Searching for Sweet Jesus
by Nancy Sartor
It’s 8:30 a.m. on a crisp Sunday morn. Am I:
a. Sipping coffee and reading the New York Times?
b. Fast asleep, nestled between my comforter and featherbed?
c. Spooning a hunky heathen?
d. On my way to church?
If you said “a” or “b” you’d be right most of the time; if you said “c” (God bless you) you’ve got faith and a great imagination; but if you said “d” you’d be correct. Today I’m going to church. Megachurch.
going with my friend Dave. He became a Christian (was born again) about 12 years
ago and is a member of Wooddale Church in Eden Prairie. In the past I’ve
declined his invitations to attend church functions. Religion’s not really
my bag. Instead I try to nurture my spirit through yoga, meditation and reverie
for the natural environment. Going to church was something I did as a teenager
to appease my parents. But as soon as I was confirmed we stopped going, so I’m
not sure if I was appeasing them or they were appeasing God. In any event, it’s
been several years since I participated in organized religion.
But the outcome of November 2 has piqued my curiosity. Experts tell us that
“moral issues” proved to be the biggest factor for voters in one
of the closest presidential races in U.S. history. And while some people may
question the morality of the administration’s policies, others want to
know why these voters are such an effective political force.
It’s true that religious conservatives are having an increased impact
on U.S. public policy. These people are dedicated and organized, and as a result,
successful. Parishioners are moving from the church to the polls, exercising
their civic muscles in support of theocrats who further their “moral agenda.”
To better understand this powerful political force, I decide to go straight
to the source.
I pick up Dave at 9:30. The service doesn’t start until 11:30, but he
says he likes to go to the “30-Something” group beforehand—a
singles group that meets to connect with God and one another.
As we exit the freeway, traffic is backed up several blocks from the church.
Two cops in green fluorescent vests direct the mob, and dozens of orderly cars
stream into the parking lot. Wooddale is set on 32 acres off Highway 62. The
building itself is enormous—a sprawling red brick complex with a giant,
white rocket-like steeple pointing towards the heavens.
Recently I spoke to an architect at a local firm who works exclusively on churches.
He’s designed two megachurches in the metropolitan area, and told me that
certain elements are commonly used to make megachurches look and feel like shopping
malls. Like any successful business, location, convenience and service are key.
Inside, the church is bustling with activity. Swarms of people move through
the halls, some chat in small groups. It’s unlike any church I’ve
ever been in. There are no images of Jesus, no statues of Mary, not a crucifix
in sight. About 25 feet from the entryway, a smartly dressed middle-aged woman
stands behind an information desk, directing traffic herself. Surrounded by
mounds of literature—newsletters, handouts and pamphlets—she smiles
at guests and points them toward the sanctuary.
It feels like we’re maneuvering through a stadium clogged with fans on
game day. I want to grab Dave’s hand so I won’t get lost in the
crowd. We make our way through the lobby to the Wooddale Café. A bookstore,
courtyard and library surround clusters of tables and chairs. Multiple television
monitors are mounted on pillars, broadcasting the worship service in progress.
Throngs of hungry parishioners wait patiently in a long line for coffee and
Wooddale employs its own pastry chef (as well as a chef de cuisine) and from
the looks of it, today’s offerings are well worth the wait. My heart begins
to race just looking at the veritable tray of treacle: Turnovers bursting with
apples, cherry filled croissants drizzled with chocolate, glazed donuts, sugar
cookies and banana chip muffins all vie for attention from the edge of the counter.
One fellow sits by himself, spooning bites from a chocolate-filled pastry shell
and washing it down with a carton of chocolate milk.
We skip the nosh and buzz past a number of small meeting rooms labeled with
today’s discussion topics (9:00: “Making Sense of Creation and Evolution,”
10:15: “Handling Difficult Situations”). A banner hanging outside
one room announces “Classes at Disciple U.” This is not simply a
church, it’s a religious campus—a fusion of theology, education
I ask Dave about the environment. He explains that Wooddale is committed to
providing multiple opportunities for people to feel “connected.”
It’s a theme common among megachurches. In addition to numerous social,
recreational and aid ministries, megachurches focus on enhancing congregational
community through home fellowships and interest-based small groups.
offers dozens of these opportunities, including Bible study, social events,
mission trips and retreats for the 20, 30 and 40-somethings, as well as Midlife
(50+) and Berean (over 60) groups.
There are groups designated Couples and Young Families (for those with or without
preschool through elementary aged children); Engaged Young Marrieds (couples
in their 20s and 30s); ProTeen (parents of teens) and Second Half (adult “empty
If none of these affiliations strike your fancy, you can select a gender-based
group. The Men’s Adult Ministry offers Bible study fellowship, breakfast
gatherings, a father/daughter event, a father/son event, a golf classic, one-to-one
discipling, special interest events and a weekly men’s study group.
For women the list is even more exhaustive: Bible studies (Tuesdays, Wednesdays,
First Steps in Christian Life, Small Group and Hispanic); Connecting Groups
(bonding through special interests like coffee, quilting bees and book clubs)
and Encouragement Groups (from mom’s with special-needs kids to women
who want to “explore God’s plan for dating and marriage”).
And there’s more. Leadership, ministry discovery and outreach events cover
everything from writing your own personal mission statement to summer tea parties
in the courtyard. And, of course, the annual golf classic.
Finally, the church provides an extensive children’s ministry. Programs
like Camp Awesome and W.O.W. (Woods on Wednesdays) are offered, in addition
to a Children’s Sunday Morning group and Vacation Bible School. Confident
Kids is designed to help children in “highly stressed environments”
(divorce, blended families, long distance move, chronic illness) cope by using
prayer and scripture. All of the children’s activities take place in the
lower level, which also houses a gymnasium, fitness center, rehearsal space
for the choir and practice rooms for young musicians.
Dave and I arrive at the “30-Something” group, which is already
underway, and quietly take a seat near the front. It’s a full house and
some people are standing in the back. Cloth-covered metal chairs are arranged
neatly in rows facing the front of the room. A man stands at a podium addressing
the crowd, white board on his left and overhead projector to his right. Today,
and for the next two Sundays, guest pastor Tim has come to present a three-part
series entitled “The Power of Passion.”
topic is “needs.” Pastor Tim flips on the overhead and begins to
talk about which human needs are met by God. Pastor Tim believes that despite
His omniscience and divine power, God does not meet all our needs. People still
Using the overhead, he explains his theory using stick figures of Adam and Eve,
bold arrows and a list of “needs” shouted out by the audience. It’s
a blend of theology and psychology—Luis Palau meets Dr. Phil. In fact,
Pastor Tim peppers his lecture with phrases like “get real” when
describing dating and relationships. He assures us that a connection to Christ
brings peace and leads to meaningful, intimate relationships, but doesn’t
necessarily guarantee we’ll find Mr. or Ms. Right.
I look around the room. Some people nod knowingly. Others don’t seem so
convinced. Pastor Tim concludes his lecture and ends with a prayer. Then Eric,
a 30-Something regular, steps up to the podium and shares his personal story
about needs and dating. His testimonial dovetails perfectly with Pastor Tim’s
message. It seems to seal the deal for those who may have doubted. Another prayer
from Eric, then Stacy concludes the meeting with announcements for the upcoming
Christmas social, women’s international night, dinner and fellowship and
prayer circles. After a closing prayer, there’s 10 minutes left to mingle
before the 11:30 service.
Dave introduces me to his friends. There’s a guy with a nametag that reads
“John turtle cheesecake” and a woman, “Betsy ice cream.”
Because we came in late, we missed making nametags that include our favorite
dessert. I’m grateful for the anonymity, but tell John and Betsy that
I prefer crème brulee.
It’s nearly time for the main event. On our way to the service a handsome
young man with short dark hair and a pearly grin slaps Dave on the back. “Well,
we lost Minnesota, but at least we won the country,” he exclaims. They
laugh, shaking hands, and Dave introduces me to his friend, Steve. With a brief
nod, Steve turns his attention back to Dave. He says he’s frustrated and
dismayed at all the “ungracious” Democratic losers who, despite
John Kerry’s recent defeat, refuse to remove their lawn signs and bumper
stickers. I add that I’ve seen as much Bush/Cheney paraphernalia, but
Steve disagrees and again turns his attention back to Dave. “The country’s
better off…good work, buddy,” he says, disappearing into the crowd.
enter the “worship center,” which is really more like a theater
than a church. Stadium-seating in the lower-level and balcony rings the stage,
which is illuminated by spotlights. White walls are accented with blonde wood,
well buffed and shiny. Light filters in from the 220-foot steeple above, but
there is no stained glass, and still no images of Jesus and Mary. One simple
wooden cross, about 5 feet high, sits to the right of the pulpit. Built in 1988,
this 63,000 square-foot sanctuary seats 2,000, and this morning it’s nearly
And very white. In the literally hundreds (if not thousands) of members I’ve
seen today, only two have been people of color. I ask Dave about diversity,
and he assures me that Wooddale’s membership is indeed an ethnic blend.
But that’s hard to see. Today’s crowd is almost exclusively white,
well-dressed, and on average, about 25 to 55 years old.
We squeeze into a pew as the music swells. This is the Contemporary Service.
A 10-piece band, including guitar, bass, drums, percussion, piano, synthesizer
and horns, blasts Christian rock. The sound system is state-of-the-art, flawless.
Six vocalists belt out jazzy inspirational tunes, as images of waves crashing
along a rocky coastline are projected onto two giant screens suspended from
A gentle-looking gray haired man wearing khakis and a blue button-down shirt
approaches the stage. He’s Senior Pastor Bob and he’s been involved
with Wooddale Church since 1977. Pastor Bob greets the parish and leads us in
prayer. Instantly 2,000 heads droop in unison and the room falls silent. As
I look ahead, I see a shabbily dressed man enter the scene from backstage. He’s
holding a “homeless and hungry” sign. A young couple emerges, stage
right. As soon as Pastor Bob utters “amen” heads pop back up and
the drama begins to unfold.
The “actors” role-play their way through a skit about giving. The
homeless guy remains stationary and does not approach the couple. Mr. and Mrs.
Yuppie begin to argue: she wants to give the bum money and her husband adamantly
objects. In the end, she hands over a $10 bill and exchanges a “God bless
you” with the homeless man.
Pastor Bob returns to the stage, ready to deliver today’s sermon. As he
begins to speak, “The Joy of Giving” appears in giant letters across
both screens. I scan the room and see rapt parishioners anxiously awaiting the
Word. Even the group of teenagers in the balcony looks wide-eyed and focused.
Pastor Bob’s delivery is equal parts preacher and motivational speaker.
No monotonous, scriptural lullaby here. His tone is lighthearted, colloquial
and he frequently garners chuckles from the audience. He wears a wireless microphone
and saunters freely from the stage to the aisles.
message is simple: God is pleased by those who give graciously, generously;
not conditionally or with reluctance. Dave immediately references the appropriate
Corinthians passage and hands me a Bible. Pastor Bob reads aloud as choreographed
scripture dances across the screen. More prayer, a parishioner testimonial (or
“faith story,” to legitimize the teaching) songs, offering and that’s
a wrap. It’s been nothing short of a religious multimedia extravaganza.
The crowd streams out of the worship center, many heading back to the café
for coffee and fellowship. We grab a muffin and find an empty table. Dave introduces
me to more friends. Anja is a young woman from the Ukraine who’s been
a member of Wooddale for three years. She left the traditional Orthodox church
that her mother attends, preferring the more contemporary setting at Wooddale.
Helen ambles over to say “hello.” An elderly woman, she tells me
that she usually ushers, but has been sidelined recently because of a hip injury.
She’s got a twinkle in her eye and wears a black fedora-like hat adorned
in colored glass beads. She explains that Wooddale is a “seeker church,”
attracting people in search of a purpose in life. Helen’s brought several
friends to the church, “broken people” whom she hopes can find peace
and meaning here. Some, she says, choose not to return; they remain “broken,”
because they “lack motivation.”
I ask her about the outreach programs organized by Wooddale. What sort of faith-based
initiatives are there? She recounts wildly successful food drives and mentions
12-step support groups, such as Alanon and Gamanon. And there are mission programs.
Indeed, the main purpose of Wooddale, according to its own literature, is “to
honor God by making disciples for Jesus Christ.” It’s a fundamental
principle of, well, fundamentalism. One pamphlet encourages members to “reach
out to friends, neighbors, co-workers and family members” offering a number
of training opportunities. In truth, there are an exhaustive number of outreach
programs with which Wooddale is affiliated.
Some of its most ambitious activities are the international missions. The “Worldwide”
pamphlet states, “We are guided by Jesus’ command to make disciples
of all nations.” Moreover, it claims, “Nearly one person in three
still does not have access to an understandable presentation of the good news
about Jesus. Your help is urgently needed.” According to Wooddale, the
Creator has “God-sized projects” for the church, which include evangelical
movements in Southeast Asia, India, Guatemala, Bulgaria and Africa. All told,
there are 70 international ministries associated with the church.
From global missions to local groups and programs, the message at Wooddale is
that connection leads to salvation. But it’s the very size and magnitude
of the church that leaves me feeling uneasy. With so many opportunities and
countless programs, it seems like members are constantly racing from one activity
to the next. In addition to what I imagine is a busy life in the secular world,
these folks are inundated with extracurricular church responsibilities. And
despite a willingness to participate in religious activities, I wonder if some
people aren’t trading quality for quantity. A full day planner doesn’t
necessarily translate to a purposeful life. Busy doesn’t mean fulfilled.
I look around the room, part of me wants to shout: Hey, people! Slow down! Relax…
It’s after 1:30 and most of the church-goers have left for the day. A
few stragglers remain, nursing cold coffee and picking at pastry crumbs. Dave
and I are about to head home when Pastor Tim, the visiting speaker from the
30-Something group, approaches our table. He joins us and we exchange introductions.
I tell Pastor Tim that, while my experience has been pleasant, I still have
reservations about the evangelical movement in general. To me there is too much
hypocrisy, too many contradictions. I don’t understand, for example, why
some Christians will acknowledge their sin, but act infallible. I’m skeptical
of the insularity of evangelicals who denounce rock music and popular culture,
only to create imitations for themselves.
And what about those who cast righteous indignity on people with different religious
values? How can it be, I wonder, that of all the religions that have existed
on Earth for thousands of years, only one—Christianity—is real and
true? I don’t understand. Isn’t that like saying: “Meatloaf
is the Supreme Dish of all the foods in the world—ever! Forget filet mignon.
Keep your curry and kebabs. Sushi? I don’t think so. Meatloaf is the only
way to Nutrition!”
I also tell Pastor Tim that I’m confused by the logic of these “moral
issues voters.” I want to know how “love thy neighbor” and
“thou shalt not kill” translates to unwavering support for political
doctrines that occupy and destroy foreign communities. Why only certain lifestyles
(that mirror their own) are considered acceptable and others not tolerated.
Are Christians on a new crusade in the United States, organizing their political
base to “preemptively strike” at legislation aimed to further civil
Pastor Tim acknowledges my concerns. He says he’s lived abroad—in
the Middle East and India— and studied the Koran and Hinduism. He admits
he doesn’t support the current administration’s foreign policies,
specifically Israel and Palestine and the war in Iraq. He says he voted for
But when I ask him directly about the most divisive moral issues in America
today, abortion and gay marriage, I’m not surprised to hear that Pastor
Tim is pro-life. When it comes to homosexuality and gay marriage, he wavers
a bit. He admits having gay friends, isn’t sure if the lifestyle is a
“choice,” but thinks it isn’t. Gay marriage? He doesn’t
necessarily support a Constitutional amendment, but if push comes to shove,
he says he’d probably vote for it. I remain puzzled by the contradictions.
later, I’m back home in the cozy confines of my Northeast Minneapolis
apartment. Far away from the sterility and homogeny of suburbia, safe from the
chaos of the Christian compound, I ponder the day’s experience. Frankly
I’m surprised there was no proselytizing, no inflammatory clergy or pushy
parishioners. Perhaps they’re more clever, subversive. Or maybe they’re
saving themselves for the secular community at large. Either way, I have to
admit they were a friendly bunch—straight-edged, respectful, nice.
Still, I can’t help but wonder…are Christians spoon-feeding the
world a sugar-coated message? Are they substituting idealistic sweets for moral
fiber? Is there really only one way to feed the soul?
At the end of the day, I know I’ll probably never go back to Wooddale.
I wonder if the people I met will ask Dave, “What happened to your friend?”
I wonder if they’ll think of me as “broken” or “unmotivated.”
In the end, I really don’t care. I know I can’t condone sexual discrimination,
the suppression of reproductive freedoms or social injustice. For those of you
who agree, I guess I’ll see you in hell…with a hot-cross bun.
Abe Lincoln, that wily ole Republican, once said, “If I do good, I feel
good. If I do bad, I feel bad. That is my religion.”