SAN DIEGO — “No children or babies are allowed in the sanctuary and the youth go to a different place.”
With those words disturbingly ringing in my ears, since I think children should observe their parents engaged in worship, I was escorted into the cavernous “sanctuary” of The Rock Church (www.sdrock.com), the gigachurch founded by Miles McPherson, former defensive back for the San Diego Chargers and former drug addict, now turned motivational speaker/pastor/author.
I chose the Point Loma, San Diego, location of this multi-site church, and the 8 a.m. service time of the five available. There are two other main campuses and 17 microsite campuses.
Perhaps I should have guessed what it would be like as I drove to the building and saw a sign giving parking instructions that read “ROCK church EVENT.” Parking attendants were huddled in prayer, preparing for a rigorous morning directing traffic.
Although I was about 20 minutes early, there were many people, large Bibles in hand, walking quickly toward the business-like entrance of the office-style building.
I sat on the main floor of the three-tiered auditorium, about 10 rows from the front. From there, I had an excellent view of the three Jumbotrons as well as the stage. The comfortable theater-style seat enfolded me, offering everything but cupholders.
Announcements flew by on the screens, and I learned that I could text my offering and also download an app for The Rock for my phone.
At precisely 8 a.m., I watched a professionally performed Christian rock music performance, complete with lighting effects, a male lead singer, two blinged-up female backup vocalists, two guitarists, a keyboardist and a percussionist. Cameras showcased both the keyboardist and the percussionist, but the focus was on the lead singer as he belted out lines like “God loves me and is there for me.” Many of the congregation were dancing in their seats, similar to what I had seen at an outdoor concert at a local park here.
The final song moved seamlessly to sermon video. Although I understand that McPherson is often here in person on Sundays, I also learned that he likes to take Sundays to be with his family. I also realized how trained we are to watch videos — no real live presence needed.
The sermon notes page included the Scriptures for the day: Ephesians 6:10-12, Genesis 3, Job 1-2, Matthew 4, 2 Corinthians 10:3-4, Matthew 28:19, 2 Timothy 2:1-4, Ephesians 6:14-18, Romans 15:1-2, John 1.
The superb video presentation moved from two Navy SEALs discussing the necessity of battle preparation and performance, with periodic flashes of guns and armor, back to McPherson talking about the necessity of going into battle against Satan, our avowed and ever-on-the-prowl enemy.
McPherson, his bulging arm muscles showcased by his short-sleeved shirt, expertly delivered his message from an invisible Teleprompter with a homey kitchen scene in the background. In this Southern California version of muscular Christianity, McPherson states that we will be tested every second of every day and must never let up on our training and vigilance. Otherwise we become war casualties, not fit to accompany Jesus as part of his army when he returns to conquer the entire world.
The appealing message was followed by an appeal to follow Jesus. McPherson asked everyone to bow their heads and listen as he prayed that we would respond fully by surrendering ourselves to Jesus. At the end of the prayer, the campus pastor came onstage and asked everyone to keep their heads bowed and eyes closed and for all who had prayed that prayer with McPherson to stand. Although I peeked and could not see anyone standing, the pastor said that many were and they were invited to come forward as the rest of us were to encourage them by clapping our hands.
Escorted by ushers, respondents were greeted by a line of about 20 altar call people, including three women, who awaited them. Then they and the altar call team were dismissed with greater applause to a separate room for the gift of a Bible and further follow-up.
The approximately 900 people remaining were then encouraged to make an offering on our way out, and were dismissed after a prayer for the offering.
Miles McPherson is the West Coast’s answer to the Texas-based Joel Osteen. He offers a slick, professional, controlled, exquisitely executed, adults-only, nothing left to chance, male-oriented, get ’em converted, tug on the heartstrings, big-money version of “it’s all about me” Christianity.
And people by the thousands are drawn to it, passively soaking it in, undisturbed by children or teens, avidly making notes so as not to lose the words delivered from the giant screen. Church success at its best. Or its worst.
THE REV. CHRISTY THOMAS can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her blog is at www.christythomas.com.