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:
- Hold fast to your confession – which basically means practice Christianity or you will drift away from it. Be faithful, and be obedient.
- 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.
- 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)
Best pews ever (2 points)
Total honorary points: 2
A Better Mars Hill than Mars Hill.