Pastor’s Nov. Ponderings
If you were in church on Sunday, October 6, you would have noted my absence. I had planned to attend a preaching course at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. I had asked Torben Aarsand to fill in for me, but two weeks before my intended absence, I decided to attend a another event, this one at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. Retired pastors like Torben love to get around the synod, preaching at different congregations, and many depend on the stipend to supplement their income, so it’s not nice to cancel someone at the last moment. So I decided to take the Sunday and attend another church, just to see what is going on there. Since I have heard so much about the “movie theater church,” I went there with Tom and June Holler. I thought I would report on what I experienced, since this church is one that several members who left Trinity now attend.
The “movie theater church” is aptly named since it worships in theater 2 at the Leitersberg Cinema. It is one of several campuses of the LifeHouse Church here in Hagerstown. There were three services that day. We chose to go the middle service at 10 a.m. When we drove up, several spaces were clearly marked for use by visitors. We parked in one. At the edge of the sidewalk, there was a booth inviting newcomers to sign in. I do not like to stand out in a crowd, so we walked by and entered the theater by the box office. We were greeted several times by people specifically appointed to do so (they were wearing tags). Those who registered as guests were given eight by 10-inch signs indicating that they were VIPs. I was glad we didn’t indicate we were visitors. I’m not sure what wearing a sign would have done for us! However, Tom is a friendly guy and talks to everyone, so he made the acquaintance of a young man who showed us around the lobby.
A light breakfast of cereal, donuts, milk, coffee, and juice was available at one of the theater’s concession stands. There was a table with information about a foster child service agency here in Washington County. That was prominently placed at the entrance to theater 2. Ropes indicated where those who were about to go into the theater should stand. Shortly the doors opened, and those in attendance at the earlier service were leaving. When they were out, we entered. Theater 2 has new seats. They are deeply padded, and the backs are very high, making it difficult for even a six-four guy like me to see over them. We took seats near the middle, and no one sat near us. Most people there, like good Protestants, sat in the back. On the screen was a changing scene, which had in one corner a box counting down to when the next service would begin. Right on cue, the service began 10 minutes after we sat down.
The service started with three musical selections. I am not too knowledgeable about contemporary Christian music, but I think it was “cutting-edge” stuff. The words were projected onto the screen with professional quality graphics illustrating the words we were singing. After each piece, a band member made a brief testimony highlighting what the lyrics had said. There were five or six band members – guitars, a drum set, and I think a flute, but my memory has faded a bit. Each band member also sang. It was evident to me that all of the band members were professionals, and therefore most likely paid for their services. This must have been true too of the person in charge of the graphics, because there must have been 50 or 60 different illustrations and short videos shown during the service.
LifeHouse was doing a series based on the theme “For Our City.” The theme of the day when we were there was foster parenting, hence the display in the lobby. The theme was introduced by a Hollywood-quality movie of a woman from the church who, together with her husband (never shown in the video), had made a decision to foster a special needs child. The woman was shown in her home seated on a couch with the kitchen visible. This part of the video lasted about 10 minutes. When it was over, the senior pastor of the church came on the stage.
Pastor Patrick Grauch is one of the two lead pastors; his wife is the other. He used the text from the Gospel of Mark, of the woman with the hemorrhage who worked her way through the crowd to seek healing by touching Jesus’s robe. Interspersed with that story is the story of the raising of the daughter of Jarius. This was a Bible study/sermon, which is common in Evangelical churches. The pastor used the text to illustrate how people can become marginalized. He spoke for about 40 minutes. The pastor repeated himself several times, even to the point that he himself said he was repeating himself. Given the comfort of the seats and the darkness of the theater, I have to confess that I dozed off for a minute or two. I thought the theology of the message was very sound. Pastor Grauch spoke the entire time without notes. After he finished, the second half of the movie about the foster family played. It was about five minutes long.
The service continued with an explanation as to how one could financially support the church. There is no formal offering during the service. Envelopes for donations are in the lobby, but an emphasis was on giving via electronic means. It was also explained that the next step for someone interested in the church was to visit a booth in the lobby. There one could also sign up for a house church cell. In large congregations, it is in a house church where you do Bible study, have fellowship, get to know people, and receive pastoral care from each other. The pastor does not know people, as you would expect me to have a personal relationship with you.
The service concluded with another musical selection, and it was made known that prayer teams were available in the front of the theater. We were dismissed, and everyone left just as they might at the end of a movie. There was little interaction with the worshippers. The theater is very big, so it is difficult to estimate how many were there. I guess about 150.
I was left cold because of the omission of something that is huge for me – the celebration of Holy Communion. Since my earliest days as a member of a liturgical church, when I was in seventh grade, I have come to expect to receive the sacrament of bread and wine every week. I see the service as being two parts, the first is Word and the second is Eucharist. I honestly don’t know when the sacrament is celebrated at LifeHouse. I don’t know how it is celebrated, that is, do you receive it at your seat or at a communion station? I just know it wasn’t available the Sunday I was there, and I missed it. I could not go to a church without weekly Communion.
Critics call churches like LifeHouse entertainment ministry. I found the service uplifting, and if one is looking for professionally done music with accompanying graphics, you find it there. The theology was fine, no hell and damnation! The emphasis on a community service was laudable. I think God has created us as unique individuals with different likes and dislikes. I’m fine with people finding joy in worship, in varied settings from our sanctuary to a movie theater. I’m just glad people are going to church. The worshippers that day were on the young side, and I believe children are in another area altogether.
I have never had aspirations to be the pastor of a mega-church. I like the personal relationships that I can have with people in a church the size of Trinity. I daresay that one of the appeals of LifeHouse is anonymity. You can go and worship and not really talk to people. No one is going to corral you and on your second visit ask you to be on church council! Members at LifeHouse are apparently encouraged to dig deeper, as a brochure invites visitors, by becoming a part of a cell group. It would be interesting to know what percentage of the members of the church actually take that next step. However, this kind of anonymity is not unique to a church like LifeHouse. Many people seek it out at liturgical churches. The largest Evangelical Lutheran Church in America congregation is Mount Olivet in Minneapolis, with 6,000 each Sunday. Do you think the pastor would know you there? Of course not. A friend of mine went there, and after joining the congregation thought he would volunteer to be on church council. He was told members start as traffic cops in the parking lot and work their way into the building by serving in different jobs!
When I mentioned to some of our members that I had gone to the “movie theater church,” they spoke of it as our “competition.” I don’t think that’s true. We might envy their bottom line, but I think diversity in worship styles is healthy. Between our Praise Worship and the more formal service at 11 a.m., I think we offer a sound product. It’s just that we don’t know how to invite people who might like that to know we are here. We are trying to do this by defining our mission. Once that is done, we can focus on the marketing ideas I raised last year at the annual meeting, and for which a large sum was set aside. God’s kingdom is pretty big. There’s a place for LifeHouse and Trinity.
We are seeking to bring people to a closer relationship with Jesus.
May our efforts be blessed and enriched.
Pastor David Eisenhuth