I attend what many sociologists call a megachurch, generally a church where weekly attendance is around 2,000 or more. According to a 2014 survey done at Old Dominion University, the Williamsburg Community Chapel ranks just barely as a megachurch, of the 14 identified churches in this category in the greater Hampton Roads, Virginia area.
For the most part, megachurches are a uniquely modern phenomenon. They appeal particularly to families, looking for good youth programs for their kids, that smaller churches might not be able to provide. They offer a wide range of ministry activities for outreach to the poor and hurting, have typically a talented music ministry, and draw in gifted staff with good preaching and administrative skills.
Megachurches have their drawbacks as well. Despite the size of the crowds, it can be difficult to connect with people on a personal level. In my case, I can go for weeks without seeing longtime friends, simply because they sit in a different part of the worship room from me. Our church works to overcome this problem by emphasizing small groups. But that can be a hit or miss affair. It can be really intimidating walking into someone’s living room, among people you know very little, if anything, about. Questions flood our minds: Is this group the right fit? Are there people in the group who think like me, and share the same values? Finding the right small group can be difficult, and all it takes is one awkward encounter with one rough person in the group to scare one away from small groups.
I want to tell you about a visit that my wife and I took this past summer to a much bigger church, a “mega” megachurch in Colorado. I learned a lot of new things, about myself and about the state of evangelical churches in America.
A Visit to Flatirons Community Church in Colorado
Flatirons Community Church is the fourteenth largest church in America, with some 17,000 in weekly attendance, across multiple campuses in the greater Denver area. A few of my cousin’s sons attend this church, so I convinced my wife to go and check it out, during our visit to Colorado this past summer. I have been to some other megachurches, but nothing like this before.
At their main campus in Lafayette, Colorado, we drove into the parking lot of a former shopping mall, that the church had taken over. Friendly parking attendants directed us to the appropriate spot, for the late Saturday afternoon service. As we walked up to the entrance, groups of families and friends were entering the building. Very few had Bibles in their hands, but nearly all had their cell phones. Presumably, they could read the Bible from their smartphone apps.
We passed by a large nursery and children’s ministry check-in area, with several computer kiosks, staffed by smiling volunteers. Groups of teenagers were milling around the entrance to the youth ministry area, waiting for the service to begin. I do not remember picking up a bulletin, as I had been reminded earlier to pick up a set of earplugs by the door into the large meeting room, which I was able to find.
No one was wearing a suit or a tie. Wearing your “Sunday best” to church, as my grandmother told me, is not part of the Flatirons ethos.
Coming from a church in Virginia, where we purposefully seek a “blended” approach to worship, weaving in the contemporary with the traditional, I was not surprised that the “traditional” would take a backseat here at Flatirons. The band was just starting to play as we found our seats. As a guitar player myself in our church back at home, I was impressed with the quality of the band’s musicianship. The music was not as loud as I thought it might be… but it was loud enough. I was not able to hear the singing voices of those standing around me, as the singers on stage began leading the congregation in a song familiar to those who listen to Christian music stations, like K-LOVE.
No traditional choir. No classic hymns. No hymnals to read out of, only large screens at the front to view the song lyrics.
There was no “blended” approach to worship at Flatirons.
The inside chamber of this shopping mall had been transformed into a concert hall. Expensive lighting equipment dotted the ceiling. This was the first time I had ever seen a smoke machine used in a Christian, worship service. Ever.
After several songs, there was a short break for announcements, a chance to shake hands with people around me, a brief prayer and video introduction to some special music, which was then performed by the band. Then the associate pastor, wearing jeans and a T-shirt, came up and the sermon began. There was no extended period for prayer, no public confession for sin, and no offering plate was handed around. It was a long way from the liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer, that I had grown up with as a kid.
I think that in order to work on staff at Flatirons, you have to be in incredibly great shape, weight lifting everyday, always ready to run a marathon. Also, I am pretty sure the associate pastor, Scott Nickell, sported a tattoo, just as Jim Burgen, the head pastor of the church, does (and defended by Burgen here). Jim Burgen was not there that week, but you can view part of his testimony from a book promotional video below:
To preach at Flatirons, I think you must also have Attention Deficit Disorder: the message was preached really fast. It was gutsy, dealt with real issues, and still orthodox in upholding a high view of Scripture. For a sample of Jim Burgen speaking to a controversial issue, here he is talking about gay marriage. I could see why this dynamic preaching style reaches thousands of people in the greater Denver area.
Flatirons’ tremendous growth has caused some friction in the community, though. Some locals who live near the church are not happy with the crowds jamming up traffic, and taking over the old shopping center at the main campus. The local newspaper put out a high profile article the day after our visit, stirring up some controversy. But that has not deterred the mission of the church.
Flatirons’ efforts to reach a younger generation of people is wonderful. It appears to be working, too. Other churches in America are looking to the example of Flatirons in order to reach more people.
But something did bother me about the whole thing, and when it came to the time for communion, it hit me. The pastor gave a brief introduction to the Lord’s Supper, but with no substantial explanation as to what it was all about. There were no words of institution. I tried to take a moment to be silent, but before I knew it, the lights dimmed again, and the band was cranking up another tune. Moments later, the auditorium ushers handed out baskets of bread, and another basket of small, sealed containers of grape juice. Consume at your own leisure.
It was like, “OK, now folks. It is time for your late-in-the-service snack!”
The whole mystery of experiencing worship evaporated for me right then and there, which was sad. As I tried to pry open the plastic, hermetically-sealed grape juice container, amid the overpowering sounds of the band, your Veracity blogger here, who is nevertheless a folk-rock guy, who grew up listening to Led Zeppelin, felt an ironic sense of loss. At that moment, I longed for something different, something more other worldly, like the gentle sounds of an organ echoing in a medieval cathedral, kneeling to partake of the bread and holding a chalice to my lips, in quiet meditation. I imagined taking a sip on the wine, that represented the blood that was shed for me on the Cross, as I looked for a stained-glass window to peer through.
The traditional liturgy of the church does not directly convey the tangible experience the disciples had on the night before Jesus’ crucifixion, but it feels pretty close.
Such was not to be had at Flatirons Community Church.
Essentially, Flatirons has a formula: awesome music, an interlude of some sort, like an interesting video, another song, and then a rapid-fire, engaging talk, by a dynamic speaker. But does this approach usher people into an environment of worship to the Living God of the Universe? Or is this approach more like a Christianized-version of a rock concert with a TED-talk style lecture to cap off the event? This is not an easy question to answer. It requires careful thought before we rush too quickly in making a judgment.
But it is an important judgment to make. If the worship and community ethos of Flatirons Community Church represents the future of evangelical Christianity in America, we must consider the consequences years down the road, that churches make when they move in this direction.
In an interview below with Colorado Public Radio, this associate pastor, Scott Nickell’s gives some insight as to why Flatirons has grown so rapidly. It is quite clear from that interview that Flatirons has their critics in the community, many who do not like their uncompromising stance on the teaching of the Bible. Here is Scott Nickell explaining the church philosophy:
“We aren’t trying to be the church for everyone. There are lots of churches out there who are not doing what we’re doing and they are effective churches as well. We’re trying to reach people who are less likely to go to church.
“In a culture where a lot of people have had experiences where they’ve had religion, or the Bible, or Jesus kind of thrown at them, abrasively introduced to them, we just want to create an environment where people can say, ‘Hey, just come and see. And maybe you and Jesus when we deliver this message will work out your stuff together.’ You bump into him and maybe your life will change.”
So, I am a bit torn. Flatirons is doing the type of creative things necessary to impact the younger generation. They are gutsy and direct in their teaching of the Bible. If I was living in this part of Colorado, I would see Flatirons as being a great place to bring a lost or confused friend to, where they can hear the Gospel. I connected well with it, and it would appear that younger people in the millennial crowd are connecting as well. I would assume that as folks get involved in the community, they do grow in discipleship, find small groups or other ways to be nurtured in their spiritual journey, with mentoring by more mature Christians, etc. There is a real sense of movement and excitement in this community of faith.
But I wonder what Flatirons is losing in the process. All of the “churchy” things Flatirons has minimized to streamline the ministry comes at a cost. If something happens to the dynamic pastor, what then becomes of the church? If the bass player messes up the riff, will the musician-heads in the auditorium sneer in disdain? If the smoke-machine breaks down, or a fuse blows out the sound system, do you cancel the rest of the service? Is some critical part of the corporate worship experience being sacrificed, replacing it with the American performance ethic?
For example, as a person who greatly values the rich history of the church, I find it hard to think that a church classroom discussion on Christian history would go over too well at a place like Flatirons. The endless search for the newest and coolest Christianized iPhone app seems more appealing at Flatirons than pondering the great truths of the Reformation, or meditating on the examples of witness among the early church martyrs. I hope I am wrong about that.
You might think I am just being a fuddy-duddy, stuck in the past. I respect and admire what the leadership at Flatirons are trying to accomplish in their unflinching commitment to the Bible and their mission to reach the unchurched. I am mainly conflicted by a worship experience that reminds me of an exciting rock concert and pandering to the shallowness of American pop culture, both at the same time. Is this meeting people where they are at, using contemporary cultural forms to embody the Gospel, or is it diluting worship, stripping the meat off down to the bare bones of the Christian liturgy? Ideally, I would hope there would be a better way to blend in the new while still preserving the old. When we sever the link with the richness of 2000 years of Christian worship tradition, I am concerned that we empty out the space where the mystery of our faith can be celebrated, and filling it with something else that does not last.
What do you think? Am I missing something here?
One final note, and I only say this as a bass player. The band at Flatirons is really talented. See this cover of Kansas’ Carry on Wayward Son, to hear what I mean. This is not cheesy or campy. This is full-on rock-n-roll…. Oh, are you curious why Flatirons uses secular music in their church services? Burgen explains in this video.
Or how about Taylor Swift, for the Millenials?
Or the Christian worship song, “The Revelation Song”