Home > Church, Culture, God Project > A Dog in the Audience (Or, Kensington, Part II [Or, A Deconstruction of the Christian Megachurch {Or, Improperly Nested Brackets and Things}])

A Dog in the Audience (Or, Kensington, Part II [Or, A Deconstruction of the Christian Megachurch {Or, Improperly Nested Brackets and Things}])

I know.  What a bold title.  An audacious title.  To level such accusations and observations against a church body shows a blatant lack of respect for the parishioners, and my Christian brothers and sisters.  But I tell you, kind reader, there was a Dog in the audience.  No, seriously, there was a Seeing Eye training dog in the audience.  A golden retriever puppy (Maybe? We stupidly sat in the balcony because no one informed us of a puppy in the main auditorioum.  Strike 1, Kensington!). The dog laid happily in the aisle way as the trainer petted him (except for the one bark that came during the announcement).  Jealous for sure.

As we drank our cappuccinos at the Great Lakes Café on the upper-level of Kensington, the conversation mainly focused on the dog in the audience.  I mean, hello, puppy!  But we also discussed the community, the odd quirks, and the environment we observed during our two weeks (only one for Brother Jordan).  Last week I addressed the message, now I’m gonna talk about the elephant in the room: the megachurch feel.

According to the Hartford Institute of Religious Research, Kensington boasts an average attendance of 11,099 people (I assume spread out over the campuses) and also is in the handy-dandy megachurch directory the Hartford Institute constructed.  The average attendance beats out Keith Butler’s church by 99 people for the highest total in Michigan (I’m not measuring overall reach and influence, which with Rob Bell’s popularity as an author, I assume Mars Hill would win).  While impressive, its just numbers and I want to address my views on the larger tenets that are assumed when the stereotypical megachurch gets addressed. (A Deconstruction on the Christian MegaChurch? Postmodernism for the win!)

The Arts

I’m a fan of the arts.  I’m only artistically talented in one of them, but with a brother who has a knack for the music thing, and another with a knack for the photography thing; I understand the struggle of creating a piece of art, and getting your point across.  I’m also acutely aware of the occasional negative eye taken towards the arts in some churches—especially if you venture beyond the safe, white-washed version of good taste—and the steps taken by people to shield their ‘edgy’ (non-Church approved) work from their congregation.  My Mom, in the early days of Shepherd, worked with the drama team (er, drama ministry, because everything’s a ministry in the church) and for one their first skits the team put on a humorous skit that used huge parts of the body to examine the “body of the church.”  In the grand scheme or art, this isn’t even anything close to controversial, but it stirred up some protest in the congregation who thought the team was mocking the scripture.

Arts and the Church have a tumultuous relationship; it has inspired great art, and challenged great art as ungodly.  I have no problem with skits, musics, and videos being incorporated into the church.  I grew up where these elements taking the forefront in my daily life, and they can have a heavy influence on me when taking in a message.  I don’t think this is bad, or that it will detract from the message, it can enhance it.  The danger comes when the arts surrounding the message distract from it, and get us all off point.  This is a problem with churches that utilize skits and videos only once in a while, it’s not part of the language of the service, and therefore can easily distract from the message.  It’s one thing to push people out of their comfort zone to accent a point, but quite another to throw something in frivolously for the sake of doing something new.  If you’re a church that does a weekly modern worship set, then breaking it down and doing an acoustic set one-week doesn’t detract from the service, it adds to it.  People are used to singing, you’re just presenting it from a new angle.  If you’re a church that doesn’t include videos in the service than randomly including one for a week detracts from the service.  Likewise, it took people at Shepherd awhile to get the skits being implemented at first—they weren’t part of the language—but they eventually warmed to it.  But the church had to make a concerted effort to get it included.

Kensington does a good job of incorporating the arts: videos, skits, and music.  Each one is apart of the service’s language.  Not only do they get incorporated seamlessly, they’re well produced.  Nothing jerks you out of an experience more than shoddy production, and Kensington has a good production team backing it up.  On the surface, I like this element of Kensington.  I’m not sure if I like all the money being spent on it (I like my churches poor, I guess), but the incorporation enhances the experience.  I’m not ashamed to say I like as much emotion and imagery in my sermons as much as I want a message with substance.  I don’t think arts need to be incorporated in churches everywhere—at the very least I’d rather a church embrace and encourage people to intelligently critique modern art—but I don’t have an issue when they are, and think they can be a great tool.

The Community

When discussing the dog in the audience over our cappuccinos (well, Stu had a mocha) I noticed the number of people filing through the café.  We went to the middle service, so it was difficult to tell who was filing out or filing in.  But I noticed there were a few people hanging out in the café and even more talking in the lobby.  Judging by the after-service numbers, people seem to enjoy the Kensington community.  In a church of Kensington’s size, getting loss in the current wouldn’t be hard.  But like most megachurches, they emphasize small groups and other ministries to get involved in.  This is true even in smaller churches, you can become part of the community on a superficial level by only showing up on Sunday, but integrating yourself into the community takes some post-Sunday effort.  In a church of Shepherd’s size, roughly 90 people on a good week, I managed to sneak in and out with relative ease most Sundays.  With all the small groups, ministries, and activities Kensington promotes on their website, you have to try to not get involved.  I imagine going to Kensington is like going to college, you’re not gonna make a ton of friends in class, but your closest connections come from the RSO’s, your job, the people you meet outside of class.

I think the biggest straw man leveled against Megachurches is the community charge.  I haven’t been to a megachurch that doesn’t emphasize getting involved outside of the Sunday service.  Sometimes the involvement isn’t necessarily what I like, less on volunteering and more on getting involved to solely help the church.  But Kensington strikes a good balance, and takes active steps to get people involved without alienating them.

The Espresso Bar

I’m always uncomfortable with espresso bars and bookstores in the church lobby.  Not because of the typical Jesus-overturning-the-tables-at-temple passage, but for varying reasons.  Bookstores because every book I look at I always over think why they included it in their selection.  Every book comes across as some sort of propaganda campaign for the church.  What does it mean, offering Chuck Colson and Donald Miller, excluding Bell’s books but including his NOOMA series?  What implication is the Church suggesting: think like an absolutist but act like a postmodern, but not too much because that’s weird, guys.  Or does it hope to showcase the broad spectrum of Christianity?

Intentional or not, every book in the bookstore is an implicit endorsement by the church of what they want to see.  It leads to unintentional crisis of readership in the Church, I read McLaren, but didn’t see any of his books in the bookstore.  Does Kensington endorse his thinking, or reject for what they considered major doctrinal differences?  Maybe I’m overreacting (read: I’m overreacting) but when you’re a major institutional player in someone’s life, and offer a bookstore, it plays as an authority figure telling you how to think, what to think, and don’t move outside these boundaries.  It limits discourse on other important works, by implying they aren’t worth thinking about; or worse that the church already thought about them and considers them garbage.  And the greeting cards are just ridiculous.

The espresso bar I object to because it’s never good espresso.  Let me tell you about my experience.  As a Starbucks certified Barista, which means nothing except you get a pin, a system has developed to judge another barista’s skills.  A double cap.  Why?  A cappuccino is the quintessential barista skill drink.  It gives every element a barista must master: creating foam, free pouring, and the espresso shot.  Sadly, Starbucks and other chain shops moved away from hand-pulled shots to automatic machines (for good reasons, I argue), but the quality of the shot must still be judged.  A cappuccino, or the Americanized version, is shots of espresso, half steamed milk, and half foam (the actual version is one third espresso, one third steamed milk, and one third foam).  So a double cap gives enough of the shot to not overwhelm the drink, but enough to judge the shot.  The foam/milk is the only other thing added to the drink and will let you judge the steaming abilities.

The espresso shot at Kensington has a traditional espresso shot smell: meaning  a slightly nutty top note, with a sweet caramel base.  However, it is an automatic machine and falls prey to most automatic machine failings: a coarse, feels like used dishwater in your mouth, shot.  The first sip is good, but then the bitterness and coarse texture takes over.  The best automatic shot comes from the $25,000 machines used at Starbucks, but even that doesn’t emulate a masterfully hand-pulled shot (Starbucks readily admits in employee-only videos they aren’t as good as a hand-pulled shot, but this is the best out there and it’s damn good).  Now the foam.  Pitiful.  I won’t get into the details and overall importance of proper milk aeration and microfoam, but without it your drink sucks.  Good foam should be thicker than the steamed milk, holding shape but still able to slide down smoothly.  Good foam tastes like whip cream.  And I don’t want to brag, but I make damn good foam.  As in customers-come-up-and-tell-me-how-much-they-like-it good.  Now this seems like a lot of pride to take in a McJob, but judge how you act before you get your coffee and you too would enjoy not being bitched at daily for shitty foam (or too much foam).  The foam held its shape, but tasted more sour than sweet, and the foam looked to be created by more big bubbles then microfoam.  Not allowing for the sweetness of the milk to come out, but just taste hollow and empty.

I feel a little judgmental mainly because it was somebody’s Grandmother volunteering at the espresso bar who made my drink.  And I can’t expect perfection, but still, if you’re offering an espresso bar, offer a good espresso bar.

And this is my real problem with the bookstore and coffee bar trend: churches are trying to piggyback on what is perceived as a hip and intelligent culture.  People who sit around discussing life and reading important books at a coffee bar.  The church shouldn’t worry so much about bringing that into their world, co-opting it for the Christian experience, but should encourage their parishioners to influence the culture in a positive manner.  When a group—any group, religious, political, or otherwise—tries to co-opt a culture to fit their needs it fails.  Not because they didn’t do a good job replicating it, but because that is all it is—a poor copy of the original.  Don’t try to copy popular culture, create your own and influence the rest.  Of course, we can debate the proper way to influence people and the message we take to them, but that’s the ongoing story of Christianity: how to win friends and influence people.

Synthesis/Application

I have a love/hate thing with Kensington.  I don’t agree with the overall theme of their message, but I don’t think it’s all bad.  I love the integration of the arts, and they do a lot of positive community outreach and avoid the “let us preach before we help you” pitfall and just help because that’s what Jesus wants.  I can see why people choose to attend Kensington, and they all seem like nice people (very white, but that happens when you’re based in the whitest place on the planet) who want to do good.   The Church helps them, offering a lot of opportunities in the community and in the church itself.  Their isn’t an “us versus them” attitude against other churches, but we’re all struggling together to figure this thing out.  I wouldn’t go there, but I’d feel okay knowing that the people who do go aren’t totally missing what Christian culture should be about.

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  1. November 7, 2009 at 2:26 pm

    The struggle with art in church… This reminds me of that one guitar solo issue that one time at that one church…

    Unfortunately, what I don’t think a lot of people understand is that art is not usually recreational. I mean, it is, but what I’m trying to say is that the people who are artists, their art comes from inside them and is vital to their living. Art is an express of self, not something that is only invoked when putting on a performance. So really, when of all places the church should be encouraging art, it’s the one place where it turns into dirty, misunderstood thing.

    At the same time, there is a balance that has to be struck. Art and church are a continuum. Both are necessary and are part of each other, but when it goes the direction of a single spotlight costing more than most peoples’ salaries, or not upgrading to a decent sound system because “worship is not supposed to be a performance”, the whole system goes out of whack and damages both sides.

  2. December 22, 2009 at 3:05 pm

    By the way, here’s an article that talks about churches being missional vs. attractional. It reminded me of this post. And because comments are candy.

    http://thirdplaceconsulting.com/2009/12/the-attractive-church-theory/

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