If you've ever seen Joel Osteen on television, you know what a megachurch is. Osteen's Lakewood Church in Houston is the epitome. It seats 16,000, and based on the services I've seen on TV the broadcasts reach another 18 million or so viewers those seats are filled week in and week out. Lakewood is more than a church. It's a mini-city, an institution unto itself.
That's what separates today's crop of megachurches from churches of old. Call it the Wal-Martization of church, where the big boys on the block swallow up their smaller kin. Or chalk it up to the free market, where some churches have simply pegged a formula to pack the pews, using the sizzle to sell the steak.
But megachurches are about more than standing-room-only crowds. There's a reason people will seek the Lord in a room of 2,000 people or more rather than attending a smaller, monotonous gathering that lets out in time for lunch at Golden Corral and the NFL kickoff. That's old school. The new school is about excitement. It's flashing lights and loud drums. It's dancing in the aisles and praising Jesus until your voice goes hoarse. It's energy; these places feel alive.
That feeling goes beyond the music, which in some cases lasts for more than an hour. The preaching is powerful as well; you don't get membership numbers in the thousands by putting everyone to sleep. The sermons delve less into who begat whom and focus more on evangelism. There are altar calls in which folks come forward by the dozens to be "born again." The collection plates are filled with thousands of dollars, money used to finance huge buildings and rock-concert quality lighting that, in turn, draw more people in.
Orlando has more than its share of megachurches. They're typically Protestant, socially conservative and evangelical. They want to change the world, one soul at a time, and are amassing the resources to do it.
But with so many to choose from, which megachurch is right for you? That's where we come in. Over the last few months, I visited five of Central Florida's biggest, loudest and funkiest churches. Some were rollicking; others were more subdued. Some begged for money; others begged you to convert. They all had their own charms, though some made me want to leave a little faster than others.
I put together a guide to five of the largest megachurches in Orlando; I know there are more, but I didn't have the time or space to go to every one. They are graded from one to five (one being the lowest) in the following categories:
|Did the light show and video screens blow my mind?|
|How much pressure did I feel to empty my wallet?|
|They all wanted my soul, but who made the best case?|
|How much does the Lord dislike homos, taxes and liberals?|
|Did I leave feeling warm all over?|
And now my disclaimer, which will be ignored by those who believe writing critically about any church is sacrilege, but here it is: I grew up in a religious family and attended a Christian school and a megachurch until my high school years. And while I'm not down with many fundamentalist values these days, I respect the right of everyone to worship as they please. The simple fact is that some churches are more entertaining than others.
This is the church that will blind you if you catch the sun reflecting off its glass walls while driving on I-4. But more than that, Calvary is one of the most politically important churches in Central Florida, as it houses Exodus International the group that wants to make gays straight and provides the set for the Liberty Counsel's television show. This was the first church I attended on my little adventure truth be told, the first church I'd attended in a while and I probably could have picked a better day. It was July 31, and as I later realized, the Rev. Clark Whitten's last day in the pulpit. After 10 years as Calvary's pastor, he was leaving following a dispute with the church's deacons. So perhaps I didn't get the full flavor of a Sunday morning at Calvary; but what I did get was memorable.
Calvary has a massive choir, and at this 9:45 a.m. service it also had a full, relatively tame band that played music just upbeat enough to keep you awake, but quiet enough not to make the mostly white suburbanites that dotted the pews uncomfortable. What freaked me out was the flag corps. This church has its own flag corps! That was something I'd yet to see in my prior years of churchgoing. The corps wasn't great or anything, but who cares? Calvary also gets points for making the "announcement" part of its service a truly high-tech affair, including a 30-second ad on the huge projection screens above the stage that looked like a car commercial but ended up asking men to sign up for Promise Keepers.
Every church passes a collection plate or a red-felt collection satchel, in this case. That's how they make money to build buildings and pay their staff. It's expected. And Calvary, like every other church I've ever been in, took up an offering. But here, it was low-key; in this guide, that will earn Calvary fewer stars (or money buckets, as the case may be), but it will make me a little more willing to go back. I also applaud the church for putting its financial information out for all the world to see.
Fire and Brimstone
Whitten's short (and final) sermon mainly consisted of a goodbye to his congregants, reminiscing about how the church grew huge under his watch, wishing them the best and assuring them that he was going to be all right. There was no altar call.
Whitten is well-known as a conservative activist, battling gay-rights groups and supporting groups like the Liberty Counsel that try to push their worldview into politics. So Calvary gets its four stars mainly on reputation, as Whitten's only political reference was to "people who hate God" who protested his anti-gay agenda one Sunday long ago by making a ruckus inside his church.
Calvary has a smoothie/coffee bar. How cool is that? The congregation is smiley and friendly and if you walk into the sanctuary Bible-less, they'll give you one. But it was the smoothie bar that I'll remember. It wasn't the best smoothie ever and it wasn't free, but so what? It was served with a smile and a "God bless," and that's just cool.
The first thing you see when you turn into FBC-Orlando is a sign for the Payne Stewart Athletic Complex, named for the golfer and church member who died in a plane crash a few years ago. The church also runs a school, The First Academy, and holds an annual golf tournament, which appeared to be sponsored by Harley-Davidson this year. This church is massive. It looks more like a convention center than a sanctuary. As the crowd filed in, the projection screen boasted advertisements for mental health classes, a prison ministry, the anti-gay marriage amendment and a dance troupe.
The 10:45 a.m. service had a rather small choir on three risers in the center of the stage. However, this was the "contemporary" service; the earlier, traditional service had an orchestra and gigantic choir. This service had a band that, like Calvary's, was almost-but-not-quite jamming in a Dave Matthews kind of way. The lights dimmed when the first song kicked in, but the rest of the light show was unremarkable. What I did notice was how perfectly the music ebbed and flowed with the rest of the service, how it brought the audience to their feet, hands raised, and then calmed them into a more gentle, contemplative state just before the sermon began.
I don't even remember an offering, which means if memory serves me right, which it probably doesn't because I'm rarely coherent on Sunday mornings it was pretty basic, or I took off before they passed the plate at the end of the service.
Fire and Brimstone
Pastor Jim Henry's sermon was about the end of the world, or more specifically, signs that the end was nigh-ish. In essence, he said that in every generation people predict the end times and they haven't come yet, so don't worry. (Jesus is coming, but Henry's not really sure when.) He did say that 60 percent of Christians worldwide live under some form of persecution like a school bus driver in Maryland who was fired after leading a prayer and an evangelical Hillsborough county commissioner who was attacked in the media after pushing an anti-gay vote. There was an altar call over a soft, almost weeping piano in the background.
Henry's reference to the county commissioner who was supposedly persecuted although pushing a homophobic law in a political arena is bound to get some pushback, wouldn't you say? was the only overtly political reference I heard. But the pre-sermon "ads" endorsed the anti-gay marriage amendment, and you just kind of got the feeling they weren't too fond of liberals, either.
FBC isn't unfriendly, but it did feel a little antiseptic for my taste. The people there looked like run-of-the-mill, suburbanite Christian conservatives, and there was nothing in particular that struck me as wrong, but I felt a little disconnected from the rest of the congregants. Just my opinion don't crucify me for it or anything.
7601 Forest City Road
FaithWorld! Party time! Excellent! FaithWorld is theater from beginning to end, almost to the point of parody. I went in unsure what to expect, having read media reports that painted Pastor Clint Brown as a money-grubbing, Hummer-driving charlatan, and nothing that I saw dissuaded me from said media reports. There is a huge emphasis on money, and while Brown is an emphatic speaker, he isn't well-versed in theology. But it's a show, and it's entertaining, and for that you have to pay. I think that's what keeps the crowds coming back, no matter what Brown does with their money.
In this category, FaithWorld has no rival. Start with the fog machine, and the lights that flicker and swirl like anything you'd see at House of Blues, and the choir that sways and dances, hands raised high the entire time, shouting on command. Add the audience, which sways and shouts back (including one young lady a few rows in front of me who looked to be on the verge of an uncontrollable seizure the whole time). Top it all off with the mimes. Yes, FaithWorld has mimes; they performed a 15-minute routine to a recorded version of one of Brown's sermons which totally smacked of hero worship, or perhaps idolatry, but whatever. In terms of pure, unadulterated entertainment, FaithWorld wins hands down.
I've never seen a church ask for money with so much fervor. There are two collections: one for tithes 10 percent of your "gross, not net" income, as we were poignantly reminded and another at the end for offerings above the mandatory 10 percent. "Only give if God has blessed you," the audience was instructed. That's a loaded statement. (Brown also asked if anyone in the audience could write a $55,000 check to cover the cost of a gym they're trying to buy.) But more than the high-pressure sale, what was unique to FaithWorld was the teaching that God will reward you financially if you give money to the church. I've been around a lot of churches in my life and I've been taught that tithing elicits God's blessings, but I've never heard anyone preach that if you give more than 10 percent of your (gross, not net!) income to FaithWorld, God will pay you back, with interest. My seventh-grade Bible teacher would have a problem with that.
Fire and Brimstone
No doubt, Clint Brown is one animated speaker. He paces the stage, he screams at the audience, and they scream back. That said, I had trouble figuring out exactly what message Brown wanted to convey. He was, to put it bluntly, all over the place. He talked about the literal seven-day creation, and then skipped to something about God giving him the talent to praise more than to preach, then to women not pursuing men, then to homosexuality being bad, and back to the idea that giving the church money is good. But he is entertaining, and he did end with an altar call that produced a number of raised hands signaling new converts, so all's well that ends well.
Two lines stick out from Brown's sermon. The first: "Man and man don't fit, and if it don't fit, acquit!" This got huge applause, and though I'm not sure if it technically makes sense, the point is that gays are sinful, based upon the in-hole/out-hole theory of sexuality. The second: "Women, quit running around chasing `men` and let them come to you because you don't need them." While some feminists might cheer this line on, in context it was actually a call for chastity and came during a discussion of to what degree men should be leaders of the household. At least I think so; like I said, the sermon was a bit disjointed.
FaithWorld may have been a spectacle, but it didn't give me that warm, fuzzy feeling. You could argue that it was because I was one of only a few white faces FaithWorld is a predominantly African-American church, although Brown is white but I don't think that's it. It was more a sense that I was an outsider, that this was a clique and I wasn't invited. Maybe if I had thrown some money in the plate things would have been different.
CHURCH IN THE SON
4484 N. John Young Parkway
I found Church in the Son while driving home from FaithWorld. It's on John Young Parkway, next door to the Local 6 television studios, and would have gone totally unnoticed were it not for the electronic sign out front welcoming (in bright flashing lights) all to one of its three Sunday morning services. From the road, the church itself looked deceptively big. I say deceptively because, of all the churches I went to, I'm not sure this one would meet the criteria for a "megachurch": Its auditorium held hundreds, not thousands, and it wasn't quite the mini-metropolis I saw at other churches. But CITS did have the other ingredients, from the rollicking band to the swaying audience. And this was the friendliest, warmest church I encountered, so it makes the list regardless. Besides, I get the sense that it's growing rapidly. If it's not technically a megachurch now, it will be soon.
Nothing extraordinary here. Just a band albeit a really good, up-tempo band with a knack for controlling the emotions of the service perfectly and four giant flat-screens on the walls that displayed the words to the songs over pseudo-psychedelic backgrounds. No huge lighting rigs, but they weren't needed.
CITS took up two offerings as well, but it wasn't as blatantly self-serving as FaithWorld. The first was for our tithes, and while there was a little prodding from the pulpit, it didn't feel car-salesmanish. The second was more charitable, a donation for a sister church in Miami Beach that, alongside saving souls, was spending a lot of money feeding the poor and operating a free medical clinic in the inner city.
Fire and Brimstone
Of all the churches, this one had the most direct, laser-like focus on converting the unsaved. There was a water baptism and a testimonial about a 12-year-old who we were told was a former pot smoker and fornicator who came to Jesus and has since converted a dozen of her friends. There was a video about a youth rally the church recently hosted where, we were told, hundreds were born again. Pastor Alex Clattenburg call him "Pastor Alex" made a point of saying his goal was to make 1 million people in Orlando Christians and that they were trying to coordinate with other churches to bring that about. They were on a mission, that much was clear. And while there wasn't any hellfire and damnation talk, none was needed; the altar call produced several dozen raised hands. Mission accomplished.
Pastor Alex didn't deliver the sermon the week I attended. Instead, there was a guest speaker I didn't catch his name, and it wasn't printed in the bulletin from a church in Miami Beach who spoke of his church's efforts to bring the poor to Christ. So there was a lot of talk about the virtues of helping the less fortunate, which I found heartwarming and best reminiscent of what I see as Christianity. But this church in Miami had received a faith-based grant from George W. Bush, of which they were mighty proud. He also ridiculed the Dalai Lama for not helping the poor, attacked The Da Vinci Code out of nowhere and labeled people who had different religious philosophies than his "yahoos," which I wasn't too fond of either.
This is where CITS is head and shoulders above the rest. Maybe it was the fact that 15 different people smiled and said hello to me before I reached my seat. Maybe it was the warm smiles I got from those who were seated around me. Or maybe it was just an indescribable "It" factor, a warmth I can't really explain. Either way, CITS made me feel good and more importantly, accepted.
4400 S. Orange Ave.
Discovery Church is more like two churches that is, it has more than one location. Its primary campus is near the intersection of Orange and Holden avenues, where it backs up traffic and forces overflow parking into a strip mall across the street every Sunday morning. The second is at Olympia High School, which also has (from what I gather) smaller Sunday services. And apparently there are more satellite locations in the offing. The main campus also offers an Acoustic Cafe, or a coffeehouse/worship experience. I didn't get to go, but it sounded intriguing.
Nothing spectacular here. The band was par for the course (the church could use a better sound engineer; the mix wasn't great), the choir was small, and there were no flashing lights or oddities that stood out. The stage was awash in pink and blue hues, and there were swirling projections on the monitors during part of the praise service, which I found comforting. Pretty, if you will. Discovery gets points for its band leader, a 20-something guitarist/vocalist who was clearly in love with the idea of playing for a packed house.
The offering wasn't a big deal here. While an unidentified woman told us from the stage that she loves the offering and that this was our chance to give to God what we could have spent on ourselves, there wasn't a hard sell.
Fire and Brimstone
Like the offering, the sermon was pretty laid-back. But Discovery takes a preaching tack that I've never seen before in all my churchgoing years: pastoring by committee. Two pastors took the stage, sat on stools and took turns addressing the audience. They tag-teamed the sermon, moving back and forth between anecdotes and Bible verses. The sermon also had Regis and Kathie Lee moments when the two would bring up and interview a third person for instance, the church's missions minister and a guy organizing an evangelism conference in Orlando next year. It was strange, but distinctly different.
Nothing in the service went anywhere near politics (though I could have just caught them on an apolitical day). I saw an ad for a church group that works with women dealing with the negative after-effects of abortions, so I'm guessing they're not big Planned Parenthood fans.
Discovery is a friendly place. If I didn't feel it walking in, I did during the service. I was told to join hands with those around me and offer a prayer of thanks for whomever was responsible for our being at Discovery. So I thanked the Lord for my editor.
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