Experience of a “Contemporary” Christian Church in the American South

April 13, 2009 - capitalism / christianity / experience / mapping

I asked the writer to recount their experience of visiting a “contemporary” church in Arkansas, Easter 2009. The photograph they showed me of the coffee shop was so interesting, I wanted to know more. Here is what they sent me:

The last time I went to church it was in a bar in Brooklyn. Yesterday I went to a “contemporary” protestant “non-denominational” church in Arkansas with my mom.

This church is fairly new but the “style” is inceasingly popular in the southern United States. There is considerable debate about the goals and outcomes of such churches: “… I see a blatant capitulation to consumerism in much of this direction. Many experts in this movement do not hesitate to call their techniques “marketing methods,” but this approach breeds an unhealthy individualistic consumerism, which is already pervasive throughout the culture, when Christian leaders treat church growth as the primary activity of the Lord’s Day, and the congregational worship service as a virtual business undertaking aimed at getting consumers to “buy the product.” (John Mark Ministries)

(The “coffee shop”)

My first reaction to the physical architecture of the church is that it looks like a mall. The main entrance is a coffee shop aimed at creating a social space. I learned later in the service that new guests can trade in their comment/registration card for a hazelnut latte.

The congregation seems to be comfortable in such a mall culture. Many women have trendy, tight fitting dresses, 13 year-olds wear high heels, men and women have bleached hair and tanned skin, and the male uniform seems to be khakis and blue shirts. All of this combined to make me feel terribly uncomfortable.

The service begins with 20 minutes of rock music. The band has a drum set, an electric keyboard, a lead singer/guitarist, a bass player, a back-up singer/tambourine player, and an acoustic/electric guitarist. My grandmother regularly complains about them.

The pastor’s message included a warning to avoid “humanistic” ways that lead one to buy in excess and focus on “the flesh”. If one is “with Christ” then one will focus on internal, spiritual goals rather than the “humanistic”. During the closing prayer the keyboard player played instrumental inspiring music that increased in volume and tempo as the prayer closed. As the prayer ended the projected screen had swirling colors similar to itunes visualizer.