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Scottsdale Bible Church

One of the delicate issues one has to deal with in leaving one’s own frame of reference and going somewhere else is the question of what constitutes reasonable outrage for someone who has to live in one frame of reference or the other. And it’s a question that’s front and center when visiting someone else’s church.

I’m accustomed to living in Santa Fe, NM, complete with its racial tensions, public corruption, attitude toward natural resources, values regarding public spending and tax breaks, gangs, low high school graduation rates, etc. I’m no longer shocked and surprised to see charred spoons in the litter on the side of the road among the cigarette bottles and miniature liquor bottles; I’m more shocked to see label-less orange childproof prescription pill bottles displacing some of those charred spoons.

Still, I always find Scottsdale jarring, with its shiny cars, trophy houses, bleach blondes, air conditioning, golf courses, retirees, etc. Everyone is huge, rich, aggressive, selfish, etc. And so American. If I had to pick an iconic image that represents Scottsdale I’m not sure if I’d settle on its PGA tour event, its elevated freeway, it’s dimly-lit labyrinthine strip malls, or Pat Tillman. It’s just so far over the top in so many ways.

And so I’m inclined to wonder how anyone can manage a church in an environment like Scottsdale. Especially a second-generation megachurch with conservative theology and conservative politics. I don’t know how someone can preach e.g. “in Christ there is neither rich nor poor” or even “blessed are the poor” to a church full of rich retirees. Which is not to say that it’s impossible to be in Scottsdale but not of Scottsdale; just difficult, just as it would be anywhere else.

And it’s in this context that some of the aspects of Scottsdale Bible Church seemed most striking. Not just the parking lot full of gleaming cars, or the hoards of young, fit, church-going women in weather-appropriate not to say filmy or revealing church clothes. There was also the foyer picture case (I wouldn’t necessarily call it a shrine) full of pictures of church members (SBC, unlike some nondenominational churches I could mention, has voting members) who are serving in the military overseas. And the list of elder candidates in the bulletin who are all mid-to-late-career captains of industry, with obvious business acumen, and not a lot of detail about their spiritual maturity.

It is my understanding that in the Early Church there were occasionally problems due to slaves being elders and their owners being new believers; I don’t know if this is something that really happened, or if it’s a popular fiction that helps us make sense of some of the things we find in Paul’s Epistles. I have a hard time imagining a similar problem arising in any modern church; there just aren’t that many poor people in positions of authority in any modern church. It’s most striking in an obviously rich church like SBC, where poor people are hard to find, period.

I can’t imagine what it’s like to be in the circle of light, facing an audience of two or three or eight thousand people every Sunday. Or to need to make budget week after week, and plan sermon series, and manage staff, and all that. It’s tough to lead a big church, and tough to lead a rich church, and it must be doubly tough to lead a big, rich church without say losing one’s soul.

I’ll get back to specifics in the next post, including a heads-up on the economic climate, church mergers, and so forth.

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