Attending Church in the Bible Belt
I was raised in the South along the Bible Belt of North America. Attending church is nothing new to me. I was partially raised by Catholic nuns as a leftover French colonization effort in Vietnam, and I grew up attending a variety of churches in Tennessee as my parents tried to find a middle ground between my Mom’s Catholicism and my Dad’s Baptist roots. Needless to say, religion and theology debates are nothing new to me. Perhaps this plethora of religious intrigue at an early age is the fuel to my continual religious internal debates.
My parent’s settled on St. Paul’s Episcopalian Church in Chattanooga but that did nothing to settle my own search. While most college students’ lives are marked with a steady decline in church attendance, I took the freedom to attend a variety of churches in Knoxville. The most far-reaching church adventure was my trip to the synagogue, where I quickly found myself out of place between the Hebrew text and language barrier. But like most people, I am a creature of habit and settled into a routine of attending St. John’s Cathedral, an Episcopalian church.
It was my cousins who introduced me to their nondenominational church that began my current trend of attending Buckhead Church in Atlanta. Being like-minded to my mother, I’ve always seen a church as a cathedral of silence and solace (as well as a haven). I’m naturally drawn to castle-esque architecture, stained glass windows and an altar that lords over the pews. Nondenominational churches are not this at all, but I surprisingly enjoyed their youthful exuberance and sermon-style.
The rock-band music and multi-flat screen televisions at Fellowship Church in Knoxville was my first experience. I’ve since jumped into a bigger pool and a bigger church. Buckhead Church in Atlanta is by far the largest church I’ve attended, unbeknownst to me until a recent sermon. Andy Stanley, senior pastor of North Point Community Church, explained the influence a church the size of Buckhead could be for the local community and national economy because it is part of the second largest church in the U.S.A.
What? Did I hear that correctly?
According to a 2008 annual report from Outreach magazine, Lakewood Church in Houston, TX was the largest with an attendance of 43,500. North Point Community Church and two satellite campuses, including Buckhead Church, landed in third place with an attendance of 22,557. In three years, North Point Community Church has jumped into the second place seat according to NPCC pastor Andy Stanley (surely a preacher wouldn’t lie so I can faithfully report this statistic since new numbers from Outreach magazine are not available for free yet).
It took me awhile to process that I was adding to the record setting attendance number at a mega-church, the very thing I abhorred as a child. Yes, I might have been young and impressionable, but my opinions on mega-churches were always unwavering and negative. Scrolling marquee signs and a gift shop inside a church seemed misplaced and vulgar. I could never understand how someone could find the peace of mind to think about God in a place overcrowded and loud. This was what I thought about mega-churches until I find out I’m a part of one.
There are still inherent problems to a large church; for instance, there are too many people and the level of intimacy is quickly lost in the thousands of bobbing heads. When I attended a small Episcopalian church in College Park, within the first month of my attendance, I’d already made friends with a sweet family. They took me into their confidence and companionship, letting me dine with them after the service at the local hotspot instead of going home alone.
Buckhead Church does try and bridge this divide by creating smaller groups that members can attend to meet others. How effective are these groups? I’ve signed my friend and I up for a Fusion group, a singles group aimed at establishing friendships and doing service projects, to find out for myself. The group will meet five times in the next two months on Sunday evenings, so stay tuned for my future analysis of these meetings.
It was quite a shock to find out I had become a mega-church attendee. What finally won me over? Stanley’s preaching style. He not only spoke about the scriptures but its relevance to today’s generation and economic time. In a recent sermon series called Recovery Road, Stanley discussed how Christian thinking and behavior can bring our nation out of its current economic woes.
It is his clear, precise sermons that cut through the usual religious jargon of archaic stories that drew me into the church. In fact, Fellowship is a mini-version of Buckhead Church in many ways. In retrospect, St. John’s pastor was jovial and his optimistic personality bleeds into his sermons. While the budget was astronomically smaller than Buckhead Church, the pastor delivered upbeat sermons that were relative to current issues. I think the age of the pastor in many ways correlates to the preaching-style. So why did I change church? It wasn’t because I was unsatisfied. One, I moved to an apartment closer to Buckhead Church and gasoline prices forced me to seek a new church. Two, I enjoy the anonymity of Buckhead Church. Sometimes the loneliest place a person can be is in a crowd.
The sanctuary we so often seek in going to church is really in our own minds.