Monday, August 01, 2005


Wayfaring Strangers, Part 22

(Wayfaring Strangers is a continuing series about our experiences as my wife and I study to convert to Catholicism.)

Mega-Churches, Lutheranism, and Catholicism

Sometimes, I wonder if I've really done Wendy a disservice by bringing our family to the Catholic Church. It's not that I have any doubts whatsoever about Catholicism... I don't have any. I'm surer and surer every day that the Roman Catholic Church is the church for me. However, the differences between my religious upbringing and Wendy's religious upbringing are huge and fundamental. Wendy was raised Lutheran, and her experiences in the Lutheran church have always been positive and spiritual and important to her. I was raised Southern Baptist, with occasional trips to the Noninstrumental Church of Christ. My church experiences as a child were uniformly negative. I felt then, and still believe, that the churches I attended as a young person were angry and driven more by fear than by love. By converting to Catholicism, I'm sure that I'm doing what's necessary for my salvation. On the other hand, I'm sure that Wendy could have continued worship at a Lutheran church and been absolutely A-OK.

Neither Wendy nor I were attending a church of any kind when we started dating. As our relationship got more and more serious, we realized that we needed God in our lives in order to raise our family the way we wanted to and to be the kinds of people we wanted to be as individuals.

As a family, we started attending a nondenominational Christian church in the area about 4 years ago. Except for the preacher, who was kind and supportive and a wonderful councilor for us, our experience at that church was entirely negative. The church was made up almost entirely of people who've bought into the whole "mega-church" thing.

These were people who'd smile at us on Sunday, but turn their heads and act like they hadn't seen us at Wal-Mart. Some of them taught Sunday school classes we atteneded, and always with odd results. One woman, named Carla, taught a class for adult women that Wendy always described to me as something like "the church of Carla." One fellow who was geuninely very friendly and outgoing every time we talked to him rejected studying C.S. Lewis because he was "too hard."

Eventually, we got to the point where we dreaded going to church.

While we were there, I assumed that our congregation's obsession with "church growth" and with mirroring the "mega-churches" was an isolated problem. It was only recently that I realized that the mega-church movement has been as destructive and negative for other churches as it was at the nondenominational church we'd been attending.

I read Burr in the Burgh regularly. It's a blog by a Lutheran pastor, and he recently mentioned the mega-church issue. It seems that he's as troubled by it as I am, and at his blog I found links to a couple of articles that I really enjoyed.

Dr. Gene Edward Veith has some observations that resonated as absolute truth with me:

... notice how aging Boomers still tend to listen to the same music they listened to when they were sixteen. We Baby Boomers (and remember I include myself in all of these criticisms) do not consider that it might be a sign of some infantile clinging to childhood when we do not allow our taste to change and mature. We tend to think that we are the ones who are not only cool but contemporary.

Many churches today feel the need to be contemporary. The assumption is that in order to reach people the church should throw off its old-fashioned styles and get with the times. The hoary liturgy should be done away with and those archaic hymns should be replaced with music people are listening to today.

Notice that these assumptions -- that old forms are not relevant, that people today are somehow different from those of the past, that being alive means being entertained -- are relics of the Baby Boomer generation. In fact, it is usually Baby Boomer pastors who are implementing these kinds of reforms.

Now here is the irony, which is immediately recognized by Generation X-ers -- contemporary worship services, with their "contemporary" music, are seldom contemporary at all. The ubiquitous "praise songs" have more to do with the style of Peter, Paul and Mary than with actual contemporary music today.

I read that, and I thought "That's it!" That's it, in a nutshell. The mega-church movement, a product of the baby boom generation, is simply replacing liturgy and tradition with their personal tastes. They're destroying church history in order to make sure that the one hour they spend each week in church is as innocuous and as inoffensive and as comforting to them as the rest of their lives are.

A few years ago, a protestant friend of mine talked me into attending a "Promise Keepers" rally with him. I was willing to give it a chance, I was at the point where I was still hoping to find serious Christians among the people around me; people I could learn from and study with and grow as a person with... as opposed to helping them collect warm bodies so that they could grow as a church. Anyway, about 15 minutes into the Promise Keepers rally, I wanted to leave. There's something about watching grown men dance together and shout the lyrics to Christian rock songs that just gave me an extreme case of the creeps. I couldn't wait to get away from it. I'd gone in looking for reflection and study and contemplation, and instead I got a "feel-good" assembly of Baby Boomer generation men who seemed to be behaving no differently than they would at a Foghat concert.

Ultimately, it was a depressing experience.

That became exactly the same problem for me at our old nondenominational church. I came to feel that church tradition and real reverence were being dumbed down to make the middle-aged congregation more comfortable. They seemed to be uncomfortable by anything that required them to examine themselves, to really do anything difficult. This was, after all, a church where confession not only wasn't practiced, but was abhorred as an erroneous Catholic practice! This was a church that preached "sola fide," the doctrine that you are saved by faith alone, and that good works aren't really necessary for salivation. This was a church that sung horribly goofy, folky type songs on Sunday morning; songs that never even mentioned Jesus by name. Oh, sure, Jesus was mentioned in church, but for the most part, he was a mascot rather than a savior.

Our church-growth-obsessed, pseudo-contemporary church was far more interested in itself than it was in the Savior, the world around us, or the message we're supposed to convey from the one to the other.

Writing for Dallas News, Clint Rainey talks about the disillusionment he began to feel about the mega-church he'd been a member of:

As megachurches go, ours is the quintessence: a skate park, a sports league with enrollment exceeding the city YMCA's, a cafe and a game room outfitted with a half-dozen Xboxes. When baptisms take place during the service in the nearby "baptismal sanctuary," the word "LIVE" appears in the corner of our auditorium's three Jumbotrons as the event is telecast to us.

All of this, we've been reminded interminably, is to "attract seekers." I've grown very disenchanted with this concept. Attract seekers to what? A sanctuary worthy of Broadway production? An auditorium mimicking a convention center? A complex of expensive buildings?

Rainey is certain that the distrust and disillusionment he felt about his mega-church, and that I felt about our church that was trying to become one, is typical for our generation:

Studies say our generation is the most conservative in decades on issues of religion, suggesting we're averse to the risks that churches with a flashy, pop-culture bent take to appeal, ironically, to us… So when we grow up, we'll likely look for religion elsewhere.

I agree. That explains my own attraction to the Catholic church. I grew up in a church that talked about Jesus but taught anger. As an adult, I attended a church that really didn't talk about or teach anything but it's obsession with becoming a bigger version of itself.

I wanted meat, they were giving us milk. I wanted in-depth Bible studies and serious theological review... they gave us Max Lucado's hallmark card stylings and The Prayer of Jabez. I wanted the Savior, they gave me pop songs and pot luck suppers.

This was all as frustrating for Wendy as it was for me... but not because she was still looking for a church that was more substantial. For Wendy, it was frustrating because she'd grown up in a church that was truly substantial. Wendy's grown up in the Lutheran Church, and the more I learn about it, the more I realize that if we'd started attending a Lutheran Church instead of a Catholic Church last spring, I'd probably have been as happy there as I am with Roman Catholicism.

There are other problems for me, though. I have come to believe in and want confession. I have come to believe in transubstantiation, not consubstantiation, and I want a Eucharist that changes entirely. I've come to love and revere the saints and Mary. In short, I've become Catholic, and I'm becoming more so every day.

It's a problem more-so for me than for Wendy. She grew up in a church that had 99% of what we're learning already. For her, it's a small move to Rome. For me, it's gigantic. Wendy says not to worry about these things, that she sees herself as still Lutheran AND Catholic, and that it's not really an issue for her.

It's an issue for me, though. Wendy's church experiences as a child were as positive as mine were negative.

Sometimes, I worry that I'm asking her to "throw out the baby" so that I can get rid of my "dirty bathwater."

I think a large part of your experience had to do more with the individual church than the denomination. You must have found a great Catholic church, and been to some pretty lousy non-denominational churches. My experiences (having been raise Lutheran, gone to Catholic school for 5 years, and then joined the Southern Baptist church, finally ending up in a non-denominational church) were just the opposite of yours. The Catholic churches I have been to were anger driven, ritual driven, or happy happy life based. The Lutheran church I grew up in was "Feed the old church until the members all die". Souther Baptist didn't do it for me when I lived in Texas, but the non-denominational ones have been the best. Although the one in Texas I attended, Fellowship Church (or Six Flags Over Jesus), I saw some of what you were saying in your post, although the church leadership was heavliy into the Gospel and application to life. It was just kind of a place we went to, as we knew we weren't staying in Texas. We went to our old non-denominational church when we moved back to Pittsburgh, but it had majorly changed, and not for the better. The ND church we go to now, while having some problems, is by far one of the best churches I've ever been to (the best being a contemporary church in North Carolina).

A dead church or an "in the flesh" church, unless you are one of the specific people they cater towards, there is not much that can make it good. However, the difference between a good church and a great church is what you put into it. The best church I ever went to (NC) was largely great because of my involvment and eventual leadership of the drama ministry.

Sorry for the rambling. I'm le tired.
And by the way, Sixteen Horsepower did an EXECELLENT rendition of the song "Wayfaring Stranger".

Name Hidden: I think a large part of your experience had to do more with the individual church than the denomination.

There's a lot of truth to that. I can't deny it. And I don't want to come off like I've come to believe that a Christian must be Catholic. I won't shove it down your throat, like those three real life friends you mentioned. ;)

Anyway, while I don't subscribe to the belief that the Catholic church is the only church for anyone, I do think, as of this minute, that it's the only church for me. The issues I wrote about regarding Wendy's Lutheran history aren't a family sore spot at all... just a matter where I have personal feelings of guilt. Things I worry about.
I completely respect your reasons for joining the Catholic church, Mr. Darrell. If that is what works for you and Wendy, and you still cling to Christ for salvation, more power to you, sir.
Darrell, I've been reading Wayfaring Strangers and really admire the way you and Wendy have approached your journey. I've only ever tried the United church other than the Catholic one, and I found it to be forgiving but lacking in depth and ritual. Readfing you and some of the links you've posted is helpful, as I continue to believe, in spite of my drama with the Catholic Church that there is more to be gained than lost from affiliation. However, since I can't take the sacraments, it makes me sadder than I can say to go to Mass. A dilemma, and it is my own, but I've appreciated your take on the search. I'll continue to read.
Thank you, Lorna and my unnamed pal, for your kind comments.
Hey, Darrell. Seems I never have enough time to read your "Wayfaring Strangers" post carefully. That's a complaint, not a statement. I'm very interested in the subject of faith, but I can't make that leap like you have. I always get hung up on the need for it all to make complete sense.

As you know, I'm reading Weigel's biography of John Paul II, so I'm encountering some of the Catholic doctrines you mention.

Last weekend my wife and I attended a gospel sing in Christiansburg. We'd never gone to a gospel sing, but we often do unfamiliar stuff just to see what it's like (no, I don't mean drugs :-)) We love all kinds of live music, including the Gaither stuff that's on PBS Saturday nights, so that's what drew us.

The gospel sing was fun, but also kind of spooky. Very intensely religious, everybody waving their hands up in the air to the Lord and shouting and singing. No, I don't think these folks were all Pentecostal. Just fervent. There was preaching in between songs, and lots of witnessing and come to Jesus talk. I could tell the performers/evangelists were watching me and my wife, seeing our body language, etc, and I felt we were going to get "individual treatment" eventually, so we left at intermission.

Now, I'm familiar with born-again Christianity. Both of my parents are born again. My Dad took me to the Promise Keepers gathering on the D.C. Mall several years ago. Very moving. I've attended various churches around our area. So I'm no stranger to displays of faith. The problem for me is making that leap.

Earlier this year I went to a memorial service for a Virginia Tech cadet killed in action in Iraq. Afterwards, I walked the campus and thought how that young man had been there among us only the previous year. I knew that. People had seen him, known him. And I thought how wonderful it would be if I had that kind of certainty that Jesus was who Christianity says he was and I knew for certain he was here, too.

OK, I told you I don't have enough time to visit here, and that's a free-flow ramble, so don't hold me to high standards. But I am interested in what you are writing and thought I'd tell you.
Hi Mr. Darrell,

I came over here from The Burr in the Burgh and I'm glad I did. Had to go through Pittsburgh to find someone in my own neighborhood. I noticed you mentioned Christiansburg and Tech. I live in Roanoke.

I attend Raleigh Court Presbyterian Church. I grew up in WV and as a child attended a Nazarene Church (it was kinda scary) and then a Missionary Baptist Church where I stayed until an adult. Moved to Roanoke in 85, found Raleigh Court by 86 or 87 and have been there ever since (give or take a few Jacobian wrestlings with God over whose will was more important..mine or his). Anyway, I know exactly what you're saying. The whole mega-church thing really bugs me. We recently built (well, several years ago now)on to our church and I worried just a tad that we would feel the need to "fill" the new space. But what actually happened is that they stepped up our Bible Studies and worked really hard to remain true to Christ in worship and the place filled anyway. Imagine that! Preaching the Word of God and people actually show up! People are so hungry for the real thing...they are asking for bread and the megachurches (or small mega wannabes) are giving them stones.

Alright, think that's enough yammering. Nice to meet you neighbor :)
"The difference between a good church and a great church is what you put into it." I totally disagree. What makes a good church good is whether or not they teach the truth and preach the Gospel. If church is only great because a person has such a great leadership role and "involvement," look out! We need to be passive in church and receive God's good gifts, not think it's all about us and our talents. I completely agree with all that's been said about mega-churches, including that Veith article you quoted. I sympathize, having been raised Southern Baptist!

Just quick FYIs, though: Believing in salvation by faith alone is not a "church growth" distinctive. And Lutherans don't believe in "consubstantiation," as though the Body of Jesus is kind of "sitting next to" the bread substantially. In fact when the Lutherans presented their beliefs to the Catholic church, there wasn't even any initial conflict between the two groups about what was happening with the bread and wine. The transubstantiation debate was more a Counter-Reformation issue helping to define the formation of today's Roman Catholic Church. The Lutherans did, of course, have problems with the teaching that the priest gained special powers on becoming a priest, and it was these graces that caused transubstatiation to "work." Lutherans attribute the working to the power of the Word.
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