I have been a pastor since 1978 in three very different churches in radically different settings. I have a Master of Divinity from Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary and a Doctor of Ministry from Drew University Theological School. I have done a reasonable job of keeping up with my continuing education and with reading. I know much of the latest church research and I know what the theorists say about churches and the people in churches. All that said... I don't understand why some churches grow and others do not.
This past Sunday, I took the Sunday off and we visited "The Big Church" in town. They have three services on Sunday for a total of 2 or 3 thousand people a week. When I ask the folk I meet whether they are part of a faith community, of those who say "yes," probably 50% say "The Big Church." So I thought there must be something great going on there. I went hoping to learn something about doing effective and engaging ministry in this community.
As I said, I don't understand. We arrived about 15 minutes early and easily found a parking space. We walked to the entrance... and didn't know where to go. There was no signage and nobody spoke a word to us. We followed some people and found the door to the worship space - a big old warehouse. It was dark with lots of pillars and the seating was benches like might be used as outdoor furniture with pads. Very uncomfortable. There was a loop of information, projected onto two places on the wall. From any place in the room, the image was partially blocked either by pillars or beams. On the platform, there was a piano, a drum set, a few microphones, a number of large potted plants, and a pulpit. The backdrop reflected the craftsman style architecture that is found in this area. There were no obviously Christian symbols anywhere.
An acoustic guitarist, pianist, bass player, and drummer came out. The guitarist talked for a while... kind of rambling... and they began a set of music. The first three songs were very difficult to sing (and I didn't know them). It seemed that a few people in the congregation (which was slowly growing) were singing along but most were not. Those who were seemed to be in their own little worlds. The sound was OK but nothing special. The musicians were adequate but only the bass player impressed me (he was GOOD). They then led a few songs that I knew and I sang along. Still, the majority of the congregation seemed to be unengaged. Even the musicians seemed to be doing their own thing...
One of the pastors came up and explained their new online giving opportunities, made announcements including two fundraisers being held to support church programs, and called for the offering. Two of the musicians did a song to canned background. By this time the space was pretty full.
Then the senior pastor came to the pulpit. His text was James 3:13-18. His sermon wasn't offensive, but it also didn't excite me, inspire me, or challenge me. It was merely there... and it seemed long. He was personable enough but there wasn't anything there. Then it ended, he called the prayer team forward, the band did another song and people began to leave.
As we drove home, Cheryl and I talked and neither of us could understand why anyone would go back. I never experienced a sense of corporateness about their worship. When people were worshiping, they seemed to be withdrawn into themselves. There was nothing outstanding and nothing that made the experience easily accessible. I have heard better music in many other churches in the area. I have heard better preaching just about everywhere. I have heard that they have great youth programs but there was nothing that indicated that from where we sat. There were very few children present - presumably they were someplace else, and very few teens - maybe they were someplace else too.
Again, I don't understand why anyone would go back a second Sunday. Some may appreciate the anonymity that it offered but that could easily be found elsewhere. The pieces are all done better elsewhere. The only piece that it seems to have that others don't is sheer size and the Walmart like "something for everyone" programing. Still, like Walmart, it struck me that nothing was quite what it could have been.