Wednesday, November 13, 2002

The Mall Where You Talk to God:

A lengthy article on Grace Church in Eden Prairie, MN, centered on the church's size, messages and recent news that its pastor and guide to growth over the past decade has resigned, admitting an extramarital affair.

Who is the Antichrist? Dr. John Eagen, senior pastor at Grace Church, has promised to answer that question today during "The Religious Philosophy of the Anti-Christ," the fifth installment of an 11-week series of Sunday-morning sermons entitled "The Road to Armageddon." In anticipation of this revelation to come, a larger-than-average crowd is making its way onto Grace's $48 million, 62-acre campus for today's 9:00 and 10:45 a.m. services.

Eden Prairie police are directing traffic along Pioneer Trail, where hundreds of four-door sedans, minivans, and sport utility vehicles are stacked up, waiting to pull into two stadium-size lots. A gang of volunteer parking attendants, dressed in bright orange vests and waving fluorescent wands, is scrambling to get the faithful through one of four main sets of doors, where more cheery volunteers with plastic name plates are stationed at official "welcome centers" handing out today's glossy, eight-page program.

Inside, organ music fills the halls as a team of camera operators pans the 4,500-seat auditorium and glass-enclosed skyboxes (available for the convenience of young parents with squall-prone children). They fiddle with inconspicuous earpieces as a technical director chatters instructions from his bank of video monitors in a million-dollar bunker beneath the stage.

As the crowd files in, a full orchestra takes the stage and a red-robed choir climbs to a steeply tiered, 250-seat loft overlooking it all. The top row of singers is perched just below a clear, 2,000-gallon baptism tank, filled to the brim with chlorinated holy water. The baptismal font is backlit for maximum visibility; above it hangs a large wooden cross, the only prominent traditional religious icon in the room. And up above the cross, invisible to spectators but indispensable to the show's production team, there are six levels of catwalks stretching to the heavens.

Not so very long ago, the notion of a "big" church conjured visions of grand Gothic structures conceived and built in the classical idiom: high ceilings and endless rows of stiff wooden pews, imposing pulpits high above the heads of the congregation, lots of stained glass, congregants who dressed formally and made sure to stay on their best Sunday behavior.

....Modern megachurches like Grace evoke a similar sort of awe-inspired obedience by accentuating aesthetic elements that modern-day, upwardly mobile attendees have come to associate with order. Specifically, Grace--designed by the Minneapolis architecture firm of Hammel, Green and Abrahamson, Inc.--could be confused with a shopping mall. Inside, it feels like a corporate headquarters turned upper-crust community center. There is no dark wood to suck up the artificial light. The space is bright. The pulpit sits on a Broadway-worthy stage. There isn't a bad seat in the house. And the best-dressed attendees look ready for casual Friday or an afternoon of shopping.

More on Eagen's fall from Grace here

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