I finally saw “Heaven Is For Real” at the local dollar theater. This film has been out for over four months, but because it is still somewhat in demand it ends up playing at the low-end movie theaters. These are the deep discount picture shows that have seen better days, ones to which working class parents can afford to take the whole family.
I’m a rather worldly guy who looks at the cinema as an art form and who has fairly high critical standards for film. I go to a lot of movies. Many weeks I go to more than one movie. But I’m also a fairly churchy guy. Some weekends I go to three services at three different churches—one weekend I actually went to four. Anyway, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed “Heaven Is For Real.” There were themes that I didn’t expect, and it was almost a churchy experience in itself.
Greg Kinnear plays the pastor of a popular small town church whose four-year old son has a near death experience during surgery and afterwards starts mentioning angels, dead relatives and meeting Jesus, etc. The boy’s experience, and his father speaking out about it, creates some controversy within the church. Also, the pastor/dad steps down from the pulpit for a while due to some health issues of his own and attendance drops. Inevitably, the elders get concerned. One older lady grieving her son’s death gets particularly torqued about the all the talk of heaven.
I was struck at how authentically churchy the film felt. Hollywood usually does a disservice to “Christian” movies but in my opinion was spot-on in this one. Pastor Todd (Kinnear) had a casual, upbeat preaching style, but while rather contemporary feeling, his message was laced with scripture. You got the feeling that when he preached his flock felt fed. He had an engaging quality that made me think, “Yeah, I’d go to his church.” They got it right even down to the pastor’s wife being the choir director. That is kind of typical in many small churches. Another thing I liked was traditional hymns forming the music for the movie—but particularly “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” That 250 year-old hymn is pretty much my favorite. It was a relief that they didn’t frame the film with the bombastic and/or whiney songs that constitute much of contemporary worship.
The preoccupations of the elders with the decreasing revenue (tithes & offerings) and the bitchiness of the one woman also felt authentic. Anybody who’s been in the same church for many years has likely become aware of the world’s intrusion into their “faith” community. The Body is chock full of snarky, critical, cranky, opinionated, religiously obsessed folks. So much so that one of the contemporary church problems appears to be church shopping. Many folks church shop hoping to find the magic one—one that feels right, that has all the qualities they seek and none of the baggage they’re trying to avoid.
I hope I’m not a church shopper, but like I said, I attend a bunch of churches. Most Sunday nights I go to Northland, A Church Distributed, in the Orlando suburb of Longwood. I’ve attended there for 21 years. It’s Dr. Joel Hunter’s church. It’s officially a megachurch, with about 8,000 people attending the five weekend services. It’s part of the trend of nondenominational suburban megachurches. They are typically casual, nonliturgical, feature a popular pastor with an upbeat message, and largely contemporary worship music.
But about 4 or 5 years ago I began to burn-out on Northland’s casualness and its repetitive message. I’d grown weary of the topical, proof-texted sermons and the weekly bombardment with the “social gospel.” I believe we are called to do good works in this world but I also believe that sermons should feed our beliefs thru the exposition of scripture, and also that there should be a more reverent focus on the holiness of God than what a megachurch typically provides. For me church should be more than an entertainment-driven show and a call to go out in the world, do good works and evangelize. Hence, I started to balance the evening services at Northland with a morning service at R. C. Sproul’s church, St. Andrew’s Chapel—high church pageantry and liturgy to the max with expository sermons instead of topical ones. And for about two years attending both churches filled the bill. But after a couple years I began to tire of the sameness in the liturgy and order of service at St. Andrews. Week after week no hymn newer than 100 yrs old unless it was one of the hymns written by Dr. Sproul himself–chock full of Thees and Thous and other Elizabethan verbiage.
Then I stumbled on participatory church, church that meets in homes, and is sometimes referred to as “organic church” or “simple church.” I read “Pagan Christianity” by Frank Viola and books by other authors which critique the way church has been done since around the year AD 350 when Constantine institutionalized Christianity. Almost magically, a local house church literally dropped into my lap. I felt that this was no accident and that the Holy Spirit was calling me to a totally different experience of Christ’s Body. I initially went out of curiosity but after two meetings I was completely hooked, and within a few months the dozen adults and half-dozen kids in the church became my family. Organic/simple church self-consciously mimics the First Century church that met in homes and was participatory as in I Cor. 14:26: “…when you meet together, every one of you should have a psalm, a doctrine, a tongue, a revelation, an interpretation. Let everything be done unto edifying.”
But, per Hahn’s Law, “Big churches have big church problems; small churches have small church problems”—problems soon emerged about where we met (geography), how we worshipped (style), how church decisions were to be made and how we did or didn’t defer to one another in love. A year after I joined there was a church split and a few months later another. It was very disillusioning. Where did my church family go?
Also, one of the disconcerting things I noticed about the advocates of organic church was a certain pridefulness about how we did church the way the apostles of the First Century did church and how other styles were pretty much wrong. For a while I was guilty of that attitude too. But, perhaps being more critical than most, I began to notice that our 3 to 4 hour meetings often fell flat, that I didn’t always find the worship uplifting and that at times we focused too much on personal concerns and not enough on the Lord. It’s unstructured nature was worrisome at times, but I had no complaint as I was usually guilty of not bringing content to help structure the meetings. Organic church’s success depends on everyone participating and taking some responsibility for the worship and content of the service. Anyway, I was finding organic/simple/home church often a less than satisfying experience for me as “church” but the need it always fulfilled brilliantly was that of fellowship. The potluck meal together and the warmth of the fellowship was always a winner.
But I soldiered on, mixing both of the home church groups with Northland. I also attended a Celebrate Recovery (CR) meeting most weeks that has all of the elements of church— worship, fellowship, prayer, biblical content, etc. So I was getting plenty of church but often feeling restless and unsatisfied. Some weeks the CR meeting was the best church meeting of the week. For a couple of years my attendance at Northland had become pretty much just habitual. I needed to fill up that early Sunday evening time with something, and Northland had been it for years. Most of my friends went to that service. And so I went out of habit and to socialize.
I felt like Pastor Joel was burnt out, and like me, at times was just going thru the motions of church. His sermons seemed flat and repetitive. The worship generally just struck me as an entertainment-driven “show”—something in which I often felt I couldn’t be a participant. Pastor Joel had become a celebrity of sorts—very much in demand at meetings and conferences and briefings at the White House. He travelled incessantly and it seemed that the church he’d so brilliantly built was no longer his main focus. Also, to make matters worse, his family had been devastated by tragedy. A granddaughter died of cancer, and then last December his middle son, Pastor Isaac Hunter, committed suicide. It was not a good era for the Hunter family or for Northland. Attendance had dropped. Many of the church’s old-timers were not happy with Dr. Hunter’s political focus and had moved on to other churches. I couldn’t blame him for burnout. It seemed fairly obvious that he was driven by busyness, losses and extraneous demands. There was much grumbling amongst the flock and I was as guilty of that as any.
I did, however, realize that while I stood there mute and unmoved many were worshipping and the sermons that I found pointless were just what some needed to hear—and occasionally what I needed to hear. I realized that the Holy Spirit was still present at Northland—just not so much with me. However, I’d come to see that home churches and megachurches were not mutually exclusive—that both could be a part of my life, that the Holy Spirit wasn’t particular about exactly where the Father and the Son were experienced. The Holy Spirit is the great connector and He does His work in every and in any venue, but mostly in our hearts.
After the suicide Pastor Joel took a month off and then earlier this summer he took another 6-week sabbatical to rest and listen to God. He returned to the pulpit with a renewed focus. His sermons of late have recaptured the energy and originality of his preaching from 10 to 15 yrs ago. He has been preaching thru the gospel of John—not exactly expository but pretty close.
And, much to my surprise, one of his new themes has been for Northland to birth hundreds of home churches. This past sunday he quoted Acts 2:46: “Evey day they continued to meet together in the Temple courts. They broke bread together in their homes and ate together…” He sees Northland as the big meeting in the Temple, the storehouse, and the homes as where true fellowship and additional worship takes place. He says in 2015, he’s going to spell out more clearly the partnership between the house churches and the megachurch. I think he’s on target. Like I said, I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive, and folks should go to more than one service or meeting per week. I think people need more than one source of input, and it’s apparent to me that a home church is in danger of becoming too insular. The big church has resources and an ability to connect folks in ways that home churches can’t, and house churches have an intimacy and provide emotional support the megachurches never can. Oddly enough, another noncoincidence: Just yesterday there was a blog by Ed Stetzer in “Christianity Today” titled almost exactly the same as this blog that I started over a week ago. His conclusion was pretty much the same as mine—that megachurch and house church can compliment each other. They don’t have to be in competition.
And all the people said, “Amen.”