“No children or babies are allowed in the sanctuary and the youth go to a different place.”
With those words disturbingly ringing in my ears, since I think children should observe their parents engaged in worship, I was escorted into the cavernous “sanctuary” of The Rock, http://www.sdrock.com/, the gigachurch founded by Miles McPherson, former defensive back for the San Diego Chargers, and former drug addict, now turned motivational speaker/pastor/author.
I chose the Point Loma, San Diego, location of this multi-site church, and the 8 am service time of the five available. There are two other main campuses and 17 microsite campuses.
Perhaps I should have guessed what it would be like as I drove to the building and saw a sign giving parking instructions that read “ROCK church EVENT.” Parking attendants were huddled in prayer, preparing for a rigorous morning directing traffic.
Although I was about 20 minutes early, there were many, large Bibles in hand, walking quickly toward the business-like entrance of the office-style building.
I sat on the main floor of the three tiered auditorium, about ten rows from the front. From there, I had an excellent view of the three jumbotrons as well as the stage. The comfortable theater-style enfolded me, offering everything but cupholders.
Announcements flew by on the screens, and I learned that I could text my offering and also download an app for The Rock for my phone.
At precisely 8:00 am, I watched an professionally performed Christian rock music performance, complete with lighting effects, male lead singer, two blinged-up female back-up vocalists, two guitarists, a keyboardist and a percussionist. Cameras showcased both the keyboardist and the percussionist, but the focus was on the lead singer as he belted out “God loves me and is there for me” music. Many of the congregation were dancing in their seats, similar to what I had seen at an outdoor concert Friday evening at a local park here.
The final song moved seamlessly to sermon video. Although I understand that Mcpherson is often here in person on Sundays, I also learned that he likes to take Sundays to be with his family. I also realized how trained we are to watch videos–no real live presence needed.
The sermon notes page included the scriptures for the day: Ephesians 6:10-12, Genesis 3, Job 1-2, Matthew 4, 2 Corinthians 10: 3-4, Matthew 28:19, 2 Timothy 2:1-4, Ephesians 6:14-18, Romans 15:1-2, John 1.
The superb video presentation moved from two Navy Seals discussing the necessity of battle preparation and performance, with periodic flashes of guns and armor, back to McPherson talking about the necessity of going into battle against Satan, our avowed and ever on the prowl enemy.
McPherson, his bulging arm muscles showcased by his short-sleeved shirt, expertly delivered his message from the invisible teleprompter with a homey kitchen scene in the background. In this Southern California version of muscular Christianity, Mcpherson states that we will be tested every second of every day and must never let up on our training and vigilance. Otherwise we become war casualties, not fit to accompany Jesus as part of his army when he returns to conquer the entire world.
The appealing message was followed by an appeal to follow Jesus. McPherson asked everyone to bow their heads and listen as he prayed that we would respond fully by surrendering ourselves to Jesus. At the end of the prayer, the campus pastor came on stage and asked everyone to continue to stay with heads bowed and eyes closed and for all who had prayed that prayer with McPherson to stand. Although I peeked and could not see anyone standing, the pastor said that many were and they were invited to come forward as the rest of us were to encourage them by clapping our hands.
Escorted by ushers, respondents were greeted by a line of about twenty altar call people, including three women, who awaited them. Then they and the altar call team were dismissed with greater applause to a separate room for the gift of a Bible and further follow up.
The approximately 900 people remaining were then encouraged to make an offering on our way out, and were dismissed after a prayer for the offering.
Miles Mcpherson appears to be the West Coast’s answer to the Texas-based Joel Osteen. He offers a slick, professional, controlled, exquisitely executed, adults-only, nothing left to chance, male-oriented, get ‘em converted, tug on the heartstrings, big money version of “it’s all about me” Christianity.
And people by the thousands are drawn to it, passively soaking it in, undisturbed by children or teens, avidly making notes so as not to lose the words delivered from the giant screen. Church success at its best. Or its worst.
Note: the above article is slated to run in the August 1, 2014 edition of the Denton Record Chronicle. Below are some additional comments on the experience.
After I listened to Mcpherson’s message, I felt sure he had not had seminary training. To leap from unrelated passage to unrelated passage in the way he did is often a mark of someone who has not had rigorous training in learning to exegete and contextualize the Scriptures. However, this is not true. According to wikipedia, he is a graduate of Azuza Pacific University School of Theology with an M.Div. from that institution.
More about the children: Sunday school and nursery runs concurrently with the “events,” as I cannot characterize them as worship services. I did not see where the youth go, nor was I able to tour the Sunday school/nursery areas. However, I did see a family viewing area that is set up off the very large bookstore/cafe near the back of the building. It is a wide room with small screens set up, hard plastic chairs, and a small play area set up at one end. Here, families who wish to stay with their children may gather–but it is hardly a welcoming space for them.
I camp on this because I think it is so very, very important for children to actually see their parents engaged in the worship of the Holy One, and for those little ones to be able to form deep memories of such acts. Such things cannot happen in this environment. Yes, it does make for a far less controlled environment when children and babies are present. But who are we to exclude their voices from our worship? Who are we to say that we cannot hear the voice of God in their small voices and in the noises they make? Their exclusion troubles me deeply.
Baptisms apparently take place periodically but saw no baptismal font or pool there, so I would assume they take place at a different location. I saw no mention of any kind concerning the practice of the Sacrament of Holy Communion. I do not know what organization, if any, has given ordination credentials to Mcpherson, although I assume he has some.
According to my niece, who has occasionally attended the events there, generally Mcpherson begins his messages by asking everyone to hold up their Bibles and their pens so they can be ready to take notes as he delivers the messages from on high. This is not a place to ask questions or express doubts, but to find certainties. And that attracts a lot of people.
My greeter that day was a kind young man who is also a security guard, complete with earbud and spirally wire down the back of his neck to a receiver. I understand that Mcpherson has received death threats. That makes exactly no sense to me at all, but certainly does enhance his status as a celebrity pastor. And probably, as are most such celebrity pastors, utterly unaccountable to any but himself.
Massive amounts of money have been poured into that facility–and another multi-million dollar facility is now near completion. Every single thing was done with top quality equipment and professional staging and camera work. Nothing is left to chance–or untrained volunteers, I would guess. This is big business “church.” And it clearly left a bad taste in my mouth as this is the set up for a cult-like environment.
However, I must say this in all charity: there are a lot of people attending the weekend events there and it is very, very possible that a good number of them are taking initial steps into the kingdom of heaven. I hope so. For all of our sakes, I hope so.