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.
Mark Tooley of the Institute on Religion and Democracy [link] put in an appearance on Issues Etc. [mp3] back in August pushing his article at The Weekly Standard [link] titled “George Soros’s Evangelicals,” an expose on how money from atheist Soros ended up in the pockets of left-leaning Evangelicals Richard Cizik (former National Association of Evangelicals head) and Jim Wallis (of Sojourners fame):
[Cizik] has created a left-leaning New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good. Initially after his NAE departure Cizik was affiliated with Ted Turner’s United Nations Foundation. Then he became a fellow at George Soros’s Open Society Institute, concurrent to his creating the new liberal evangelical group.
Tooley doesn’t say how much money Cizik got from these affiliations. He gives more detail about Wallis:
Until recently, the Open Society Institute’s website openly listed its grants to [Sojourners]: $200,000 grant in 2004, $25,000 in 2006, and $100,000 in 2007.
This would be about $108,000 on average against an annual budget that in 2009 was $5.5 million [link], so we can call this 2-3% of primary revenue. It’s a substantial amount of money (roughly half the size of their 2009 budget shortfall), but small enough that I have to wonder why a billionaire like Soros would bother.
The Wallis section of the article is just a summary of an article by Marvin Olasky [link]. Olasky, because of his Dominionist leanings and his history with the Fieldstead Institute [link], is someone I look out for as being a sign of trouble. His appearance in this little discussion makes it seem like not much more than partisans doing what partisans do.
Regardless, it brings up the unpleasant question of dirty money: money that comes from an unpleasant or even evil source, but that if it comes with no strings attached spends just as well as any other money and is hard to turn down. I’ve already mentioned the taint of Moon money in the Falwell camp; it’s left Falwell open to charges that Moon bought influence in the ministry, or being in league with a cultist, or something-I’m-not-sure-what. Christopher Hitchens made a big deal of Mother Teresa taking money from the Duvaliers and Charles Keating [link]; I really have no idea who cares about that. But people who turn down dirty money are rare, so far as we know. I can only find one church on record that turned down lottery winnings: First Baptist Orange Park, 2008 [link].
I don’t know where the line is here; it’s clearly the influence the money may buy we worry about rather than the money, most of the time. After all, we can see what the money does, but it’s harder to see the strings, unless the recipient makes some gesture or gives a quid pro quo, like a board membership or a building name. And frankly sometimes it’s hard to tell dirty money from clean; not every legitimate businessman gets rich by giving his customers the best deal.