Note to reader: This essay was composed almost a month ago when I was visiting my daughter’s family in Maine and Embry was touring the “Stans” on a Smithsonian tour. The week I returned to DC, I collapsed with what I have self diagnosed as Long Covid. Embry has her doubts about the accuracy of my self diagnosis, but in any event I am happy to report that I am finally beginning to feel better and hopefully am on the mend.
As is now common knowledge, mainline Protestant churches have been shrinking for the last several decades. I am what is called a “cradle Episcopalian,” which means, “born and bred in the Episcopal Church.” In the 1950s Episcopalians numbered about 3.5 million. Now we are about 1.8 million. Presbyterians—the other denomination which like Episcopalians have been referred to as “God’s Frozen Chosen” — have declined even more. And Methodists, Congregationalists, American Baptists, Lutherans, and even Southern Baptists are experiencing similar trends. The only growth that is reported is in The Church of the Latter Day Saints (or Mormons) and what are labeled “evangelical churches” and “community churches with no denominational affiliation.” Some also call themselves “praise churches.”
I have been curious as to what is going on for some time; and for this reason, when recently visiting my daughter’s family in Portland, Maine, I asked if I could accompany their young “extended family member,” who is a college student from Africa, to attend church with her. From my daughter’s description the church she attends, which I will call “The Point Non-Denominational Christian Church,”(not its real name) sounded like one of the non-affiliated community churches—probably evangelical– with a growing membership. Maybe this experience would provide some clues.
The two of us arrived for the early service starting at nine about 20 minutes early and found ourselves in a long line of cars trying to enter the parking lot of a regional shopping center. The line moved very quickly, however, because there were a dozen or so people with bright yellow shirts directing traffic into the huge parking area in front of the shopping center. As we got out of the car, we joined a throng of people of all ages, almost all white, eagerly headed toward the center of the shopping center where there was a huge structure with a sign, “The Point Christian Church.” Except for the sign the massive, three-story building blended in with the rest of the shopping center and could easily have been mistaken for an office building. The energy and excitement all around us reminded me of going to a high school football or basketball game. I looked around and noted the vast parking lot was already almost full, and no stores in the shopping center were even open yet.
As we approached the front door of the church, we were immediately greeted by several smiling people—mostly men wearing name tags that said “greeter” — who shook our hands vigorously, told us how glad they were to see us, and thanked us for coming. Everyone else got the same welcome. Many were embracing. (And no one was wearing a covid mask.)
Good heavens, I thought, when was the last time I got a welcome like this?
Upon entering the large lobby there was no hint that we were entering a Christian church—no crosses or pictures of Jesus or banners or anything else suggesting that this might be a church. On our right in the large lobby was a section with tables and chairs and large sign that said “Café,” and on our left was a Starbucks lookalike with a sign that read “Coffee Shop.” Behind that was a lounge area with chairs and sofas arranged around a large fireplace. Signs directed the crowd to five options—”Christian Education and Meeting Rooms,” “Soccer field,” “Basketball Courts,” “Church Offices,” and “Auditorium.” As we joined the line headed toward the Auditorium, we snuggled between adults returning from dropping off their kids in the Christian Education area. While there were only a few people of color besides my young, African partner—after all, this was in Maine, which is 95% white—there was a wide variety of ages. I was particularly impressed by how many young people and Gen Zs there were. I was also impressed with what people were wearing. I was over dressed, wearing khaki pants and a golf shirt. The dress code for the day was mainly shorts, cut offs, jeans with fashionable holes at knee level, running or walking shoes and tee shirts. Had I not known better, I would have thought we were headed to a rock concert.
To get to the Auditorium you must pass by the regulation-size, indoor soccer field and the regulation-size basketball courts with small galleries for spectators. The One Point website also boasts of pickle ball courts and an indoor golf center. For a moment I thought I was in one of the new, over-the-top, elite college athletic facilities. However, at that time no one was using the basketball courts or artificial grass soccer field as we inched along with others headed for the Auditorium, which was a couple of floors up reachable by stairs or a bank of elevators. I wondered why they had not put in escalators.
At about five minutes before nine, we reached the top of the stairs and were finally at the Auditorium. At the entrance area we were met by more smiling greeters thanking us for coming and saying how glad they were to see us. Some were hugging and embracing. I heard voices all around me saying, “Brother, it is great to see you!” “Sister, we love you!”
Before we passed into the Auditorium, my young friend pointed to a large bowl containing tiny, plastic capsules, which she pointed out contained the grape juice and a wafer for communion. We each took one and entered. No bulletins or information about the service were available although on the wall was a list of numerous ministries and activities which were happening during the week. One that caught my eye was a “women’s prison ministry.”
The Auditorium was a vast, windowless, dim space the size of a Broadway theater, with seating on the main level and in a large balcony area. (Later I looked up the size of the space on their website and found it to have 1,600 seats.) I guessed that about 1,400 seats were already occupied as we found a couple of empty seats near front and close to the stage. There was no hint that we were in a church—no symbols, crosses, pulpit, hymnals, or anything like that. I sat down between my young friend and next to another African, a young man in his 20s with a strong accent. I looked toward the large stage area, which was empty at that time but accommodated a large drum set on one side, a huge keyboard on the other, and five or six microphones at the front of the stage. Three large video screens were on the wall behind the stage, and two enormous screens were on each side, the size of a movie screen in a typical movie theater. Between the drum set and the keyboard was a string of Broadway-style, festive lights at the back of the stage that spelled out something like “Serving Greater Portland.”
As the clock approached nine, the chatter began to diminish, and anticipation began to build. I could feel the excitement, the kind of feeling I remember from attending a Judy Collins or Nina Simone concert in the 1960s and 70s. The dim lights went out completely as a hush came over the congregation in the pitch-black dark. For five or six seconds all conversation ceased.
I thought “Oh my goodness, what’s next?”
Then the theater lights above the stage burst on, the music started, and the congregation jumped to their feet and roared approval. Think what it is like when Notre Dame or University of Alabama football players enter a packed home stadium for a crucial game. Ten folk rock musicians appeared on stage—five guitar players, three acoustic and two electric, all young men in their twenties or early thirties with the Maine scruffy look—long hair, beards, jeans, tee shirts and running shoes; a woman a little older playing keyboard, and a very large young man playing the drums. Three fabulous vocalists were off to the side, two women, one African American, and one guy who was dressed just like the guitar players. The musicians were not rank amateurs but polished professionals. “Oh, I said to myself. Now I understand: It’s the music.”
Their first piece was part folk and part country song with an up-tempo beat that could have come out of a Paul Simon, Garth Brooks, Taylor Swift, or a Brandi Carlisle songbook except for the Christian lyrics, which appeared on the three high-definition screens behind the band. Everyone around me was standing and singing at the top of their lungs, some jumping up and down, and most raising their arms in the air as they swayed back and forth to the beat of the music. The high-definition, massive screens on each side of the stage showed closeups of the performers and occasionally the entire performing group. I found myself standing up and swaying to the beat of the music and even raising my arms in praise. Feeling a tad awkward, I was relieved that no one could see me in the dark theater. Afterall, I am one of “God’s Frozen Chosen.” I could not help thinking that somehow, I had gotten confused and made a wrong turn, thinking I was going to a church but ending up at a country/folk rock concert. I smiled and had to admit that I was captivated by the musical performance, which over the course of just about 90 minutes included over a half dozen, very polished, extended pieces all of which had variations the same basic lyrics: Praise God, God is great, God is good, God is love, Jesus is great, you are forgiven for your sins, your life has meaning, you will live forever if you accept God’s love and believe in Jesus!”
In addition to the fabulous music, there were announcements made by the youth minister who could not have been all that many years older than a teenager himself, who listed a couple of dozen important activities that would be happening during the next week including a community picnic with inflatable slides, activities for kids, and entertainment. Later in the service came a 30-minute sermon by another young pastor, who was probably in his mid 30s. Since he did not introduce himself, I do not know if he was the senior pastor, but suspect not. (Five pastors, all men, are listed in their website along with 20 other staff.) Both pastors had the same scruffy, Maine look of the band performers and were dressed like most of the males in the congregation– sports shirt, jeans and running shoes. While he had prepared a written sermon, which was on an electronic tablet resting on a small podium, he glanced at it only occasionally and casually walked around the stage talking into the mic in a conversational tone as if he were in a personal conversation with each of the enthusiastic members of the congregation. His subject was the “Fourth Core Value” of the church and why it was important. The first three core values were these: “Know God, Find Freedom, and Engage Community.” “His sermon was on was “Share Your Story” –spreading the word through personal testimony and sharing God’s love, forgiveness, and reconciliation.
Other than his one long, extemporaneous prayer toward the end, there were no group prayers that I can recall, not even the Lord’s Prayer, no creeds, and no Bible readings except for a passage in the Gospel of John on which the sermon was based. At one point he showed a 10-minute clip from the movie, “The Chosen,” which was about Jesus saving a Samaritan woman at a well found in the Gospel of John, which illustrated a point he was making in his sermon. At the end of his sermon, everyone applauded, then opened their tiny container, ate the small wafer, and sipped down the grape juice.
Other highlights included two full-immersion, adult baptisms, numbers 103 and 104 for the year. The first one was accompanied by a 3 or 4-minute recorded testimony on the huge high-definition screen of the person being baptized, a serious looking woman in her 30s, wearing a black “Jesus is Lord” tee shirt. The second baptism, a woman in her late 30s or early 40s who had found Jesus while the minister was giving his sermon, happened at the tail of the sermon. The congregation exploded with applause following both baptisms.
When the band reappeared on the stage, the lights in the auditorium seating area darkened again for the final song. Everyone jumped to their feet and joyfully sang the words on the high-def video screen about loving God, being saved and praising Jesus.
The enthusiastic greeters appeared again as people poured out of the auditorium, thanking us for being there and saying, “See you again next Sunday, brother.” The parking attendants got the cars moving out of the parking lot quickly following the service to make way for those coming to the eleven o’clock service, which my young friend told me was the more popular of the two services and often was standing room only. In all, that Sunday, there were over 3,000 people attending the two services with more than 1,000 others online. The five or six hundred children and teenagers who were in Sunday school were not counted in these numbers.
So, the question is what to make of this. As a representative of God’s Frozen Chosen, I was and remain speechless.
Important in my thinking is that what did not happen that morning is just as important is what did happen. There was no fire and brimstone, no hollering or screaming by pastors, no hostile comments about anyone or group or about going to hell if you don’t own up to your sins. Not a hint about Trump or stolen elections—something I was carefully looking for. There was also no offering, no talk about money (except a message on the high-definition screen that you could give as you leave or online), and no hint of anything political or controversial. There was not a word about abortion. Who knows, maybe I was just lucky that morning. The experience for me seemed genuine, sincere, and essentially theologically consistent with the fundamental message of Christianity: God loves you. You are forgiven. Your life has meaning. There is a silver lining in the suffering you have experienced. Afterall, this message over the centuries has been what has drawn people from all cultures around the globe to become Christians, who now are found in every country and number over 2.5 billion, more than any other religious faith including Islam, which is not far behind. Estimates are that in the United States, evangelicals account for over a fourth of all people who call themselves Christians.
But naturally, I could not help comparing this experience to the neighborhood Episcopal Church, which Embry and I have been attending since the late 1980s. The neo-Gothic building is beautiful, and the sung mass is solemn and at times uplifting. However, seated in the 300-seat nave on a typical service nowadays are only four or five dozen people, mostly old folks. This is due in part to covid, in part to our last rector leaving in a huff, giving us three weeks’ notice, and in part to the secularization of our society, but still the comparison is stark. We now have a terrific interim priest and have always had a welcoming congregation; but long term if we can’t get our numbers up to 150 or so where they were pre covid, we will not be a going concern. And we are not alone. Over a third of the Episcopal churches in the Diocese of Washington are listed as at risk of surviving, and many others are struggling. This is true of all the mainline Protestant churches, and it would be true for the Catholics as well were it not for immigration.
I could not help wondering: Is there anything to be learned by traditional, mainline churches from Evangelical churches like The Point where 3,000 plus members show up on most Sundays?
When I have told friends about my experience at One Point, my comments have often been received with puzzled, skeptical looks. One person exclaimed, “Oh my God, you are not even an orthodox Christian yourself, and you, of all people, see value in an evangelical church? What is happening? Have you gone nuts?”
My reply has been mostly the same, “Different folks, different strokes. One destination, many pathways.” I should add that the pathway must be legitimate and genuine. That seemed to me to be true at One Point.
Then the next question often follows, “But those people are probably Trump supporters and election deniers, right? And you imply that they are essentially good people?”
This question illustrates the predicament we find ourselves in today. We look at people who disagree with us politically—or have different values– as fundamentally bad people. Both Democrats and Republicans are guilty of this, and there are few who dislike Trump and his hard core followers more than I do. I plead guilty as charged. The truth is that there probably were Trump supporters at One Point that morning, but what I saw and experienced was a feeling of love and acceptance and not a hint of hatefulness. We humans–all of us–have the capacity for good and evil and for loving and hating. The challenge is to try to see the good in everyone and to nurture the better angels that are in all of us while keeping the devils at bay and at the same time doing what we can to try to make this troubled planet a better place.
So much, I think, boils down to leadership. Without a Hitler there would not have been the Holocaust; without a Stalin, the gulags; without a Mao, the Cultural Revolution. We humans are basically herd animals. A few bad apples who manage to make it to the top can and often do untold damage.
I know that a lot of evangelical churches have gone to the dark side mixing right wing, extremist politics with religion, and promoting social causes like the Anti-abortion Movement and anti-immigration. Few evangelicals would agree with my progressive politics. Yet there are also many traditional evangelicals who have stayed the course and have resisted becoming radical right-wing Republicans. “The Daily,” a podcast of the New York Times, which aired on Friday, September 23, featured a story on how there is now a huge exodus of traditional evangelical pastors, many of whom have been run out of their churches by congregations who have gone all-in for Trump, whom some call “the new Jesus.”
As for me, I say, “Praise for the praise churches!” While they aren’t for everyone and there are those who have wandered off course, there is surely much to learn—and frankly, to admire– from what I experienced at One Point Christian Church.