Think about the best live concert you’ve ever been to. What made it so memorable? Was it the feeling of the bass reverberating in your chest right under your heart? Or perhaps the hypnotic light show, or the sheer talent of the performers? Maybe there were dancers and acrobats, or flashy stage props. Regardless of what it was that captured your imagination and has stayed with you to be recalled at this moment, I can guarantee you I saw it last Sunday at Abba’s House. The lead pastor, Ron Phillips, had all the affectations of a seasoned rock star.
It simply would not be factual to say that I didn’t enjoy the service; it was breathtaking. Hell, they even gave U2 a run for their money!
Enclosed in a “church” the size of the McKenzie Arena here in Chattanooga, they had all the best entertainment money could buy, and everyone was excited to be there. So much so that people were dancing all over the amphitheater. It was hard not getting excited with all the energy and music and throngs of people. The cynic in me wondered why any of these folks bothered with gym memberships when they were running up and down the aisles while jumping and thanking Jesus with all their might. I also couldn’t help but thank my lucky stars that such vocal people don’t live above me in my apartment, because let’s be honest—if they can thank Jesus that loud, I can only imagine how loudly they do other things. *Ahem*
As I walked into the lobby, there was about 50 feet between the doors and the giant escalator taking you up to the 2nd level of the stadium. In that 50 feet, I was greeted with the same “Welcome to Abba’s House!” six times by six different/not so different people, known as “prayer partners”. That’s what Abba’s House employees are called. Prayer Partners. Looking over the escalator is a HUGE bookstore, where you can “for a limited time only receive Pastor Phillip’s new book for $10.”
An interesting choice of words, no? Not for you to purchase. For you to “receive.” Because if he said “buy my book” people might realize that he’s full of shit, making beaucoup moolah off people who dream that maybe one day they’ll be rich and won’t have to worry about how they’re going to keep the power from being turned off this winter.
I wanted to sit up in the balconies, but the Prayer Partners were diligent about crowd control, and directed me to a seat on the 2nd level. I soon observed that they place people so that it looks as full as possible, and have a specific lighting grid so as to only highlight areas where people are seated, so that the darkness of groups of empty seats vanishes into the shadows, and the place always looks full (today it was at about half capacity). This helps keep up appearances to their audiences watching the service on television. Because what is a multi-million dollar Church without their own segment on basic cable? I watched the half dozen cameras swivel around the room and project images of dancing, laughing people up on the oversized HD screens.
If the word last week was “shiny”, the buzzword for this congregation would be “deserve.” They didn’t have a subtle approach to their message of Abundance Gospel, either.
“If you come to this church, and you give us your money, and you live as we tell you to live, God will provide for you abundantly”. Because you DESERVE it. Not because you work hard and earn it.
This bothers me so much for so many reasons, but the two most important ones are this:
This is a place of business disguised as a church, and they’re getting away with tax fraud. Religion and capitalism have an amazingly symbiotic relationship. They even offer Free Income Tax Preparation for members of their congregation from January 23 to April 12. There were booths were they “proudly served Starbucks Coffee”—all tax free to their parishioners of course. I was reminded of the Bible passage where Jesus turns over the money changing tables, because a place of spiritual growth and worship should not be about generating revenue. I was reminded of a giant vaguely Christian themed park.
Secondly, more money comes through this place each week than 95% of Americans will see in their entire lives. It is a ruse to suggest that you too can be as “blessed” with the “rewards” you “deserve” if you just follow God’s plan. It creates an elusive mirage of success that is reinforced every week and grows like an intestinal parasite into outright delusion.
The service was similarly themed. If you follow Pastor Phillips, you’ll be able to live the, and this is actually a quote “abundant life that God wants for you.”
I watched in a stunned stupor as he continued to talk about money for a good few minutes, and what our enemies don’t want us to have. I looked around the room and saw all of these poor people listening as if they were hearing the word of God. And when I say poor people, I don’t mean people whom I pity. I mean POOR PEOPLE. This church has a come as you are policy, which is becoming increasingly common these days, and these people did just that. I was surrounded by desperate, struggling people, coming to see the spectacle, who are being told that if you give money to our church, all this could be yours, because the church is YOU.
Standing in Abba’s House I felt much presence. I felt the presence of all the people around me, I felt the presence of an incredible sound system, and most of all I felt the presence of money. Lots and lots of money. But I felt no spiritual presence at all. I felt dirty to even be in such a place.