Bethany Community Church


The Bethany Community Church is a highly successful, well-attended, non-denominational church that’s near my home.  Like Mars Hill, it’s a “rock and roll” church.  It’s got a band, a big screen, and a fairly young flock.  It’s hip, and it’s lively, and it makes a lot of noise.

This church wasn’t on my poll, but so many of it’s parishioners emailed me or sent me comments on the blog or via Reddit inviting me to come, I had to visit.

It’s kind of a mega church, although it’s a bit smaller than the Mars Hill church.  I guess it’s a mini-mega church.  Like Mars Hill, it is so successful that it has more than one sermon on Sundays, it’s pastor is charismatic, well-spoken, entertaining, funny,  and he’s written a few books.

Unlike Mars Hill, a book by the pastor was only mentioned once.  There were no ads for it in the bathroom, nor were there ads for it on the giant screen.  There were two books by the pastor outside the sanctuary for sale in a vending machine.   It was the kind of vending machine with a clear glass window on the front and filled with shelves of metal spirals, and when you pressed the letter and number combination, the spirals would twist and the product would fall to the bottom of the machine, where you could reach in there and hopefully not sprain your wrist while you fish it out.  Only instead of Funyons, you get a spiritual book.  The machine had a credit card swiper on it, which is good because a twelve dollar book would be 48 quarters, and who carries that kind of change around?

Since I’m in comparison mode, I want to talk a little bit about money.  The church’s bulletin mentions that last week’s offering was $98,080 dollars, with a year to date total of $3,391,648.  The church’s debt as of today is $4,064,610.  So, they’re actually doing okay.  I’m sure they can pay the mortgage if they can pull in almost a hundred gees in one week during the height of summer.

Now, this last paragraph might sound a bit like a complaint or a criticism, and I guess it is in a minor way.  I’m personally turned off when a religious institution goes out of its way to talk about money.  Even if it’s a little muted, as it is in this case.  I mean, there were no big powerpoint charts about money, and the sermon wasn’t geared towards money, so I suppose I can’t put them in the same category as Mars Hill or the Church of Scientology, both of whom have made money sort of central to their message.  But still, it was there, and people were reminded about it in a not-so-subtle way.

Regarding dogma, I don’t know if they consider the Bible to be the ineffable truth, as they do at Mars Hill, because the Pastor didn’t mention it.  But he was teaching the Bible as if it was history, and not just allegorical lessons in morality and ethics, and they do come from a Baptist tradition according to their website, so I think they might.

The evening service was at 7.  Late enough for me to have some dinner before walking down there.  Like the other churches I visited today (this was my third), it was within walking distance of my home.  In this case, Bethany was a little less than a mile away.

I got there early, while the band was setting up, and as usual, I sat in the very first row.  I noticed a prayer / welcome book up front, and a few people were writing in it.  So, I went up and wrote I’m an atheist blogger who’s been going around and reviewing churches. Several of your parishioners invited me to come here, and wrote the URL for my blog.  It was fun to watch other people go up, write something, and, after reading what I had written, look around and try to figure out who the atheist was. I sat there and tried to look holy.

The sanctuary was a pretty big place.  I’d say it could hold around 450 people or so. It was a pretty tall room and had some sharp edges and such, and so the acoustics weren’t that great.  It wasn’t as bad as the Unitarian church, but as the room began to fill it got quite loud from people’s conversations.  On the plus side, it had probably the most comfortable pews I’ve ever sat in.  Nice, plush, slightly over padded.  I was very appreciative of this.

The band was very good.  It was a six piece band, with two guitars, a bass, drums, keyboard, and an extra who was a vocalist.  When she sang lead, which was about half the songs, the music sounded a little country.  When the male guitar player sang, it was more like modern soft pop, a bit like John Mayer.  There were three songs as we were warmed up, some announcements, and then the tithes and offerings.

When the band was singing the hymns, the congregation stood and sang along, with the words projected on a big screen behind the band.

I have to make some comments about the songs.  I know that the whole “blood of Christ” thing is something that gives comfort to Christians, and exemplifies His sacrifice, but I gotta say, a song about “fonts of flowing blood” is just creepy to me.  I mean, if it was a song about something horrible, then that would be one thing.  But someone singing about flowing blood with a look of rapture on his face just gives me the willies.

Also, during the offertory, they sang a good old fashioned guilt song, about Jesus having given his all for you, so what are you going to do for Him?   I suppose that’s good strategy.

Still, they were well-performed and sounded really good.  The band wasn’t as rocking as Mars Hill (there I go with another comparison, but I can’t help it), but I actually liked that.  They were a little mellower.  And tonight, after having been to two other churches, I was ready for mellow.

The pastor came out, and started his sermon.  He began with Psalm 121, which is about how awesome God is, and then marched into Hebrews.

He talked for a long time.  He was animated, and gestured wildly.  He was passionate, he was funny.   He was philosophical.  He was deep.  But he didn’t say a single thing that hit on any of my criteria.  The thrust of his sermon was threefold:

  1. Hold fast to your confession – which basically means practice Christianity or you will drift away from it.  Be faithful, and be obedient.
  2. Have confidence – This almost hit on my criteria, except that it wasn’t about being confident in your daily life and dealings.  It was about being confident that God loves you no matter what, and you can always be forgiven.  It was kind of the opposite of “Fear God” which is more typical of this kind of sermon.
  3. Perfection through self denial and suffering – Christ suffered and that’s how He became perfect.  We’re all going to suffer no matter what.  We’ll either suffer doing the Lord’s work and becoming closer to God, or we’ll suffer in eternity if we take it easy now.

I know I went over these pretty quickly, but he talked about them for around thirty minutes or so.  It wasn’t a bad sermon, it just wasn’t a very good one.  I mean, content-wise.  Delivery-wise it was great.  It kept my attention, kept the congregation’s attention, and made his point really well I guess.  I just wish the point had been a better one.

I wish he would have told his congregation to go out and do good things and be good to each other and fix the world.  Instead he told them to be obedient, don’t worry about God not loving you, and suffering is what makes you perfect.

I’m tempted to give a negative point for the last one, but he didn’t explicitly tell people to suffer.  He just told them that they probably would suffer, so I’m calling that a wash.

After the sermon, the band fired up, and we had communion.  I stood in line and took a cracker and a little plastic cup of grape juice.  The cracker was okay, being just a bit of saltine-like flatbread.  It was a bit crisper, I suppose, than a saltine, and would have been good with some tomato soup.  The grape juice was el cheapo supermarket reject grape juice, but fortunately there was just a thimbleful of it.

And on to the score:

Being good to your fellow human: 0 (no mention)
Help your community: 0 (no mention)
Be good to yourself: 0 (no mention)
Good and timely advice:0 (no mention)

Total:  0

Honorary Points:
Best pews ever (2 points)

Total honorary points: 2

A Better Mars Hill than Mars Hill.


8 thoughts on “Bethany Community Church

  1. You know, I really like the messages that say “Go and make a difference!”. Sometimes as a religious person you can think: well, this isn’t going to change until the second coming of Jesus and then everything will be perfect.

    So many people think that to trust in the Lord means to give up and leave Him all the work! That’s crazy! (Though it’s easy to fall into that trap). We need to change the world for good. We need to practice peace. We need to love one another and do all those nice things Jesus says in Matthew 5 about being kind to jerks and doing good.

    To play the role of the persecuted faithful who sits on their butt not changing the world is not good.

    I think that God doesn’t intercede with every human affair because he’s sent us down here with our training wheels removed. He wants us to learn and grow by our own experience. If he wants us to learn and grow, why would he do everything for us?

    You’re right, Doubting Mark, we need more messages (maybe fewer messages in general) about going out and helping out. We need more doing. We need more loving. We need more “It’s great to be on earth!” attitudes.

  2. Growing up in the church I remember a lot of criticism towards the churches for not providing more for missions, funding the community, and other resource oriented things. The response was that churches have a hard enough time paying it’s light bill let alone funding mission teams.

    For some, money is an important part of service. It keeps the church transparent and shares the goals with it’s congregation.

    • I completely agree that being transparent is a great idea. And I suppose they were doing that.

      But as for just having enough to keep the lights on, I would suggest that this is a pretty wealthy church. They did, after all, raise enough cash to build a whole new facility across the street.

      I would report on their missions and outreach if they would talk about it, but the only things they “mentioned” in ads on the big screen were school kid daycamps, which required the parents to pay for them.

      So, I can’t comment on how well they spend their money. Only that they seem to take in quite a lot of it.

  3. Two thoughts: First-once when my dad was supposed to be at a church meeting, he was out in the yard chopping wood. When my mother questioned him about why he wasn’t going to his meeting he said, “Sister so &so needs firewood for her stove. I can go sit in a warm building in my warm suit and listen to a sermon about how we should be out helping people, or I can stay home and chop wood to take to her before the sun goes down”…that to me was, in the words of Jesus, “pure religion, undefiled” and I love my dad for that lesson.

    And second, in my younger days, I often referred to churches that offered a feel good “fluff” message that lacked any sound doctrine or definitive requirements upon it’s attendees “diet church”.

  4. I am Christian moving to Seattle and looking for a church there. Your comments were so spot on! If you could visit all the churches and review them it would be great. Then I wouldn’t have to visit them all myself! I love your criteria. As Christians we should be spending more of our time loving and helping others. That’s the kind of church I want to be a part of. You know, the kind that practices what Jesus preached. Thanks for your honest and respectful review.

  5. I’m surprised there aren’t more comments from members at Bethany. Our daughter attended there for a few years and was baptized there. We joined her on a few occasions and were impressed by the amount of time the pastor spent on exhorting his congregation to do good. On one visit, each member was encouraged to give up a weekly or daily purchase and then share that money directly with a mission in Africa that provided water. Members of every age walked up to get a bracelet meant to symbolize their pledge. Yes, pastors occasionally preach on the value of accepting God’s perfect love. But they also do preach on your criteria. I urge you to give Bethany another viewing.

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