Sunday, August 26, 2007

supersize my salvation

The non-denominational Solid Rock church sits about 30 miles north of Cincinnati, flanking the highway. It's bordered by a truckstop and a couple of enormous flea markets.
Over the years, the church has swelled from a small gathering place to an enormous complex. It's fronted by a 60-foot sculpture of Jesus with his hands raised to the heavens in supplication and a fountain that spews water heavenward, too.

The church also has a comprehensive website. Because apparently, you can no longer get people to attend religious services without advanced search engine optimization. The website features live church services, a webcam and e-tithing, to make paying church dues easy. You can email in your prayer requests for faster blessings and order DVDs, books and gifts for the faithful. The website promises a "dynamic, cross-cultural, non-denominational place of worship, where all are welcomed and loved."

Non-denominational is the catch-all for any religion that isn't aligned with one of the mainstream churches, and has no national affiliation outside of their own church. No checks and balances. Other non-denominational churches feature on-site health clubs, gift stores and mini-cinemas.

It's franchised religion. And like a canonized Chipotle, they're popping up all over the country.

The Vineyard (VCF) is another non-denominational church that's sprung up in greater Cincinnati. Clearly winning the non-denominational war of "megachurches," they have multiple locations worldwide. A franchise. Or maybe it should be called a fanchise.

The Vineyard is a "hip" church. Cool singles and trendy young families attend services and social gatherings. Their PR machine cranks out releases espousing the Vineyard's "greener" approach to worship. Instead of hymns, they warm up services with a rock band. And a charismatic pastor who asks the congregation to give a "shout out" to the lord. They call themselves the "power evangelists."

It's the cult of personality.

You can order ball caps, t-shirts, laptop bags and more in the merchandise section of the Vineyard church's website. They even have an order form for a statement of faith brochure!

Doesn't anyone else think this is bizarre?

Isn't religion predicated upon intense study, and contemplation of faith? Can you really become indoctrinated with a two page pamphlet?

One year at Halloween, some kids from a local Vineyard church stopped by during the trick or treat hour. They refused to take candy. Instead, they forced us to take what they were giving away. They shelled out light bulbs in baggies, with canned messages talking about lighting the way, and promoting the church's services. Bewildered, we took the light bulbs and asked again, are you sure you don't want candy? They smiled eerily and again professed they didn't want anything, they only wanted to give. Compared to all of the greedy little Bart Simpsons running around demanding "another one," it was damned creepy.

I'm disenfranchised with the franchise. I was religious when I was little. But as I got older, I refused to attend church. And my feelings were reinforced in high school, when the Jim Bakker-Oral Roberts-Jimmy Swaggart scandals hit like a one two three punch, further convincing me that it was all a sham. A moneymaking machine.

I still respect and support others' rights to go to church. That's their choice. And I know that churches do many good works. The amount of money generated annually by churches for worthy causes has to be in the hundreds of millions. They rally around members of the congregation who have fallen on hard times. That sense of community is to be lauded and admired.

And I still think about going back. But like everything else in my life, I've over thought returning to the church's fold so much that the idea of setting aside my Sunday mornings to attend services overwhelms me now.

Besides. If I wait long enough, I may not have to make time to go to church.

Because really. In this world of super-sized salvation, can devotional drive-throughs be far behind?