The following is a guest post by Chris Estus. Chris is an “Aspiring Emergent.” He left the friendly local mega-church in 2011 to start Pioneer at Asbury – A worshiping community of people in, in need of or interested in recovery. His worship CD – The Chris Estus Band can be sampled at www.thechrisestusband.com His email is firstname.lastname@example.org. This report of Chris’s experience is posted with Rob Bell’s permission.
After one particularly nasty gig at a swingers club, I knew I had to quit the bar band. I called my 12-Step Sponsor the next morning and told him I needed a new musical connection. He suggested that I pray. I prayed and then went to the mega church that I had been attending. I opened the bulletin to an advertisement stating “Worship Team Needs Guitarist – Auditions On Wednesday”. My sponsor is a genius.
After a few years I had the privilege of making a pilgrimage that every Mega Church Contemporary Christian Praise and Worship Artist aspires to. Once in one’s lifetime, it is taught, one should go to Sydney for the Hillsong Conference. Since I am blessed and highly favored, I have attended 3 times and I loved it.
Last year, while trying to ignore somebody sharing in a 12-Step meeting, I received an email announcing 2 Days with Rob Bell in Laguna Beach, CA. Since my current journey from Buddy of the Mega Church Pastor to Aspiring Emergent had been (and still is being) initiated, encouraged, informed and affirmed by Rob Bell books, films, videos and podcasts, I got out my credit card and signed up immediately. Last week I made the journey for the 3rd time and I loved it.
In both sets of journeys, I have discovered and experienced aspects of the human search for identity, belonging and mission. Our dual-consciousness might cause us to look at these gatherings through the lens of wrong/right, happy clappy/new orthodoxy or spiritual consumerism/spiritual intellectual elitism. My aspiring emergent, recovering sober alcoholic, conflict avoidant, co-dependent consciousness helps me look at both movements as collections of people longing for direction and connection. Strangely, the Spirit of Joel Osteen resides in both worlds, and I love it.
Darlene Zschech was the worship pastor, the face and voice of Hillsong Church. She is the spiritual mother, mentor, big sister, favorite aunt and baby sitter for a generation of worship leaders, singers and musicians. Her presence, tone, words and countenance are sincere and connecting. She makes you feel like a member of the team and part of something significant. She and her husband Mark, along with Pastor Brian Houston, started Hillsong Conference in 1989 as a venue to champion the cause of and equip the local church around the world. Each year the roster is filled with the big names of Mega Church Christendom i.e. T.D. Jakes, Joyce Meyers, Joel Osteen, Bill Hybels, Chris Tomlin, Delirious to name just a few. Each year, 25,000 or so of us would travel from around the world to fill the basketball arena and other venues at the Sydney Olympic Park.
Each of the 5 days of the conference started with a morning rally for all with praise and worship and a speaker, followed by separate break out sessions for worship people, pastors/leaders and community/mission. At one of the afternoon worship sessions, while Darlene was sharing about something, I suddenly felt such a sense of connection and belonging that I cried. I probably scared the teenagers sitting around me.
Everyone would reconvene for the night rally that was also open to the public. Australian political, business, entertainment and sports figures would frequently attend and be recognized at the night rally. The sense of being one of God’s children, gathered together with His other kids in a solemn assembly, with a common purpose to praise, worship then spread the good news of freedom in Christ around the world through modern worship and relevant teaching, was moving.
For me, the shine had rubbed off by the end of my 3rd visit in 2009. By then I had parlayed my position as Buddy of the Mega Church Pastor to a badge and a reserved seat in the 6th row. Senior Pastors, their hot wives and cool kids surrounded me. Although I have rhinestones in my glasses and wear lots of turquoise, I stood out because I wasn’t wearing New Religion jeans.
I’m not sure at what moment it hit me. It could have been the 50th time Pastor Brian made a pitch for the new Hillsong CD and DVD and next year’s Conference. It could have been when Pastor Brian objected to Louie Giglio suggesting that we stay home next year and bless someone there. It could have been when the Joel Osteen Show took the stage. The caricature of what it was like that is in your head right now is probably correct. The multimedia show included an entire worship team flown in from Houston. Even the most hard-core worship bunnies in attendance agreed that it was a little over the top. At some point during the week I had the revelation – “My God, this is just a global industry! My cynicism had now taken full charge of me.
Upon returning home I called my Sponsor and told him I need a new church connection. He asked if I had prayed. I hadn’t. Then he told me that the –ism in alcoholism stood for incredibly short memory and hung up on me.
I had been a Rob Bell fan for several years. I loved his books and Nooma Films and videos. I listened to the Mars Hill podcasts. The teachings opened up my mind to new ways of looking at the bible, faith, church and what it means to be a follower of Jesus. But I didn’t have anyone to talk to about these ideas. So I prayed that God would put a Rob Bell type in my life. A week later he did. My sponsor is a genius.
Pastor Scott Heare may not like being described as a Rob Bell type, so I’ll describe him instead as tall, smart and an incredible communicator. He is also a disciple of Ray Vander Laan, a teacher and leader of hiking trips to all places biblical. Much of the Jewish Roots material in Velvet Elvis is attributed to RVL’s influence on Rob. A week after I prayed, Scott showed up to some ministry event I was playing at and we became fast friends. He has since brought me into the inner sanctum and leadership of a family of Methodist churches. I am now in connection with and receiving direction from a faith community that emphasizes identity, belonging and mission, honors the Jewish Roots of the faith and encourages questions. They are equipping me and my tribe in our Aspiring Emergent/12-Step Connected faith community – Pioneer at Asbury, and I love it.
My first 2 Days with Rob Bell was in October 2012. I attended his Craft Lab Sermon Workshop in January 2013. Last week was once again a 2 Day Leadership meeting. In my past life, every conference or seminar I had ever been to started with a minimum of 30 minutes of Praise and Worship. Resources were always available for sale at the tables in the lobby. At some meetings there was an opportunity for a personal prophecy. Those meetings usually included a fire-tunnel at the end. I discovered none of this happens at Rob Bell events.
Part Two coming tomorrow.