“Whatever it takes”: My Summer at Minnesota’s Gigachurch

Yes, Minnesota has a gigachurch. The baffled reaction of most hearers notwithstanding, it’s true.

For the unconversant, a “gigachurch” is one with average weekly attendance of at least 10,000. The United States has about fifty in total; about half of the states have none. Churches that reach this size frequently have wide-ranging reputations, with many people near and far at least cognizant of the church’s existence. In contrast, mentioning Minnesota’s gigachurch often triggers perplexed looks even from long-time Minnesotans. Yet this church is perhaps America’s 12th largest, with average weekly attendance currently twice the gigachurch threshold.

Over this past summer I became drawn to discover who this inconspicuous colossus is. And so a fascinating journey began.

My summer opportunity

Regular Sunday School teachers at my church (which includes me) are able to take a “sabbatical” during the summer months, when a seasonal format change requires fewer teachers. This gives our faithful teachers time to relax and recharge.

For the past few years I have chosen to use these times to experience the different perspectives of worshipping in other local churches—the breadth of God’s universal church is a wellspring of encouragement to me. I relish the chance to meet other Christians, to hear their stories, and to take away fresh insights.

Lest anyone is wondering, this is possible without forsaking my own church. Since we have more than one Sunday morning service time, I may attend my church’s early service and then a later one at another church, or vice-versa. Many churches in the Twin Cities area also offer Saturday evening services, providing further options.

It was during my visits to one church this summer that I experienced a realization that led to this article.

A church’s rebirth

Twenty years ago, an established congregation of 350 in a quiet suburban community was challenged by its new pastor to abruptly change its ways. The First Baptist Church of White Bear Lake, Minnesota felt comfortable to its members and regular attenders. It was like a home. But there was a problem. To outsiders, the church also was like a home—a stranger’s home. They did not always feel welcomed. And Pastor Bob Merritt was determined to change that.

“Bob” (as he is simply known to many at the church today) grew up as the son of a Baptist pastor. Following his own call to vocational ministry, he had received his M.Div. several years earlier, pastored the rural First Baptist Church in Falun, Wisconsin for five years, and had recently completed a Ph.D. in Speech Communications at Penn State University (an unusual but surely useful tool for a preacher). With his young family, Bob arrived in White Bear Lake with little in the way of earthly possessions but with plenty of self-doubts. (His 2011 book When Life’s Not Working discusses this period in some detail.) By his account, he was hardly alone at the church in questioning the new pastor’s abilities. He writes that he considered quitting that first year.

Although his second pastorate got off to a humbling start, Bob’s vision for the church eventually began to gather support. His passion for evangelism had been demonstrated in Falun, where membership had tripled to about 200 during his tenure. Here, the potential harvest was vastly greater. The White Bear Lake church was in proximity not to hundreds, but to hundreds of thousands. The metropolitan area of Minneapolis/St. Paul and their suburbs encompasses over three and one-half million souls. To reach more of these people with the gospel of Jesus Christ, the congregation purposefully set out to create the outward focus it lacked. This took courage. Churches, more than just about any other entity, can suffer from institutionalism. Proposals to change beloved traditions, preferences, or practices can quickly lead to animosity.

Today, the rechristened “Eagle Brook Church” is by far the largest congregation in Minnesota. Now a multi-site, it is “1 Church: 6 Locations.” Although “Baptist” is no longer a part of its name, the church did not abandon its Baptist roots. It is the largest church affiliated with Converge Worldwide, otherwise known as the Baptist General Conference. A pledge often heard at the church is that they will do “whatever it takes” to reach others for Christ. Backing these words is ongoing planning to accommodate seemingly endless growth. Over the past twenty years, their annualized growth rate exceeds 20%.

The 6 locations

Each of the locations offers four identical weekend services: Saturdays at 4 pm and 6 pm, and Sundays at 9 am and 11 am. I took advantage of a mix of these times during my visits. Each location (including both Woodbury sites) received at least one visit, with thirteen visits in total. In their chronological order of opening:

  • White Bear Lake: Opened in 1972. (First Baptist Church, which was founded in 1948, moved here from an earlier building.) Seating capacity: 800.
  • Lino Lakes: Opened in 2005. Seating capacity: 2,100.
  • Spring Lake Park: Opened in 2007. Seating capacity: 710 (560 in the main auditorium, plus 150 in an overflow room).
  • Blaine: Opened in 2010. Seating capacity: 840.
  • Woodbury: Opened in 2011 in East Ridge High School. Seating capacity: 940. Moved in 2014 to its permanent building. Seating capacity: 1,500.
  • Coon Rapids: Opened in 2013 in Coon Rapids High School. Seating capacity: 1,000 (approx.). A permanent building is planned eventually.

Total seating capacity per service time is about 6,950 (up from 6,390 since Woodbury’s relocation). My observational guess is that about 40% of their total attendance is on Saturdays and about 60% is on Sundays. (Incidentally, their very first Saturday service, at White Bear Lake, drew 55 people.) Of the locations I visited at 11 am on Sundays only Coon Rapids appeared to have much available seating capacity, but even this location (their newest) looked about 2/3 full.

With added service times and an energized congregation’s drive to fill them up, attendance on the 2013 Easter weekend was over 35,000. (I have not seen the comparable 2014 figure.)

Attending Eagle Brook

Drive up to any Eagle Brook campus and if you aren’t 90 minutes early, as I typically was when attending a day’s first service, you’ll be greeted initially by friendly volunteers directing traffic. If you’re at Spring Lake Park, you might even catch a ride on the shuttle bus that runs on a continuous loop from an overflow lot down the street.

If you have previously attended another Eagle Brook location, walking into any of their other locations will instantly feel familiar. Each has its own personality, yet common decorative elements abound. Uniform signage reiterates the Eagle Brook “brand.” Even at Coon Rapids you will find portable versions of the coffee cafes and bookstores that are requisites at each of the permanent locations. Helpful yet unobtrusive greeters will be on duty. Information displays are eye-catching and well-stocked. Pick up a specialty coffee and a pastry, and strike up a conversation with someone else—if someone hasn’t already struck up a conversation with you.

Fifteen minutes before each service a countdown timer appears in one corner of the flat screen monitors in the lobby and on two large side screens at the front of the auditorium. Simultaneously, a rotating series of video announcements might be displayed. In what probably can be comprehended only by experiencing it, a palpable sense of anticipation builds. As the timer winds down, stragglers make their way into the auditorium. Promptly at “00:00” the service starts.

“Put your hands together!” the Worship Pastor might exhort the congregation as everyone rises to their feet. They will remain standing through 4 or 5 guitar-driven contemporary Christian songs, interlaced with prayer. As the lyrics are projected on the two large side screens they are often juxtaposed with corresponding Scripture verses, visually tying the songs to God’s Word (a practice I personally find very edifying).

As the singing ends, visitors might be expecting ushers to appear. It’s time to take up the offering, right? Not so fast. Eagle Brook stopped “passing the plate” during services some time ago. Instead, they encourage people to give via various electronic means or by placing currency or checks in secure drop boxes outside the auditorium.

Other than an offering, numerous other church activities might fill the service’s next segment. Perhaps there is a campus-specific announcement to be made, or child dedications will be held, or the campus pastor will simply share whatever is on his heart. You might hear the changed-life testimonies of some who are going to be baptized at an upcoming all-church lake gathering, as I heard at two locations. Or maybe you will be encouraged to join in a local outreach effort such as the church-wide drive this past August to fill 9,000 backpacks with back-to-school supplies—and a presentation of the gospel geared toward students—to be distributed at some local public schools. Whatever the occasion, this segment of the service never seemed either hurried or prolonged, although proper timing is essential for synchronization with what happens next.

As a brief video introduction to the message plays on the two side screens, at five of the locations a larger, third screen descends between them, stopping inches from the platform’s floor. Via simulcast from Lino Lakes, today’s teaching pastor then appears on all three screens. On the center screen, he is essentially life-sized at the place he would be if physically present. The two side screens display larger than life-sized close-ups. The illusion is excellent. I never found this distracting; in fact, with digital sound and video and the side screen close-ups, I could both see and hear the teaching pastor at any Eagle Brook simulcast location better than at many churches I’ve attended where the speaker is physically present.

Whether from Bob, Teaching Pastor Jason Strand (the other primary speaker), or whomever else, the messages at Eagle Brook are typically 35 to 40 minutes in length. At their conclusion, anyone with a spiritual need is urged to talk with waiting pastors or other prayer team members at each campus. Six weekends per year, communion is observed at the end of services.

The culmination of my journey

Throughout my months spent getting to know Eagle Brook Church by talking (although I hope mostly listening) to its people, reading its stories, researching its history, observing it in operation, and absorbing its culture, something became crystal clear. In a church awash with large numbers, the only number I saw truly mattering to anybody is one. That is the number that represents each person, each soul, entering its doors.

The emphasis I saw on reaching people individually at wherever they are spiritually came to a head one Sunday morning at 11:00 a.m. As I looked around the full (overflowing, actually) 940 seat auditorium at the Woodbury location’s temporary home in East Ridge High School, the realization I alluded to earlier hit me: “There isn’t a fundamentalist church in Minnesota with as many people as are here right now.” Moments later lightning flashed again: “Eagle Brook has more people than all of Minnesota’s fundamentalist churches combined.” These insights should not have come as surprises to me. I am reasonably familiar with the fundamentalist churches around the state.

That afternoon I examined the local organization City Vision’s annual listing of the 100 largest Twin Cities protestant churches. Topping the list is Eagle Brook. The church in 100th place has average attendance of about 800. At least half of the 100 are evangelical; the rest are an assortment of churches representing liberalism. What is not listed is a single, identifiable fundamentalist church. (To be clear, all fundamentalists are evangelicals, but not all evangelicals are fundamentalists. My references here to “evangelicals” and “evangelicalism” are to evangelicals who are not fundamentalists.)

Pondering this fact for the next few days, its significance became obvious. Fundamentalism is only a minor participant in the spiritual life of the Twin Cities. The great majority of people coming to faith in Christ do so under the influence of the much larger local body of evangelical churches. For a century-old movement that claims as its marching orders the Great Commission, this raises a piercing question: Why is fundamentalism not reaching more people in the Twin Cities with the gospel?

As I continued to visit Eagle Brook’s locations, I found myself surveying Blaine’s crowd at 6 o’clock one Saturday evening. The scene was inspiring. Around me was a diversity of people like I have never seen in area fundamentalist churches, or in more traditional evangelical churches. Distinctions of age, income, and race seemed irrelevant. The stereotypical homogeneity of most churches was nowhere in sight. The “missing” 18 to 29 generation? Many were there. A young woman came in alone and sat down across the aisle from me. With her short skirt, tinted hair, and tattoos, I couldn’t picture her in a fundamentalist church. For sundry reasons, she likely would never pass through the doors. Yet there she was. Was she a first-time visitor? What brought her there? My curiosity was stirred. As the service ended, I glanced over. She was motionless. Tears trickled down her cheeks. I was not the only one who saw her distress. A second young woman approached, sat down, and quietly began to counsel her. If my impression of that moment proved correct, angels in Heaven were soon rejoicing.

As I later reflected on that young woman and on others I encountered who churches often treat as outcasts, I had my answer. The reason Eagle Brook has baptized over 3,500 converts in the last two years is because people like her are genuinely welcomed and shown grace. It’s as simple as that. People are sometimes deterred by churches, but whether one views the path to justification through the lens of Calvinism, Arminianism, or some hybrid of the two, the gospel cannot be thwarted. People will inexorably continue to come to Christ. What Eagle Brook provides for many is a path of lesser resistance.

The apostle Paul certainly believed in making the gospel as obstacle-free as possible. Doubtless mindful of his younger self, he wrote, “the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing” (1 Cor. 1:18 ESV). Recognizing the “offense of the cross” (Gal. 5:11 ESV), he spoke as one formerly offended. He knew better than most what a formidable barrier the gospel (by itself) is for people to overcome. So it should come as no surprise that he elected to engage listeners on their own terms:

For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings. (1 Cor. 9:19-23 ESV)

Notice that to Paul, this was entirely his responsibility. He did not expect unbelievers to conform to his standards or implicitly meet his approval. (He obviously demanded behavioral changes when listeners became believers.) Nor did he expect them to meet him halfway. The onus was entirely on him. He willingly adapted his methods to the culture of his listeners, to speak to them in relatable ways. (As an example, the Bible more than once records him quoting from classical Greek sources, which surely resonated with those audiences.) Wanting others to experience the limitless mercy and grace he had received, Paul gratefully became “a servant to all” for “the sake of the gospel.” That is the attitude, encapsulated, that I repeatedly saw the people of Eagle Brook striving to emulate. They make it their primary mission to not deter secular urbanites, to be able to “win more of them.

By this point, I suspect that many readers are asking a question similar to one that occurred to me near the start of my visits. Here is how I perceived it: are these masses being grounded and growing stronger in their faith, or is Eagle Brook the proverbial “mile wide and inch deep?” This is a crucial question. If its thousands of converts are stuck in spiritually immaturity, then Eagle Brook is failing at a vital responsibility. I’m referring to discipleship, of course. As merely an outside observer, regardless of the number of my visits, it would be presumptuous of me to speak authoritatively. After all, my attendance was limited only to weekend services, and not to any other programs. Nevertheless, permit me to make some observations which are indicative of, or at least support, spiritual growth:

  • Their large number of baptisms, which represent a very high percentage of their recorded professions of faith, is indicative of their success in encouraging and guiding new believers to take this step. Just this past summer, over 900 were baptized on one Sunday afternoon alone at their annual, all-church gathering at a local lake.
  • Regular, personal Bible reading and prayer are consistently modeled as essential to Christian growth. I heard Bob on more than one occasion entreat the congregation to make these a daily priority.
  • Thousands of “Eagle Brookers” of all ages attend classes or small groups on Sundays, Wednesdays, or on other days throughout the week. In the case of small groups, they are a way to make this large church feel both smaller and more personal.
  • Thousands serve each other and visitors in volunteer positions. With two services on each weekend day, the idea is to attend one service and to serve during the other. Whether as teachers, small group leaders, nursery workers, musicians, greeters, service hosts (Eagle Brook’s version of ushers), parking attendants, tech team members (I was shown the workings of one of their production rooms, nicknamed “Houston”), baristas in the coffee shops, or in numerous other roles intended to create the seamless, welcoming environment they strive for, Eagle Brookers are willing servants. Personally, I endorse the “Dead Sea” theory of service for Christians: It doesn’t matter how much “inflow” there is (i.e. preaching, Bible study, etc.) in a Christian’s life, if there is no corresponding “outflow” (i.e. service/ministry to others) then a Christian risks becoming stagnant. Christians need to serve others in the “work of ministry.” (Eph. 4:12 ESV)
  • You would expect a large church to have large revenues, and you would not be mistaken. Eagle Brook’s general fund income was $18.1 million during fiscal year 2013-2014. Nevertheless, in a church with many young Christians and visitors not everyone is a committed giver, and this fell about $400,000 short of the budget. In the single time I heard money discussed, Bob mentioned this fact to briefly challenge non- or irregular givers to make giving a regular event. In the following week, 288 new automatic-debit accounts were set up with the church (likely erasing the deficit). Beyond giving to the general fund, Eagle Brook’s people also give substantial amounts for overseas missions and to local outreach projects (remember the 9,000 backpacks filled for local students?). The topper, though, is the tens of millions that people have additionally given over the years to construct campuses they personally may never visit, to accommodate people they may never see. As one example of the congregation’s collective generosity, when they built the Blaine campus they paid off the entire $14 million cost (land, construction, furnishings, technology) in only 20 months—even when the church had several thousand less people than at the present. Today, Blaine operates essentially at capacity, with average weekly attendance of over 3,300.
  • The “fruit of the Spirit” (Gal. 5:22-23 ESV) was evident in the pastors and laypeople whom I met. I could give numerous examples of those who went beyond any expectations I might have had in extending to me a warm, authentic welcome. I am thankful to them for their time and hospitality.

So is Eagle Brook the hypothetical perfect church? Absolutely not! I cannot imagine anyone I met at the church tolerating such a notion. Any organization made up of sinful people—even if redeemed ones—will undergo problems. Eagle Brook’s history does not belie that. Yet the people of this church have largely managed to transcend personal preferences and petty disagreements in a concerted effort to reach others for Christ.

I recognize that fundamentalism disapproves of some of Eagle Brook’s methods. Almost certainly first and foremost is their choice of music. From there, the list expands. To be candid, I’m sure that Eagle Brook would view most of fundamentalism’s desired changes as hindrances to reaching the lost. The reason is that the people they are reaching are often deterred by fundamentalism’s methods. (Please allow that to sink in.) My point is not that fundamentalism’s methods are wrong, but that fundamentalism’s methods are not the only means of reaching people with the gospel. One style does not suit all! (Would Paul disagree?)

If I make it back to Blaine next summer, perhaps I’ll again see the young woman who was dressed for a night out club-hopping but who apparently met her Savior that evening instead. This time, she might be the one who sees a disconsolate young woman at the conclusion of a service, and who approaches her with the hope of the gospel. In the meantime, I’m confident that the people of Eagle Brook Church will continue doing “whatever it takes” to make that possible.

Larry Nelson 2015 bio


Larry Nelson is a graduate of Fourth Baptist Christian School (Plymouth, MN), holds a BA in history from the University of Minnesota, and has been employed in banking since 1990. He is a member of a Baptist church in the Minneapolis St. Paul area.

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There are 39 Comments

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

I always appreciate Larry's work, but my own approach to evaluating churches, ministries, movements, etc. differs quite a bit from his on several points. For that perspective, "Ministry Success & the Great Commission" posts tomorrow.

SuzanneT's picture

A promotion through and through..?  I waited for the catch, for the niceties to be done and the problems exposed. Nothing?  

Eagle Brook Church is modeled after Bill Hybel's Willow Creek Association.  That alone should tell us something.  And unless one has been stowed away on a secluded island for the past 10 years, a quick look at the ministries & books they promote on their site should raise the red flags as to EBC no matter how "nice" they are - (and they are!)

EBC is a great place for those who "love Jesus but hate the church" (of course a complete oxymoron); or need an easy (even entertaining!) place to check-off their "made it to church" on the list of moral accomplishments for the week-you know, to balance things out.  Or if you like your worship music sounding like the bands you like to party down to.  

Or lets say in your present church you're beginning to squirm in your seat on Sunday mornings listening to your pastor's sermons...conviction of sin is SO hard! Besides, the childrens ministry where you've been attending not what you would prefer..parents are expected to be an integral part of the process, who has time for that kind of pressure? Well then Eagle Brook's your place. They have an abundance of volunteers ready to entertain the kiddos in the multi-million dollar ministry/entertainment kids center. 

EBC does have a myriad of attractions..and from the author's experience it seems many forms of the Gospel are in full swing there--particularly those forms attractive to the masses.  I'm just not sure the full counsel of the one true, Blood bought Gospel in all its man-diminshing Christ exhalting glory is one of them, at least at its forefront. 

We (hub and I) live within 15 minutes of an Eagle Brook campus and attended there briefly, shortly after God saved us.  By His providential mercy alone (through listening to some excellent Biblical teaching outside of EB) we got out of there. In the years since I have seen its impact in some unfortunate ways, both in biological family members and also brothers and sisters in the faith.  Biblical Christians can still be deceived, particularly when they are hurting and so many are in a myriad of complex struggles and sometimes end up looking for something beyond their local body of believers..beyond thier present identity in Christ and the promises of God in scripture; beyond the glorious means of grace God has provided us through the faithful preaching and teaching and discipling and coming-along-siding they already have in place. I think of 2Tim 4:3.

I'm not as concerned about the tattooed, pierced, immodestly dressed person who finds their way into an EB type church, perhaps for the first time or as a returning prodigal (such as I was).  I think that's a good thing! God uses many ways/means and all types of churches to ultimately bring people to saving faith.

Oh for the Body to have a true revival--a revival of true ecclesiastical understanding of the church.....!  

 

 

Jim's picture

My 2nd hand take on EBC - via several co-workers who are members:

  • Judging a church by the lives and testimony of these men - I regard it as a very good church
  • I don't lump it with Willow Creek
Larry Nelson's picture

SuzanneT wrote:

God uses many ways/means and all types of churches to ultimately bring people to saving faith.

In my second-to-last paragraph, that's the summation I tried to make.  Eagle Brook is not fundamentalism, folks.  But God uses them.  I can appreciate that.

As for some of your other points, Suzanne, I didn't share some of your perceptions.  I never talked to anyone who was there to fulfill some weekly checklist item.  I heard specific sins addressed on several occasions.  I did see the "hate the church" part that you mention; I talked to some who had had experiences at other churches that, if I wasn't a believer, would have had me leave & never return too.  I think the more apt phrase at Eagle Brook is "used to hate the church, came here and met Jesus, now love the church."   Example: I met a gray-haired guy (senior citizen) who had been at EB for less than six months.  He said he hadn't set foot in a church in years (and had largely vowed not to ever again), but came when one of his neighbors kept "bugging" him to.  Long story short: he soon got saved, and had been coming faithfully since.

 

  

 

 

Mark_Smith's picture

I can't speak for Eagle Brook at all since I have never visited. In fact, I HAVE NEVER BEEN IN MINNESOTA...

But, I have attended for an extended time a church that likely had a similar philosophy from Larry's description. After attended there for 9 years I left. Here are some reasons why:

1- While everyone smiled and greeted one another, the relationships ended there. I didn't really know anyone. No one wanted to come over for dinner. Those we invited NEVER invited us over to their place...and I mean never, after dozens of couples having lunch with us over the years.While I may not be the friendliest guy in the world, I am not that repulsive.

2- People came on time and left when over. They did nothing else together. Their was no relationship.

3- The relationships that did exist were very clique-ish.

4- Many ministries in the church were semi-professional. You had to audition to be in music and basically only music majors made the cut. Members who were contractors did all of the building repairs. Etc... The average guy wasn't needed.

5- While there were women's ministry events and plenty of youth/children programs, there was practically nothing for men. Once a quarter there was a men's breakfast at a local restaurant. When I asked about it the men had no problem with this...they were working.

6- Too many people after attending for years knew nothing about the Bible, but they were excited about church.

(Out of time...I have much more but should probably stop)

Larry Nelson's picture

 

I was at Coon Rapids on a warm summer Sunday morning @ 11 am.  As I was sitting in the auditorium awaiting the start of the service, a group of young guys (let's say late teens) came in (no parents in sight).  They were all dressed in shorts & t-shirts.  Like many young guys, they were loud & rowdy.  They sat down near me.  As I caught their conversation, I was pleasantly amazed.  You'd expect them to be talking about cars, or girls, or sports, or something along those lines, right?  Nope.  They were having a lively discussion about something from their Bible study from earlier that week.  Once the service began, they all sang heartily, and they were rapt with attention at the message.

On a warm summer Sunday morning these guys, who I might have pictured being anywhere else but in a church service, were at Eagle Brook.....

 

Mark_Smith's picture

Serious question: What is the connection between people at Coon Rapids with people at another location? Why do they think they are members of the same church?

Larry Nelson's picture

Mark_Smith wrote:

Serious question: What is the connection between people at Coon Rapids with people at another location? Why do they think they are members of the same church?

1. The same senior pastor is the senior pastor for one-and-all  (Each campus also has a campus pastor & other pastoral staff.)

2. When he's not at Lino Lakes speaking, the senior pastor gets around to all of the other locations.  So it's not as if any of the locations ever only see him via simulcast.  He's out & about talking to people at all of the locations on a regular basis.

3. They have one statement of faith, church constitution, etc.

4. They support the same missions & outreach projects.

5. They get together at (granted: infrequent) all-church gatherings (e.g. the annual summer lake baptism).

6. The same sermons are heard by one-and-all.

7. They widely support each other, for example in capital building projects.

8. One church budget.

9. There has always been much mobility & intermingling between locations.  As new locations open, a core group branches off from other locations.  (At Coon Rapids, for example, a few hundred branched off from primarily Blaine & Spring Lake Park to build Coon Rapids upon.)

10. Among other things......

 

 

SuzanneT's picture

Hi guys, 
First let me apologize, some of my initial response seemed ungracious and unnecessary as read it again.  I try to keep my words and tone well tempered but often fail :-/ 
~

Jim said: "I don't lump it with Willow Creek"

Is "lumping" different than "associating with"? or modeling-after? I don't know, Smile but I do know that EBC has very much aligned itself with WC, particularly in it's ministry philosophy.

Larry said:
"In my second-to-last paragraph, that's the summation I tried to make. Eagle Brook is not fundamentalism, folks. But God uses them. I can appreciate that."

Hi Larry,

Thank you for your response. 
I think I understood your point, I just disagree that a church built on anything other than a strong biblical foundation (which would necessarily include biblically robust church polity) is something to be promoted, whether its for all-the-other-good-things-they're-doing; or simply because 'God can use them too'.
 God of course uses any means or church in spite of the unbiblical circumstances. 

The pragmatic, seeker sensitive, easy-believeism, social justice, pop-psychology man-centerdness that has so infiltrated the Church today is a far, far  cry from anything resembling the blood bought assemblages that were established and are carried on today via our forefathers of the Faith. Of course we all agree that no church is perfect (at all!), but a church that becomes un-recognizable to serious, ecclesiastical, biblical responsibility is quite another thing.

I am not what you'd consider a "Fundamentalist" here.  I didn't even know what that term meant in Christiandom until a handful of years ago. When I did begin to understand something of it it seemed to me, at least in its purest form, to quite simply put all that is contained in scripture absolutely central to all of life and practice--and to do so without compromising on the essentials. I thought to myself well I guess I am a fundamentalist then too!   An article Kevin Bauder wrote (can't rememebr which) was very helpful to me in further understanding this "Fundamentalism"...although I've yet plenty to understand when it comes to Fundamentalist's  ;-)
~

To anyone interested in more insight into EBC (as well its counterparts)-

I came across another well articulated assessment of EBC, this time from a man who has been attending for 12 years, (who also happens to be an adjunct professor at Northwestern College and (previously) a pastor). I found his article quite fascinating because in all his observations of EBC (mostly praises) he reveals so much of the very things that are so wrong with churches like this, even un-biblical.  

The last word in his assessment of EB are quite telling:
"But if someone wants more Bible in the church services or if they want more tradition and good old fashioned hymns, I would send them somewhere else."

I find that an extremely sad statement, but also one that well marks the times we live in. 

I've appreciated the dialog and being made think deeper on these things. Thanks, brothers. 

 

Larry Nelson's picture

Quote:

God uses many ways/means and all types of churches to ultimately bring people to saving faith.

Does anyone here not believe/accept this?

 

Larry Nelson's picture

 

Suzanne, I too appreciate the dialog.  Let me clarify a few of my thoughts too:

I'm not trying to be an apologist for Eagle Brook.  I have reservations/concerns about some of their practices too.  I do believe that they made a fascinating subject for examination, and I don't regret studying/observing them.

I grew up in fundamentalism.  I don't know who or how many here knows it (I know some do), but the "exemplary Christian school" alluded to in my bio is Fourth Baptist Christian School (Plymouth).  (I was there under Doc Clearwaters--you don't get much more fundamentalist than him!)  I was a member of a staunchly fundamentalist church for over 20 years.  My church membership for the past few years is in one which is more properly categorized as "conservative evangelical."  

I'm finding that as I get older, and grow more weary of fundamentalism's constant, relentless infighting, I appreciate much more the efforts of other members of the body of Christ who are doing the work the church is here to do.  In Eagle Brook's case, despite their flaws, I believe they are honestly dedicated to evangelizing the Twin Cities.

I get that fundamentalism dislikes (how's that for understatement?) EBC's musical preference.  I really have a hard time believing though that God approves of His children when they sing to Him John Newton's Amazing Grace, but disapproves of His children when they sing to Him (with at least equal sincerity) Phil Wickham's This is Amazing Grace.  Parents, does one child's "I love you" mean more to you than another's?  Does it to God?

SuzanneT's picture

Thanks, Larry, That was helpful. I appreciated hearing more about where you're coming from. 

 

Jim's picture

It doesn't seem many leave a church of 50 and blog about it - does it?! 

I can tell you having been a pastor that many people left my churches. And they all did for reasons that they thought were well thought out. 

I know a lot about the fundamentalist - conservative landscape of the Twin Cities. We have Bethlehem Baptist (from whence Piper retired). The New Hope E-Free church and the EagleBrook church. These are all solid churches. Eagle Brook is not an 'easy believism' church! That would be in my mind a complete false representation. 

About Larry Nelson, the author. Larry is a graduate of 4th Baptist Christian School. I don't think anyone doubts his fundamentalist credentials. He is a member of a very solid Baptist church in the S Minneapolis suburbs. 

josh p's picture

I believe it (depending on what a person means by "all types of churches")but I see it as basically a descriptive statement and not a prescriptive one.

Mark_Smith's picture

that all 6 "campuses" are in the N and NE of Minneapolis. Why are there no E, W, or S locations?

SuzanneT's picture

Jim wrote:

"It doesn't seem many leave a church of 50 and blog about it - does it?!"

Who left what church and blogged..? If that was in reference to the article I linked the author hasn't left EBC, just blogged about his church.

"Eagle Brook is not an 'easy believism' church! That would be in my mind a complete false representation."

I appreciate that admonition, Jim. I certainly hope to avoid any false representation.  In that comment I included "easy-believism" in a bundle of terms describing the types of problems that have been entering the Church at large. It may well be that EB is not an easy believism church, it just falls into the same problematic bundle.

To be clear-I am not saying that there are no genuinely saved people there doing real Gospel work, I thank God for that! and pray for their increase..

Larry Nelson's picture

Mark_Smith wrote:

that all 6 "campuses" are in the N and NE of Minneapolis. Why are there no E, W, or S locations?

Long story short: They haven't gotten that far yet.  They've expanded as far W/NW as Coon Rapids from their starting point of WBL, and as far S/SE as Woodbury.  They are contemplating/scouting a 7th location right now, to deal with capacity issues at a couple of sites.

They "follow" their attenders in opening sites.  Example: they knew that they had hundreds of people who were driving fair distances on Hwys 35E & 494 from the Woodbury area (and vicinity) to their WBL and Lino Lakes locations.  So they planted a Woodbury site (temporary at first; now permanent).  Interestingly, at Woodbury now, you'll see scores of Wisconsin plates in the lot there during services.  They're seeing many people cross the border from western Wisconsin.

Where will they be in 10, 20 years?  Probably a lot closer to completely encircling Minneapolis/St Paul.  The cities (Mpls./St. Paul) themselves aren't likely to see locations, simply for the lack of available land (and the exhorbitant expense even if were available).  Lino Lakes (90 acres) & Woodbury (40+ acres) are built on former farms fields, at the edge of developed areas.  In the cities themselves, there simply aren't plots that large available.

This doesn't mean that EBC ignores the cities though.  They have many attenders from both who go to the surburban sites.  They've also had two members of their pastoral staff (including a campus pastor) leave EBC in the past year to start independent churches (non-EBC branches) in Minneapolis and in one of its first-ring suburbs.   

 

Mark_Smith's picture

So, you've written very positively about EBC. What is your intent with this article? What are you intending for me to take away from it? Ministry advice? How to reach the "younger" crowd? For us "mean 'ole fundamentalists" to not be so mean? To put away our hymnbooks and break out in "sets" of Kelly Clarkson and Chris Tomlin. Yes, the websites for EBC list the music "sets" for each location each week. You will see secular songs in the list!!!!!!!

I for one have spent way too much time reviewing the EBC websites getting a feel for this place. Why? I am involved in a church start and I try to see what others do...I hear a lot from people "I had a bad experience at a previous church". You then ask them what it was and they usually won't say (at least to me). I am tending to think the problem is their sin and objecting to being told about it. Divorce is rampant for example. An enormous number of people are divorced and don't want you to say anything about it!!!! Most of the "unchurched" that are looking to go to church that I run into are looking for "feel good" music that sounds like what they listen to on the radio. They are looking for a "feel good" message (no sin mentioned please). I am not offering any of those things!!! So what am I to learn from a place that does offer those things?

A few other questions I have been pondering:

1- How many times did you attend EBC? You seem VERY knowledgeable about it.

2- From your reviews which have been positive why aren't you a member?

3- Where is the separation from the world at EBC?

4- Did you ever attend one of the bible studies they offer?

5- One person said (I think it was Tim Keller, who I don't follow btw) that the greatest challenge for the present church is to tell people who don't think they are sinners and who don't believe in sin that they are in need of redemption from that sin. How does EBC handle that?

DavidO's picture

Relevant.  An excerpt:

New buildings, more pastors, better technology: churches chase hard, but finances hold back. So, Clem says, they cut inefficiency wherever it lurked—such as caring for some of the resource-draining people or providing benevolence to the city, because such endeavors lack a high return on investment (ROI).

"We started going for high-profile, high-ROI stuff that brings in more money," says Clem. To do so, you've got to make the news, be known at the popular level, and have wide influence. The influence came, and attendance kept climbing.

"The growth was uncontrollable," Clem says. "On one Sunday in January, we launched four campuses. The problem is that this is only possible if you scale the campus pastor position way back. If being a lead pastor requires a skill set or maturity, then your pool to draw from gets smaller, and you cannot multiply fast enough.

"The only way to create scalable multiplication is to somehow dumb down that position so that a dog with a note in its mouth can do it."

Secure a space and hang an HD video screen. Project the celebrity pastor through DVD. Stir in a heap of cutting-edge promotion with just a pinch of local leadership, and you end up with a well-branded, easily marketable, quickly reproducible church-in-a-box, and "The Front" expands.

 

Larry Nelson's picture

Hi Mark,

I'm glad you're asking questions, even though I feel a little hostility coming from your post.  Some of your questions are answered in the article, but here goes:

1. My main goal in the article is to (hopefully) prompt fundamentalism in the Twin Cities to reach more people.  I've been in/around fundamentalism in the Twin Cities for over 40 years now (I'll be 52 next month), and it's hurting here at the present.  Fundamentalism, locally, is dying.  I've seen many fundamentalist churches either die completely or shrink.  I won't mention names, but the area's largest fundamentalist churches are now about 1/3rd of the size they once were.  I don't know of any local fundamentalist churches that are growing.  Where are the fundamentalist men of God of today who will step up, and reach this area?

So, in contrast, I encounter a church that, its flaws notwithstanding, seems to have the will & the vision to reach people.  At its current 21,000 average attendance, it's not content to coast.  As much as fundamentalism abhors it, it is busy reaching people that fundamentalism does not.  (I understand that fundamentalism is loathe to accept that, but that's the way it is.)

If, by pointing this out, I can get fundamentalism (anyone, anywhere) to get its eyes back on the fact that there are hundreds of thousands (millions even) of people in the Twin Cities desperately in need of a Savior, then I'm willing to take the heat that my article produces.

2. I saw that they used a Kelly Clarkson Christmas medley or something last week, at least at one location.  (Whatever.)  As for CCM, if one is fundamentally (pun intended) opposed to it, then EBC will never measure up.

3. 13 times attended.  I mention that in the article.

4. Speaking of divorce, do you know where I've seen it rampant?  In fundamentalism.  (I'd have a hard time even remembering how many divorces I've seen in fundamentalist friends over the decades!)  Not to mention out-of-wedlock births......which in some cases led to quick marriages, followed by seemingly equally quick divorces!  At my fundamentalist H.S., the son of a fundamentalist pastor made a pass at me (yes, you read that right).  He later graduated from [edit: a prominent fundamentalist college].  Last I heard, he's living with his long-time partner.  One of my former Bible teachers (graduate of a prominent fundamentalist seminary) left his family when he announced he was gay.   My point?  Fundamentalism has a big enough sin problem of its own to deal with, before it accuses evangelicals of being soft on sin.

5. I'm not a member because EBC is not the church for me.  Like I've said in another post above, I have reservations/concerns about some of their practices.  (Besides, I'm happily a member of a solid Baptist church in the Twin Cities.)  Is that sufficient?

6. Separation from the world?  Well, let's see:  Preaching & taking stands against divorce, premarital sex, cohabitation, abortion, gay marriage (they took heat for this in the local media), and numerous other things that I heard live and/or read in their literature.  If one maintains that separation means suits & ties, no pants on women, no CCM, or things like that: well, then I guess that they are compromisers.

7. No, I didn't attend any of their Bible studies (made that clear in the article).  I did sit in on some of their pre-service prayer groups where the pastors & volunteers pray for the upcoming services & for the Holy Spirit to work in the hearts of those in attendance.  (These prayer times were very powerful, and really showed to me their drive & focus.)

 

Joel Shaffer's picture

David, The primary difference is that Mark Driscoll was a celebrity pastor known all over the country and world and Bob Merritt is known mainly in the twin cities area. I had never heard of Bob Merritt until this article and our urban ministry partners with Converge (the baptist denomination of Eagle Brook Church).   Its kind of lazy to draw comparisons between the toxic environment of Mars Hill and other mega or giga churches unless one has immersed themselves in the culture of those churches.

DavidO wrote:
  

Relevant.  An excerpt:

New buildings, more pastors, better technology: churches chase hard, but finances hold back. So, Clem says, they cut inefficiency wherever it lurked—such as caring for some of the resource-draining people or providing benevolence to the city, because such endeavors lack a high return on investment (ROI).

"We started going for high-profile, high-ROI stuff that brings in more money," says Clem. To do so, you've got to make the news, be known at the popular level, and have wide influence. The influence came, and attendance kept climbing.

"The growth was uncontrollable," Clem says. "On one Sunday in January, we launched four campuses. The problem is that this is only possible if you scale the campus pastor position way back. If being a lead pastor requires a skill set or maturity, then your pool to draw from gets smaller, and you cannot multiply fast enough.

"The only way to create scalable multiplication is to somehow dumb down that position so that a dog with a note in its mouth can do it."

Secure a space and hang an HD video screen. Project the celebrity pastor through DVD. Stir in a heap of cutting-edge promotion with just a pinch of local leadership, and you end up with a well-branded, easily marketable, quickly reproducible church-in-a-box, and "The Front" expands.

 

DavidO's picture

Same potential problems attach.  Celebrity can be localized rather than inter/national.  I still claim relevance.  Shucks, I think could be relevance in that article for a smaller church of 250 in a town of 50,000 were it to adopt the "whatever it takes" mantra.

DavidO's picture

To make myself clearer, I hope.  Larry essentially affirms the Hylesian canard that apparent numerical success means spiritual growth is happening.  The Mars Hill dangers are ever imminent in that kind of approach.  In my opinion.

Larry Nelson's picture

DavidO wrote:

To make myself clearer, I hope.  Larry essentially affirms the Hylesian canard that apparent numerical success means spiritual growth is happening.  The Mars Hill dangers are ever imminent in that kind of approach.  In my opinion.

Did you even read what I wrote?  I disavow that numerical growth is automatically connected to spiritual growth.  Perhaps you need to re-read the section that starts here:

"By this point, I suspect that many readers are asking a question similar to one that occurred to me near the start of my visits. Here is how I perceived it: are these masses being grounded and growing stronger in their faith, or is Eagle Brook the proverbial “mile wide and inch deep?” This is a crucial question....."

 

TylerR's picture

Editor

I understand what you're saying and appreciate what you wrote. 

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Mark_Smith's picture

No hostility. Just questions. I guess I missed a few connections when I read your post originally.

I personally am trying to figure out how to reach my city, that is why I am asking. I give no pass to fundamentalism. In fact, I am probably one of the least fundamentalist people here, believe it or not. I never went to any fundamentalist school or college. I only formally attended a formally fundamentalist church for 1 year. Why? The city I have lived in for many years now doesn't have one! That is why I am involved in a church start (not plant...no one wants to plant). Let me add that the fundamental baptist church I did attend (in another city) for 1 year was the most loving church I have ever attended (shout out to Faith Baptist in Manhattan, KS--Pastor David Byford).

Almost everyone under 50 doesn't connect to hymns or old gospel songs, which is a staple of fundamentalism. (Have you ever noticed how many hymns and old gospel songs talk about the ocean? I live in Kansas! While I have lived in NC and Japan I have never heard the ocean "roar" like many hymns mention...little thing for me I guess) But, if you move to CCM you deal with the whole rock star thing that I personally despise. I separated from that years ago. Music used to consume me like it does a lot of people... So I personally cherry pick a few songs from here or there. But it is tough.

I am all for improving friendliness...but I have attended a large (for the area) church that at first seemed friendly. After a while (years) I realized it wasn't friendship. I highly suspect that about EBC (but I could be biased).

One more thing. My 2 older kids attend AWANA at a Southern Baptist church in the area (in fact I was baptized there years ago). My wife had a conversation with a woman who was attending who normally went to a church modeled more like EBC in our town, so I looked it up. In our city of about 175,000 people there are 19 Southern Baptist churches!!! That hit me hard. 19 that are just SBC. I also know of at least 2 dozen independent Baptist (but not fundamentalist) churches...

and I ask myself am I wasting my time? Does my town really need another church, let alone a Baptist one?

 

Joel Shaffer's picture

David, 

By the way, I am not a defender of a multi-site church or even mega or giga churches. I do see problems with them.  Yet I have connections with several multi-site churches as well as several mega churches.   But none of the problems are even close to the toxicity that permeated Mars Hill.    Again, there is also a danger of the fallacy of jumping to conclusions because we do not have enough data to support our assertions (making a legitimate comparison between the two giga multi site churches).       

Jim Welch's picture

Larry, thanks for your observations.

You ask, 

"God uses many ways/means and all types of churches to ultimately bring people to saving faith.

Does anyone here not believe/accept this?"

My observation is of course God does.  As a pastor of a fundamental baptist church, I believe that the secondary purpose of the local church (most would agree that the primary purpose of the church is to exalt God-worship) is not to evangelize sinners but to edify saints.  The EBC's, LifeChurch, Willow Creeks all believe that the secondary purpose of a local church is to bring people to saving faith.   I have observed that "how we do church" is impacted by our philosophy of ministry at this point.

By the way, the Lord brought a ear ring wearing, tattooed man into our hymn singing (even have an organ playing) church on Sunday.  After hearing the gospel, this man repented of his sins and trusted our Savior.   I have been in this church for nearly 14 years (began w/around 50 faithful folk), we have seen God save sinners from so many different walks of life.  God is good

DavidO's picture

Joel, I'm not saying all multi-church sites are as toxic as the Mars Hill Empire or are even toxic at all.  I'm saying the same dangers MH fell prey to must be guarded against.  That's all.

DavidO's picture

Larry,

You yourself hedge in the very paragraph you refer me to.  Time will tell what is going on at Eagle Brook.  But your condemnation of fundamentalists in the same area boils down to a comparison of apparent numerical results.

I have no interest in defending fundamentalism itself, but simply because a given area church does not presently show Eagle Brook like growth (or even numerical growth at all presently) does not justify a conclusion that they are necessarily doing something wrong or should do something differently.

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