Posts Tagged ‘Thomas Road Baptist Church’

Jonathan Falwell: TRBC giving away “VCRs”

This little clip from just prior to Independence Day surfaced on YouTube a couple of days ago. In it, Jonathan Falwell, pastor at Thomas Road Baptist Church, describes a list of gadgets the church will be giving away at its Celebrate America rally.

To his credit Falwell thinks on his feet, comes up with a joke at his own expense, etc.

I’m including the clip here because it gives a sense of what an immersive experience a TRBC service is, with the full band, the video screens, the bright colors, the host in constant motion, etc. I couldn’t tell you what it reminds me of. A host segment from a Jerry Lewis Telethon? A game show? FOX News? I can’t quite put my finger on it.

There’s also a clue as to the content of a typical service at TRBC; the “55 years” doesn’t refer to Falwell himself, of course; he’s in his mid-forties. He’s reminding the audience of the continuity between himself and his late father, who passed away just over four years ago.

We here at Half a Bridge sincerely hope for Jonathan’s sake all the radiation he’s absorbing from those video screens is the non-ionizing kind.



Scottsdale Bible Church

Scottsdale Bible Church gives every indication of being a well-organized church. The bulletin lists phone numbers and/or email addresses for the elder board, senior pastor, executive pastor, the leads for various efforts that aren’t strictly speaking pastoral but are apparently paid staff, the pastoral care coordinator and the pastor emeritus. There’s a substantial schedule of activities with dates, times, locations and contact numbers. There’s the usual contact card and executive summary for first-time visitors. And there’s a summary of financial information for the fiscal year to date, showing that giving is up very slightly, and they’re running a small  (1.5%) budget surplus through 45 weeks.

This is no mean feat given that the Phoenix area is one of the places worst-hit by the collapse in housing prices. It is reasonable to expect that people who attend SBC have as they say participated fully in the current recession. I think their budget/attendance numbers bear this out.

If I focus on the people who carry the ministry I end up with something like an 80/20 model, where I assume that 20% of the people give 80% of the money. If I project the 45-week giving number ($7,672,601) to a full 52-week year that’s $8,866,116 for nominally 6000 people. If we extract the 80/20 number that’s about $5900. If for comparison’s sake we do the same with the Mars Hill Church 2010 annual report, which covers a different but overlapping period of time, the comparable number is more like $7500, or 27% more. In other words, Scottsdale Bible Church may appear to be a church full of rich people, but it isn’t necessarily a rich church.

This may be due partly to the fact that it is chock-full of retirees as well. I’d say roughly half of the people attending the 8AM service had gray hair; I rather doubt that’s the case at any of the services at any of the Mars Hill campus churches.

But I digress; I wanted to be sure to mention something that’s been on my mind regarding churches and the current recession. I had expected that there would be lots of foreclosures and bankruptcies; instead I’ve seen churches selling their buildings to formerly renting churches (this has happened twice that I know of here in Santa Fe alone) or merging with financially healthier churches. See e.g. the new arrangement between Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, VA and its new satellite Airlee Court Baptist Church in Roanoke, an hour away [link]. While I’m not overly thrilled at the idea of satellite churches or campus churches, where they gather to watch television and have at best a local assistant pastor, I have to admit this is better than an established church going dark altogether.

Regardless, I appreciate this minimal amount of apparent disclosure regarding money on the part of SBC. I wish this were the norm among independent churches; in my experience it is not.

Thomas Road Baptist Church 18th largest in America

October 23, 2010 Leave a comment

We’d like to congratulate Thomas Road Baptist Church for being the 18th largest church in America according to Outreach Magazine and LifeWay Research [link] [PDF].

The numbers in this list are probably soft, but they’re interesting anyway. They’re based on self-reported February and March attendance numbers from 8000 churches contacted by Ed Stetzer, so there’s a chance they’re inflated, rounded off, what-have-you, and I suppose there’s a small chance there’s a secret megachurch out there somewhere that missed Stetzer’s net altogether. I doubt it.

Fun facts include the following:

  • More than a million people attend the top 100 churches; note that this is not the same as saying “a million people attend megachurches in America.” The smallest on the list reported more than 5500 people attending, and the cutoff for megachurch status is currently 2000. According to the Hartford Institute people, who monitor this latter question, there are more than 1300 churches meeting this standard, meaning that more than three million people attend megachurches.
  • There are eight highlighted churches with ten or more locations; one (Brentwood Baptist, in Tennessee) has 27.
  • A significant plurality of the fastest-growing churches do not have a denomination in their name; I really have no idea what this means, but I suspect it’s the result of careful research.

I would like to congratulate Thomas Road for not being on the fastest-growing list. Lynchburg boasts something like 60 Baptist churches, and I’d guess three times that many non-Baptist churches, this in a metropolitan area of about a quarter of a million people [link]. Reaching the unchurched is probably a task better shared by 240 churches than dominated by one.

Liberty University Homecoming

October 21, 2010 2 comments

For the last five or so years no visit to Liberty is really complete without a visit to Thomas Road Baptist Church, now more or less conveniently located right off Campus North in the former GE/Ericsson facility. It’s more than walking distance from the Vines Center at the center of campus, and I suspect most Liberty students go to church on campus. TRBC is apparently packed for both services on Sunday (9:30AM and 11:00AM).

We had hoped to see both Jonathan Falwell and Charles Billingsley [link], the current singer in residence at TRBC. Jonathan’s ascent and competence as pastor of Thomas Road is nothing less than a miracle, and I really wanted to see it for myself. I don’t know much about Billingsley; he’s a former member of NewSong [link], has a discography of eight or nine albums as a solo artist (most available for purchase at TRBC), has put in appearances on CBN and TBN, etc. Unfortunately we ran late, and by the time we found the church, found a parking space, etc. the music was over. It didn’t matter: Billingsley was appearing somewhere else.

The Lynchburg area is heavily churched. There are pages and pages of churches in the phone book; I counted 65 Baptist churches alone several years ago, and I rather doubt there are fewer today. And there are more than a dozen Baptist churches on US 29 South between Lynchburg and Chatham. There’s a sizable Calvary Chapel, a couple of substantial independent churches (including Tree of Life [link]) and a significant Evangelical Free Church presence. Unfortunately, anecdotal evidence suggests that most regular church attenders are unhappy in their current church and would go elsewhere if they knew where to go. I’ve only heard good things about three churches: TRBC, Calvary, and one recently revived old hidebound church in the respectable part of town the name of which escapes me. Rivermont Avenue, maybe.

For years Liberty faculty (excepting School of Religion faculty and seminary faculty who were on supply and people with written excuses) were required to attend Thomas Road; when this restriction was lifted fifteen or twenty years ago there was a substantial exodus, much to the benefit of other churches and probably to the benefit of TRBC too. One of the things this means today is that when you see Liberty faculty at TRBC they’re there because they want to be.

So I’ve said all that to say this: I had high hopes for my visit to TRBC. Unfortunately Jonathan wasn’t speaking; instead we got to hear someone named Brian Bloye, a former Liberty and TRBC staffer who heads a large church somewhere in Georgia [mp3]. He gave a kind of by-the-numbers contemporary evangelical presentation of Psalm 23 (example bullet: “Is the Lord really your Shepherd? Or is your shepherd money, your job, etc?”).

The TRBC sanctuary is massive. Here’s a handheld video that at times shows the massive stage, huge choir, video screens, background projection screens, etc.

Official video production at TRBC typically does short pans and tight shots of individual choir members, so it’s hard to get a sense of the scale of the place from official video. It’s just a massive, overwhelming, immersive experience.

The foyer of the church is also massive; it’s called Main Street, it’s a sort of bazaar, full of stalls selling official ministry products, books, coffee, etc. Here’s another handheld video of it on an off day. I don’t think it does it justice.

Products being sold the day we were there included a memoir by Duke Westover about his time traveling with Jerry Falwell [link]. Apparently this book is new (and something of a niche product) as it merited a separate booth in the middle of the floor away from the usual book stall.

My traveling companion had never been to TRBC before, and described Main Street as being “like Vegas,” by which I think she meant that it reminded her of the shopping areas that dominate the walkways under and between casinos on the Strip in Las Vegas, not that she thought any of the church workers resembled show girls, or whatever. I’m sure if she’d ever visited Branson or the Grand Ole Opry she would have phrased this differently.

We have promised ourselves that we will go back for Homecoming next year and make more of an effort to see it in all its ragged glory. We hope we can catch Charles Billingsley and Jonathan Falwell at TRBC next year too.


back from vacation

October 18, 2010 Leave a comment

I’m more or less back from a few days working elsewhere and a week of visiting my alma mater and family. Yes I saw Liberty University in its current incarnation. Yes I visited Thomas Road Baptist Church. Yes I think the Snowflex Center makes the Monogram somehow less tacky. I hope to be back to posting normally tomorrow. Please stay tuned.


Ergun Caner in Bristol

September 28, 2010 2 comments

Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary professor Ergun Caner put in an appearance at a prayer breakfast in Bristol, VA on Friday morning, and managed to make the local paper [link]. Bristol straddles the Virginia/Tennessee line, and the combined city had about 40,000 people in the 2000 census. Perhaps the prayer breakfast scene there is livelier than it is here in Santa Fe, but 500 people turning out on a Friday morning in a town that size sounds huge to me; a proportional crowd would be about 900 here. The quantity of percolated coffee alone required to power a prayer breakfast that size boggles the mind.

The Bristol Herald Courier apparently sent reporter David McGee, who mostly covers motor sports [link]; I am not familiar with Mr McGee’s writing, so I can’t say for sure whether the article is a hash because of Caner or because of McGee, or even because of some uncredited stringer. I get the impression that Caner is casting the controversy surrounding him as honest mistakes that were blown out of proportion by malevolent third parties, for which he has apologized but not yet set the record straight.

“The school said, ‘What do you want to do?’ And I said, ‘Fine, investigate me.’ But the controversy alone, you pay the price for the controversy. You pay the price for the attention and the bad publicity,” Caner said. “Every pastor in America, ask them if you can go through 200-odd hours of your sermons. Would they find where you said your kids names wrong or dates wrong? Yeah of course. You just smile and move on.”

This is a great quote for several reasons: one because if I understand correctly Caner is saying he was given a choice as to whether they would investigate him or not. I wonder what his other choice was. Two, because 200 hours is a vast amount of pulpit time; if a pastor spends a half-hour speaking twice a week (Sunday morning and Sunday night, or Sunday morning and Wednesday night; churches where the pastor delivers three different full sermons a week are sadly rare these days), fifty weeks a year, that’s two full years of sermons. For most pastors that would be even more; for my current church that would be four years or more. At Thomas Road it would probably be three or four, given the number of men who man that pulpit in a typical week. Regardless, it’s an interesting number; I’d be interested to see if 200 hours of Caner’s talk s and sermons are available online, and whether his misstatements fit the example he’s suggesting here.

“You learn to live with adversity. You learn through adversity. And it takes more than edited videos to knock me down,” Caner said.

This is an interesting quote, too; I’d encourage anyone interested to be sure to track down the unedited versions of videos whenever possible. For example, when I first saw the YouTube video where Caner claims to have been born in Istanbul my first thought was that he must be the victim of a malevolent edit. So when a link to the unedited video [link] turned up I was surprised to find that he said the same thing there too. I will leave it as an exercise for the viewer to decide whether saying “Istanbul” instead of “Sweden” fits the pattern of getting kids’ names wrong.

Born in Sweden to Turkish parents and raised as a Sunni Muslim, Caner converted to Christianity after his family moved to Ohio.

This was the discrepancy that did it for me; this was the thing that convinced me Caner was actually deceiving his audience rather than just misspeaking in the heat of the moment. I’m still waiting to hear some clarification regarding his past in “Islamic youth jihad” and how that happened while he was growing up in Ohio. I haven’t yet seen any evidence that Caner spent any time in Turkey, much less any time in a Turkish militant Islamic youth organization.

I’d be inclined to drop the whole matter if Caner weren’t still doing pretty much the same thing he was doing before he was demoted; the rest of the article makes it clear he was invited to Bristol to talk about Islam, not about apologetics, or cults and sects, or the Crusades, or any of the other myriad things about which he is expert, and about which no questions have been raised regarding his qualifications.

The McGee article was syndicated in the Lynchburg paper [link] under a different title. I’d love to know the last time the Lynchburg paper carried an article on a prayer breakfast at another town in Virginia.

Gina Welch on WETA’s “The Book Studio”

August 6, 2010 Leave a comment

Here’s a nine-minute segment from an interview Gina Welch did on WETA, a PBS station in the Washington DC area.

There’s some fairly standard stuff here: Welch and host grapple with the terms “fundamentalist” and “evangelical” and discuss but don’t name “separatism,” instead using the undefined terms “big-F fundamentalism” and “little-F fundamentalism.” They also namecheck Francis Schaeffer and briefly mention his influence on Jerry Falwell.

Unfortunately the second half of the interview is kind of tainted by what Pearl Buck called “the stink of condescension,” suggesting that the glories of big-P progressivism and feminism have passed evangelical culture in general and women in particular by, and that at Thomas Road young women consider themselves future mothers first and foremost. Along the way Welch also mentions that she visited Thomas Road in part because she was so appalled by the reelection of George W. Bush, and the fact that her grandparents on one side were Communists.

I honestly don’t recognize her characterization of these women; the women I knew at Liberty who would say their career plan was to become a wife and mother were few and far between when I was there. Maybe Welch and I traveled in different circles.