Sunday, March 15, 2009

Megachurch, Megafun!

I didn’t feel uncomfortable at the New Spring Church. To be perfectly honest, of all the major attractions we’ve seen on this trip, Disney World included, New Spring felt like the most relatable. This comes as a huge accomplishment on the part of both our tour guide and the atmosphere and mission of the church, especially following our experience at the North Point.

Although both of our guides at each separate church were more than welcoming and eager to show us around once we told them about our project, the major differences were almost immediately apparent.

New Spring makes a point of humbling itself and its origins. Although it is definitely surprising to make the connection, the fifteen million dollar mega-church started small, with a college Bible study group. According to our volunteer guide who worked as an intern at the church, senior pastor Perry Noble started out with a message that ended up drawing more and more people to the church. This struck me as remarkably organic, and particularly interesting because of its origins in a space that encourages critical readings of the Bible and engaged, active participation in a topic that interested the original followers of the church. This seemed to disprove my previous conceptions about the correlation between size and intellectual passivity, but a connection still remained.

The significance of the way the church was founded was particularly interesting to me in light of the other two churches we had visited. McLean Bible Church had the goal of gaining support and followers with the explicit intent to influence “secular Washington.” They were set up to do this particularly well, mostly due to the fact that their location afforded them a significantly more effective and interested visitor base. At the North Point Community Church, our guide told us that the goal of the church was to gain followers by converting them to Christianity, which on its own did not make me feel particularly at ease.

North Point was also home to an ideology that I had a difficult time relating to our sympathizing with. At the beginning of our tour, we were each asked about our personal religious backgrounds, and there was the underlying intention of conversion implicit in everything we shown and told. Instead of the “come and see if this is right for you” attitude we were given at New Spring, our guide at North Point made it extremely clear that the only way to heaven is through belief in Jesus Christ as taught by his church. Both churches had similar resources available to their communities, but the strategy behind them differed greatly.

At New Spring, the goal of the widely varied and visually exciting youth centers on the campus is to foster an interest in the church that has the potential to develop into a life long relationship with the church. Our guide told us that the senior officials had recognized the importance of youth as the future and wanted to create a space that nurtured long-term ties. At North Point, it was always made clear that the goal of creating these attractive and safe spaces was to create places where non-Christians would feel comfortable, and in the case of their teen center, a place where people wouldn’t be embarrassed to bring their non-Christian friends. However, because the ultimate goal there was the conversion of non-Christians, there is a sense that visitors are sort of being lulled into a sense of complacency. If they are made to feel safe and interested by their surroundings, then there is essentially no good reason for them to not become members of the church.

Whether or not the ultimate goals of these two places are the same, the up front-ness of our guide at North Point put me off. It seemed as though all of these resources were made available with the goal in mind of changing people’s lives drastically in a way that benefited the church, much in the way Disney World seems to attract visitors for profit. At New Spring, too, however, there is a massive catch; unless you are a follower of this church, and are someone who subscribes to the teachings of evangelism, you can’t get access to these important technologies and resources. It seemed a bit like a carrot and stick incentive; you can have all of this if you just become a Christian!

I think the most profound similarity between the New Spring Church and Disney World was my reaction to the spaces on their most fundamental levels. When you strip away all of the inherent messages, goals, and implied meanings associated with these two mega-spaces, they represent things that I agree with and enjoy. Underneath it’s evangelical message, the New Spring Church basically provides a sense of community for its attendees. It gives them resources that would otherwise be difficult to come by in the area, and for that it deserves some praise. If I choose to look at Disney World as nothing more than an amusement park (which, underneath that sticky, sweet coating of dumbed-down consumption, it really is), I am more than happy to wait in line for Space Mountain again. Both of these places earned a positive reaction because they are fundamentally representative of things that I like and enjoy, but it is only when given further thought that they become something more, and potentially sinister.

The greatest success of the New Spring Church and Disney World is their ability to capitalize on the safety and entertainment of the people who use these spaces. There is no perceived threat in either place, and if you don’t immediately look at either with a critical eye, there really is nothing to be concerned about. Your needs are being more than met, and you are happy to be there. The understated décor of New Spring set it apart from other the other churches we saw in its ability to create a welcoming environment, and the fact that we were so welcomed by a peer of ours clearly helped improve our understanding of the church.

Both churches seek to accomplish the same goals in different ways that vary in terms of explicitness. All of the major catches are things I inferred in the case of the New Spring Church. The North Point Community Church was simply more up front about them.

In the end, I’m not entirely sure which is worse. Is it better to be explicit about these goals of conversion or to let them hide behind a fancy teen center and secular music concerts? In order to appreciate the non-religious offerings of these churches, one has to remain willfully ignorant of a message that may be disagreeable. It is impossible to divorce these spaces from their implied messages and meanings, and significantly raises the importance of maintaining a critical point of view in anything. If nothing else, the presence of these resources in a space like a mega-church encourages a deeper analysis of the structure they are inherently tied to, which alone has been a more than gratifying experience.

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