We park our blue Reliant K under the guidance of a blue-uniformed attendant who makes sure we are square in the middle of our smallish space. Pausing to let the engine diesel to a halt, he hands me a stub informing us we are in Orange Area 3-C. It’s Sunday morning, and we’re “ just visiting” a church of a thousand, Extended Family Worship Center, the goingest church in Washegon. It is vibrantly Pentcostal, and a lot of the growth is new converts. Their website lists the average age of a member at 25; a large percentage of them seem to drive hybrids and Jeep things of various kinds that chirp when their owners approach them.
Purple signs posted everywhere make it easy to locate the nursery complex, where we park our kids. Dropping them off is a matter of waiting in line while filling out a small (purple) form which we give to a sweet 50-ish lady, who snaps a plastic ID (purple) around each wrist, gives us the name of the young woman who will escort them to their classes, and poof! Off they go down the hall as we wave an anxious, quick good-bye. We do not see any classrooms, as the building is configured so no stranger can just amble in. Thinking about this makes us feel secure. It's a nice place. Every surface is sparkling clean, as if dirt molecules have been rebuked by the 24-hour prayer team from Washegon that was featured in a recent issue of Charisma.
Astonished at this efficiency, we lose track of the signs, but stumble into the wraparound foyer, worthy of an airport, where we meet a smiling Asian usher, ‘Jacques’ by the name tag on his lapel, who welcomes us to Extended Family. We comment on the beautiful facility (once you pass 1,000, it’s no longer called a “building”), and Jacques nods thoughtfully. We are standing in front of a fountain courtyard with trees that actually look like the ones in architectural drawings. I note that I have never seen an Asian in Washegon except at the Chinese restaurant, but somehow the church found Jacques, and he is obviously comfortable and welcome here. He hands us this week’s bulletin, which is clean and uncluttered, yet somehow contains all of the weeks’s activities and even a page for sermon notes. There is a glossy insert advertising an upcoming prophetic conference, with a tear-off end for reservations (you have to tear half the face of a Kansas City Prophet to do this, but for convenience, it’s great). We pass, awestruck, through enormous double doors into the sanctuary. I knock on the center of a door to see if it is solid wood or hollow-core; Jacques wheels around, but as I did this naughty thing surreptitiously, he gives only a puzzled, distant 180-degree look and returns to his ushering.
Extended Family has the standard outward stuff – a semicircular auditorium, seating 1500, with a shallow balcony connected to the lower level with huge carpeted staircases along the outer walls. There are two enormous video screens which display either the action on the platform or the words to the songs. They dance with attractive images and clever slogans. Occasionally live visuals of the congregation pan across the congregation and when they zoom in, a child giggles and points as the parents wave; or the whole youth group gets up and goes "whoop, whoop!" The first three rows of each section are pews, while the farther-back seats are opera-style (a wise move, which, several years ago, preserved the church’s reputation as a happy place). The platform, which is over a hundred feet wide, is fully accessible, by wide carpeted steps and a ramp for wheelchairs.
At this point, the Pastor is nowhere to be seen, only his pulpit. It’s not a fancy thing, but a double-wide Manhasset music stand which can be moved aside when the drama team dashes out for the illustrated sermon. The music stand says it: this is a church with a with-it pastor who is not a lord but a facilitator, who values the Word over stuff. There are a lot of stands for instruments, but the platform looks clean because everything that could possibly be wireless is wireless. There are enough percussion instruments to meet the needs of Zambia. In the corner is a nine-foot Steinway grand, but it is unoccupied; the worship leader is poised behind a cutting-edge Yamaha GX6W92+J. You notice that a worship band has melted into place, hardly noticed, because not a one of them dropped his music or had to fix a loose cable. The clack of drumstick on drumstick: 1-2-3-4! On what would be ‘5' the worship band explodes into My Latest Song to God, which the congregation immediately picks up, clapping on the right beat even before the end of the first measure, because the worship team began the clapping with oversized motions that would be unmistakable from any distance or angle. Young people stream out of their seats, converting the altar area into a holy mosh pit, throbbing with life and energy. A few of the braver adults move out into the aisle, having learned to claim an aisle seat so they could enjoy freedom to move during worship time. The front pews are lined with wheelchairs and developmentally disabled adults and children. As the first song seems to be heading to a close, part of the giant baptismal wall opens into double-doors, through which a choir enters on the run, clapping with the beat and re-energizing the song, then launching into another, even more powerful worship chorus by Jersey Tabernacle -- oh my! You haven’t lived till you’ve heard Reign Us, Rain Down. They sport matching T-shirts in bright red, emblazoned with the church’s pure-white Holy Spirit Dove-and-Sword logo (the worship team is in navy blue). I try to contemplate this aggressive Dove, but I quickly get lost in the music. Worship is joyous, strong and good. Owing to precise acoustics, though the sound was very loud, my ears only rang a little bit.
About twenty minutes into worship time, the sanctuary lights come down. Out of an inky nocturnal quiet emerges something half blues, half bolero, played on a single acoustic guitar, amplified so you can hear every squeak. A gorgeous black woman adds to this matrix a quiet ballad called Eclipse. From seemingly nowhere a rugged, bloostained cross has emerged. On silent hinges, the song swings into a growing chorus; she moves directly in front of the cross and sits down on its base, as she sings of sorrowing Mary and the hope of a new day and the distant promise of the Holy Spirit. The choir moves into Break Through as Pastor Bifford approaches the Communion Table. Biff, who turned down a pro contract to preach the Gospel, gives a short devotion, and asks a young man to come up, who was healed at the previous Communion service. The young man gives his name (Larry) and the fact that he was healed, but the pastor tells the story and its implications. I wonder how Communion is going to be distributed, as I see only a half-dozen ushers with plates. But as the lights begin to come up a bit, I notice that there are little communion sets in the pew racks -- a mini-loaf and a juice cup with a tear-off lid like a coffee creamer. Terrified that I might lose control of the cup as I try to remove the seal (and thus defile the incredibly stain-free carpet), I pinion it against my stomach, preferring to risk my necktie for Jesus. Success! Now, gently I place the cup back on the pew rack as I break the seal on the tiny little loaf. Nice – it releases a tiny amount of bread-fragrance, which mingles with the aroma of the grape. I notice that many of the members rip those seals off without even looking at their cups and bread, they’ve gotten so good at it. The service is quiet and reverent; but soon the lights come up and the worship band begins the Doxology in super-soft tones, crescendoing into the sound of a massive pipe organ adorned with swirling cymbal rolls, then instead of the last chord launches into a hyperventilating rendition of Dancing Generation. The youth return to the altar area at the right, singing and dancing, while over on the left healing ministry is taking place.
My right knee has been throbbing, so I think I’ll give them a try. I go to the shortest line, and soon I am face to face with an elder, to whom I tell my source of misery. Hands go up, the most intense prayer in tongues I have ever heard and – suddenly my knees give way and I feel strong arms gently letting me down to the ground. I have been ‘slain in the Spirit’. I lay there for a few minutes, basking in the warm feeling. As I get up, I see the pray-er praying for someone several people down the line; but a friendly voice asks me, ‘feel better?’ ‘Sure do’ Apparently there is no need for further conversation, so I test the healing by walking briskly back to my wife, who has already found the purple sign which will guide us back to the nursery complex. The knee is definitely better; still a twinge, but I’m more concerned about our kids. Glad that we didn’t lose our claim check, we retrieve and unband our children, who excitedly tell us their lesson from the latest Veggie Tales movie, Stir-Fry, inspired by the emergence of the church in China.
At Orange Area 3-C, the parking lot attendant is so courteous and helpful with getting us out of the miniature space that I momentarily toy with the idea of giving him a tip, or maybe even my tithe; but I see my wife darting looks at me, and decide it’s best just to wave and get in line behind a dozen cars waiting to make the left turn across the six lanes of Yangtze Boulevard. Quite a morning in the Church of a Thousand!
My experience with big is fairly limited. Yeah, I once subbed for the organist at Anaheim Stadium, for six games, the first of which featured an electrical storm which blew out a light tower. I had lost my fake book and had come with only nine sheets of music, one for each inning. Terror. But they were kind. Have you ever made up totally fake songs in front of 20,000 people? ...and I played for a local Benny Hinn Crusade; he had some pretty interesting stories about himself. And I saw "The New Nixon" at an airport rally. Really did. Saw the top of his head. So you see, I have my reservations about anything big, new, or improved.
One of the first assignments my new Pastor gave was to catch the vision of growth. He asked us for our own visions for a church of 1,000. What would it "look like" -- physically, spiritually, emotionally, socially. Starting with the physical, I tried some bird’s-eye views; but they kept coming out as five 200-person fellowship halls connected to a grassy quadrant and a gym. How can my church grow without growing into the lonely, plasticky feeling of the giant edifices I have visited? In those large bodies, is there a vibrant life beneath the surface – home groups, Bible studies, prayer ministries, coffee houses and such? Some simply get large on the strength of an anointed preacher, others on great administration, others on cool music; but all got large for some reason. Some stay large because they do things designed to keep a church large; others stay large because they never lose their first love, that of Christ, one another, and those outside the walls makes their fellowship large with love and a magnet for those who need real life in Jesus.