Week 21: Real Life Ministries, 25 May 2008

Farmergirl confessed that after communion and the offertory followed directly on the heels of the opening worship music at Real Life Ministries, she thought we might be at a sermon-less church. I don’t know if such a thing exists (a sermon-less church — outside the Quaker tradition, anyway), but it was interesting that the order of service threw her enough to initially surmise that there simply wouldn’t be one.

I thought the communion right on the tails of the opening music was interesting, though it seems to be the standard practice of RLM, according to the Spokesman Review story on the church. But there was actually an introduction to the communion, some reflection on the significance, and then the church took communion together (which is to say, simultaneously, from the pews*). The pastor, Jim Putman, concluded his nine part sermon series “Are We There Yet?” this morning with the “God’s Design for Grandparents” installment, which included a panel discussion with his parents and in-laws. It was kind of sweet, and his father-in-law was a hoot**.

Real Life Ministries is one of the larger mega-churches in the greater Spokane area. But, like the others, it doesn’t (linguistically) embrace it’s size, but rather tries to mitigate it.
Real Life Ministries’ statement about their size:

10. Whoa, this place is big!
It’s true, Real Life is a big place with a ton of stuff going on all the time. But the crazy thing is, it’s also one of the smallest churches you’ll ever attend.

One*’s statement about their size:

What will it be like?
We’re a big church, but we guarantee it will feel small.

Neither Life Center nor Valley Assembly makes a size claim on their pages, so we’re 2 for 2 in the mitigation count . . . but this kind of double-speak sits weirdly with me. Why not revel in the hugeness?

Some years ago, I read Wonderful Worship in Smaller Churches by David R. Ray. The subtext of the whole book is, “You’re a small church. Get over yourself and embrace that,” which is a hard thing to swallow while the mega churches were riding the Purpose Driven blab-it-and-grab-it Jabez-ian waves of ever-increasing growth at the end of the 20th century.

I’ve also read Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Church, the subtext of which is, “You don’t have to be a big church like Saddleback, but here’s how to do it. You don’t have to be a giant and growing church, but if you’re not, you’re probably doing something wrong.”

It’s obvious that the megachurch is fulfilling some need . . . but I’m not sure what makes them particularly attractive (of course, I’m also not particularly fond of the mall, despise “club” stores like Costco or Sam’s or BJ’s, and generally feel panic when faced with a crowd, so it stands to reason that I wouldn’t really care for the megachurch experience.

Scott Thumma writes in Exploring the Megachurch Phenomena:

Megachurch members are at home in large scale institutions (Ostling 1991; Schaller 1992). They grew up in them and were nurtured by them. They were probably born in a giant hospital, educated in a consolidated high school and large public university, and entertained by rock concerts, cable television, and multiplex movie theaters. No doubt they shop in malls and food warehouses, and may commute thirty minutes or more to jobs in large corporations situated in office parks. These institutional realities and their practices have shaped both the character and the needs of these people. They find the megachurch to be “home.” They are willing to drive past dozens of other congregations, fight to find a parking space, follow the signs to get to the nursery, and worship in a communal setting with five thousand other relatively anonymous persons, just like they do every day of their lives.

It strikes me that the appealing thing about megachurches might less be the “one stop spiritual shopping” aspect of its convenience, but rather the cognitive dissonance that it doesn’t create. That is, if you “live large” six days of the week, and then find yourself in a small church on Sunday, you’re going to suffer a fair degree of cognitive dissonance. Thumma says this specifically:

Our society has shifted to feeling comfortable with large-scale institutes like food warehouses and universities of 30-40 thousands. When you live in a world like that, going to a 40-member church feels less congruent to living in a contemporary society.

This also explains Michael’s twitchiness in the megachurch setting (above and beyond the too-loudness of the music): he’s a homebody who spends entirely too much time on the road in vast airports, large hotels, humongous cities, anonymous rental cars, unfamiliar restaurants (though, as a side note, the year he was traveling incessantly to Pasadena, he struck up a relationship with the sushi chef at his favourite dive such that the chef would recommend for or against his favourite fish (hamachi), depending on the quality they were serving that day).

At the same time, megachurches understand that it’s not just the massive-scale worship that attracts people to them, and so the “smallest unit” of a megachurch is the “small group,” which is pretty much what it sounds like: a small (6-12) group of people from within the church who meet regularly outside the service time for study, fellowship, activity, recreation, etc. You might recall we hit Life Center on a Sunday when they were emphasizing the importance of joining a small group.

And here we have a weird dichotomy . . . at the megachurch, you get tied into a small group, and there is an expectation that you will visit each other’s homes . . . where at the medium or small church, you may not, for many years, achieve that kind of intimacy. I have just, sitting across the table from Michael, just listed a whole host people I consider friends — many of whom have been in our home — whose homes I’ve never been to. In this respect, the smaller churches may be too large.

There’s a lot of angst, too, about megachurches that’s been expressed to me from people in smaller churches. I think most of it goes back to this idea that “prosperity” (as defined by a huge and growing congregation and an even bigger bank account) is the central goal of churches, and that a church that’s “doing things right” is going to have that kind of growth . . . and, obviously, any church that isn’t seeing that kind of growth either isn’t doing things right — or may not be right with God. But this line of thinking is quintessentially 20th Century American thinking . . . bigger is better, quantity over quality, it’s how we ended up building Escorts instead of Imprezas, why we have a McDonalds and a Wal-Mart on every corner, and why we can’t buy a tomato we’d want to eat. (I made the worst salsa ever the other day, which my friends, being my friends, ate and used their imaginations to think of how much nicer it would have been made from homegrown instead of the pasty, grainy things I used). This isn’t to say that there’s no quality to be found in a megachurch, but to simultaneously note that I don’t think bigger is a sign of anything beyond . . . size.

* Okay, there weren’t any pews. There aren’t many pews in any churches anymore. The “super comfy seats” are all down front, followed by padded folding chairs, followed by the plastic stadium seats in the stands. The sanctuary is in the gym, or is the gym. We sat in the stands, which is a better vantage point, but kind of distant relative to the primary “action.” Also, I’m not sure they’ve quite worked out the kinks of distributing communion or collecting the offering in the stands.
** Asked about his parent’s objection to his marrying Maxine, Dan Lynch, the pastor’s fil, replied that he was meant to marry Maxine, cited the Genesis 2:24, Matthew 19:5-6, Mark 10:7, Ephesians 5:31 passage about a man leaving his father and mother and cleaving to his wife. Then he quipped, “I particularly like the cleaving.”

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One Response to Week 21: Real Life Ministries, 25 May 2008

  1. Pingback: 52 Churches » Blog Archive » Week 40: Latah Valley, 6 October 2008

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