"Welcome to the Next Church" (August 1996)
Seamless multimedia worship, round-the-clock niches of work and service, spiritual guidance, and a place to belong: in communities around the country the old order gives way to the new. By Charles Trueheart
The banks in America look like churches. But here is a church that looks like a bank. It has the coldness of a bank: its futuristic, somber architecture. No cross, no stained-glass windows, no religious symbols at all. It is ten o'clock in the morning. The faithful are beginning to pour in. Or perhaps one should say "the public." Video screens are pretty much everywhere. A curtain rises to the side of the stage, revealing a picture window that opens onto a landscape of lakes and greenery. And now the bank begins to resemble a congress.
On the stage a man and a child in shorts, under a tent, discussing the origin of the world, eating popcorn.
A female rock singer, thunderously applauded, whose shouts are repeated in chorus by the 5,000 people present: "I'm here to meet with you … Come and meet with me … Drive me into your arms …"
Another man, in jeans and sneakers, jumps onto the stage: "Let's speak to our Creator." Then, to heaven, his hands cupping his mouth, "Yes, Creator, talk to us!"—again repeated by the audience.
And then the same man, turning back to the congregation, his voice scarcely able to rise above the noise from the guitars and drums: "Lee Strobel! Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Lee Strobel, who's coming back to us from California with his new book! On the New York Times best-seller list! TV celebrity! Give him a big round of applause, ladies and gentlemen!"
At which point Lee Strobel arrives, a man about fifty years old, a sales-rep smile on a plump face, also wearing jeans and sneakers, and a nylon jacket—and between the two men, in this place of faith and prayer, this dialogue:
"My goodness! Our minister has changed his hairdo!"
"Bingo! You got that right! Barbra Streisand sent me her hairstylist!"
"And what have you come to talk to us about today?"
"I hesitated between 'Saving Your Marriage,' 'Rediscovering Your Self-Esteem,' and the 'Fit for Him' program that tells you how to lose weight through faith. But I finally decided in favor of the subject of my last book: 'God Proven by Science and Scholars.'"
A few gags. A quotation from the Epistle to the Romans. Then the lights go down. Now, on the main screen, sound effects blaring, a video begins titled "In the Heart of DNA," which shows a camera zooming inside a cell, exploring it, getting lost, encountering a thousand obstacles. Then it shows interviews with "former atheists," who have a whole string of academic titles, explaining how at the end of this maze, à la Adventures of the Lost Ark, there is God.
"The problem is Darwin," Lee Strobel says, in a tone that makes him sound as if he's advertising a product rather than preaching a sermon. "That's the subject of my book: if Darwin is right, then life develops all on its own and God is out of a job. Do you want God to be out of a job?"
The faithful murmur no, they don't want God to be unemployed, "It's like the miracle of bacteria—take one atom away from bacteria, and it's no longer bacteria. Isn't that proof that God exists? Isn't that proof that the Bible tells the truth? That, too, is demonstrated in my book."
This former journalist—who in another book tells how his marriage nearly foundered when his wife became a Christian, and was then salvaged when he converted too—finds ways to quote himself eight times in one hour. So when the time for book-signing arrives, several hundred of us are waiting quietly in line in the cafeteria, between airport-security cordons, to have him scribble "Hi, Matt!" or "Hi, Doug!" for us, accompanied by a promotional smile.
"French?" he asks me, looking slightly put off, when my turn comes.
"French, yes. And atheist."
Then this reply, as if he has changed his mind: "Oh! That's okay … In that case, say the atheist's prayer—that works for the French, too …"
And now he closes his eyes, puts his left hand on his heart while continuing to scrawl an almost illegible "Hi, Bernie!" with his right, and says, "'God, if you are there, show yourself.' That's the atheist's prayer."
Lee Strobel is not the pastor of Willow Creek. Because the holder of that title happens to be away, Strobel is just filling in. But the scenario, I am told by a couple, my neighbors in line, is always the same. The other churches are dying because they're churches of yes-men who come there without knowing why. Not us. We're a living church. Our ministers are of our time, just as Christ was of his time. And we make it a point of honor to have a useful religion: prayer channels, sharing and discussing visions, organizing telephone services transmitted to brothers and sisters in distress, mowing old people's lawns, feeding the neighbors' dog when they're on vacation, cleaning the toilets at Starbucks … "There's a lot for a Christian to do!"
Inspired by a former member of the Baptist church on the Avenue du Maine, in Paris, deliberately "nondenominational" and, because of this, using every marketing technique to target a maximum number of customers (sorry—potential faithful), the Willow Creek Community Church, in South Barrington, Illinois, gets 17,500 worshippers every weekend, and has 10,000 affiliated churches dotting the country. Power? Political influence and aim? That remains to be seen. What is obvious is the power of a religion whose secret is perhaps, simply, to get rid of the distance, the transcendence, and the remoteness of the divine that are at the heart of European theologies. A present God this time; a God who is there, behind the door or the curtain, and asks only to show himself; a God without mystery; a good-guy God; almost a human being, a good American, someone who loves you one by one, listens to you if you talk to him, answers if you ask him to—God the friend, who has your best interests at heart.
"Bernard-Henri Lévy," he repeats, mocking me a little, because when I introduced myself, I must have exaggerated the syllables. "With a name like that, you would have been a big hit at the convention." I have interrupted my westward drive for a few days to see the formal nomination of John Kerry at the Democratic National Convention, in Boston. In this hotel dining room where some of us have been waiting for him for over an hour, I ask, "And what about 'Barack Obama'? With a name like that, and with the success you had last night, you should be able to become president of the United States in five minutes." He laughs. Thumps me on the chest, pulls away a little as if to gather momentum to land a better punch, gives me a hug, laughs again, and repeats, like a nursery rhyme, "Barack Obama, Bernard-Henri Lévy …"
This is the man who brought the house down yesterday, in the big Fleet Center. This is the perpetrator of the most authentic single event in an evening whose other attractions included the First Lady of Iowa; the mayor of Trenton; Tom Daschle, the South Dakota senator; and hundreds of people wearing hats draped with flags and hats in the shape of donkeys, skyscrapers, World Trade Centers. True, he didn't say much. In his insistence on claiming to be a follower of the Founding Fathers, in his saying over and over that America is a religious country and that he himself is a religious man, in the faith with which he exclaimed, "There's not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there's the United States of America," in his way of saying that the problem is not another president for another policy but a new president for the same policy the old one no longer has enough credit to follow—in all these things there was something desperately accommodating for a Frenchman who's used to big political disputes. But in the end … his ease; his cheeky humor, a black Clinton; his bad-boy, Harvard-grad good looks; his white mother born in Kansas City, his black father born in Kenya … In other words, this twofold mixture, mixed origins squared, this lively disavowal of all identities—including, and this is perhaps the most original of all, the southern African-American identity. Didn't his opponent in Illinois, the black Republican Alan Keyes, just reproach him for not being "black enough"? Who is this white black man who isn't even descended from a slave in the Deep South? His eloquence—this speech, which, like all the speeches over the past two days, was calibrated down to the slightest intonation, but whose smallest sigh he seemed to be improvising. The hall vibrated. As soon as he stood up, you could feel that something important was happening. And the first one to realize this was, as it should have been, the one whose role was being usurped: the Reverend Al Sharpton, the born agitator, the man of all the insolent remarks, and the author, incidentally, of the only unconventional speech at the entire convention, the only one who dared to jump the rails of party speechwriters and quote Ray Charles and shout, fist raised, that poor blacks were still waiting for the forty acres and a mule that had been promised a century and a half ago to the freed slaves. But at that point, suddenly, things didn't go as planned: his rage fell flat, his maledictions sounded false. Obama was there, and it was as if all the charm had gone out of the faded old star.
Barack Obama. We shouldn't forget that image of him when, at 11:00 P.M., he leaped onto the stage with his slightly dancing gait, was lit up by the spotlights, and turned his brown American face to an amazed audience. And we shouldn't forget, either, this image of him today, at the hotel: lighthearted, facetious, and then suddenly tired, a little slow, drugged by his success last night, almost boring when he undertakes to explain, in a drawling voice, inventing a stammer for himself as if he wanted to talk even more slowly, the fragility of all this. We shouldn't forget this moment of suspense, almost of uncertainty, when he says we shouldn't go faster than the music, that America is the country of meteoric careers, "next month somebody else will be the story." I look at Obama. I observe his magnificent gestures. I remember reading an article saying that Barack, in Swahili, means "blessed." And I feel that whatever he may say, something is at stake in this very posture, in this marked distance from all kinds of communities. The first black man to understand that you should stop playing on guilt and play on seduction instead? The first one to want to be America's promise, rather than its reproach? The beginning of the end for identity-based ideologies?