaded statement. (Brown also asked if anyone
in the audience could write a $55,000 check to cover the cost of a gym
they’re trying to buy.) But more than the high-pressure sale, what was
unique to FaithWorld was the teaching that God will reward you
financially if you give money to the church. I’ve been around a lot of
churches in my life and I’ve been taught that tithing elicits God’s
blessings, but I’ve never heard anyone preach that if you give more
than 10 percent of your (gross, not net!) income to FaithWorld, God
will pay you back, with interest. My seventh-grade Bible teacher would
have a problem with that.
screams at the audience, and they scream back. That said, I had trouble
figuring out exactly what message Brown wanted to convey. He was, to
put it bluntly, all over the place. He talked about the literal
seven-day creation, and then skipped to something about God giving him
the talent to praise more than to preach, then to women not pursuing
men, then to homosexuality being bad, and back to the idea that giving
the church money is good. But he is entertaining, and he did end with
an altar call that produced a number of raised hands signaling new
converts, so all’s well that ends well.
and if it don’t fit, acquit!” This got huge applause, and though I’m
not sure if it technically makes sense, the point is that gays are
sinful, based upon the in-hole/out-hole theory of sexuality. The
second: “Women, quit running around chasing [men] and let them come to
you because you don’t need them.” While some feminists might cheer this
line on, in context it was actually a call for chastity and came during
a discussion of to what degree men should be leaders of the household.
At least I think so; like I said, the sermon was a bit disjointed.
feeling. You could argue that it was because I was one of only a few
white faces – FaithWorld is a predominantly African-American church,
although Brown is white – but I don’t think that’s it. It was more a
sense that I was an outsider, that this was a clique and I wasn’t
invited. Maybe if I had thrown some money in the plate things would
have been different.