Why did I join a mega church in the first place is maybe a good place to start this saga.
I was raised in a Christian home with the whole church culture of Sunday school, Sunday night, Wednesday night, youth group, youth retreats and the whole nine yards. As I rolled into my 20s with loads of energy which I poured into work and travel, it always nagged at me that I should be plugged into a good church. I saw the bad effects of always being on the go and not putting any real time into having a church family, godly people to encourage and challenge me in my walk of faith.
MY NEED FOR A RELATIONSHIP WITH MY SAVIOUR
As I came to the end of my 20s I really hit a dead end. I realized I had been working my way to heaven and God’s grace had completely eluded me. I had become a sepulcher of dead works which I knew in Gods eyes were filthy rags. I was never going to “make it into the kingdom of God.” I faced that I had indeed been giving of my own strength and I was all done in.
Empty, with nothing more to give, I too needed a Savior. It was at this time that I realized I must prioritize God and my walk with Him and make changes in my work so I could really walk the talk. Not just talk the walk.
MY NEW CHURCH
And so it was at this time, spiritually on the rocks, that I stumbled in the doors of a mega church called City Church under the leadership of Oslo Christian Center. I sank gratefully into the comfortable, plush theater seats, sipping the coffee and chewing on the candy I had received at the door.
The young, hip, and very energetic pastor was preaching up a storm on the subject that all that we have is of Christ and for Christ.
Each Sunday the message sank in more and more. I had heard these truths all my life but it was as though I was hearing for the first time. There’s “hearing” and then there’s “hearing.” You know what I mean?
All the burden of striving for God and failing was lifted. I repented that I had been working my way to heaven. I really asked God to be Lord of my life and found the Scripture to be true…His yoke is easy and his burden is light.
So beyond a shadow of doubt the Lord used this preacher to really get through to me.
I was so happy to be saved and threw myself enthusiastically into volunteering on the cafe team and at the other church events. I was at this church about 1,5…2 years.
As we all know, success sells itself. It’s a big church and runs on a huge staff of volunteer and some paid staff.
As I settled into this church I had to think through all the reasons for going to this church and calling it home and backing that up with commitment like membership and tithing.
I had really found the joy of my salvation! It was all very exciting and fresh and new and I was positive about everything that my new-found journey of faith was taking me on! But I did not want to confuse my new-found joy of salvation with a body of people and church that I couldn’t go good for. Growing up 45 minutes from the mecca of charismatic mega stars of Tulsa, Oklahoma, I had plenty of cautious reserve.
MY BIBLICAL OBSERVATIONS
I began to read and dig into the word of God in a new way. I really liked the structure and order I saw in the church in the pages of the Bible. It seemed simple and more like a bigger scale of what family and home life should be. Church is like your extended spiritual family.
Contrasted with that, what I found in the mega type churches is that they are not conducive to older people. They talk about being a church for everyone. But I find older generations being a part of the church a total myth. They are non-existent. I remember seeing some older people come to the leadership conference and I felt they must have come because they were very loyal grandparents of some of the kids in leadership… I mean why ever else would they listen to a volume cranked up 100 times over their hearing aids!!?? I realized it was not a church my own grandfather would have felt comfortable in. The pumped up music and disco lights would have been very overwhelming for him.
Even I got exhausted with the loud concert setting music every single week! It becomes such a performance. There was no point to sing along because I couldn’t hear myself sing, much less the person beside me! Even the Christmas service was pumped up, without a single slow classic song that we associate with Christmas. I asked the band why they had cut even the one classic they had done last year and I was told because there was not time in the program. And I thought, well there would be time if they would cut all the endless advertizing for upcoming events and the tithing pep talk!!!
The lighting was often so dim I could hardly read my Bible. Most people brought their phones so that they could read the text glowing in the dark.
I realized I could not seriously continue in this church long-term and call it home. My own home and personal standards were more conservative. Since I was in the ripe marriageable age of late 20’s, the thought crossed my mind…would I want to raise kids in this church? Certainly not in a church where there were no grandparents around! Even my parents age were old and outdated for the hip young church! I’m not either sure I would want to raise kids in a church that would prime them for the clubbing life! To go from the church scene to the club scene would not be a very far step! It’s funny because that is the whole image of the mega church….it’s meant to be so comfortable and such a low threshold that people can feel that they can step out of the club and into church with the same outfit on! I wonder if the leaders ever think of it from the other direction….that their kids will step from the church into the club on any given Sunday! In fact, I remember sometimes heading for the clubs with my Christian friends from youth group after Sunday night church!
I began to feel more and more that church should be a stark contrast from the world and what it offers. As a waitress, I work in dim light and listen to the world’s music every day. And I work in a decent chain hotel but they crank up the sexualized hip hop music at night.
Then I would head to church on Sundays and really feel that it was hardly a break from my workday. The praise and worship team would be up there jumping around like pop corn and trying to get us excited about praising Jesus. I found my mind wandering…noticing the praise leader had gotten new boots…..and thinking…o yeah, that’s right boots are on sale…I need a new spring pair! I mean seriously! It suddenly struck me why churches have had congregational singing. WE are as a church meant to praise the Lord. Not admire some worship band on stage as they channel our praise up to God!
One Sunday the young wife of a leading couple in the church who was the mother of two, preached the Sunday sermon. She was making the point that we must “Walk the talk.” Our kids follow what we do more then what we say. To illustrate, she said like telling your kids not to swear and then we swear ourselves when we are mad. She then flashed a huge picture on the screen that probably went viral on instagram of a 5 year old kid at a football game with his dad and they both have war paint on and are angrily flipping off the other team with both fingers in the air! It was a surprising picture and was of course shown for shock effect. Being a young crowd of people raised on pop culture and used to this sort of humor, we all roared with laughter! I couldn’t help feeling this picture may have been appropriate for a kinder-garten staff meeting…but at church???
What if I had had my 5-year-old godchild along that Sunday? I pictured the conversation with her after church…”I know all the adults were laughing…but it’s really not funny or OK to flip off other people when you’re mad. It’s not right and certainly not funny.” I mean, no matter what you said the kid would know there is a double standard. There is the standard for kids and then there is the “behind closed doors” double standard of the adults.
I noticed over time that laughing about things that were serious or should be holy was becoming a trend. It was almost becoming the normal ice breaker. One Sunday the guy getting up to do announcements joked about the book on stage….”Maybe it’s the Book Of Life…shall I open it and see if your names are in it?” We all roared with laughter. Another speaker visiting from New Zealand was whining about how the church folk never get tired about hearing about the cross.
“The cross, the cross, the cross.”
He made us sound like kids that want their dad to read their favorite bedtime story for the millionth time. He went on to say…”I wonder if Jesus had died of a machine gun or a rope would we hang that up in the church and keep talking about the machine gun or the rope?” To which we all roared!
My spirit felt sick and depressed. I started to get more and more uneasy for each Sunday that passed. To be honest, I quit going, and only came the Sundays I had cafe duty. And then I would always offer to be the one that sat out in the cafe during the service. My joy was really fading fast. I was getting restless and filled with anxiety. I can say it bothered me day and night.
The second Easter service that I was a part of was a total shock to me. They had a trapeze artist swing from silk scarves as the worship and praise team sang. It had a total circus feeling! I felt a great sense of relief that nobody I had invited had been able to come! I love the circus and I love church. But a combination?
A HILLSONG TAKEOVER?
The total clincher and reason I decided to quit was because the church became a member of the Hillsong family. I was already wondering if a mega church was anything to call home. I noticed that absolutely nobody noticed if I came or not to church. Nobody asked about my walk of faith. If I was looking for a spiritual family with accountability, I could forget it.
I began to think through even the cafe team that I served on. Our team leader was a very earnest Christian and really worked hard and always gave 100%. He was obviously one of the sought-after eligible bachelors in the church. There were a lot of women on the team and when I went to a get-together for the cafe team, I found it very awkward. I felt like we were on some Christian version of “The Bachelor!” I just wasn’t interested in going to church and events where we were all the same age and going through the same things. Church events felt like free dating events! It made church very stressful!
I ended up not going to the Christmas party for the cafe team. It turned out not one person missed me or asked why I hadn’t come! I realized they really hadn’t missed me. One less player in the competition! I had a real good laugh about it!
At another Christian event I served at, I saw a younger man that looked familiar. I asked him where I knew him from… he said church. But he said he had quit and found a new church, (also a church that had joined the family of Hillsong months before our church did), with a younger crowd because he was not ready to get married yet and he felt everyone at my church was in their mid 20’s to 30’s either getting married or married and
with kids. In other words, they were too old!
We had a good laugh over that! But I thought… wow, how stressful to go to a church where we are all going through the same stuff. Is this really normal? So I began to look at the culture of the church. What was missing? Where were the old people? Why did we laugh with no shame and joke about holy things? Because no grandparents were present to shake their heads? Why did our pastor apologize every time he came with a deep point in his message?
One time he literally told us we could pull out our phone and check the weather if we wanted while he made the next point. We all roared with laughter! What was so funny? That we were all idiots, victims of pop culture, who couldn’t handle anything deep? Was that seriously funny? I looked around at the audience lounging in our comfortable theater seats and began to feel we were pathetic. I felt if I joined a secular club we would treat the subject more seriously then this crowd treated Jesus their Redeemer. What was this new trend of dragging the Gospel and everything in the Bible into one big familiar joke?
It actually bothered me enough that I addressed the pastor in the foyer on the issue one Sunday. He was surprised and said it was of course an invitation to get people to join… and for people that are not use to the serious side to sit up. Of course he knows when he says “Pull out your phones,” people end up listening up. Basically I lack all sense of humor, apparently. He said he appreciated the feedback.
Sometimes I feel the pastors assume they are preaching to a group of hells angels! Like I stressed to the pastor, he is preaching in the capital of Norway, a country with one of the highest standards of living in the world. We are all university educated and for the one or two punks that walk in…well, they should be challenged to step up….why do we lower the standard?
MY RESEARCH INTO THE HILLSONG TAKEOVER
Well, the church joining Hillsong was the last straw for me. First of all, we idiots that couldn’t handle a deep point unless we can check the weather and Facebook halfway through… we were not asked what we thought. This huge and international decision was completely out of our hands. Only the top leaders discussed this. Then when they were sure it was a good idea, they announced the idea to the top leaders, like all the cell group leaders and other church leaders. They were informed a month before they were going to announce it to the church congregation as a whole. So this was the meeting with the leaders where they were open for feedback. But from what I understood, it wasn’t even voted on at that level. It was of course presented as a great idea with only benefits for us.
I then found out that our pastor had gone to Hillsong Bible school so then all the bricks began to fall into place. As I looked into the Hillsong movement I realized my pastor had gotten much of his inspiration for his church from Hillsong. Our pastors father, the senior and founder of the church, had studied at a big charismatic church in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
So after the son came back from Hillsong his father gave him the opportunity to start a church in down town Oslo. They rented a theater right down town Oslo…they are now in their third Theater (Vulkan Arena) since starting. Apparently doing church in a non church type setting like a local theater is a Hillsong trademark. It seams to be a running theme they have.
So in many ways we were all ready following a Hillsong type format which I had been blissfully unaware of until then. One year after our pastor became the senior pastor (when his father retired)… we joined the family of Hillsong. So of course it goes with out saying that now Hillsong pastors frequent their conferences. And we Norwegians go to all the Hillsong conferences here in Scandinavia as there is a Hillsong campus in Stockholm and Copenhagen. London is not too far away either! In fact Norway was the most represented country at Hillsong’s London summer conference 2014 the year we joined their family!
For me it was obvious that if I was going to go a long with our church joining Hillsong then I must look into Hillsong and see what they stand for. I must take personal responsibility to research into Hillsong myself. I’m old enough to know you don’t just trust your leaders word on any thing. So I began to really look into Hillsong and their pastors. All I really knew about Hillsong was that they were famous for their praise and worship music, which I found rather sentimental and shallow. I wasn’t a huge fan. And of course I knew that lots of Norwegians went to Hillsong Bible school. Norwegians have loads of money and with the highest standard of living in the world, who doesn’t feel the Lord calling them to Bible school in exotic Australia…and Sydney at that! I mean isn’t that somewhere near Bondi Beach? From ice cold snow slopes in Norway to warm surf waves…”the call” is not hard to follow!
But okay, it’s all very well to have some vague idea about Hillsong way off on some other continent. But now it was seriously going to invade our church! Hillsong pulls big crowds. In one Norwegian Christian newspaper called “Dagen,” the pastor of Intro, (the first church to join the family of Hillsong), was sharing how impressed he was with how people stood in line to get into Hillsong Church. God must be blessing it!
THE “FRUIT” CARD
Mega churches seem to love that verse about the fruit, “Ye shall know them by their fruit.” They seem to interpret fruit to be numbers. So no matter what concern you may have with a mega church they shoot you down with arrows about “the fruit”. They exclaim, “Look at the numbers! God is obviously blessing it! So many can’t be wrong. They are reaching the nations!”
Well, Hitler and some other famous dictators had fans and numbers and were “reaching the nations” with their message. People like rock stars pull crowds as well. I fail to see how this is such a great defense. It acts more like a sheepskin to hide their dishonesty.
Because when you look at the church on a micro level:
1.) Nobody noticed if I came to church or not, not even to the events for my own ministry team! And to be honest, I didn’t either notice if others came or not. One didn’t get to know people well enough to ask why they hadn’t come or was everything okay in their life or simply last week!!! Norwegians are reserved to begin with so it takes forever to get to know them anyway and in a mega church they really can hide away!
2.) All the joking about Holy things seriously made me feel unwell. It depressed and stressed me.
3.) We were all organs in a great machine called “the church” But over time I began to feel that my effort on the cafe team didn’t mean that much to anyone. People had to pay for the cakes and that bothered me how things cost. Like even the Christmas dinner people had to pay for. I did not get a church family feeling at all. When it all had to be so fancy and impressive. . .it all cost. Over time the disillusionment grew.
4.) To feel a part of the church one was meant to go to the cell group they assigned to you so you could “connect” with people. For me it just felt rather artificial and those five women or so at the cell group are not really people one met at church on Sunday anyway. It just was not filling the gap of making church feel like home. . .my spiritual family.
I noticed that what the church put time and money and effort into was the show and performance and all the creative stuff. Of course it cost a lot and took a lot of time… but gave me nothing.
THE HILLSONG CLONE AND DRONE?
The only thing I had left in that church was the pastors sermons which I still really appreciated. But mega pastors are busy people and when he was out of town he handed the pulpit over to the wife of the leading couple and I wasn’t sure if according to the biblical standard I agreed with women preachers. If she wasn’t speaking it was the other pastor of our other campus or a visiting pastor or of course the Hillsong pastors that got their turn in the pulpit. I didn’t always feel that they came with anything deep and felt more and more that Hillsong was not a deepening influence. I began to compare our church with Hillsong and realized we were really saying the same stuff. Our conferences looked a lot like they followed the Hillsong type blueprint. So it seemed to be that if one was a part of the family of Hillsong we really looked to them for inspiration. I found the Hillsong vision for 2015 less then inspiring. With their Christian version of a manifesto and their dangerous declaration I was truly alarmed.
Suffice it to say when I decided to leave the church was when they joined the Hillsong Family in the spring of 2014.
I debated for a long time in my heart and mind whether I would write to the pastor or not. I prayed as well and it turned around in my mind for about 5 or 6 months. But finally I did write him. I felt it was cowardly to leave without a note. I really felt I must give some feedback as well.
I was rather amused by my cafe team leaders response to my departure. When I told him for the past few months I had only been coming when I had cafe duty he had to admit he had noticed that; although he had at no point questioned or confronted me on that.
I had not heard one person even breathe that they questioned or opposed the church joining Hillsong. So I was left to conclude that I was alone in that criticism. In mega churches it is very important to always be positive and supportive of the leaders and their choice of focus and direction for the church. They say they are open for feedback and thoughts and ideas but I have never found the environment they cultivate conducive to that. They are just pushing polite phrases around. You either get on the same page or leave.
The cafe leader made the classic response that I should stick it out and rather be an influence and not just throw down my toys in the sand box and stomp off! Like how do we solve anything in the world if we leave the moment we don’t agree! I mean I get the argumentation and its very sweet to be so cliche and idealistic but I’m not so naive as to think I could have any influence. I may be blue eyed but I’m realistic. Any weight I would come with would be seen as fighting progress… standing on the wrong side of history. What is there to discus when your church has joined a huge mega church on the other side of the globe? It all gets so abstract.
What I don’t like with this mega church name branding is that the church loses it’s soul and original stamp of God on it. Instead of being “a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a peculiar people” that God has called out… we end up becoming name brand Christians where we all talk the same language and we don’t call sin out. We just have conversations about it. We rock out every Sunday and push the older people aside in a desperate attempt to be “relevant” to the younger people. So we take our marching orders from pop culture, whatever the next “relevant” thing is to the young people. Because the next “relevant” thing is simply branded, “A new and fresh move of God”.
If you want to join the old people on the back pew putting the brakes on… you’ll be left out in the cold.
I really get this feeling they just tack the label “Jesus” to their hip life style, their humor, their clubbing party life, their music and entertainment style of it all got to be fast, easy, funny and attractive.
Once in a while they will let a heavy sett girl sing with the praise band or a nerd bass player just to convince us that they are NOT like the world where it’s all about the image. But we are hardly convinced!
Our christian church life becomes this larger than life machine that we all help to move around because we all want to be part of something great for God. We want to part of something successful and big, where God is really moving and obviously blessing. I mean, look at the numbers they pull in!
Oh well, numbers or not, progress or no, I still knew I could not keep growing in this environment. Of course I never got a response from the pastor, which just further proved the point. Why does anyone go to a mega-church where they will never be able to talk to the pastor? The pastor and leaders have their own inner circle. Very few others dare or see the point of even attempting to make contact with them.
Just thinking through that made me realize I was leaving the concept of mega-church never to return again. Who wants to be so far removed from your pastor and leaders at church, where you can go for fifty years and never get to know them? What is the big deal with a big, successful church? I realized it is the age-old, “Success sells itself.” We go to the shop where we see a lot of people. We want to go to the school that is popular and so on. But is church really meant to follow the world’s model?
Mega-churches try to present Jesus like a super-star, like we would love Him if we got a chance to know Him. So they beg the chance to present the Gospel in a new and fresh way at their church. Like give them a chance, and you will love being a Christian. There is no talk of “You will be hated for my sake.” Persecuted, in fact. Why not? Because people love not the truth. God is not in all their thoughts. Jesus Christ was despised and rejected of men. I don’t see that the Apostles experienced anything else.
I got so nervous in the mega-church because I felt it was not preparing me for the tough reality of what it means to take up our cross and follow Him, to crucify the flesh.
We Millennium Kids have a short attention span. We love to church-shop and church-hop and to be honest, it is a young people’s dating possibility. If there is nobody interesting at your church, you check out other churches during their services.
Let’s be perfectly honest, Millennium Kids! Most Christian youth in Oslo at some point end up visiting, for example, Filadelfia Church, another mega-church. Because they are in the capital, they get to choose from the best singers, musicians and speakers. I had a couple favorite speakers. You know, the kind that make you cry and you go home with this great point to chew on for the next week. The service is very aesthetically pleasing and much less rocked-out. But again, in a huge mega-church, nobody knows if you come or go. There are a hundred and fifty volunteer staff around ever service. It’s always flawless.
So as I was pondering my journey out of the mega church and why I would not end up at this church either… I decided to have a look at their networking. Turns out Bill Hybel has been coming over for the past 10 years for conferences on church growth. They have also hosted Brian and Bobbie Houston as guest speakers for conferences.
Their bible school students have been on trips to the US to visit the L.A. Hillsong church and they even visited Bethel in Redding California! When I think Bethel CA I think “Christian Harry Potter school of the super natural”. I’ve never heard of a church more occupied with carnal miracles then them, promoting nonsense like ‘Glory clouds’ and ‘gold dust’ and angels that they conjure up who have been sleeping (not to mention the ‘soaking’ or ‘gravesucking’ at the tombs of dead people to receive a spiritual blessing).
I found it was alarming the more I looked into who these mega-churches network with. The only difference was that Filadelfia was not a member of Hillsong Family. That is because they are an old, well established church with their own identity. But as you look into all these mega-churches you realize they network on an international scale.
People in Australia and America probably don’t think about the rest of the world because their countries are so big. But these mega pastors reach out on an international scale and trust me, we small mega churches in Europe are plugged into the big mega-church grid. So there is no getting away. You have to get out. Give up all the prestige and find a small church. A small boring church without an expensive hyped up kids program. A small church where normal people lead us in congregational singing. As you begin to hear the sound of your voice again…it’s like you get your own feelings back. It’s like a detox program because all your senses calm down. There is no worshipful atmosphere that gets you all pumped up and excited about God and than lulls you into a receptive mood for the sermon. It reminds me that my pastor used to joke about how the piano player should come up toward the end of the sermon to play softly and help him sound more spiritual! I really fail to see what is so funny. I guess I have no sense of humor.
Anyway I am not trying to come with some recipe on how church needs to be. I just know how I don’t want it to be. I don’t like being played with, internally manipulated. I don’t like all my senses on edge, sitting at the edge of my seat wondering what’s coming next? Wondering if I will end up laughing at a joke that really isn’t funny the moment I think twice about it.
I’m not either trying to say that “boring” equals spiritual and holy. Of course our life and walk and relationship with God is exciting and a challenging story and we should express that! But then we need the space and time to express ourselves.
We need to meet in smaller groups and actually share our testimonies. We need to be able to talk with our leaders. The church stage should not be way up there for the spiritual elite of the church, the leaders and their international friends. I’m not saying either that conferences are not a great idea and very helpful. But weekly church life should have a more organic feel to it. It’s like we all prefer tomatoes grown locally then shipped from another side of the globe. I feel the same with the spiritual food.
I want to hear home grown faith and up close and personal. This high profile stage that the mega church sets is so out of touch with me and my daily struggles as a waitress in a big hotel.
If I want a fancy entertainment show I can pay for that….but church is meant to be about meeting brothers and sisters in Christ. “Provoking one another to love and good works” “Admonishing one another” “Praying with out ceasing” Taking the beam out of our own eye before we pick at the splinter in other people’s eye! It’s that week by week growing in the faith. Getting past the milk stage and really growing!
I am so done with the mega church. It is not because I had some really bad experience and so I am just ranting and raving out of bitter disappointment. All I can say is that I was on my way out of the mega-church anyway and my church that joined the Hillsong movement simply sped up my whole process of “To be or not to be in a mega-church, that is the question” dilemma.
Written in Enebakk, Norway
March 18, 2015