The Mall Where You Talk To God

Faith, salvation, and End Times in suburbia: Inside Grace Church.

Who is the Antichrist? Dr. John Eagen, senior pastor at Grace Church, has promised to answer that question today during "The Religious Philosophy of the Anti-Christ," the fifth installment of an 11-week series of Sunday-morning sermons entitled "The Road to Armageddon." In anticipation of this revelation to come, a larger-than-average crowd is making its way onto Grace's $48 million, 62-acre campus for today's 9:00 and 10:45 a.m. services.

Eden Prairie police are directing traffic along Pioneer Trail, where hundreds of four-door sedans, minivans, and sport utility vehicles are stacked up, waiting to pull into two stadium-size lots. A gang of volunteer parking attendants, dressed in bright orange vests and waving fluorescent wands, is scrambling to get the faithful through one of four main sets of doors, where more cheery volunteers with plastic name plates are stationed at official "welcome centers" handing out today's glossy, eight-page program.

Inside, organ music fills the halls as a team of camera operators pans the 4,500-seat auditorium and glass-enclosed skyboxes (available for the convenience of young parents with squall-prone children). They fiddle with inconspicuous earpieces as a technical director chatters instructions from his bank of video monitors in a million-dollar bunker beneath the stage.

As the crowd files in, a full orchestra takes the stage and a red-robed choir climbs to a steeply tiered, 250-seat loft overlooking it all. The top row of singers is perched just below a clear, 2,000-gallon baptism tank, filled to the brim with chlorinated holy water. The baptismal font is backlit for maximum visibility; above it hangs a large wooden cross, the only prominent traditional religious icon in the room. And up above the cross, invisible to spectators but indispensable to the show's production team, there are six levels of catwalks stretching to the heavens.

At 9:00 a.m. sharp, Pastor Ken Parker takes center stage to lead the congregation in song as the lyrics scroll across two 18-by-32-foot video screens that flank the stage. "A mighty fortress is our God," the hymn begins. Then the refrain: Jesus loves. Jesus saves. Jesus will be back to usher in the end times.

Parker, who looks like he could be the senior speaker at a political convention or a shareholders' meeting, is dressed in a dark, tastefully pin-striped suit, powder-blue shirt, and soft-red tie. Like everyone else who will speak today, he works off a well-rehearsed script--written and rewritten throughout the previous week, timed down to the second, digitally clocked on a bank of monitors pointing away from the audience. He raises his arms to the ceiling, shuts his eyes, tilts back his head to find the bliss. Then, on cue, one of the cameras zooms in as Parker breaks into an easy smile.

After another song and a prayer, Parker presides over a ceremony to welcome 10 newborns into the fold. This is not to be confused with baptism; that comes later, after attendees can provide testimony as to how and when they first invited Christ into their lives. As it says on Grace's website (www.atgrace.com), joining the church, "similar to being hired by a company,...doesn't mean that your work is finished. In fact, it is only just beginning."

As the organist plays soothing chords, a cameraman slowly moves from couple to couple as they proudly hold their progeny aloft for all to see. When a child's rosy face appears on the towering video screens, Parker reads the birth name, explains the Christian meaning of that name, and offers a personalized prayer for the parents. The theatrical patter is synched with the imagery. There are pitch-perfect anecdotes, laugh lines, hand gestures, stage whispers.

Have you personally received the Lord Jesus Christ as your savior? Do you commit to pray for the salvation of your children? Are you prepared to offer your child to God for His use and glory? The crowd chants yes. Parker says amen. There is applause.

Up to this point, it has been an especially stirring morning, the kind of service that helps move commemorative videos, CDs, and cassettes in the sweet-scented bookstore/gift shop just outside Grace's sanctuary.

Spirits start to sink a bit, though, when Parker introduces Randy O'Brien. It seems that Pastor Eagen, who just returned from a weeklong missionary trip to Kenya, will not be speaking today. O'Brien is pressed into service as a last-minute substitute. (There are 12 pastors on the Grace staff of 120, along with 10 full-time staffers available to minister in one capacity or another; O'Brien's own title is "pastor of ministry connections.")

O'Brien begins his talk by describing the fall colors--a very Minnesotan sort of reminder that God is all-powerful. Those who choose to form a relationship with Him will find truth, light, and revival, an experience O'Brien compares to a runner's high. "We are storming the gates of Hell," he concludes. "The Lord is our Commander in Chief, and He brings us marching orders."

Moments later, a young man wades into Grace's dunk tank to "follow the Lord in the waters of baptism." The membership ritual, which is a weekly staple, prompts applause and provides the perfect segue for the ushers who begin passing offering plates as the orchestra moves seamlessly into "Redemption Draweth Nigh."

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