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The Mall Where You Talk To God

Michael Dvorak

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."

On any other Sunday, that would be it. Today, however, Parker has asked everyone to stay for a special message from Mike Pagh, chairman of the church's all-male Board of Elders.

"Our mission has never been to build this church, but to impact hundreds of thousands of lives," Pagh begins. "And with that backdrop I have a sad and serious announcement.

"Yesterday John Eagen resigned as pastor of Grace Church. The reason for the resignation was a personal moral failure in the form of marital infidelity. As a result of this failure, he's lost the moral authority to lead this staff."

An audible gasp ripples through the auditorium. Some congregants drop their heads; others begin to cry; everyone else stares straight ahead with a dazed look. "We don't rely on men, we rely on God," Pagh assures them. "We are not going to lose sight of our mission because of this sin."

Out in the hallway, people stand in clumps of five and six, speaking in whispers, exchanging hugs. Others stand alone, looking lost, leather-bound Bibles shut tight to their chests. "I just feel sick to my stomach," one woman tells her friend.

The coffee shop is closed. The ticket booths, where people usually crowd to check out what national act is scheduled to perform at Grace during the week, are shuttered. Outside the bookstore, where commerce has slowed to a crawl, a folding table has been set up and stacked with Kleenex.

Suddenly the Grace juggernaut, celebrated in the media just months earlier, is in a tailspin. Its "worldwide" evangelical mission stands threatened by public scandal. Its hard-core cadre of 1,700 full-fledged, born-again members (along with its thousands of more casual parishioners) is shaken. And its brand-new facility is threatened by the prospect of a $15 million debt, even as Grace's elders have just completed the first phase of a $100 million fundraising campaign.

The Antichrist will have to wait--for a week or two, at least.

Grace Church is one of about 2,500 so-called megachurches around the country. It has belonged to this august class since the early '90s, when weekly attendance climbed over the 2,000 mark--the typical threshold for such a designation. There are 149 megachurches in the Twin Cities area; Grace, which moved from a smaller facility in Edina to Eden Prairie three months ago, is now the biggest. (The second-largest, with 3,000 seats, is Emmanuel Christian Center in Spring Lake Park.)

Besides its sheer scale, Grace shares a number of characteristics with other megachurches. According to a study conducted by Dr. Scott Thumma at the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, the congregants at these facilities tend to be college-educated, solidly middle-class suburb dwellers. The Sunday school programs are packed, the youth ministry is sizable, and--in the Midwest, at least--there are few people sitting in the pews who are not white. (This is far from a universal phenomenon, though: Such giant churches are even more prevalent in the South, where affluent black congregants are more common.)

Over the years, a vast majority of megachurches have either consciously estranged themselves from their denominational roots or, like Grace, dubbed themselves nondenominational--meaning that they have no official ties to a religious organization such as the United Church of Christ or Assemblies of God. "If you're Lutheran, you give to the synod. If you're Roman Catholic, you give to the bishop," explains Stephen J. Stein, professor of religious studies at Indiana University. "When you're not affiliated, then you control your own game, financially and otherwise."

Still, like 48 percent of the 153 sampled churches in Thumma's study, Grace delivers a traditionally conservative message from the pulpit, both theologically and socially; while its roots are unmistakably Baptist, the statement of faith is based on a more general evangelical outreach. There is often a big difference, however, between this brand of evangelism and the kind you might hear Billy Graham deliver at the local arena. At places like Grace, doing good works or saving other souls from suffering takes a back seat to the inner peace and eternal salvation one earns when he or she forges a personal bond with Jesus Christ--a contemporary brand of spiritual me-firstism that's particularly attractive to those in the megachurches' target market.

"Evangelicalism has been growing dramatically over the last two decades," says Associate Professor Nancy Eiesland, a sociologist of religion at Emory University in Atlanta. "What you're seeing in the megachurch setting is a new evangelicalism. Now it's much more focused on meeting personal needs for comfort and support, so that reaching out to the broader community comes only after what is often called a fullness of spirit."

 

"In the inner city," explains Alan McNamara, a UCC pastor at Chapel Hills Church in Edina, "you will often find that religion is a means to reach those who are poor and hungry or homeless or in physical danger. The promise of heaven is a promise that the tangible suffering will someday end. In the suburbs, suffering is more a matter of general anxiety. The suffering is internal. Churches like Grace cater to those concerns."

Professor Stein agrees: "If your life isn't happy, no matter how Martha Stewart you might be, you could likely be attracted by someone who comes along and says, 'Hey, I can show you the way out of your own personal hell. I can help you find meaning in a seemingly meaningless existence.'"

In the last 10 years, suburban megachurches have broken into the big time, partly as the result of a booming but increasingly polarized economy that has seen most of the gains in real income clustered in suburban enclaves. And these churches' members, who spent the 1980s attending services in old gymnasiums or outdated, overloaded sanctuaries, now find themselves in gleaming, state-of-the-art facilities. Like the super-sized shopping centers that have mushroomed coast to coast, churches like Grace endeavor to offer everything under one roof: professional child care, Christian rock concerts, chemical dependency programs, full-service cafés, bookstores, health clubs, teen centers, even food courts.

This emphasis on full service has spurred a dramatic growth in membership, prompting management guru Peter Drucker to call "pastoral megachurches" like Grace "the most important social phenomenon in American society in the last 30 years."

Grace's size alone puts it in an elite class. Only 25 Protestant churches in the United States have a worship space that can seat 4,500. Like a majority of those elite institutions in Thumma's study, Grace can thank one man for its growth. Prior to his much-publicized recent fall, John Eagen was a locally revered charismatic leader who, through the use of TV ads and good old-fashioned soul saving, increased Sunday attendance from 1,700 in 1987, when he became head pastor, to 4,500 in 2002.

With the help of Resource Services Inc., a Dallas-based organization that does fundraising for churches, Eagen marshaled an effort that yielded $29 million and enabled the move from a large but increasingly cramped space to this new, multi-purpose facility, which sits alone on the edge of Eden Prairie.

"Megachurches are more often than not the product of one highly gifted spiritual leader," Thumma writes in his treatise Exploring the Megachurch Phenomena. "The character of these churches usually reflects the vision and personality of this one pastor."

 

While other suburban, evangelical preachers in the Twin Cities have made a name for themselves by employing Scripture as a sort of spiritual Palm Pilot for busy people, or as a call to political action on issues like abortion or the Defense of Marriage Act, Eagen was always best-known outside Grace for his fascination with the end of the world.

Grace officials say there is no way to determine how many people came to Grace for the first time to check out Eagen's Armageddon series, which started on September 15. The timing, however, whether calculated or coincidental, was perfect. Grace had just opened its new facility, which has the capacity (and the fiscal imperative) to hold thousands more members. The anniversary of 9/11 had just passed as well. And as clergy from across the religious spectrum have attested, Americans are now so spooked by the specter of international terrorism and religious conflict that they are more open to speculations and assurances about the Second Coming.

Eagen's presentations were scholarly in nature, peppered with factoids from the press and historical texts, and chock full of citations from the Book of Revelation.

As Stein points out, the "black and white" language of End Times is especially attractive to folks who have achieved a degree of social status but still somehow feel lost, people who may be successful professionally but feel as though they have no control: over the safety of their children's playground, the future of their retirement accounts, even their reaction to daily stress.

It is a rhetorical strategy commonly used by self-help gurus: Draw people in with a simple, easily digested message and then encourage them to believe they are exceptional, fortunate, chosen.

"People get to feel like they're on the winning side of something," Stein says. "If your pastor convinces you Christ's return is inevitable, then being lined up on the right side can be very reassuring."

 

In seeing Eagen work, one is struck first by the almost surreal calm of his audiences. In an October 6 sermon entitled "Road Signs to Armageddon," he recounted in vivid detail a veritable catalog of horrors, starting with Hiroshima and building up to a discussion of the 11 signs of the world's impending demise--all of which, he explains, are now manifest in the world around us for the first time in human history.

On and on he went, and no one who was listening looked the least bit alarmed or even surprised. Eagen was simply confirming what they had suspected all along, and exhorting them to rejoice in the world's peril: This is not a moment in time for the saved to fear, he assured the faithful in his last appearance at Grace. "This is a great day to be alive."

"There is a sort of joy, perverted as it might be, when you know that you will ultimately be spared from a disaster that is going to hit everyone else," Stein says. "In this case, it's been sanctioned, glorified, and given religious value. It really separates people. And that continues to be of value for a substantial number of Americans."

 

Not so very long ago, the notion of a "big" church conjured visions of grand Gothic structures conceived and built in the classical idiom: high ceilings and endless rows of stiff wooden pews, imposing pulpits high above the heads of the congregation, lots of stained glass, congregants who dressed formally and made sure to stay on their best Sunday behavior.

Modern megachurches like Grace evoke a similar sort of awe-inspired obedience by accentuating aesthetic elements that modern-day, upwardly mobile attendees have come to associate with order. Specifically, Grace--designed by the Minneapolis architecture firm of Hammel, Green and Abrahamson, Inc.--could be confused with a shopping mall. Inside, it feels like a corporate headquarters turned upper-crust community center. There is no dark wood to suck up the artificial light. The space is bright. The pulpit sits on a Broadway-worthy stage. There isn't a bad seat in the house. And the best-dressed attendees look ready for casual Friday or an afternoon of shopping.

"Making churches look like other facilities is not entirely new," Professor Eiesland says. "A lot of them have that corporate-campus look to them. It fits the milieu. It's less theological and more practical."

Eiesland argues that megachurches like Grace that try to provide members with "everything they need under one roof" are following in the footsteps of older churches. She points out that Catholic chapels in major metropolitan areas once had bowling alleys, so people could gather socially without exposure to the underbelly of secular recreation spots. The same was true for Baptists, as Chapel Hills' Alan McNamara notes. Since many of their churches prohibited dancing and drinking, they had to hold their own social functions lest congregants get restless and lose their way.

"The megachurches provide a place where families can have all their needs met in a single location. And that's especially appealing right now," Eiesland says. "In the suburbs there just aren't the kinds of civic organizations and family-centered groups for recreation--they're too spread-out, growing too fast. On the one hand, this new evangelicalism allows for philosophical choices in life. On the other, it gives people a lot of practical support. It helps with the children, gives people a place to socialize and recreate. So, demographically, they're very popular."

The mother of megamall religion is Willow Creek Community Church in the Chicago suburb of Barrington, Illinois. Founded and still led by a Harvard MBA named Bill Hybels, the nondenominational church began in the mid-'70s with a Sunday youth service aimed at kids turned off by the traditional trappings of organized worship. Today, some 16,000 people pack four weekend "seeker" services and another 6,000 show up at weeknight services designed for true believers.

The "seeker" service is, in essence, a commercial for Christianity. At its core, the approach is age-old, especially among Evangelicals (tent revivals are, if anything, great theater). Hybels took it to a new level, however, by using theatricalism, Christian rock, and cutting-edge technology to create a high-octane experience. Not only is God everywhere and everything, Hybels set out to prove, but going to church can actually be fun. Convince people of that and the rest will follow.

Naturally the approach has its critics. "In America, we have people indoctrinated into a consumer mentality, so they're always looking for what will meet their needs for the lowest commitment," says Gregory Boyd, pastor at Woodland Hills in Maplewood, a liberal megachurch that relies on a more classic brand of evangelism that stresses good works and community outreach. "If you have a full-service sort of church where the message is friendly, and the music is what they want, it's like Burger King--you get it your way and you get it cheap."

 

But evangelism has always been a market-driven phenomenon in the most literal way--what good is purity of heart if you do not succeed in spreading the Word?--and the attendance figures speak for themselves. While most denominations are struggling to keep members, nondenominational megachurches that subscribe to Hybels's approach are running out of room. "A lot of my colleagues are very critical of places like Grace," McNamara says. "And I know it makes them mad when I say this, but I think we should admit that we could learn some things from them."

In 1992, 10 charter members started the Willow Creek Association to help other megachurches incorporate Hybels's style and philosophy. Today, 2,500 churches from more than 70 denominations pay the $249 membership fee, including Grace Church. The organization's twice annual leadership conferences feature secular management experts, such as James Collins (author of Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies), pollsters who dissect demographic data (such as the evangelical statistician George Barna), and entrepreneurs who pre-produce media for large worship services. "Essentially it's a convention," says Emory's Eiesland. "There's a lot of sharing of programmatic elements and message stuff across these very large congregations."

Grace Executive Pastor Jim Rightler, who is handling media inquiries while a search starts for Eagen's replacement, is hesitant to use the phrase seeker service to describe what happens at Grace on Sundays. He prefers the less categorical "seeker-friendly." He also takes umbrage at any suggestion that what occurs at Grace is somehow a performance. "That suggests that somehow what's happening isn't real," he explains, adding that he prefers the word "orchestrated."

"We see our services as a town square, where the worship and the Word of God is spoken in a relevant way," Rightler says. "Our worship leaders practice and rehearse to make sure they reach a level of excellence. They take pride in that. The words that are spoken are chosen because they have meaning. The music is chosen to help make the experience a powerful one."

 

The backstage area at Grace is cavernous, a series of high, wide concrete hallways leading to loading docks, storage areas and prop cages. On this Monday night, some 150 young singles and married couples are following signs that lead to the choir room, a bright white tiered space reminiscent of a large lecture room at the University of Minnesota.

A six-piece band is plugging in amplifiers at the front of the room, while a trio of volunteers fiddles with the controls in a tech booth in the back. Meanwhile a 27-year-old woman named Angela Rightler (the associate minister of young adults, and Jim Rightler's daughter) greets people and encourages them to help themselves to coffee or hot chocolate.

Like everyone else in the room, she is dressed comfortably in suburban street clothes. The only person who doesn't look like an honors grad from a south suburban high school is Dr. Don Bierle, on hand to give a PowerPoint presentation on whether or not the Bible is a reliable historical document. (It is.)

After people settle in, Rightler invites everyone to stand for a song. "Let's show Him how much we need Him," she encourages. The band offers up a polished piece of Christian rock that sounds like a cross between Dave Matthews and the Indigo Girls. Like most music in the genre, it features lyrics full of longing and melodrama--just another schlocky love song, albeit with a higher purpose.

This weekly gathering, called O2, is billed as an opportunity for young adults to experience "community, truth, and worship." It is an entry point for the young people Rightler hopes eventually to recruit into prayer groups of six to 10 participants apiece. Some of the people here are already coming to Grace on Sundays, some heard of this particular event from friends. Most of them have yet to experience spiritual rebirth. The staff of Grace approaches them on a consciously low-key basis; there is no pressure to convert. Folks simply gather for a few songs and videos and then listen to a lecture. In the coming weeks Bierle will ruminate on a series of "big life questions": "What gives your life meaning?" "What is truth?" "Do all religions lead to God?" "Are you afraid to die?"

Rightler says the music, the website, the videos, even the PowerPoint presentations, are all conceived with an eye toward 18-to-40-year-olds. She understands instinctively what Thumma found in his study of megachurches--that people who are drawn to large institutions will stay only if there are opportunities to attend more intimate gatherings as well.

 

"There are some people who will enter at the mid-group level," Rightler explains. "For some people it's a kind of side door. They're looking for family. They're looking for a place to call home."

While Tuesday nights combine the semi-distant camaraderie of a club show with the soak-it-in leisure of a cooking class, Friday nights are set aside for young singles who want some unadulterated socializing at the Divine Grind coffee shop near Grace's main entrance.

On Friday, October 18, as the church's 12-member Council of Elders struggled with the Eagen scandal, about 100 young Christians were sipping java and listening to Joy Israelson, a local singer-songwriter who sounds like a Jesus-powered Ani DiFranco.

"There's just not a lot for a Christian single to do that doesn't involve going to smoky bars," says Ginger Brown, the 26-year-old daughter of a pastor. She is sitting at a table with her 23-year-old sister Shelly, who works as a nanny, and their 30-year-old friend Kaye Westergreen, who works as a payroll administrator for a small company.

"I'm still a little nervous," Ginger admits as she peeks around the room at the clusters of folks who know each other from Christian gatherings elsewhere. "I'm excited to see what could become of it. It's nice to have a sense of belonging."

"It's a place where you know you're going to be loved no matter what you do," Shelly says. "You don't find that many places."

While the women chat, Israelson stops singing to tell a story about when she learned that Jesus was a kind of life preserver--people nod their heads knowingly. "I had a harsh past and I was looking for people who could accept that and get past that," says Amy Voglund, a 26-year-old who has been coming to Grace since February 21, 1999, when she gave her "life to Christ at the old property."

"A lot of people try to fill this hole in their heart with so many things," she says. "And I learned you could fill that hole with Jesus."

"When you read the Bible, you get life's true meaning," explains a 27-year-old woman named Monda Goette. "You just feel so blessed to know that in that book is your path in life--everything you need to know. On 9/11, I was relieved that I already knew Christ. It was comforting."

"God uses all kinds of situations to bring people to Him," adds her table mate, Katie Richard. "So right now, people might be coming to Him out of fear. That's okay, because they'll stay for His love."

Richard pauses for a second. "Of course, I do think the End Times are coming. I mean, look around. You can't deny it."

Jen Wyttenback seconds her friend's observation with an animated Oh yeah. The rest of her friends nod their heads in agreement, and then turn their attention back to the show.


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