This is a guest post by Zachary Moore. Zachary is active in the Texas freethought community, serving as Coordinator of the Dallas/Fort Worth Coalition of Reason, Executive Director of the Fellowship of Freethought in Dallas, and Treasurer of Camp Quest Texas. He loves visiting churches and other houses of worship, and is not yet willing to admit that he may have a problem.
Part 2, in which another atheist attended another Men’s Conference in Texas, will be posted tomorrow.
Lone Star Religion
Here in Texas, we know how to do churches. You can find them on just about every corner, in just about every denomination. And just like everything else, the churches are bigger, too. Of the largest Protestant churches in the country, three of the top ten (including the largest itself) can be found in the Lone Star State. Joel Osteen pastors Lakewood Church in Houston, and Jack Graham pastors Prestonwood Church in Plano, where I saw Christopher Hitchens debate William Dembski last year. The other, non-Osteen megachurch in Houston is pastored by Ed Young, whose son Ed Junior now pastors the Fellowship Church in Grapevine, Texas, now the 14th largest in America.
The Fellowship Church of Grapevine is a typical Texas megachurch. Their campus is the size of a community college, their production values are higher than most local news studios, and they’ll just as happily sell you a $5 latte as a San Pellegrino water. Really, it’s just an altar to its head pastor’s personality, as most of the megachurches have become. The church itself is a brand, and the pastors even more so. With a team of employees paid to lead worship services, deliver sermons, and serve the needs of the pew-sitters, Young is free to jet around the country giving motivational speeches, negotiating media deals, and thinking up clever ways to insinuate the word “God” into normal words to give Christians the “godfidence” to “godvertise” their beliefs.
It’s really just the Brave New World of Christianity where the head pastor is less the spiritual leader of his flock, and more like a CEO of a corporation with tens of thousands of employees. But instead of those employees being paid to provide a service to the company, they pay the company for the service of personal motivation, social connection, and moral well-being. It’s not an easy job, I wouldn’t imagine, but as long as he can keep his million-dollar mansion on Grapevine Lake, I’m sure he’s pretty happy with the arrangement.
Inside the Lambs’ Den
I’m no stranger to the inside of a church. Earlier this year, I was even invited to speak to a Sunday School class at Lake Pointe Church, another Dallas-area megachurch. I’ve also participated in Christian “Men’s” ministries in the past, and in 1998 as a Christian I attended a Promise Keepers convention at the old Hoosier Dome in Indianapolis. It was basically a tent revival atmosphere, with the primary message being: pray together with other men, love your wives, and for god’s sake, stop playing with your penis.
I didn’t know if the “Man Stuff” conference would have a similar anti-onanistic message, but on arriving at the church on Friday evening, I could see that at least they weren’t playing games with the name. Flanking the parking lot entrance were two deer stands, and within the lot itself were marked-off areas in which were displayed muscle cars, motorcycles, barbecue grills, and recreational boats. At the main entrance to the church were a couple of our local restaurant trucks selling Tex-Mex food, flanked by large speakers projecting driving rock-n-roll with thumping bass and scratchy vocals. Inside, the main atrium had been turned into a no-holds-barred clubhouse of machismo, with a fully appointed boxing ring as the high altar. Surrounding it were dartboards, foosball, ping-pong, and pool tables, video game stations, and of course several enormous flat-screen televisions playing a loop of sports highlights. Decorating the walls were posters with quotes from famous men, knot-tying and baseball-throwing diagrams, and signed sports jerseys from every league imaginable. The opening event of the conference itself was a chicken-wing eating contest. Loud, throbbing music played inside as well, making it nearly impossible to think, let alone talk to anyone. I half-expected to find Tim Allen watching from a corner, grunting contentedly.
Following my fellow scrotum-slingers to the opening ceremonies, I made my way into the main sanctuary, a tremendous auditorium capable of seating thousands. A pair of junior pastors mugged for the audience with a moderate attempt at mutually deprecating humor, which merged seamlessly into the first of many musical performances. In general, I find modern worship music as a whole to be bland, repetitive, and unchallenging. This was only slightly different, in that the musicians were solely male, the songs were sung much louder, and the instrument mix favored the bass and drums more than usual. Scanning the room while waiting for the songs to end, I did notice that the event had attracted a ethnically diverse crowd, with more African-American and Hispanic attendees than I would find at any normal freethought event.
Pastor Young took the stage like a superstar, an evangelical Tony Robbins who wears the spotlight like a comfortable bathrobe. His opening prayer was short, hurried, and without any recognizable point. Behind him, stagehands rolled out a life-size model of a great white shark as he bragged that we men were the apex predators of our communities, and that we should be acting like it. Interspersed between tangentially-related fishing anecdotes and simplistic summary points was a refrain tailor-made for the audience: we are men and we are awesome. And Jesus is the awesomest man of all.
It was difficult to determine what exactly, besides stoking the fragile egos of the men who’d paid good money to be there, Young wanted us to do. Read the Bible, okay. Go to church, okay. Hang out with other Christian men, okay. Simple enough I suppose, but the men around me reacted like he was imparting truths hidden from humanity for millennia.
Next up was Stovall Weems, head pastor of Celebration Church in Jacksonville, Florida; a smaller megachurch than Fellowship but fast growing. Where Young preached slick, Weems preached loud. He also relied more heavily on scripture than Young, referencing primarily the story of Gideon’s triumph over the Midianites in the book of Judges. The basic message was that God would support us men, even if the odds were stacked against us as they were for Gideon. I noted with personal interest that Gideon’s military tactics were essentially terror-based, although I doubt many of my fellow attendees would have appreciated the irony.
I was somewhat surprised that the appeal for offerings was made with such aggression and frank sliminess by a senior pastor who took great pleasure in explicitly urging us to take our time finding our checkbooks and writing as big a check as possible to the church. As he strode back and forth behind the podium, he even cracked a sideways grin and said with unobscured glee that the crisp new $100 bill in our wallets would have a much better home in the velvet-lined offering baskets coming our way. After he vanished, the worship team reappeared and I was pleased to hear them play a decent cover of Mumford and Sons’ “The Cave.” A little banjo goes a long way to soothing my savage breast.
The main event was, of course, six consecutive boxing matches held back in the Man Stuff Atrium. I’m not a huge fan of pugilism, but I appreciated the extent to which the organizers had tried to make it as much like a real boxing exhibition as possible. Guys of all ages were crowded around the ring on all sides, and were clustered around the upper-level deck looking down on the action. Once again, the loud, thumping bass music started up and the godly warriors paired off to demonstrate their skills, such as they were. I found most of the fights to be pretty tame, with a few good blows landed here and there, but otherwise a decidedly amateur event. Still, the other men seemed to enjoy it, and there were free hot dogs and nachos to be had, making it a decent Friday night in the Dallas suburbs by most measurements.
The Land of Casual Misogyny
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the really icky parts. Not the facile and lame melding of religion and motivational pabulum, nor even the over-the-top caricaturing of masculinity, but in the pervasive and casual misogyny I couldn’t help but notice all around me.
To pull off an event of this size, you’re obviously going to need a lot of help. And there were lots of people helping. Lots of women, to be precise. Every which way I turned, there was a woman dressed in black wearing a volunteer sticker, helping a man. Helping him get some food, pouring his coffee, picking up his trash. To be sure, they were doing it with a smile, but that made it even a bit ickier in my mind. Once in the main sanctuary, surrounded by a couple thousand guys, I happened to look up to the empty balcony seats only to see a dozen or so women looking out, hidden in the dark. Now, I realize that it was a Men’s Conference and everything, but there was something profoundly disturbing about that kind of gender-based separation. Although I’ll admit, I wasn’t so affected that I turned down the pork and brisket barbecued breakfast burritos (a Texas thing) offered to me by the ladies who welcomed me back for the second day.
I don’t think that John Gray, the second day’s featured guest, helped the situation much. A comedian who fancies himself a preacher (or maybe it’s the other way around), Gray actually had a good presence and timing. I could easily see him landing a half-hour special on Comedy Central or even touring the regular comedy circuits, if not for the fact that he inserts 3-5 minute sermons in between his jokes. His primary message: men should stay virgins until marriage, and then remain faithful to their wives. All things being equal, not a bad message for the average American male (hey, at least he doesn’t have a sexual purity double-standard), but I really could have done without the explicit homophobia. As Gray’s primary subject matter was marriage, he just couldn’t help himself from making several clear condemnations of same-sex marriage specifically, and homosexuality in general. Having just marched in the Dallas Pride Parade two weekends prior with several gay-friendly Christian churches, I assumed that any gay Christians at Fellowship would likely have fled for more friendly congregations a long time ago.
Stovall Weems was back again following John Gray, and led the group in prayer. I conducted my usual open-eye test to see who else in the room is shirking their spiritual obligations, and caught the eye of a large, tough-looking guy with an earpiece that seemed to have a security guard-like demeanor. He and I shared a brief, questioning moment where I suddenly realized that I had been participating much less and taking many more photographs than the other men, and it was probably obvious to anyone watching me that I didn’t quite fit in. But then the prayer was over, and Weems started into another loud sermon exhorting us men to appreciate the pain in our lives, because it makes us even manlier. It was about that time I got an urgent text from my pregnant wife who was dealing with some pain of her own (doesn’t seem to have made her any more manly so far), so I beat a hasty retreat.
So what’s my overall assessment? I think in general it was a well-planned, well-executed man-party that was very well suited to the average churchgoing male here in the suburban expanses of North Texas. There was nothing complicated about the religious concepts presented, and they were used primarily to underscore the motivational platitudes designed to get us feeling good about being men. I can easily see the vast majority of the men my age or older feeling comfortable and confident with their choice of church, and staying loyal to Ed Young’s brand of Christianity for the foreseeable future. There’s no real challenge for them, and plenty of validation. On the other hand, churches like Fellowship offer very little for Christians with even a modicum of intellectual curiosity about their beliefs. If I had grown up in a church like Fellowship, there’s very little chance that I would have stayed around, even if I had stayed a Christian.