friendly neighborhood pastor: LifeChurch.tv’s Josh Brower.
online and streaming to you live
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
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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
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
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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
. . .”
it with me everybody: More is better!”
is Better!” the crowd happily repeats.
is better!” “Bigger is better!”
is better!” “Newer is better!”
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.
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.