By Joel Gunz
Woweeeeee! At City Bible Church (total membership, 6,000), they sure have fun. They clap. They sing songs. Oh, and they love to play Repeat After Me. As in:
CBC Lead Pastor Frank Damazio: “Jesus says, ‘Love God.’ C’mon, everybody say ‘Love God!’”
Gathered throng: “Love God!”
Pastor Frank: “And then he says ‘Love yourself!’ Say it with me.”
Gathered throng: “Love yourself!”
Pastor Frank: “Because if you love yourself you begin to love others. Everyone say ‘Love others!’”
Gathered throng: “Love others!”
And so it went. Earlier, the church was promoting a local project to clean the grounds of its expansive 36-acre campus—an enormous undertaking that would be much more affordable with volunteer help. (Said Pastor Marc Estes: “Say it with me: ‘Serve somewhere!’” Gathered throng: “Serve somewhere!”)
As the author or co-author of such leadership and business books as Effective Keys to Successful Leadership, Empowering the Giving of Your Church, Biblical Principles for Building a Successful Church and Biblical Principles for Releasing Financial Provision, it’s a safe bet that Pastor Frank has carefully planned every moment at CBC with a view to enriching and “growing” the church.
During the fleecing ceremony, er, “offering,” Estes pressed his audience to dig deep, praying, “All right, God, bless those who give.” Turning to the audience, he added, “Activate your faith by giving. Give me an Amen!”
Gathered throngs: “Amen!”
City Bible Church has a command for everything. Come on, everyone, find your butt with both hands!
Just kidding. They didn’t really say that. Probably because butts are a body part best left unmentioned, lest it lead to manual contact with other nearby organs. More on that in a moment.
All that command and response left me with a feeling that I’d been plopped into a kind of religious square dance; no sooner had the show started and I was ready to do-si-do right out of the church. But not before I got to absorb the full impact of their series of slick TV commercials projected on arena-worthy TV monitors that promoted their summer camps ($150-$250, depending on age), grounds cleaning workday (no charge) and other free and for-cost church programs. Apparently, Jesus watches a lot of E! News and reads Dwell magazine, because the City Biblistas have a snazzy video or graphic for everything.
As a matter of fact, everything about the church is slick, including its Indie Christian Rock band.
At CBC, all sex outside of marriage is condemned as categorically “soul-destroying” (Pastor Frank’s words, not mine). After you get married, however, through some unspecified miracle, boinking your partner gets an automatic upgrade to “wholesome” and “fulfilling”—rendering Christian sex as scintillating as a loaf of bread. What kind of bedroom activities are Pastor Frank and his wife engaging in that the best he can say about them is that they’re “proper?” I can’t answer that, but I do have a suspicion about the CBC rock band: they get their rocks off to the beat of Jesus.
Watching the Wailing Pastorettes give it up for God would have been kind of exciting, actually, but then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw Amanda singing along to the lyrics of Christerotica:
Draw me to You, and set my heart on fire
I want to Know, You’re my one desire
I give you my worship
All of my Passion
I give you my whole heart
All my devotion…
You captivate me
You’re the lover of my soul
Here I will bow down
Say that I need You
Here I will worship
Say that I love you
Oh how I love you
Oh how I love you
Oh how I love you
Oh how I love you
I want to know You
Let Your Spirit overwhelm me
Let Your Presence overtake my heart
I’d been dreading the day when one of us got “saved” or something. So when I saw Amanda, her head thrown back in pop Gospel ecstasy, singing about a BDSM fantasy with Jesus, I sighed.
And then Pastor Frank’s sermon commenced, via video feed from another one of the church’s four locations. Watch it here. Although about 1,000 people were present at our Rocky Butte location, it seemed not one of them was qualified to speak. The sermon was part of series he’d been teaching on Intentional Relationships. This segment bore the Stryper-esque title “Relationships that Believe the Scriptures Rule.” It was about how to find a compatible marriage mate using only your cerebral cortex, a bullet list and the watchful eye of Pastor Frank. (“Everyone say the word relationship!” “Relationship!”) If all goes well—that is, you’ve followed Pastor Frank’s “Eight Non-Negotiables in a Potential Intentional Relationship”TM—on your wedding night you’ll have an intimate knowledge of your partner’s credit rating, but you’ll be in for a complete surprise as to whether or not your sex life will be characterized by bouts of tears of frustration.
As Pastor Frank went on to tell us how to be in a relationship, it soon became clear that the the command-and-response tactic is more than just a shout out. It’s part of a larger agenda to assert church authority. In the City Bible Church cosmology, the Holy Trinity occupies the top of the pyramid, with City Bible Church following a close second. For example, Pastor Frank recommended that this conversation take place on a first date:
Girl: “Do you have credit card debt?”
Potential Boyfriend: Why?”
Girl: “Pastor Frank told me to ask you.”
That’s the level of autonomy that CBC deals in. Yep, they’re a bossy bunch and don’t miss an opportunity remind you who’s in charge. They’re also sure to point out who the real enemy is. Speaking like an angry den mother on the last day of Scout Camp, he shouted at the audience for almost a full hour:
“The culture you live in DISRESPECTS God, DISRESPECTS the Bible, DISRESPECTS the Holy Spirit, DISRESPECTS purity, DISRESPECTS the home, DISRESPECTS parenting, DISRESPECTS… uh…” His voice trailed off as he ran out of ideas. But he got a second wind: “We live in a culture that has become autonomous in its own philosophy of how to live. And the GOD piece, the CHURCH piece, the BIBLE piece is not a dominate thought out there! SOMETIMES you wonder if it’s a dominate thought even in HERE!” (Gee, that last bit sure was worth going to church to hear.)
Ah, yes, modern American culture. Hated by Muslim extremists, despised by fundamentalist Christians, but approved by Satan.
He couldn’t stop himself, barking out a blanket condemnation of the world we live in. “You’re around a CULTURE that is … forming VALUES and forming YOU with their EDUCATION and their MEDIA and their NEWSPAPER and EVERYTHING ALL AROUND YOU from SIGNAGE to what you LISTEN to, to the MUSIC, to the MOVIES, to your education, to your HIGH SCHOOL, to your college and when you put it a-a-a-a-a-all together, that’s a culture that’s forming YOU!”
The way City Bible Church sees it, the only safe place in the world is inside their fold, because the enemy is out there. Boo! Be careful!
I have a problem with that on a lot of levels. First of all, such exclusive authoritarianism consolidates a lot of power in the hands of a small coterie of imperfect people who themselves operate under the thumb of a guy who can’t even trust them to preach in their own building. It also insults the intelligence of church members, teaching them that they are too dumb to figure out life on their own and that if they want to have a shot at happiness, they’d better do exactly what CBC church tells them. Finally, by characterizing society outside of their 36-acre campus and three other locations as sinful and predatory, they disrespect the billions of people in this world who mean at least as well as Frank Damazio and Marc Estes do.
Still, I don’t have a problem with most of the basic principles of Pastor Frank’s sermon. After all, if you’re looking to get married, it’s probably a good idea to get to find out if he or she knows how to use a dishwasher. The profound flaw in the teaching is the assumption that people who are thinking about getting married would need his how-to’s at all. If you’re so inexperienced in life that you’d be unwise to enter a relationship without Pastor Frank’s bullet list in your back pocket, that alone might be a hint that you aren’t quite ready to commit.
Pastor Frank continued: “Premarital sexual sins of any kind are prohibited. Offensive to God, harmful to your soul, prohibited.”
Premarital sexual sins of any kind? Really? How about a little thing Amanda and I call the Kalifornia Kangaroo? Or the Turkish Sno-Cone? And it’s all offensive to God? You mean to tell me, Frank, that every time Amanda gives me a Sloppy Joel, God gets mad? That truly is a frightening thought. With a fragile ego like that at the helm of the universe, we’re all screwed.
He continued talking about the, uh, ‘giving of yourself as if you were married.’ “That’s a problem. It’s a deep hurt, it’s a deep scar. Sa-a-a-a-a-ve yourself for your marriage.”
Earth to Frank: hewing to your fundamentalist interpretation of Bible morality is no guarantee of happiness, either. As a member of a fundamentalist religion myself for many years, I knew lots of couples who stuck to all eight of your PowerPoint prerequisites and were dying in loveless marriages anyway.
One of the many problems with fundamentalist Christianity is that it places so much emphasis on sexual “chastity” that people get married when they are too young. In their early 20s, hormones raging, they get married just so they can have guilt-free sex. That’s a lousy reason to tie the knot. Fundamentalism ignores the fact that, in order to reach maturity, you have to get out and live life. True, your heart might get broken. It probably will. But there will be good times, too, and along the way comes growth, perspective and the self-knowledge needed to make a wise choice in a marriage mate—if that’s what you find you really want. You can only get experience in life by living life. There are no magic short cuts. Not even in the Bible.
As a Jehovah’s Witness, I would often hear people say: “Experience is a terrible teacher. You get the test first and the lesson afterward.” (Pastor Frank, if you’re reading this, feel free to use that line.) The fear-mongering message is that if you don’t do things the Bible’s way you’re doomed to failure. That mentality leads to passive obedience (which has its place at times) but it doesn’t lead to maturity. Sure, it’s a Biblical approach to life, but it doesn’t guarantee happiness. The circular reasoning goes something like this: “If you want to be happy, study the Bible. Because it’s the infallible word of God, you should do exactly what it says, because that is the only path to happiness.” The Fundamentalist Position is great—for some people. (Although Amanda and I haven’t tried it—yet.) Unfortunately, others have hurt themselves and those around them by doggedly trying to adhere to Bible morality, only to find that it doesn’t work for them. At least, that’s what my gay ex-Christian friends tell me. Any religion that insists that you live according to the terms of its moral code first and the terms of real life second devalues the human spirit. It’s not a life-affirming religious tradition, to say nothing of any transcendent spiritual value it may promise.
As an atheist, I don’t believe in a personal God. But I am a parent. And, much as I want to shield my kids from harm, I don’t want them to grow up dependent on my wisdom. I want them to stand on their own two feet as autonomous individuals. To get there, they will have to endure a few scrapes and bruises. One of the best bits of wisdom I’ve ever heard came, not from the Bible, but from an alcoholic war reporter: “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places.”
That was Hemingway. As it happens, Amanda and I are re-reading his novels together and I’m happy to report that it’s been making our relationship more… how should I say?… intentional. Opting out of the ancient rules and irrelevant prescriptions of the Good Book, we’re satisfied with books that are good.
Have you been to City Bible Church? Drop me a line in the comments section and tell me if you agree with my review or if you think I’m going to hell for it.