Day 54/ Apr 21st – Louisville, KY: Feeding the five thousand

I’d never given much thought to the logistics involved in administering holy communion to five thousand people in slightly less than three minutes.  No doubt Jesus could have pulled it off single-handedly, but at Southeast Christian Church in Louisville it required a hundred suited ushers, gliding down the aisles in flawless synchronisation like human table football players.  While the rock band on stage broke into a breathy, mournful ballad about Christ’s sacrifice, trays scattered with pieces of bread – each about the size and shape of a breath mint – and an extraordinary cup-holder with holes for fifty shot-sized plastic glasses of ‘juice’ made their way up and down each row.  Having been in America for some months now, we half-expected the congregation to ask for substitutions and variations (“Do you have low-sodium juice?  Is this bread gluten-free?”), but for once they ate what they were given, and the feeding of the five thousand was completed without incident.

Having passed by several hundred churches already on our walk, we noticed that our route through Louisville would take us close to Southeast Christian, one of the largest in the entire country – a ‘mega-church’, no less.  Here was an ideal opportunity to witness modern American faith at first hand.

The church resembled more than anything else a large corporate campus, with four immense circular buildings clustered at the centre of a substantial acreage of car park.  We arrived just after the start of the evening service, and had to wait with a clutch of devout but equally unpunctual worshippers by the information desk in the atrium outside the main ‘worship centre’ for an appropriate break in the proceedings.  It was reminiscent of a large exhibition hall, with people milling around like delegates at a trade fair.

The atrium at Southeast Christian Church

The atrium at Southeast Christian

Eventually the double doors opened and a harassed-looking usher waved us all inside and into seats near the back.  The worship centre was a circular auditorium, with seats in the round for – and we ought not to let this pass without notice – nine thousand people in three tiers rising up to a hundred-foot ceiling.  We had come in during a hymn – or, as we would call it in Britain, a pop song – being performed by a massed choir in pastel polo shirts, sharing the stage with a twenty-piece orchestra and rock band, complete with a drummer bashing away wildly inside his own transparent Perspex booth.  The congregation were on their feet, mouthing along to the lyrics from three JumboTron screens suspended forty feet above the stage.  The occasional especially fervent communicant bobbed up and down with a fist in the air like the last drunken uncle on the dance-floor at a wedding.

It soon became clear that the building we were in had more in common with a television studio than a traditional church.  The service was filmed by at least four different cameramen, guided by a bank of producers and editors behind a mixing desk that looked capable of handling a Shuttle launch.  After the hymn, the lights fell – there were a lot of lighting changes – and the spotlight focused on a young man, with a striking resemblance to Bryan Adams, sitting at a white piano.  In between sad little trills in a minor key, like the music from a ‘sad story’ segment on an afternoon talk-show, he led the congregation in a meandering, extemporary prayer:

“Perhaps some of you have come here after a tough week at work.  *trill*  Perhaps some of you have family problems at home.  *trill*  For some of you, this time here with us is the only time you can get to escape all the cares that press you down.  *trill*  And so I want you to take that bread  *trill*  and that juice  *trill*  and listen to this song  *trill* and just eat and drink whenever you’re ready.”

And, at an unseen signal, the ushers glided down the aisles.

Singing at Southeast Christian Church

The band launches into another number... sorry, hymn

After communion, a group of six people appeared on the giant screens, dressed in white robes and standing in a circle.  We had braced ourselves for a scripted conversation about God when the camera panned out to reveal that they were all standing waist-deep in a clear-sided pool, not unlike a dolphin tank at Sea World, set just above the stage on a small protruding balcony.  One of the men in the tank walked – or rather, waded – forward to the front of the tank to address the congregation.

“I’m Mark Kepler, and this is my wife Trudi Kepler.  Trudi, I’m very proud of you this night, and because you have put your faith and your love in Jesus Christ, I baptise you in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.”  And he tilted his wife’s head back before dunking her completely in the water.

The two other pairs followed (“I’m Steve Harper, and this is my daughter Sarah…”), and after each immersion (always of a woman by a man) a round of applause rippled around the congregation.  The lights came back up, an electric guitar fired into a rock hymn called ‘I’m Counting On God’, and the ushers emerged again, apparently on rails, each with a velvet collection bag in his hand.  I remarked to the old lady next to me that no one seemed to be giving anything.

“Oh, they don’t get a lot from the bags.  Everyone does it from their bank accounts.”

The main event was a long sermon by Dave Stone, the senior minister of the church.  Tall, lean, tanned and lightly bearded, wearing chinos and a pale blue shirt open at the collar, he had the look of a tech company CEO.  He was also one of the most gifted and compelling speakers I had ever heard.  In the soothing, relaxing tones of a particularly sensitive therapist, he talked about his running of a half-marathon with his son earlier in the day, and about a member of the congregation who had lost his home in a fire.  He wove the stories together and drew from them Biblical parallels and lessons about faith with the skill of a dentist extracting teeth.

Inside Southeast Christian Church

Looking down from the fifth floor of Southeast's 'worship centre'

After the service we were shown around by Carla, one of five hundred volunteers at the church, who helped us buttonhole Dave for a chat.  He was surrounded by small knots of what can only be called groupies, but with a politician’s deftness he broke away to listen to Carla describe our walk before giving us twenty-five seconds of undivided attention, his heartfelt good wishes, three touches on the shoulder and a dazzling smile, before moving on without a pause to the next group.

Carla kindly took us up to the fifth floor of the church in its lift – there were also two banks of escalators – so that we could gaze down on the auditorium from the top tier of seats.  Far below us, a few specks were clearing away microphones and instruments from the stage.  The church has a capacity of 9,000 – roughly the same as the Royal Albert Hall – and this evening had been about half full.  On a busy Easter weekend, Carla said, up to 25,000 people attended services here.  We asked her how it had become so popular.

“Well, we start ‘em out early, in the nursery here, as early as six months.  There’s a little ring of baby chairs, and they have ‘em pass around a little Bible while we all sing ‘Jesus loves me, this I know, ‘cos my Bible tells me so.’”

We came away simultaneously fascinated and repelled by a glimpse of religious practice as foreign to us as Tibetan sky burial or Shia flagellants.  It was a battery-farmed, mass-produced, Dan Brown, Jerry Bruckheimer version of Christianity, mildly sexist and unapologetically corporate – but also providing charity, free concerts and a sort of compelling group therapy to a large slice of the population of Louisville.  But the memory that stayed with us was of the ushers, filing out at the end, stacking away their trays and cup-holders, ready for another five thousand people in the morning.

One Response to “Day 54/ Apr 21st – Louisville, KY: Feeding the five thousand”

  1. londonmum Says:

    Finding the descriptions about how many churches there are, even in places with little else really interesting. Wonder what it is about American society that makes them so intensely religious.

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