Posts Tagged ‘ Prosperity Gospel ’

relevant Church (sic) at Oakridge Middle School – Visited on 8/7/2011

By the time I rounded the last bend of the circuitous road between Clover and Lake Wylie to find the sprawling grounds of Oakridge Middle School on my left, the hills and forests were already baking under a grueling August sun.   Mine was the only car I saw inbound from Clover, a town perhaps a mile across and a few miles back, home to some wealth and much poverty.  Its heart was left derelict by the textile industry’s decline decades ago.

From the other direction came a steady stream of glossy SUVs and town cars from Lake Wylie, that well-heeled suburb of Charlotte, its shores encrusted with halfpenny mansions, its hills festooned with redbrick shopping centers.  The cars glistened beetle-black in the sun as they swerved into the school parking lot.  I joined them when my chance came, following the signs set up to direct first-time attendees to the far lane.  Moments later I walked among the last of the early crowd headed to that morning’s worship service at relevant Church, filing in under the school’s aluminum awnings shoulder to shoulder with Lake Wylie salarypeople and their teenage children.

The nearer one comes to the main event of a relevant worship service the more visible the church’s staff becomes: teenagers and twentysomethings in neon ‘Event Staff’ t-shirts handing out leaflets and pens and notepads for visitors or waving attendees on towards the service.   That service takes place in what the staff calls the “Cafetorium”, a cafeteria with the stage and acoustics of an auditorium.  Nearly two hundred chairs sat ready for the congregation, while towards the back lurked all the hardware of a modern audio-visual presentation.  Black cords snaked between the camera stand, the computers, the sound system; all attended by fresh-faced volunteers.  On the stage stood microphones, stools and instruments, all the necessaries of a live musical performance.  I took a seat to the back, awaiting what promised to be a professionally managed show.  I was not disappointed.

A service at relevant Church lasts from around 10:30 in the morning till just shy of noon.  Live music portended by the props on stage dominated the first forty-five minutes of the service I attended—in this case a guitarist, backup singer and keyboardist performing contemporary Christian music, the sort one finds at any number of Evangelical summer camps and festivals scattered throughout the country.  The church’s visual projector displayed the lyrics on a screen hung above the band, but only a few voices joined them from the crowd, and only a few hands rose to clap the beat.

The band quieted as a bull of a man took the stage, one of relevant’s associate pastors who introduced himself as Tony.  With the rhythmic cadence of a practiced preacher or a motivational speaker he set up a video displayed to the congregation: an ad, for lack of a better word, for relevant’s upcoming beach weekend for children and parents.  Then he began a brief sermon for the crowd.

The congregation he spoke to was a group of mixed ages: some old enough for retirement or nearly so, many more ranging from their early forties to late twenties, married couples with their teenagers and young children, all dressed for casual Friday at some anonymous Charlotte office park. He reminded them of the economic troubles that beset our country, of the unpredictability of markets and investments that seemed so sound until a few years ago.  To these people, who have either seen their neighbors’ fortunes swallowed by the ongoing economic collapse or who face dire monetary straits themselves, for whom a stable and reliable American future now slips further and further away, he offered a new source of succor.  He said that they ought not to put their trust in retirement plans, investments, stocks or bonds or any other traditional hideaway for their money.

Instead they ought to put their trust in God, and in their Church.  Rather than sink their funds into material investments they should spend it on the one thing they could be sure of—their spiritual home, relevant Church.  They ought to commend their money to the same place they commended their souls. He assured the congregation that God would look after them if they believed and gave of themselves.  The offering bags passed down the rows as the guitarist for the praise band led the congregation in their opening prayer, calling on God to grant them all good fortune.  The whole interlude was a refrain common to certain strains of Evangelical worship, the so-called ‘prosperity gospel’—the idea that God will recompense those who ‘sow’ for the church by donating money by providing good fortune in the future–but only to those who sacrifice their money faithfully, with their whole heart, to his servants.

When the band finished they and the event staff cleared their equipment from the stage as the main event began.  The lead pastor of relevant Church, Matt McGarity, is in the midst of his hale thirties.  Handsome and charismatic, a father of five, he has a face for magazine covers and political commercials.  He appeared to the crowd in jeans and a t-shirt, the microphone of his earpiece glinting in the stage lights.  That day’s sermon bore the title “God’s Wonderbread.”

The sermon itself dominated the rest of the service, an eclectic mix of personal anecdotes and readings from the Old and New Testaments all delivered in a cordial, informal style.  He related stories of two breakdowns he’d suffered on the highway over the years to illustrate humanity’s lack of control over their surroundings.  The theme of that day’s sermon was how God watches over his faithful, as related specifically by the tale from the Book of Exodus of the migrating Hebrews receiving “manna from Heaven” on the march. McGarity explained at length that if the congregation believed thoroughly enough their God would redeem them from times of trouble.  He never mentioned how he himself was redeemed from those car troubles.

At the sermon’s close I witnessed the very first Communion taken by relevant’s congregation in their new location at the middle school.  Rev. McGarity encouraged the worshipers to come up of their own accord to one of four stations set around the seating, where the church’s associate pastors broke flatbread, provided sips from broad goblets, and offered to listen to the prayers of any who wished to bare their souls.

After the service I sat down with Rev. McGarity for a brief interview.  By his own account he spent his early adulthood in the US Marine Corps, serving for six years as a mechanic and sometimes firearms instructor, before leaving the Marines in 2002 to start a family and begin a career in construction.  After a few years in that line of work he described a growing calling towards ministry that culminated in his earning a Master of Divinity degree from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.  2011 is his third year as a pastor.

August 7 was only the fourth meeting of relevant Church in its current form.  Previous to that relevant was an auxiliary program of River Hills Community Church, just up the road in the heart of Lake Wylie.  McGarity said that he’d begun as an associate pastor at the River Hills church, tasked by its leadership with creating a program to draw in the young and the ‘unchurched,’ as he put it, of Lake Wylie and its surrounds.  Its first worship service in this phase was on Easter Sunday, 2010.  He described how his program eventually drew hundreds of worshippers each week, many of them unaffiliated with RHCC.  Such success convinced him that relevant could stand as its own church.

He then parted from the established RHCC to set up his own independent ministry, and relevant is the result.  On the church’s organization, McGarity revealed that relevant is not a part of any larger church network or denomination.  The church has a staff of around fifty volunteers leaving McGarity the only person involved who draws a pay check from the weekly event, though he mentioned plans to add two or three more paid positions.  relevant currently leases the ‘Cafetorium’ and surrounding halls from Oakridge Middle School on the weekends, and McGarity made no mention of plans to move to another site.

Given his background as a soldier of the United States now become a man of God, I asked McGarity his thoughts on America’s ongoing wars.  He said he believed that the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan “began as wars of liberation,” and that wars waged under such pretexts are just.  Though the occupations there drag on, he feels that there is now a moral obligation for American forces to stay until they establish a lasting peace.

Finally, as with every other pastor, I asked Rev. McGarity about his view of the relationship between Church and State.  He took that opportunity to expand upon the relationship between his church and the middle school in which it operated.  He made it clear that his interaction with the school system was entirely monetary, that “we (relevant Church) never impose” their beliefs on its students or faculty.  His arrangement, he said, would be the same between the school and a Jewish temple or Muslim mosque.

As a final aside, I’d like to thank the Saturday group at the coffee shop in Lake Wylie who, if they are reading this, know just who they are.  I doubt I would have found relevant Church without their useful tips, and I look forward to more discussions with them in the future.