My primary traveling companion had to be in Scottsdale, AZ for a few days late last week, so I ended up tagging along to do child care, cooking, cleaning, chauffeuring, and all the other things a Sensitive Nineties Guy does these days. As my reward I got to spend big chunks of days with our other traveling companion and I got to visit Scottsdale Bible Church (SBC) [link].
I won’t keep you in suspense, dear reader. Our impression was basically positive, and the sermon we heard is available online [link]
I didn’t set out to visit yet another megachurch in the Phoenix metro area (the Hartford Institute lists 26 megachurches in Arizona; SBC reports 6000 in attendance and ranks 6th on that list); we were actually looking for a former Navigators acquaintance and had no idea how big SBC is. There are two campuses; we were on South Campus, which I understand is a twenty-acre plot. We were running very late, so I didn’t get a chance to visit every building on campus. There are separate buildings for the main sanctuary, children’s ministries, a high school, etc. And there’s lots of parking, but not so much that there’s shuttle service from outlying lots. There are four services on Sunday: 8AM, 9:30AM, 11AM, and 5PM. The 11AM service is spread across the main sanctuary and the high school gym. They offer different music at different services: more traditional church music at 8AM, a blend of traditional and contemporary at 9:30AM, and contemporary at 11AM and 5PM. We ran so late we missed the music at 8AM, so I can’t tell you what it was. I did spot hymnals in the pews, however.
The current pastor is Jamie Rasmussen; he is not the founding pastor, and from some comments he made during the sermon I would guess he is about 45 years old. If I had to say he sounds like or looks like someone you may already have seen I’d suggest Rick Warren: he’s bearded, overweight, not especially attractive, wears a casual shirt in the pulpit, and has a delivery style that is hurried bordering on anxious. He divides his time between standing behind a small thinnish pulpit and sitting on a nearby stool.
The sermon we heard (see above) was expository but not verse-by-verse. I’d be tempted call it expository-topical. There was a primary text, and most of the sermon followed the text in order, a phrase at a time, but he would occasionally jump to another text for an illustration and return to the primary text later. I’d call it expository because the substance of the sermon was driven by the flow of the primary text, but there were elements of topical teaching as well; my interpretation of what he had to say was driven by his outline rather than dictated by the text itself. But it still more or less followed the expository pattern of read-explain-apply, even if it left the application a bit abstract.
One of the sermon analysis tools some people find helpful is to divide topics into “God-centered” and “Man-centered” piles: the former being “about God” and the latter being “about Man.” Or if you prefer, “about God and His Glory” and “about Man and his problems.” I’m not sure these are always helpful categories, especially when the text is, as was the case in this sermon, about some aspect of sanctification. It’s almost as if, and I realize this is a bit glib, we were to insist that Shakespeare’s play Romeo And Juliet be either about Romeo, or about Juliet.
Rasmussen, if I understood him correctly, was encouraging us to think and feel a particular way because we understand our circumstances in a perspective that values the glory of God above all else; I’m not sure something like that can be put into either of the above categories: is it “man-centered” because we’re the ones doing the actions? Or is it “God-centered” because the glory of God is the main thing?
That’s enough for a first post; I need to come back to this tomorrow, and talk about what a difficult thing it must be to be Jamie Rasmussen, responsible for a church in a place as American as Scottsdale.
Calvary of Albuquerque, the second-largest of the churches in the Calvary Chapel network, has recently started two satellite campuses: the downtown Metro Calvary [link], which meets at the El Rey Theater in downtown Albuquerque, and Metro Santa Fe [link], which currently meets in one of the theaters at the DeVargas Mall.
I don’t know why Calvary is doing this, exactly, but I can hazard a guess. Santa Fe was formerly home to a vibrant Calvary Chapel with a local pastor. The church went through some leadership changes, and ended up dropping its Calvary Chapel affiliation. This left Santa Fe without a Calvary Chapel and vice versa, and there were more than a handful of people in the Santa Fe area that wanted a Calvary Chapel church experience. Some of them, I suppose, make the hour-long drive to Albuquerque; and I’ve heard rumors that more than a handful are doing the forty-minute drive to Espanola/Arroyo Seco to Truth Ministries Calvary Chapel [link]. I can only assume there was a similar desire for a Calvary experience in downtown Albuquerque; I really don’t know.
This past Sunday we popped in and out at the theater. My smallest traveling companion was restless enough that we couldn’t stay for the whole service. I would guess there were fifty or sixty adults present, watching Skip Heitzig live on the movie screen. I saw more than a handful of familiar faces from my time at Calvary, and noted that the two small groups listed are headed by people who were part of the core of the church ten years ago.
I have to admit I don’t “get” Skip Heitzig and I don’t understand the appeal of hearing him week after week. While he occasionally has something profound to say, his sermons follow a formula so faithfully that once you’ve heard five or six you could probably write one yourself: two major points, each with three or so subpoints, typically a verse of Scripture each, with an array of illustrations, each of which is introduced by a transition so abrupt as to be jarring. Also, Skip is a devotee of the “precocious youngster” anecdote. I have found the overall effect to be kind of numbing.
My traveling companion also pointed out that he seems to be speaking to himself, without much regard for his audience. He doesn’t really connect with the audience, and as a result the net effect is like watching television. Maybe that’s why people are happy to watch him on a screen. I don’t know.
The text was John 14:7-11, and the sermon title was “How Can I Know God?” The major points were “Roadblocks to Knowing God” (v. 7&8) and Resources for Knowing God (v. 9-11). There was a teaching handout with room for notes; given that we were sitting in the dark it was kind of hard to take notes, so I don’t have much to add here.
Toward the end of the month the Santa Fe group is moving to a permanent location on Clark Rd [link], where I believe they are taking over the space formerly occupied by Blaze Christian Fellowship, another ex-Calvary group that recently relocated to a business park on the south side. We’re looking forward to visiting them again when we’re better able to sit through an entire service. Watch this space for a fuller account then.
I am a regular National Public Radio (NPR) listener; I do not contribute to the funding of National Public Radio. As I’ve mentioned here before I listen to several NPR podcasts (Technology, Religion, Business Story of the Day, World Story of the Day, and Planet Money) as well as some podcasts that are or have been partly funded through NPR (This American Life, On The Media). I believe they engage in behavior during election cycles that falls into the same gray area as voter guides and church issue advocacy, and so I think it is appropriate that they come under scrutiny every time the Republicans come into power in Washington. I also believe that the current push to defund NPR is stuff and nonsense like the recurring attempts to defund the National Endowment for the Arts: the amount of money is relatively small, the interests that depend on the money are clever and entrenched, so the furor surrounding defunding attempts is a sort of media-friendly theater meant to sharpen distinctions between political constituencies on the left and right. But that’s another topic for another day.
I don’t give money to my local station because their locally-produced programming does not reflect my values; I do not hear an editorial voice there that sounds familiar or shares my values in any way shape or form. And the syndicated programming they offer, which is really what’s at the center of the current discussion, doesn’t either.
The current discussion started when James O’Keefe of Project Veritas fame posed as a potential Muslim donor to NPR and got fundraiser Ron Schiller to say some stupid things. O’Keefe released an edited version of the tape, then later the full tape, and Schiller and NPR CEO Vivian Schiller (no relation) resigned. This played into an ongoing narrative on the part of the Tea Party element within the Republican Party and led to a vote to deny federal funding to NPR [link].
While I tend to think that NPR should not be getting federal money and I think it’s reasonable for NPR to become a political football every few years, this is not the way I would have wanted this to happen. I’m not a fan of O’Keefe; I think he’s more like Michael Moore than say Eighties-era Mike Wallace, and tends to muddy the issues he touches in a way that lowers the level of the debate, etc. Let me put this another way: I wish he could find a way to ask the same questions he’s asking without debasing the discussion with cheap tricks.
But the response from NPR has been interesting and enlightening, and as a result I think I have more specific reasons for wanting it defunded or at least reconsidered than I did before. Here is the typical response from NPR, more or less:
NPR receives only about two percent of its income directly from the [Corporation for Public Broadcasting]. Federal funding mostly goes to stations that pay dues to NPR for programs. It provides roughly 10 percent of the public radio economy, but for small stations that percentage can be a lot higher. In rural communities it can run as high as 30 sometimes 50 percent… [link]
The argument basically goes like this: federal funding goes to stations, which in turn pay for programs. The content of the programs, which is what people like me actually hear, isn’t funded (directly) by federal money, so neener neener, or words to that effect. The content gets funded by multiple tax-exempt foundations, corporations, and of course NPR stations, so if you want to do something about the NPR editorial point of view, take it up with them.
Fair enough. What this means to me is that rather than defunding NPR, Congress should have someone take a look at its qualifications for tax-exempt status, and ask questions about whether its political speech is appropriate for its tax status. Hint: I do not think this is ever going to happen.
That’s enough for today. In the next post I will actually mention Sam Negus. I promise.
I had to be in Scottsdale this past weekend on family business, with a flight early Sunday afternoon. A 10AM service would have been too late for us, so our options were limited to churches with early (8AM or 9AM) services. We had been wanting to visit a real megachurch for a while, so I picked Phoenix First Assembly (PFA) [link] out of the Hartford Institute list for Arizona [link]. According to self-reported numbers they run 16,000 a week, placing them in the largest 1% of megachurches in the United States. If I had done a little more research (well, clicked a clearly presented banner on the main page of their website) I would have noticed that their senior pastor Tommy Barnett would not be preaching, due to heart valve surgery [link].
We arrived early at the church’s multi-building campus and had a look around, visiting the youth facility (something like a cross between a big lecture hall and a concert venue) and the children’s facility (a big open room in what appeared to be a converted garage with a big sound board in the back and a drama stage in the front), noted their relationships with Crown Financial Ministries, the National Association for Marriage Enhancement [link], and Starbucks and headed into the main sanctuary. The entire campus is very pretty and well-placed back against a hillside with an expansive view of at least part of Phoenix. The sanctuary is round and done up in a sort of a maybe Mission Revival style; the rest of the campus is concrete, metal, and glass.
By the time we got into the sanctuary the music had already started; our greeter handed us flyer and a small white flag. The flyer wasn’t a liturgy or an order of service; it was just a list of announcements and a schedule of other events taking place at PFA, some of which were highlighted. The white flag was about 6″ x 8″, glued to a small dowel rod, and our greeter made it clear that she wouldn’t explain it to us but that all would become clear during the service.
The sanctuary is big, round, and flat; there are balcony sections, but most of the seats are on the floor. The stage is huge and backed by five video screens. There was a live band with guitar, bass, and drums, along with a horn section including a tin whistle, a piano, and several singers placed evenly across the stage. There was one woman who was clearly the lead singer as she got most of the camera time. There was no backing choir, and no choir loft. Lyrics were projected onto the various screens. The music was not your standard praise choruses (nor was it traditional hymns); the lyrics were less repetitive than your standard Hosanna! Music stuff but was pretty much in that ballpark. Off to the far right “live worship artist” William Butler [link] was painting on a canvas.
The service was “produced” like a television show, with multiple cameras (including a crane jib camera), but I’m not sure why; the church video archive is currently empty [link], and PFA does not appear to have a television presence.
After the music there was a “news brief” segment, a fast-paced, tightly-edited video complete with an anchorwoman standing and talking directly into the camera, telling us about the many services offered at PFA, upcoming sermon series. This included a segment on Joyce Meyer, who is holding a conference at PFA February 24-26; there was a drop-in from one of Meyer’s appearances where she said something flattering about Tommy Barnett and his strong faith.
Most of the sanctuary was roped off; I am guessing this was to pack the small early-service crowd into the front rows and make the sanctuary look full on video. The sanctuary was maybe one-quarter full, and with all the video, lights, and sound coming from the stage the effect was almost overwhelming. My traveling companion likened it to a rock concert, saying
I’m a little surprised they let us in here for free.
After the news segment the ushers passed the offering buckets. These were shaped like KFC buckets, or large round movie popcorn containers, but were made of gray plastic. There was another song from the band featuring the tin whistle. After that there was an update on Tommy Barnett’s health from Angel Barnett (see e.g. this video); she told us an amusing story featuring Tommy and his hotel room. This transitioned neatly to the introduction of Tommy’s son Luke who preached the sermon.
The text for the sermon was 2 Chronicles 16:9a [NIV]; just the part about God looking for someone whose heart is totally committed to Him; not the part about being at war. The bulk of the sermon was a recap of the life of Mother Teresa [link] with life lessons for us drawn from her biography. The white flags we had been given figured into the “surrender” aspect of her life story somewhere. To his credit Luke Barnett didn’t try to make the points rhyme, but the word choices were sometimes obscure; he seemed to have a compelling story to tell but lacked the sermoncraft chops to bring it off. Also, his delivery is of the loud, almost strained type popular in many churches today where the pastor attempts to convey the importance of what he’s saying by shouting even though he’s adequately mic’d and amplified.
If there was a Gospel message I missed it; if there was a mention of Jesus I missed it. Because the nominal text was from the Old Testament I would have expected at least a hand-wave at connecting it to us as Christians rather than its original audience (Asa, king of Judah).
Our baby became restless and we had to leave well before the sermon finished; we visited the bookstore and beverage area and noted the various items for sale. They were a mix of homegrown stuff (books, CDs and DVDs by Tommy Barnett) and evangelical names big and small. The book area was surprisingly small given the size of the church; compared to the churches of comparable size I’ve seen I’d call it a token bookstore.
On balance I’d say this was a tightly-marketed, slickly-produced experience; I definitely got the impression that a fair number of development and marketing people are involved in making PFA what it is. Everything has a brand name at PFA, and the campaigns and their brand names appear to change very frequently, I guess so it doesn’t get dull. I got the impression that most of the message originates in an executive creative meeting or some such. There was a mention of small groups “starting up again;” I took this to mean that they are seasonal. I sort of expected a Pentecostal church, but apart from a handful of people raising their hands I didn’t see any evidence that this is an Assemblies of God church [link] rather than a non-denominational church.
Finally, I didn’t see evidence of there being 16,000 people at this church. It’s huge, but it seemed smaller than Thomas Road Baptist Church (~13,000) and Calvary Albuquerque (also ~13,000). Perhaps the PFA reported number includes campus churches; I didn’t see any evidence of these, either, so I can’t be sure.
In dealing with the Greeks in 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 Dave Bruskas took a tack I hadn’t heard before, saying that the Greeks in Paul’s audience understood that God was detached because divine beings were incapable of caring about humans. They would have thought that the idea of a God who cared about people was “stupid.” He says the corresponding temptation for us today (paralleling his earlier point about being “tempted to be Jewish”) is to think that God is impersonal, and our best response is to focus on self-actualization.
Dave by contrast quotes Romans 7:18 “nothing good dwells in me,” as proof that we cannot self-actualize, but rather that we need to understand that are good only in that we are forgiven. Along the way he says he’s “not against therapy, just against therapy focused inward” and relates a third too-perfect story, in which his daughter says it is unproductive to try to wrap our minds around God.
As I said earlier, this was a tack on this passage I hadn’t heard before: I’m more accustomed to the straight reading of the text that Greeks desire knowledge or insight, but instead God offers us something offensive to reason. I won’t suggest here that one reading is better than the other: Paul seems to assume that his audience knows enough about Jews and Greeks to make sense of what he’s saying without elaboration; modern readers need something to fill in the gaps here. I don’t know that it’s possible to say definitely what Paul meant beyond the plain meaning of what’s in the text.
But it’s on the latter point that I think this sermon goes off the rails. If I understand him correctly, Dave Bruskas is setting two things against one another that aren’t naturally in opposition. He seems to be saying that because God has reached out to us and asked us to believe, and we “get no more” as an explanation of salvation, that somehow this is also sufficient for all of our problems. He goes on to several other passages (Romans 5:6, John 6:44, Romans 5:9, Romans 8:1), attempting to hammer home the point that because our sins are forgiven everything else (by which I think he means all the other things that are wrong with us) are “small by comparison.” And along the way he tells stories about the death of his two-month-old son, and about an anonymous Christian struggling with a recurring sin.
His underlying claim (that because we are free from the consequences of sin, we are free to do good works) is much-neglected in Reformed circles so far as I can tell, but it sits awkwardly on Romans 8:1 (there’s no mention of good works there), and while he’s grappling with an important question: something like “if I’m a new creature, why am I still a mess?” he doesn’t actually answer it; he just attacks it. If someone is struggling with a problem that is damaging to themselves or to others, knowing that they will be ultimately forgiven for their sins isn’t answering the right question.
If someone were to say to me “I’m addicted to drugs,” or “I’m considering killing myself” telling them their sins are forgiven is an answer to a question they’re not asking.They’re actually looking for a way to stop doing drugs, or a way to avoid killing themselves; they’re taking about changes in behavior, not theological consequences. And while Dave is right — compared to spending eternity in Hell, a lifelong drug problem is relatively small — it doesn’t deal with the reality of the drug problem.
I would of course encourage readers to listen to Dave’s sermon themselves and see if I’m missing the point here. But this is one of the mistakes I think we make as theological conservatives by mistaking the most important thing for the only important thing. It’s not that salvation itself isn’t satisfactory, or that a solid soteriology isn’t important, but rather that it doesn’t answer every question. At least not correctly.
And that pretty much was the end of the sermon. There was a closing prayer, and we were reminded that Communion was going to be observed at a later date. Regarding Communion and regarding Baptism I was surprised to hear Mars Hill Albuquerque’s position, namely that Baptism is an act of obedience and Communion is a symbol. These are the positions I’m accustomed to seeing in evangelical circles, but I’m still surprised when Reformed folks don’t call them something else. It is after all my understanding that most of the Christians who ever lived saw baptism as being part of salvation somehow, and saw Communion as participation in a group identity, or a means of grace, or something more than just a symbol.
Which I guess brings me full circle on Mars Hill Albuquerque: after one visit I still get the impression that they’re a complicated evangelical/Reformed hybrid, with some megachurch tendencies and some hidebound Reformed tendencies, and I’ll be interested to see what becomes of them over time.
Some weeks ago now I covered the opening section of the sermon we heard at Mars Hill Albuquerque (MHA) back in early December [link], based on the verse Isaiah 9:6, and the pastor, Dave Bruskas, making the abrupt transition to Paul’s letters after noting that Jesus is “a military strategist.”
He turned to 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 [NIV]; this is one of Paul’s key texts, where he sets apart what God is doing in Christianity from what would be expected by contemporary Jews and the contrasting expectations of contemporary Greeks.
Dave says “What is Jesus’s war strategy? The word of the Cross.” Jesus lived to conquer and died under the oppression of the Roman government. Why? To destroy wisdom and discernment: God is saying “I’m not going to do what you expect,” and glorifies himself in us.
Dave then leaves the text to tell a story about being at a park in Albuquerque with some MHA people, and about meeting a guy who found their group attractive because it was a church full of weird people. This rhetorical flourish, of telling a too-perfect, probably-not-true, self-congratulating story, is something Dave Bruskas does more than once during this sermon. He’s hardly the only preacher who does this, but it’s something I’d encourage visitors to be aware of when listening to him.
Back at the text he returns to verse 21: “it pleased God.” God can’t be reached intellectually, so He reaches down to us through the Incarnation. Note that verse 21 doesn’t mention the Incarnation; it’s one of the things that makes this passage an awkward fit with Isaiah 9:6.
Dave then dives into the central idea of the text in 1 Corinthians: “Jews demand signs; Greeks look for wisdom” instead we get Christ. Dave states this as “the Jews demanded a conquering King” and stumbled over the Crucifixion. He warns us against being “Jewish in perspective” by wanting something from Jesus in exchange for our loyalty: relationships, health, freedom from recurring sins, etc.
He then proceeds with his second too-perfect anecdote, about a gay man who came to see him in his office; Dave responded to him by saying that being gay is “not God’s best for him” and that “Jesus should transform him;” the too-perfect part of this story was that this was exactly what the man wanted to hear. Dave didn’t mention what became of the man, but that’s not really part of the story: the story is really about how Jesus doesn’t offer something we’re looking for (e.g. a personal sign), so it isn’t germane what became of the man in his story.
Dave’s basic point here: that salvation is not primarily a story about us, and that Jesus doesn’t offer us things that are attractive per se, is orthodox and Scriptural. But the way he puts the story together is awkward at best: he has a mix of texts that don’t really go together and stories that don’t ring true.
This seems like as good a stopping point as any; I’ll save his discussion of the Greeks and his wrap-up for one last post. I’d encourage readers to listen to the sermon themselves at the link above and decide for themselves if I’m being picky, or mixing majors and minors, or whatever.
Maybe I’m just quibbling here, but this is one of the problems with preaching from Paul’s letters during Advent: the Advent is about the Incarnation, and the temptation of most Reformed types is to read Paul as talking about Jesus exclusively as Savior, and it’s hard work to keep those two doctrinal concepts connected without subordinating one to the other. If we make the Incarnation entirely about “baby Jesus” we can stray off into territory that isn’t entirely orthodox, but without the Incarnation our soteriology isn’t strictly speaking orthodox either. I think Dave’s making the common Reformed mistake of losing the Incarnation in his Reformed soteriology.
I guess one of the things I was wondering when we visited Mars Hill Albuquerque was whether or not and the degree to which the sermon we would hear would be a “Mark Driscoll sermon” somehow. Meaning, on the basis of what I’d read about Driscoll, whether the sermon took a particular interpretive tack, so to speak, on the sermon text, consistent or otherwise with a plain reading of the text. And I would have guessed this would be more sensible, given what I knew at the time, because I was expecting a Driscoll video sermon rather than a live one from Dave Bruskas. I was mostly looking for a focus on one or more of the following:
- “Community” or even “living in community,” consistent with what I’d read in Donald Miller
- Gender roles and Complementarianism, given what I’d read in Beaujon and Sandler
- Reformed themes, given what I knew about Driscoll’s theology generally
- Muscularity and masculinity, given Molly Worthen’s take on Driscoll from the York Times
One of the perils of reading other people’s accounts of anything, particularly trained journalists (everybody in the list above except Miller and me), is that they tend to less report what they saw and heard than fit what they saw and heard into an existing narrative. This is a recurring theme in Terry Mattingly’s visits with Todd Wilken, especially when he’s doing a “top religion stories” piece; Mattingly repeatedly warns that reporters generally fit what they see into an existing narrative, one that may not actually be appropriate for the facts or events at hand. That was my recurring problem with Sandler in particular, but that’s another topic for another post.
So the sermon text (Remember the sermon? This is a post about a sermon.) was Isaiah 9:6:
For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace [link].
I’m quoting the KJV here because as per usual I like the way it reads and also because this is the punctuation I’m accustomed to: Wonderful and Counselor are two different names here. This reading is apparently out of fashion, and now reading “Wonderful Counselor” as a single name is preferred.
We read the verse off the screen; this is either another contemporary evangelical flourish in use at MHA, or a concession to the poor light in the theater. I’m not sure which. Bruskas connected the verses to the previous week’s sermon (this being the second week of Advent) by recapping the previous sermon, in which he discussed the fact that we are “enemies of God:”
- You and I (meaning Bruskas and his audience) are enemies of God
- We are still prone to treason against God
- Jesus must conquer us
The current sermon is devoted to the first name: Wonderful Counselor; this is one of four military terms in this verse (the other four being “mighty God,” “everlasting Father,” and “Prince of Peace”). A “wonderful counselor” is a clever and/or effective strategist. What is Jesus’s strategy for conquering us?
And that was the last mention of the sermon text; Bruskas spent the rest of the hour in 1 Corinthians and Romans, without referring to Isaiah again.
So I guess I’d have to say this sermon pretty comfortably into at least one of the categories above and partway into another:
- It’s definitely a “muscular Christianity” reading of the verses above. I’m at a loss to explain how “everlasting Father” and “Prince of Peace” are military terms, and while I can see how a wonderful counselor would be an effective strategist, I’m not sure Bruskas’s reading here is intrinsic in the text.
- Reading a text out of context and using it as a pretext for jumping into Paul’s letters is pretty standard fare in conservative churches of a certain stripe, and sermons that aren’t done until we’ve gotten to Romans seems to be more a mark of Reformed leanings than of conservatives generally.
So yeah, it looks like this is pretty consistent with what I guess I should have expected visiting a church with ties to Mark Driscoll.
In the next post or two I’ll deal with the rest of the sermon. It’s theologically orthodox, but it isn’t really an Advent sermon. Hint: he doesn’t mention, much less delve into, the meaning of the Incarnation. I don’t know what to make of this; it’s something that puzzles me considerably about contemporary conservative churches generally: they tend to treat Jesus as someone who was for the most part defined by Paul as a theological concept but was beyond understanding in any other way. I won’t say “Reformed types are Docetist” or any nonsense like that, but I think I’d have to argue that Advent isn’t primarily about well-defined Pauline concepts. It’s about Incarnation.
During the opening, after the short video of Mark Driscoll, campus pastor Dave Bruskas told us that the giving target for Mars Hill Albuquerque (MHA) was $78,000. This was part of the giving narrative we’d heard in the video, so it wasn’t totally unexpected, but one rarely hears this sort of candor from the pulpit. In fact I can’t remember the last time I heard the pastor of a local church say how much money he expected of us from the pulpit for general operations. I typically only hear this kind of detail for a “special offering.”
I’m more accustomed to seeing line items in the bulletin; in Baptist churches and in one independent church I’ve recently seen a breakdown that includes the monthly budget, the amount given so far, the number of donors, maybe the corresponding figures for the week or month the previous year, or some combination of the above. These collections of numbers have gotten more common in the last couple of years, and they typically tell one of two stories: either 1) our church is growing, or 2) we’re not meeting budget numbers.
At MHA the $78,000 number for December was pitched as kind of both: the church is growing, and so the December budget number was a big number. I took this to mean that expenses were up, or they’re making plans to spend more money in the future, or something like that. It wasn’t entirely clear what it meant: whether it was meant to be a measure of giving capacity, or a number related to expenses, both, or neither.
Does $78,000 a month sound like a lot of money to you? Let’s do a little analysis.
There were four Sundays in December 2010, so that’s $19,500 per Sunday. MHA draws 600 people a week; I’m going to take that to mean that 600 different people attend some combination of their three Sunday morning and evening services. That works out to $32.50 per person. If we take that to be the “cost of service per attendance” or something like that it seems kind of high; I mean, would you pay that kind of money to spend a comparable amount of time in a movie theater to see a movie? A play? Some other kind of arts programming? I’m not sure what’s a fair comparison here.
On the other hand, if everyone at MHA tithes 10% of their gross income it suggests the average person makes $15,600 a year. That might be reasonable for a church of mostly students; in New Mexico the minimum wage is $7.50 an hour, and with 2080 hours in a working year (52 x 40) that’s again $15,600. Of course not everyone at MHA tithes 10% of their gross, and not everyone who goes to church there makes minimum wage (or works 40 hours a week 52 weeks a years) so it’s just an estimate. The studies I’ve read suggest that roughly 5% of churchgoers under 45 tithe; if that’s true at MHA their average tither makes more than $300,000 a year. Yeah. More likely they have a higher than average percentage of tithers, or have a small handful of rich donors.
What does it suggest about the salaries of paid staff? Well, MHA lists four people as pastors and staff: Bruskas, A. J. Hamilton, and deacons Donovan Medina and Matt Wallace [link]. If their staffing expenses are commensurate with Mars Hill’s reported 2009 numbers [PDF] they’re paying the average staff member the December 2010 equivalent of $120,616.80 in 2008-2009 dollars. That seems kind of high; I have to assume they have other staff positions (secretaries or band members, say) or are spending proportionally more on facilities (a historic theater in Nob Hill can’t be cheap) or utilities.
So I really don’t have a feel for whether MHA’s budget figures are high (meaning that either pastors are making huge salaries, the ministry is wasteful with money overall, or both) or low (meaning that they’re a lean efficient organization staffed by starving servants of God, etc.). With the kind of transparency Mars Hill offers in its annual report it’s hard to say.
The service at Mars Hill Albuquerque (MHA) opened with a short loud set (3 or 4 songs) by the band, interspersed with prayers and, because this was the Second Sunday of Advent, a candle-lighting with a reading by someone on stage. This more or less fit in with what I was expecting from a church with a mix of evangelical megachurch and Reformed elements: the rock band being the former; the candle-lighting, reading, and Advent references the latter.
A worship band faces some challenges generally: they run the risk of being gushy and fake (prayers too earnest week after week, breaking down of the fourth wall a bit too confessional, etc.) on the one hand, and being too distant, rock-show-y or wallpapery on the other. The house band at MHA ran more to the latter extreme; there were instrumental solos and the band members rarely looked at us during their performance. Also, while they had clearly taken precautions (the drums were behind a hinged perspex drum shield and the drummer used bundled dowel “cool rods”) they still packed a wallop. I’m inclined to blame the shape of the room.
One of the reasons I wanted to visit Mars Hill Albuquerque (MHA) was that I understood that they were essentially a “video church,” where they would gather every week to see a video of the previous week’s service at Mars Hill in Seattle. So imagine my surprise when the music opened with a short video featuring Mark Driscoll reminding us to give and telling us that he’d “see us next month.” The latter part meant we’d be hearing Dave Bruskas preach a sermon live; the former tied in with the morning’s handouts.
Where many (most?) churches have a bulletin or an order of service or a full copy of the morning’s liturgy, MHA handed out two items, both professional-looking, both reminders to give money to Mars Hill. The first was the Mars Hill Weekly, a six-section trifold with a short update from Chris Swan at Bellevue (WA) saying that they’d signed a lease, are running 1500 on Sunday in a space that seats 500, another from James Harleman announcing plans to open a campus in Everett (WA), a Connect Card we could use to sign up to get involved, and a single panel outline of the morning’s sermon. The bottom quarter of the outline included a banner that read “GIVE: GIVING CHEERFULLY AND SACRIFICIALLY OF OUR FINANCES IS PART OF OUR WORSHIP.”
The other handout was a letter-sized was from the Generous Campaign; its main points were these:
- An overleaf with the word GENEROUS and a quote from Luke 12:34: “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”
- A short message from Pastor Jamie Munson reminding us of what Mars Hill did with donations in 2010.
- The three main points of the Generous Campaign: Stability, Expansion, and Legacy; these were respectively a reference to the financial base required for church operations; the plans the leaders at Bellevue and Shoreline have for opening new campuses, along with a brand new campus in Portland (OR); and a reminder that the church has commitments to children’s ministries for 1000 children a week and bands for 1300 services a week.
- A mailer for sending a check or credit card information in the mail, along with spaces to report “evidence of God’s grace in your life in 2010″ and “prayer requests for 2010.”
- A pointer for the 2010 Annual Report, available in January.
I will eventually get to the sermon; I’ve got a lot more notes on that, but I was really surprised to look back at what I had and discover just how much of it had to do with money. The handouts really did nothing to undermine the expectation I had that Mars Hill tells itself an expansion story that, while occasionally larded with Christianese (“The Lord has grown the Bellevue Campus,” “let’s make Everett known for Jesus”), is as much (if not more) a business story as a religious story.
I was struck by the novel use of the word “generous” here; I’m accustomed to hearing it as a virtue to be modeled in treating fellow believers or one’s fellow man (“be generous to each other”) rather than one’s organization (“be generous to Mars Hill so the leaders can expand the organization”). Or maybe I’m accustomed to hearing requests for money as pleas rather than as commands. Regardless, there’s something about the Mars Hill approach to raising money that struck me as at best direct and at worst, well, something worse.
The religious landscape in Albuquerque is complicated, or maybe I should say diverse, and just keeping up with the changes on the religious scene, never mind the day-to-day health of the scene, would be more than a full-time job. The Albuquerque metro area includes tony, nearly churchless communities like Placitas and Corrales; three Pueblos, of which one is predominately Christian, an entrenched Catholic culture with a continuous history back to the time of the conquistadors, a distinct new immigrant Catholic culture, established Lutheran communities (both ELCA and LCMS), with their attendant schools, a long-lived nondenominational homeless shelter [link], two religious television stations (one run by a local church; one TBN affiliate), and four of New Mexico’s five megachurches [link].
It is also home to the University of New Mexico, which borders the Nob Hill neighborhood surrounding historic Route 66, home of the Lobo Theater [link]. The University/Nob Hill area is as close as Albuquerque gets to funky and bohemian; the surviving Route 66 artifacts tend toward a picture-postcard Art Deco feel that kind of runs counter to the prevailing skinny-jeans tattooed hipster ethic, but it’s what Albuquerque has to offer at the moment. The Lobo Theater has art deco elements in its edifice, but the interior (lobby, balcony, and main theater) have a functional, recently-but-not-expensively-remodeled feel; there aren’t many clues that you’re in a historic building. And the Lobo Theater is home to Mars Hill Albuquerque, formerly City on a Hill Church. This is a good location for drawing people from the university and from the Nob Hill neighborhood; on Sundays on-street parking is free in Nob Hill, and it is ample if sometimes hard to find. It’ s probably easier to find parking if you know the neighborhood. We ended up parking close enough that we could hear the church rock band while standing next to our car, through the wall of the theater.
Mars Hill Albuquerque runs two services Sunday morning and one Sunday night service; pastor Dave Bruskas said the Sunday I visited that they draw 600 on an average Sunday, suggesting that they will soon outgrow the Lobo Theater building and need to find a bigger space in roughly the same part of town. It’s just as well; the main part of the building (floor seats and balcony) is long, narrow, dark, and loud, with two small aisles that give the place a cramped, pre-fire-code feel. We initially took seats on the floor and later moved to the balcony when our baby objected to the music. The seats on the floor had us craning our necks to see the screen and stage; the balcony seats had a better view (and better acoustics) but was steamy hot (the heating system is also vintage). The darkness and theater seats and aisles also make for poor opportunities to meet (or even see) other people there for church. We saw more faces out in the lobby than in the theater.
I can’t say “this is a friendly church” or otherwise; I spent most of our settling-in time and “hand of fellowship” time dealing with a diaper change and getting our baby settled after he started crying during the music. I suspect it was just too loud, but I didn’t see/hear any other babies fussing, so it’s hard to say.
The building and the darkness give the church service an “everything of interest is happening on stage” feel; it’s an experience not unlike watching a movie or watching television. I believe by design Mars Hill compensates for this by having small groups, of which more later.
The people we saw tended toward the older end of the college spectrum, mid-twenties types, some couples with small children, and the occasional older (think fifties) single man. It’s not really a college church and not really the Mars Hill demographic (that’s mostly people in their thirties and forties now, I understand) and it isn’t really multigenerational the way a mature healthy church might be. If I had to guess I’d say these are City on a Hill people, mostly folks who started attending church here when they were in college who didn’t leave town after graduation.
The dress code is t-shirt-and-jeans casual, in colors darker than is typical for the UNM area, with a fair amount of small glasses and goatees. I hesitate to say “hipster church” or “grunge church;” it doesn’t have the look and feel of a young urban church, nor does it feel really Albuquerque.
Anyway, people who really need “sacred spaces” would probably be disappointed in Albuquerque’s larger churches anyway; Calvary Albuquerque’s main sanctuary is a converted tennis club/fitness center; Hoffmantown is big but airless and sits on a big bleak parking lot; Calvary Chapel Rio Rancho is a giant metal shed; Calvary Chapel Rio Grand Valley (Belen) meets in a converted Walmart. I wish the folks at Mars Hill Albuquerque well in finding their next building. There’s lots of unused retail space available in their part of town, but I’m hoping they don’t have to settle for something big and characterless in a strip mall somewhere.