By James M. Renihan
This was originally posted on the Reformed Baptist Fellowship blog.
Success is Simple
In December 2006, I visited my daughter and son-in-law who live in Oklahoma City. On Saturday, my son in law asked me if I would like to visit Lifechurch.tv that evening. Lifechurch.tv (that is its common name) is a huge presence in Oklahoma City and is spreading throughout the Southwest.Apparently, in a 2006 survey of evangelical leaders, Lifechurch.tv was rated as the seventh most influential church in the USA. It is really a fascinating 21st century multimedia, internet oriented place. Loosely affiliated with the Evangelical Covenant Church, it originated from the merger of two congregations in Edmond and OKC. The two groups continued to meet is different locations, but they were considered to be one church. This merger seems to have led to a strategy of planting satellite campuses which remain in union with the main congregation, even at a distance as far as Phoenix. The divergent locations are tied together by a live satellite feed. Each one has its own resident worship team and pastoral staff, but they all hear the same ‘preaching’ by way of a live video feed on huge screens over the stage. The ‘worship experience’ (as it is called) is also broadcast live over the Internet. We attended a Saturday evening ‘experience’ at the main campus; if I remember correctly it was one of 8 or 10 held over the weekend.
It was certainly a fascinating experience. The building complex is huge, designed after an office park you might see in any city in the US. The main entrance is large and full of signs that were reminiscent of Disneyland (‘Cast Members Only Beyond this Point Please’-this is what one really said). Just off the lobby was the children’s room. It was packed with all of the nicest toy equipment imaginable-video screens, jungle gyms-a place a child could really enjoy an hour or so. We walked down a large corridor to the right and could hear the loud music from the worship center. Here was another huge lobby, with a bookstore and coffee shop, and on the left the many entrances to the auditorium. It was dark inside. I would estimate that there were about 1500-2000 seats, but only about 1/3 of them were occupied. Almost everyone there seemed to be younger than me-the median age was certainly in the twenties. We sat near the back and watched with amazement. It had every appearance of being a large rock concert. The stage was well lit with the band in full swing-they were loud and obviously very skilled musicians. There were all of the lighting effects one would expect to see at a concert, as well as a triple bank of giant video monitors above the front of the stage. Multiple cameras focused on different band members-singers or instrumental soloists-and the crowd was on its feet near the stage rocking to the music. The words to the songs were displayed on the monitors so that everyone could sing along; and since it was Christmas time, the band was interspersing some familiar carols, although performed in a new and unusual style!
Around the exterior walls, and in the middle near the very large video/sound mixing board were tables with candles and communion ware. According to the glossy, visually striking program, these tables were for a serve-yourself experience of the Lord’s Supper. I guess that the idea is that if you feel the need, you can wander over and partake of the broken body and shed blood of the Savior. Everything about the place was casual. The sermon was not a sermon, but a carefully scripted presentation. The speaker was live on the platform before us, but also displayed on the video monitors a few feet above his head. They were a milli-second behind, and it was disconcerting to note the discrepancy between the two. During his presentation, a variety of pictures, carefully timed for emphasis, were displayed above his head. The theme for the month was ‘Miracles’ and the message was ostensibly about John 9: the man born blind. Sadly, there was no exposition and a lot of comments that were curiously irrelevant to the text but very relevant (if you understand my pun) to the audience. At the end, there was an appeal for decisions, an offering (actually there was a big emphasis on money-and given the size of the place one can understand why), and then everyone was dismissed. No benediction or anything. We sat and watched as the people left. What came next was even more fascinating. After a pause of about 2 minutes, the band began playing again-launching into a rousing rendition of the theme song from Green Acres, followed by a jam of about 5 minutes length. The guitarists were jumping onto the drum kit stage and running all over the place. They were certainly talented, but their actions spoke volumes. It really wasn’t about worship, it was about the experience. And my thought was this: if I were twenty years old and didn’t know any better, this place would really appeal to me. It was the perfect mix for young people.
In musing over this, the conclusion is really very easy to draw: success is simple. All you really need is a product that appeals to the contemporary culture, and this one really does. Lifechurch.tv has obviously hired the best available musicians, presents a contemporary message ‘relevant’ to the culture, makes its facilities accessible and familiar, and the result is a huge and growing movement. Anyone can do this. It takes money and talent, but the formula is uncomplicated. I admire the zeal of people like this, but question their wisdom.
But is success our goal? To be honest, I am shocked at how often outward success works its way into our minds-whether consciously or unconsciously. We evaluate ourselves and even others by criteria that belong in the board room rather than the prayer closet. While we may not seek after the kind of success evident at Lifechurch.tv, still we judge ourselves and one another similarly. I need to repent of this.
I must bring to mind the reality that the Lord does not call me to anything but faithfulness. My task is to follow His Word carefully and leave the results to Him. I know that many will say that this is simply an excuse and justifies my lack of ‘success.’ But I don’t think that is the case. Sadly, I have to leave the reasons for next time. May God give us light. Amen.