Congregational Journey: Visit #4

(Blogger’s note: my apologies for not posting this yesterday – I got distracted by a silly little football game and lost track of time. My promise that it won’t happen again … at least not for the next six months.)

I was in an interesting position for a few days regarding the next destination on my Congregational Journey. Namely, I didn’t have a destination – the congregation I was planning to visit no longer existed. So clearly that wasn’t going to work. But one of my readers mentioned in a reply to a previous entry that they attended Quail Lakes Baptist Church, and that I might want to check it out. Well … my Sunday morning was suddenly free, so why not?

Quail Lakes Baptist is the second-largest Protestant congregation in Stockton, with an average weekly attendance (including kids) of about 2000, and a complex of three buildings – a sanctuary that I think seats over 1000, a two-story “activity center” that includes a gymnasium, and a three-story education building. It’s not quite a “mega-church,” but I guess it would be in the next tier, and it enjoys a good reputation in the city. It’s also a congregation I’m somewhat familiar with, having attended concerts there and taken an anger management course they sponsored several years back. I’ve heard their pastor, Mark Maffucci, speak on the radio a couple of times. I even lived in the apartment complex across the street from their buildings for a while, and was a member of another congregation that meets just a block down the road. But as fate would have it, until yesterday I had never been to a Sunday service at Quail Lakes Baptist.

And after yesterday, I probably won’t do it again.

I arrived at 8:45 for the 9 a.m. “traditional service”; they also have a 10:45 a.m. “contemporary service,” and I was planning to stay for at least part of the latter to get a feel for the difference. As I walked up to the “worship center” that includes the sanctuary, I saw a small kiosk with a sign on it saying “WELCOME CENTER”. Hmmm … that sounded promising. But when I went to it, it was closed, with a sign in the window that said, “Information in the Foyer” and an arrow pointing to the worship center. Okay, no sweat – that’s where I headed.

There were a lot of people in the foyer when I came in the door, but only one, an older lady seemed to notice me. She came and shook my hand, said “hi” and “how are you?” I had just enough time to get out “hello” and “oh, fine” before she walked past me. I looked around for a minute before going into the sanctuary, when something similar happened. The usher at the sanctuary door greeted me with a smile and a handshake, said hi, handed me a bulletin, and then looked past me to the next person… except that there was no one behind me. Neither the lady nor the usher asked me my name or inquired if I’d been there before.

The sanctuary was roughly as I remembered it from the concerts – padded pews, a large stage with room for a 60- or 70-person choir and a substantial band, three backlit crosses on the wall behind the stage and two large projection screens above the far left and right edges of the stage. Just to the left and right of the crosses were two banners, saying “1959 Year of Jubilee” and “2009 Fulfilling the Promise” – in honor of the 50th anniversary of the congregation’s founding, one presumes. Being the first Sunday of the month, there was also a Communion table set up in front.

Ten minutes before the service began, I sat in the fourth pew from the front, just to the right of center, and watched as people began coming into the sanctuary. The congregation (for the first service at least) was predominately older and Caucasian, but far from exclusively so; the age range ran from young teens up to people with portable oxygen tanks, and there were plenty of darker-skinned attendees. There were a lot of conversations going on, but at no point did anyone come up to say hi, introduce themselves, ask if I’d been attending there long or even acknowledged I was there – and that included the family who were sitting in the pew to my left when I arrived, or the couple that entered the pew on my right a couple of minutes later.

Beginning at 8:55, a countdown from 5:00 to :01 was projected onto the screens. I though, huh, they expect punctuality … that’s unusual in a congregation these days. And sure enough, things kicked off precisely at 9 with a 30-member children’s choir singing all four verses of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” (The ethnic mix was a bit more “Stocktonian” among the kids – 50% Caucasian at most.) Kind of a different way to start a service, but I like different. After the children left, a pastor read a Bible verse as a call to worship while the choir came on stage, then a men’s trio sang “The Center of My Joy,” accompanied by decidedly non-traditional instrumentation, including a full horn section and trap drums. The choir came in on the third chorus. The volume of the music was moderate; even in the fourth row, I didn’t need to put in earplugs.

Two worship choruses and a hymn followed (a little surprising, as I would’ve thought a “traditional” service would be heavy on the hymns), with the lyrics projected onto the screens. For the most part, though, the screens showed the service in progress, switching between several different camera angles. The whole music portion was done very crisply and professionally, save for a little taking between the kids in the children’s choir (which elicited some nervous laughter from the pews). I noticed a few raised hands and some swaying in the pews, evidence that there were some people there from Pentecostal backgrounds (what we used to call “Bapticostals” in my Bible institute days).

At 9:30, the senior pastor, Mark Maffucci, came to the stage for several announcements, delivered rapid-fire. I understood why once I took a good look at the bulletin, which lists over 20 Sunday school classes between the two services and about 50 other meetings and events. I suspect he was trying to cram in as much as he could, without making any ministry feel left out. Then he invited us to greet the people around us. I shook hands with everyone I could reach from where I was, but never got the chance to say more than “hi” or “thank you” before they moved on to the next hand to shake; a couple of times, I was left with my mouth hanging open, as they went on before I could say anything. Everyone smiled, everyone said “good morning” or “hello” (or in one case, “happy Lord’s day!”) and everyone turned to someone else within three seconds. (Leaving the pew to meet anyone else wasn’t an option, since I was in the middle and the people to the left and right of me stayed stationary.) I felt like I was starting to see a pattern.

After Communion (done in the usual evangelical style, with trays of small crackers and grape-juice-in-tiny-tumblers), Pastor Maffucci began his sermon, apparently part of a series called “Doorways to a Deeper Faith” with an emphasis on “becoming who we are in Christ.” I appreciated his recognition that (his words) “we aren’t just to be saved, we are to be changed” and that we needed to “get over ourselves, get past ourselves” to fulfill God’s will for us. He spoke mainly from Colossians 3:1-13, but tied it in with the rest of Scripture, digging deeply into the passages. He didn’t pull punches in regard to sin, but balanced it with a recognition of God’s grace; he made his points clearly and used humor to further his points without allowing it to distract from them. The impression I got was the same one I had when listening to radio broadcasts of such high-profile preachers as David Jeremiah and Ray Bentley.

But I was still disconcerted with the whole atmosphere I was sensing. Everything felt too smooth, packaged … the order of service felt scheduled down to the second, as if there were someone offstage with a stopwatch directing the action. Pastor Maffucci’s voice was too modulated, his movements and pauses weirdly precise, as if he’d taken an extensive course in “preacher’s phrasing”. Honestly, whenever I hear a pastor talk like that, I start to imagine him doing it with his wife over dinner. Which of course he wouldn’t do, because she’d get on his case for how artificial he sounded. But then, why sound artificial from the pulpit either? The word that kept coming to mind was “slick,” which is not necessarily the first word you want people to think of when discussing your Sunday service.

And that’s when it hit me. What I was seeing and hearing seemed just like I was in a TV studio, watching a performance being filmed. Heck, I was watching it being filmed – except for the Bible verses as he read them, those big screens were showing Pastor Maffucci preaching, switching from camera angle to camera angle as if it were “Hour of Power” or something. And I was in the studio audience, whose entire purpose for being there wasn’t to connect with the people around them – certainly not with the total stranger in the fourth pew – but to watch the performance. And I can think of nowhere in Scripture where God calls us to that.

Confirmation of that came immediately. Pastor Maffucci had just referenced Colossians 3:11-13, and talked about how to grow in Christ we needed to not just look to God and inside ourselves, but also to look to one another. Then he said, “if you want someone to come alongside you, partner with you …” I was immediately alert, thinking that he might point to some mentoring program, or maybe the home groups that the bulletin indicates they have – something where relationships are established and nurtured …

“… come down to the front, and we will have ‘prayer partners’ available to talk to you over on the left …” What? You mean that your idea of partnering, of coming alongside someone is to have someone pray with them for a few minutes? Tell me you’re kidding. He wasn’t kidding. Three or four elders went over to stage left as Pastor Maffucci dismissed the service, and one, maybe two people came down to pray with them. Everyone else headed for the doors. Within 90 seconds the section of the sanctuary I was in was empty except for me. Not one person greeted me as they were leaving.

I stayed for about fifteen minutes more. Pastor Maffucci came down from the stage to talk with a few people, including one of the music ministers, and was standing about 20 feet from where I was sitting, but if he (the people with which he was conversing) even noticed I was there, he didn’t let on. The music minister began to practice with the musicians and singers for the second, “contemporary” service (I’m guessing the “contemporary” refers to contemporary jazz, as that’s the style they were performing – and if I’d stayed, I would have needed my earplugs). People began to come in for the next service, also ignoring me, which blew my hope that maybe it was just a characteristic of the first-service group. I gave up when I saw the church’s mission flashed up on the overhead screen:

  • Our Mission: To win and build passionate, lifelong followers of Jesus Christ.

Win them … build them … but not try to get to know them? Not even introduce ourselves to them? Okayyyyy … let me know how that works out.

I left the sanctuary, walked through the foyer (once again, no one speaking to the now-disappointed figure making his way out), past the Welcome Center (still closed – had that been an omen and I missed it?) and back to my car. Before I left, I looked back at the outside of the buildings, feeling like I’d spent the previous hour and a half looking at the outside of a congregation. It seems like there’s something there for everyone … if you’re already on the inside. But if you’re on the outside, and no one is inviting you in, all you get is a smooth presentation and a well-researched sermon. It was a good sermon, make no mistake – as good as many of the preachers on TV. The problem was that I could have stayed home, watched it all on TV and had just as much fellowship as I did surrounded by the congregation’s members. If the point of “not forsaking the assembling of yourselves together”, as Hebrews 10:24-25 implies, is to “encourage one another”, then the impression Quail Lakes Baptist Church left with me is that they’ve missed the point.

If what I saw is who they are – and I have no evidence that it was otherwise – then I don’t think I can be of any service to them except to say so. I don’t know what to pray for Pastor Maffucci except that God would release him to be himself, warts and all, and free him (and his congregation) from the performance. And I don’t think I’ll ever go back. Once was disheartening enough.

Summary:

Is God’s Word preached? Grade: A – Scripture was well-explained and well-applied, taught with an eye for both God’s justice and His mercy.

Is God’s Spirit working? Grade: C- – it was good to see a few people showing the freedom to worship as their conscience dictated, but I got the impression they would have been shut down had it interfered with the cameras.

Do God’s people act like it? Grade: D-; the only reason it isn’t an F is that no one was outright rude or obnoxious. But no one – literally, NOBODY – seemed to care if I was there or not.

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6 Responses to Congregational Journey: Visit #4

  1. Sue says:

    Hey! This is really heartbreaking. As I was reading you speak about your exit from the building, all I could think about was what if that was some desperate person, seeking God, needing some compassion…but finding neither. Walking away with their head hanging low and nobody noticed. Now that would break God’s heart.

  2. Abby says:

    The word that comes to mind is ‘de javu’. Sadly thousands flock to these services week after week. Some have little ‘clique’ groups, and some will tell you its the greatest church in the world. This is exactly why I don’t currently have a church.

    Good commentary Ray.

  3. JEFF says:

    All of what Abby and Sue said.

    So where is the Spirits leading in all that?–stop watch?? countdown?? schedule??

    Man , i loved the way you wrote that.

  4. dhelmer says:

    Ray,

    Your descriptions of some of the less-than-stellar church experiences you’ve had, remind me of a story by that old philosopher buddy of mine, Kierkegaard. :)

    I can’t find the exact text of it anywhere, but below is as good a synopsis as any. I hope you and your readers will find it some good food for thought.

    –D.

    Perhaps the main substance of SK’s attack is epitomized in the Journals in a story called “The Domestic Goose: A Moral Tale.” In the tale Soren talks about a flock of geese who went to church to worship every Sunday. Essentially the sermon was the same every week. The goose minister would talk about geese and the glorious destiny that was in store for them. The Creator had made them to fly and this was indeed quite a noble thing. Every time the Maker’s name was mentioned, the geese curtsied and the ganders bowed their heads. They were to fly to distant pastures because while on this earth they were merely sojournors.

    Of course, all this talk of flying was not taken seriously. In fact, the geese were so well fed that they lost the ability to fly a long time ago. They were too fat to fly. Ironically, the geese believed the reason their plumpness was God’s blessing upon them. There were some geese among them who indeed attempted to fly. This was not easy for them; and they were looked upon the majority as strange and fanatical.

    So next Sunday all the geese went to church againt to hear the same glorious sermon about the glorious and noble destiny they had as those who could fly. And after the sermon, as after all the sermons, the geese said, “Amen!” Then they all waddled home. “And the same is true,” says, SK, “of divine worship in Christianity.”

  5. […] on Sunday at Quail Lakes Baptist Church — or more precisely, writing about that experience (see my previous post), since the congregation had been recommended to me by a longtime friend and I didn’t want […]

  6. […] my Congregational Journey entries on Quail Lakes Baptist and Tabernacle of Faith about a month ago, I touched a few times on a practice that I’ve […]

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