Thursday, August 21, 2008

Faith Works 8-23-08
Jeff Gill

Phoning In My Religion

Not to delve too deeply into politics, but last Saturday night was a televised presidential candidates’ forum at Orange County, CA’s nationally known Saddleback Church, moderated by Pastor Rick Warren. Rick is author of “The Purpose Driven Life” which has sold 25 million copies, so he’s got a wee bit of media attention in the past.

Some have said that they weren’t comfortable with a church as the setting for the first almost head-to-head meeting of the two major parties’ candidates for president, and I suppose there’s a case to be made for that concern, but the candidates were simply invited by Pastor Warren, who has come to know them both, and either or both could have said “nope.” If they’re fine with it, I’m interested.

And quite frankly, Warren was a better moderator than about nine of the last ten debate facilitators I’ve had to listen to in the last year, so good on him. Anyhow, they each took an hour on stage, shook hands in the middle, and were not quite debating, but offered many illuminating moments about their personal and political journeys from the perspective of faith.

But there was a moment that was quite unintentionally illuminating, and it wasn’t from Obama or McCain, coming after the event had formally ended.

One well-known national political reporter said in the course of post-forum analysis “they did a really interesting thing setting up for this here: they had two large screens on either side of the platform, where you could watch them as they were talking from wherever you sat in the room.”

I turned to the Lovely Wife, jaw slowly swinging open. The reporter, who in my experience is credible and quite intelligent, just told me something. Does she know what she actually just told me? That analyst just revealed that she has almost no experience with large or megachurch worship settings whatsoever, in person or on TV or tape.

Full disclosure: I preach most weekends, and am as likely to preach for 25 as 250, and never before 2,000. But I’ve been in and around enough large churches, in multiple states, let alone seen the footage of others, to know that no megachurch worth its salt is without two large screens on either side of the platform. None. You’re more likely to find two large screens permanently built into the architecture of the front of the worship space than you are a cross (that’s a discussion for another day).

Later on, I saw this comment at the New York Times political campaign blog, “The Caucus”: “The church itself rises in the desert and is surrounded by palm trees and dusty mountains, but it’s hard to tell it’s a church. In fact, inside, it looks more like a giant warehouse, than traditional religious sanctuaries. The hosts treated the forum as a major live television event. A woman who was introduced as tonight’s “stage manager,” told the audience to be sure to give Mr. Warren a hearty round of applause when he appears, and to save their bathroom visits for commercial breaks.”

Wow. Y’know, the warehouse comment (I found three more like that just with GoogleNews), might have been pertinent twenty years ago, maybe ten. But most Americans are familiar with the look of large church campuses by now, and calling them “giant warehouses” just tells me they’re looking around for the stained glass or felt banners, and on not finding them, going “Whoa, this is not what I expected.”

No, I guess it isn’t. Do you get out much? I mean, other than around the world?

Later on, “The Caucus” noted that “The event reflects the importance of religion in American life and, increasingly, in politics. It also marks the coming of age of a broader brand of evangelicalism that is more socially minded and more diverse than the orthodox religious movement of the Christian right.”

Thanks for noticing, folks, but here’s a news flash – Evangelicals have been diverse and complex since, oh, always. Socially minded? That’s where we started, and we’re not done. And if by diverse, you mean “ah, maybe now they’re ready to vote for a pro-abortion candidate if we paint them green enough,” well, keep hoping.

They really, really should get out more. I’ll bet there’s a warehouse-like, screen-toting, jeans wearing preacher church just down the street from wherever they live, and I do mean wherever. Just ask at your Starbucks and someone else in line will give you directions.

Yep, we’re so diverse we go there, too.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; he’s not a member of a megachurch, but he does know how to use PowerPoint in worship. Tell him a story electronically at

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