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Your friendly neighborhood pastor: LifeChurch.tv’s Josh Brower.

Photo: Alicia Solsman

Church, Multiplied

Evangelism online and streaming to you live

By Chet Hardin

 

It’s Sunday morning in Albany, at the second largest church in America. Campus Pastor Josh Brower is onstage, lit in a theatrical combination of reds and greens. He’s dressed in the casual uniform of the modern evangelical pastor: blue jeans and an untucked button-down shirt. There’s a jazz beat playing quietly from the stereo speakers and rustling in the congregation as Brower sells his practiced pitch to the curious and the faithful: “In a minute, we are going to go live to our senior pastor, Craig Groeschel. And I am just excited about what God is going to do in my life, in your life, and our lives today through this experience. Our lives are not going to be the same once we leave this place today.”

The Albany campus of LifeChurch.tv, just north of Colonie Center on Sand Creek Road, is the satellite home of Oklahoma-based Groeschel’s multisite evangelical church. According to a 2009 report released by Outreach Magazine, one of the church world’s leading authorities on church growth in America, LifeChurch.tv has a regular weekly attendance of 26,000 people nationwide. Only TV-celebrity Joel Olsteen’s megachurch, Lakewood Church in Houston, boasts a higher number of congregants. And between this year and last, LifeChurch.tv’s congregation swelled by more than 5,000 regular attendants at its 13 campuses, including locations in Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Arizona and Florida—and the one here in Albany.

Brower quotes from First Timothy, Chapter 4: “Physical exercise has some value, but spiritual exercise is much more important, for it promises a reward in this life and in the next,” as volunteers prepare to walk down the aisles and pass metal buckets to collect the offering. Tithing, Brower says, “is giving back to God, and it is a spiritual exercise. It’s like muscles, right? I’ve got these guns right here—OK, why are you laughing? It takes time to build these guns, you’ve got to exercise that muscle. And for some of you who might be giving for the first time, it’s a spiritual exercise. It’s muscle building. And I want to challenge everyone in here today—who do you support? I supported Starbucks this morning when I bought my Triple Venti Skinny Vanilla Latte. We support things all the time . . . are you supporting lives being changed eternally?”

As Brower is speaking, a 20-foot-wide screen is slowly lowering into position behind him. “So today, as we are receiving our offering, we are going to receive a special prayer from Pastor Kevin from Australia live via satellite.” Brower rushes to complete his sentence and get offstage as the lights go down and a video-stream of Kevin Thomas, who pastors Christian Community Church in Queensland, Australia, is projected onto the screen and lights up the two 42-inch flat screen LCDs on either side.

“Hello LifeChurch.tv,” Thomas addresses the roughly 100 people now passing offering buckets down the aisles in Albany, and the tens of thousands of people throughout the southern United States who presumably are doing the same. It’s a little after one in the morning, tomorrow, on Australia’s Gold Coast. Thomas begins to pray: “Father, we just thank you for the offerings we are about to receive and we bless them in your name.”

After Thomas’ short prayer, the video cuts to Baton Rouge, where Pastor Dino warmly congratulates Life Church for being named the second largest church in America. The congregation applauds its church’s success. “And we believe the best is yet to come!”

While LifeChurch.tv is enjoying an inarguable success, the overall numbers for their fellow Christian travelers aren’t quite so promising. Though the numbers vary, there is a seeming consensus among analysts that the United States is the third largest “unchurched” nation in the world—behind China (where Christians are strictly monitored) and India (a predominantly Hindu country). Estimates claim that upwards of 195 million people in America don’t belong to a particular church, and haven’t stepped inside a church within six months.

According to market-research firm the Barna Group, the unchurched population of American has doubled between 1991 and 2004. And despite the shrill warnings over the past few years of an impending theocratic state hastened by President George Bush and his evangelical cohorts, the United States has emerged from his presidency, as Christianity Today noted last April, with “no secularists hanging from the gallows, no unwed mothers being stoned in the streets, and freedom of religion intact.” America came out of Bush’s tenure with its secular government intact, and as seemingly unmoved by evangelical Christianity as it was during the tenure of Bill Clinton.

Last year, Christine Wicker, a former journalist for The Dallas Morning News, who herself comes from a long line of Pentecostals and Southern Baptists, published her critique of the popular myth of the rising evangelical minority, The Fall of the Evangelical Nation. In it, she argued that what appeared to be a flourishing fundamentalist, evangelical, right-wing movement during the Bush years was more a fantasy driven by a duped media than a sober analysis of the numbers.

“Look at it any way you like: Conversions. Baptisms. Membership. Retention. Participation. Giving. Attendance. Religious literacy. Effect on the culture,” she wrote. “All are down and dropping. It’s no secret. Even as evangelical forces trumpet their purported political and social victories, insiders are anguishing about their greater losses, fearing what the future holds. Nobody knows what to do about it. A lot of people can’t believe it. No wonder. The idea that evangelicals are taking over America is one of the greatest publicity scams in history, a perfect coup accomplished by savvy politicos and religious leaders, who understand media weaknesses and exploit them brilliantly.”

While there are statistics that argue that the evangelical faith is still robust, such as a survey conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, which found that 26.3 percent of U.S. adults self-identified as evangelical Protestant, Wicker argued that this number identifies only a population that sees itself as the member of a certain religious tribe, not actually members of a churchgoing population.

On her blog, she wrote: “The most commonly heard statistic about evangelicals is that they are 25 percent of the country, one out of four Americans. That stat comes from what Americans say about their religious practice, which is notoriously unreliable. In fact, traditionalist evangelicals are 7 percent of the population or 1 out of 14 Americans. Only 7 percent of self-identified evangelicals believe the most central tenets of so-called Bible-based belief and fewer than 7 percent are in church on a given Sunday.”

“A look at the National Association of Evangelicals and Southern Baptists, the two biggest evangelical groups, shows how inflated the commonly quoted figures are,” she continued. “The NAE claims to have 30 million members. I counted. It actually has 7.6 million, at most, and perhaps half that actually attend church. Southern Baptists claim to have 16 million members, but more than five million of those don’t live in the towns where their churches are located.”

In March of this year, Michael Spencer, the widely read and respected Christian writer behind the blog Internet Monk, wrote an opinion piece in the Christian Science Monitor forecasting “the coming evangelical collapse” that will follow “the deterioration of the mainline Protestant world.”

“Within two generations,” Spencer wrote, “evangelicalism will be a house deserted of half its occupants. In the ‘Protestant’ 20th century, Evangelicals flourished. But they will soon be living in a very secular and religiously antagonistic 21st century.”

He went on to enumerate the reasons for this decline. The most critical being, he wrote, the evangelical world’s obsession with winning the culture wars alongside their partners in the conservative right: “Being against gay marriage and being rhetorically pro-life will not make up for the fact that massive majorities of Evangelicals can’t articulate the Gospel with any coherence. We fell for the trap of believing in a cause more than a faith.” (The emphasis is Spencer’s.) While Spencer sees an inevitable collapse, he also sees the potential for laying a new foundation for the evangelical movement in the rubble—a movement that is less concerned with confronting the secular world outside the church, and more concerned with shepherding Christians deeper into the theology of Christ’s mission.

All one has to do, critics within the faith say, is look at the multiple surveys of the 120 million unchurched to find that the majority of them do not believe in anti-gay-marriage legislation, that they support universal health care, and that they support—by a slim margin—a woman’s right to abortion. If the leaders in the evangelical world insist upon winning these political battles in the secular realm of Washington D.C. by aligning themselves with the political right, they will only continue to cripple their ability to evangelize by driving away moderate members and continuing to repel much of mainstream America.

Leith Anderson, the president of NAE, told The Christian Post this past June, “Evangelical leaders are very bullish on the future growth of Christianity, except in America.”

It’s Sunday morning, and the video stream at LifeChurch.tv cuts away from Pastor Dino to a cutout animation of a white guy singing the blues: “I’m never satisfied,” the little angry character hollers, “no matter what this world brings me.”

Collection has been taken, and the congregation is settling in for the main event, Senior Pastor Craig Groeschel’s sermon. Today, he will be preaching the final segment of his four-part series, “Five Easy Steps to Wreck Your Life.” Part one focused on adultery. Part two, on drifting away from God. Part three, on addiction, and today he aims to tackle “dissatisfaction.”

The video cuts to Groeschel standing on the stage of what looks like a theater as he booms out a greeting to all of his campuses. He’s loud, and the volume’s cranked. Like Brower, he is dressed casually, a key characteristic of the current evangelical paradigm: To be relevant, the church must be casual, it must be fun. And Groeschel is bombastic, an animated speaker. Imagine the popular high-school jock who clowns around during class and can make friends with—or fun of—anyone.

“Really, most of us know that money and things don’t buy us happiness,” Groeschel says, preaching to the seats, but then turning his attention directly to the camera. “All of our locations, if you agree, be honest, do you agree that money and things don’t really buy happiness? If so, raise your hands, raise ’em high.” Every hand in the Albany campus goes up.

“Virtually every hand going up?” Groeschel guesses. “Then you agree with what Paul told Timothy in First Timothy Chapter 6.” As he reads from the scripture, the verse appears on the bottom of the screen: “But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it.”

“Again, I’m sure you would agree,” he says. “You’ve never seen a hearse pulling a U-Haul.”

To describe the theology be hind Life Church, Brower paraphrases St. Augustine: “In the essentials, unity; in the nonessentials, liberty; and in all things, love.”

“There are some things that can be argued,” Brower says, “and we don’t want to argue because there are so many important things to focus on. The essentials are: the Trinity; Jesus is the only way to heaven; the Bible is the inspired word of God, the only book that contains the teaching instruction that we should live by; we will die and our spirit will continue to live and there is a heaven and hell.”

He is sensitive to the live-wire issues of homosexuality and a woman’s right to choose, but says that when it comes to homosexuality and abortion, the church adheres to a “traditional line . . . homosexuality and abortion being out of God’s plan for one’s life. We don’t protest against these things, we love people unconditionally and individually, without judgment.”

“As a church, we are tired of being known for what ‘the church’ in America is against and want to be known what the church is for: love, grace, mercy, and peace.” He continues: “Let’s put it this way, we have a few homosexual couples who are exploring faith at our campus,” he says, “and do so freely because they feel like they are loved and not judged.”

After the service, people are gathering in the church lobby. There are a couple of tables set up and coffee set out, and croissants. Children are running around, chasing each other; the adults are mingling. The worship music that was being pumped into the lobby’s speakers has given way to old radio hits like, oddly, Styx’s “Mr. Roboto.” Darlene Staring and Lori Murray, longtime members of Life Church, sit to discuss what it is about this church that has drawn them in and keeps them coming back.

Staring was raised in a legalistic Baptist church and eventually wandered away from that strict traditionalist culture, as its unforgiving rigor clashed with what she wanted from a church experience. “I love contemporary worship,” she says: the music, the come-as-you-are ethos, the snappy, direct teaching. “Here, it’s down to earth. And the people. They are very loving, caring, but they hold you accountable. It is a combination of the people, the service, and the music.”

Like Staring, Lori Murray was raised Baptist, but it was a casual affair, and she never really connected. This is the first church that she has found, she says, that she has wanted to commit to. “Pastor Craig is what keeps me,” she says. “I have been to other churches, and you can sit through their entire experience and you can walk out and be like, ‘I have no idea what they were just talking about.’ His messages, I can apply them to everyday life. They are life-changing to me, because I can apply them in everyday life.”

She used to attend the Life Church campus in Edmond, Okla., the church’s largest campus and the home turf of Groeschel, until a campus opened where she lived, an hour north in Stillwater. When her husband was stationed at Fort Carson in Colorado Springs, they started going online to watch Groeschel’s sermons, and when her husband was transferred to Albany, they began coming to this campus right away. “But no matter where we go, we can always stay connected through the Internet to our church.”

Craig Groeschel started his church in 1996, the same way most churches are started: small, and on a tight budget. His services drew a dedicated following, and he grew. In 2001, he was approached by a neighboring church after it had lost its pastor and was asked by that congregation to merge his church with theirs. He did, and changed the name of his church to LifeChurch.tv. He was now the pastor of a multisite church, and that meant a lot of driving. Later that year, through an accident of timing, he stumbled across the value of using his recorded video sermon to teach at the satellite campus. His wife gave birth. His first sermon of the weekend was on Saturday, and knowing that he wouldn’t be able to make the Sunday sermon, his team just sent his videotaped teaching, or message as he calls it, in his place.

“And the response was fairly unremarkable,” says Life Church pastor and innovation leader Bobby Gruenewald. “It was pretty much the same as you would see when he was there.”

This was an epiphany, Gruenewald says. Groeschel is a gifted speaker who brings to life the Gospel for many people, and video was an obvious tool that would allow the church to extend its evangelism. They began to plan for their next campus. At the time, there were only 100 churches in the country experimenting with the multisite model, but they didn’t know about them. What they knew was that they were onto something. “We saw how people were connecting with video teaching. We saw the growth of both locations; they were growing very rapidly,” Gruenewald says. “And that’s when we decided, based on that response, we thought that it might work in other places.”

They began a campus in Tulsa, then Stillwater, then in Oklahoma City and two in Arizona. They started another in Texas, then Tennessee and Florida, and even (or inevitably) in the online world of Second Life. The Albany campus opened in May 2007. As of August of that year, Brower says, 80 people attended the Albany campus. By August 2009, they had 350 members.

According to Gruenewald, their growth online has been equally impressive. They offer a free download of nearly every translation of the Bible for the iPhone, Blackberry, and Android platforms, and are seeing nearly 300,000 new users every month. Groeschel’s sermons stream online throughout the week in 27 separate services. Roughly 60,000 computers from more than 140 countries will log on to watch these services, Gruenewald says, and congregate in chat rooms. “We have a wide variety of people who experience that service as a small group,” he says. “We have numerous people who watch it with their family or connect their computer to a projector and watch at a military base.” By the end of the year, they expect to stream 50 services a week.

The multisite movement has grown alongside Life Church. Assisted by the relatively affordable technology that allows for high-quality video recording and streaming, there are now upwards of 2,500 churches in America classified as multisite. The trend has captured the imagination of many within the American evangelical world, where successful models are desperately welcomed, seized upon and trumpeted. However, despite the success, and in some cases because of it, the multisite model has attracted a fair amount of criticism.

Ed Stetzer, one of the leading writers on church planting in America, voiced his concern in a notable and “intentionally provocative” article last June for Outreach Magazine, “Questions for McChurch.” In it, he enunciated, in albeit mild terms, the concerns that many in the evangelical world are voicing with more vigor: The very strength of the multisite model—that it provides a platform for the most skillful and sought-after preachers to reach into multiple communities and secure thousand of followers—could lead to an impenetrable class of celebrity pastors that deprives younger, less-polished pastors of the necessary opportunities needed to grow as teachers and reduces churchgoers to a spectator class awed by the imposing image of the phenom, while stripping thoughtful and personal leadership out of their church communities.

“I am not anti-multisite,” he wrote, noting that he in fact preaches at a multisite church, “but I am anti-consumerism. Church is not about being the best purveyor of religious ‘goods and services.’ And if multisite thrives by appealing to the ‘come and see’ mentality that is so prevalent in American evangelicalism, we will all regret it.”

Imagine the gaudy reign of the televangelist updated and super-charged by the invasive instincts of Starbucks and McDonalds, and you get the idea.

“That is an opinion that might be based on an incomplete understanding of what is happening in the multisite context,” Gruenewald says. It’s inevitable that certain pastors will be more effective communicators than others, and if thousands of people find that they connect with the gospel through a particularly gifted speaker, then the church ought to accommodate them in their journey. “The method of communicating has to be something that connects the message to the people, and that changes over time. We aren’t sold that video is ‘the’ method and that’s it. It just is part of it; saying that we just use video is missing the other aspects of leadership that we are using. We want our people to feel that they are part of smaller churches, although it is one larger church.”

“Our goal,” Brower says, “is to not have a divide between clergy and laity. Every single person who attends Life Church is a minister.” He points out that nearly a third of his campus’ members take active, volunteer roles in the church, from greeting people at the doors and running the kids and teen ministries to attending to the social needs of the community and maintaining the upkeep of the building. Throughout the week, Brower adds, 60 percent of his campus’ congregation will gather into small groups to discuss the lessons from Sunday, to share their struggles, and to connect on a deeper, more spiritual level.

“Most churches I know have a growth component to them,” he says. “They are trying to connect with new people in their community. We really feel like the vision and opportunity to grow is so much greater than where we are today, and quite frankly the size of any church today. When we look at the global population, or even the population of the communities that we are a part of, there is a tremendous opportunity to connect with people. And so, in context of the opportunity, a church of one thousand, five thousand, or fifty thousand is still barely reaching the potential. It’s hard to say that any church is there.”

Groeschel is delivering his tongue-in-cheek “five simple steps for a guaranteed life of dissatisfaction” with glee, tweaking his pitch for comedic effect: “I want to encourage you,” he goads, “to becoming great at being ungrateful,” drawing out the words for full effect. “What is important is NOW. Eternity is not important. What is important is NOW. . . I want you to compare what you have to people who have more. Corinthians says in 10:12, a stupid verse . . .”

“Say it with me everybody: More is better!”

“More is Better!” the crowd happily repeats.

“Bigger is better!” “Bigger is better!”

“Newer is better!” “Newer is better!”

“It feels good, doesn’t it?” Groeschel continues, mocking humility and Bible verses in ironic riffs that bait his listeners. It has been a high-pace, joke-heavy, romping rise and fall of a sermon with a quickening and heightening tension that just slams to a sobering halt.

“I believe,” he says, now serious, “that God’s heart is breaking at how dissatisfied and ungrateful we can be,” and goes silent. The audience goes completely silent, too. For nearly 20 minutes Groeschel’s voice has filled the room without rest, and now nothing. His body language changes. His tone and candor change. He’s thoughtful, candid. He sits for the first time and admits to the seats that he himself is going through a “deep repentance,” a battle over his own earthly desires. When he raises his voice again it isn’t to get a laugh, it’s to drive home the urgency, the evangelical passion of Christ’s message. And the spell that Groeschel has spun holds his congregation throughout the hard lesson of humility and is only broken after the screen is raised and Brower comes back out onto stage to lead the campus in prayer.

After the service, Brower tells me that this morning, unlike most weeks, Groeschel wasn’t actually live. He was prerecorded. Brower laughs about the marvels of the technology and at the fact that he was actually in Oklahoma last week, in the audience, when Groeschel recorded that sermon.

chardin@metroland.net


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