Eagle Brook Church is the largest church in the state of Minnesota with over 18,000 congregants spread across 6 locations offering 24 services each weekend. While each individual campus is somewhat smaller (thereby giving the title of largest Minnesotan congregation at a single location to Living Word Christian Center), each is still large. Although Eagle Brook's size may pale compared to Rick Warren's 39,000 strong Saddle Back Church in Lake Forest, CA, or Joel Ostein's congregation of 43,000 at Lakewood Church in Houston (largest in US), and is no where close in size to the Yoido Full Gospel Choir Church in Seoul with an astounding 380,000+ congregants, Eagle Brook still makes the cut into the "megachurch" category.
Due to the wonders of suburban public transit (that could be another blog post) I attended the Spring Lake Park campus of Eagle Brook, which from the outside looks like your typcial, if somewhat large, church. Once you've parked your car with the help of reflective-vest-wearing,
orange-baton-weilding "parking volunteers," and made your way to the church doors (oh, and if you have to park in their overflow lot, don't worry, there's a shuttle van to take you to the door), you're greeted by a smiling middle-aged white person who holds the door for you. Then you walk inside to the coffee shop.
Yes, a coffee shop. In a church. Why? Well, would you feel more comfortable walking into a stiff-looking cathedral or a relaxed coffee-shop? More on this later.
Along with a coffee shop, there was a bookstore, an information center, a brightly colored sign pointing the direction to the kid's ministry center, and a fancy looking electronic check-in center for the children's ministry. All of these had been built into what was apparently originally a traditional gathering space. EBC SLP had obviously purchased a former church, and adjusted the interior to fit their style.
Slightly overwhelmed by the crowd, and all the stuff happening, I entered the worship center to get a good seat, and maybe find some quiet. Oh, wait, there was music (Christian pop) playing/almost blaring as people gathered in the dark rows of chairs.
Taking the opportunity to check out the place, I noticed it was huge. Probably could have seated near to 1000 people. The worship space had a very traditional feel, with rows of chairs (not pews) arranged facing down a long, tall traditional church sactuary looking room. The only Christian symbol I could find was a underwhelming metal cross off to the side of the stage. Although EBC's style might fit better in more of an auditorium/concert venue style space like several of their other locations have, EBC SLP had obviously done all they could to put their style on this otherwise traditional looking building.
At the front of the worship center was a stage, not an altar. The stage was dark when I entered except for bright blue LED lights, casting a cool glow over the center. Above the stage were two giant screens which displayed various messages welcoming people to church "Welcome to EBC! We're glad you're here," and announcing the current message series "Rumor Has It." Above the message was a countdown to worship. With one minute to go on the countdown, the messages disappeared and just the countdown was displayed. The band set up on the stage. The camera crew took their positions. The people got ready. 3, 2, 1... the drummer set the beat. ZERO! The stage lights went on. The band began a Christian rock song. Service began!
Service began indeed, and was unlike any Christian service I have yet attended. The service was simple, the band played Christian pop-rock songs for about 15 minutes, then a man welcomed us to worship with a comedy sketch routine in which he wrote thank you notes Jimmy Fallon style to the church volunteers. (BTW this routine involved a unicyle being ridden across the stage, and yes I knew the man riding it). After this welcome, the stage was cleared, and a third giant screen was lowered in the center of the stage for the simulcast of the pastor's message (about 40 minutes). Finally, once the message (not sermon) was finished, the welcome-man lead us in a prayer, then everyone made for the exits.
Okay, clearly there was more to the service than just that, otherwise there wouldn't be thousands of people attending. Well the message delivered that day shed a lot of light for me.
Lucky for me, I attended EBC on the third and final weekend of their message series "Rumor Has It." (Aside: as the stage was readied for the message the overhead screens played a graphic of a megaphone with the words "Rumor Has It" around it, while Adele's Rumor Has It was played.) This weekend's "rumor" was THE CHURCH (EBC) IS ALL ABOUT THE SHOW. The message was delivered by Jason Strand, EBC's "teaching pastor," who could be seen delivering the message via simulcast from Lino Lakes (which is where I would have attended if Metro Transit thought Lino Lakes exists on weekends). The simulcast screen was brought down to the stage floor level, so it almost looked as though Jason were standing on the SLP stage. Almost.
Jason wore jeans and a polo, and stood on a stage in front of a table and chair (which he never used) and a large television screen which displayed bible verses at the appropriate time. His style was informal, and dynamic. His message didn't feel nearly as long as many shorter sermons I've heard. The punch line of his message was that church needs to be relevant otherwise people won't come. The message was based around 1 Corinthians 9:22 (along with a few other verses helpfully printed on a handout I was given as I entered) in which Paul says "my goal is to find common ground with everyone I meet so that I might bring them to Christ."
EBC takes this to mean that the church must make people feel comfortable, in whatever way, short of sinning, works best. Maybe it's a coffee shop, or perhaps a hunting and fishing ministry, or it could even be doing a message series on the '90's and encouraging people to wear '90's clothes to church. Because the goal of the church is for people to find, not "the church" or religion, but to find Christ. Once you've become a follower of Christ you'd certainly be willing to worship God in a smelly, ugly church basement. But you wouldn't invite your friend to such a church, and what not Christ-follower would want to visit such a place? So the church must be reach the world where the world is.
The church should not be like the rest of the world and neither should Christians should live like "the rest of the world" with all that pre-marital sex and what not. The mission of the church, its beliefs and theology are eternal (so says Jason Strand, not the person writing this). But the way the church reaches people (to bring them to Christ) must change as the world changes. To quote pastor Jason, "we need to take deep stuff and teach it in ways people understand," and feel comfortable approaching. Today that means coffee for the teens, Xboxes for the children, and rock music for all. That's what makes people comfortable and willing to come to church, and keep coming. Once you're a committed follower of Christ, you'll realize you don't need all the lights, rock, and fog on the stage. You'll put down that mocha. You'll ask yourself, why do I need an app to help me read the Bible? But you'll stick around, because you'll be committed to helping others in the world find and know Christ.
I attend my current church, because I love the community. However I didn't sense a close knit community at Eagle Brook Spring Lake Park. But I only scratched the surface. Megachurches are far more than just once a week affairs. They are in fact networks, of smaller groups, who happen to share a common worship experience once a week. For example, EBC has nearly 200 small groups. Just like the (mega)University of Minnesota encourages students to find community by joining one of the 800+ student groups on campus. Megachurches understand that people seek community, but that can be hard to find in a megachurch, so they direct people toward small groups, where they make friends, and stick in the community. ("Join a Small Group" is next to "Get Baptized" on EBC's "Next Steps" page).
My interest in visiting a megachurch was piqued by reading American Grace in which authors Robert Putnam and David Campbell describe their visit to Saddleback Church in Forest Lake, CA. American Grace and my visit to Eagle Brook Church have me asking a lot about what purpose churches serve. Are churches for building community? Are churches for worship? Are they catalysts for social change? Are they pop-rock concerts mixed with a bit of morality and a shot of espresso? Should churches be run like businesses? Should they be big and reach a lot of people? Or should they be a place where everyone knows your name? I might prefer a small, intellectual, social action oriented church. But as Putnam and Campbell describe in American Grace, there is a place for everyone in the incredibly diverse religious landscape of America.