Moshing for Jesus
Sacramento Kings could learn a lesson in energizing Arco Arena from Bayside Church
I arrived at Arco Arena 20 minutes before showtime, hoping to snag a good seat. Upon entering, it was instantly clear that I had underestimated the arrival time and crowd size. Instead of landing anywhere near the front row, I found myself schlepping up steep steps to the nosebleed section, where I would watch with envy those several rows below catching T-shirts and stuffed animals shot like cannonballs from the lowest seats.
From this vantage point, I could appreciate the scale of things, however. Twelve thousand people holding up glow sticks as a place goes dark is an awesome sight from the cheap seats. Here one could also take in the full panoramic view of the main event, while 50-foot screens at either side provided magnified images of the fastest action.
The building seemed alive with anticipation before the scheduled starting time. All around me feet pounded the floor and arms flew into the air in a sort of half-wave, half-drum roll. The only thing missing was a ring announcer at center stage, illuminated by a small spot light as he grabs a vintage microphone and bellows, “Let’s get ready to rummmbllllllle!”
But this is not fight night. It’s 10 o’clock in the morning. Sunday morning, the time many people attend church, which is what I’m doing here, actually.
Bayside Church has expanded to nine different area churches, and on October 7, for the second time at the home of your Sacramento Kings, they brought all their congregants together for one mega-service. There were no beer sales, no Royal Court Dancers, but the excitement for “Come Together Arco ’07” was just as intense as any Kings playoff game, if you’re fortunate enough to remember those.
Rock music kicked things off. Video presentations urging folks to contribute to various social causes, including building schools and contributing to AIDS research, kept the juices flowing. Everyone did fall quiet during Bishop Sherwood Carthen’s sermon, listening intently, but the crowd eventually came back with a vengeance, nearly bringing the house down as a large group of teenagers formed a kind of religious mosh pit at the front of the stage.
As opposed to my experiences at more somber local church services, at Arco I could hear the roar.
Unlike a certain NBA franchise that can energize this same space only in too brief spurts, Bayside is on a winning streak. The church says it now draws 13,000 people to its Sunday services—and they don’t even have an All-Star point guard to get everyone involved. Amazing.
Bayside operates under a new philosophy being slowly adopted by mega-churches across the country. Like the born-again Christian movement of the 1970s, Bayside advocates a tearing down of cultural barriers, uninspiring music, wardrobes and other impediments that contribute to the public’s disillusionment toward much of organized religion. Bayside’s reasoning is to adapt to the current climate, but maintain a strong message that newcomers can easily understand, and it will draw them further into the congregation.
This casual-contemporary approach is a part of Bayside’s basic DNA, in full swing for “Come Together Arco ’07.” The choir wore blue jeans. Music director Lincoln Brewster resembled and sounded like a rock star upon whom God forgot to bestow a craving for intravenous drugs. Carthen, who wore a comfy, over-sized basketball tee, clearly embodied his mega-church’s mega-informality.
Critics of these types of church services complain it’s all flash and no substance, all talk and no action. “Church Lite” it’s been called. Ridiculous! Why can’t guitars deliver holy music, as well as organs? Why does one need colored robes to be insightful in their remarks? Why must we all wear our Sunday best?
Does denim block out “The Word”?
I found the Arco show brilliant. The music was solid, the message clear. Carthen challenged Bayside’s primarily white and wealthy Granite Bay congregation to do more in their church and in their community—much more. The importance of turning the other cheek and loving one’s friends and enemies alike was frequently driven home. Quoting Jesus Christ, Carthen said that if your enemy tells you to walk a mile, walk two. If he wants your shirt, give him your coat also. That kind of thing.
Many people attend religious services out of a desire to be involved in something bigger than them, to feel that their individual contributions joined with the contributions of others are going to make a real difference. To that end, Bayside is making a real difference. The event was anticipated to raise $150,000 for the church’s outreach program, which benefits numerous Sacramento-area public schools. Globally, Bayside works in AIDS prevention in Africa, and an award was given out at Arco to an individual promoting a vaccine that helps stop HIV from being passed on from mother to child.
More symbolically, Bayside is significantly altering the perception of mega-churches by engaging in community building rather than culture wars. Fighting AIDS and not gays, improving existing public schools and not building new private ones, and focusing on poverty instead of tax breaks for the rich are certainly not strategies one normally associates with Evangelical Christians.
If all of your invested interest lies in how fundamentalists impact political races know that the Bayside way introduces a clear and present danger to a Republican Party that takes such support for granted. But for those who look beyond partisan politics and are interested more in how organizations of any religious stripe can help move America to a better place, Bayside, with its potential to bring out a tremendous chain of events to come, is worth keeping tabs on.
And Bayside is not alone. The more conservative church is working to improve public schools by helping teachers and strengthening curriculum—without demanding that it be biblically based. Ironically, the more progressive church I attend, Trinity Episcopal, is doing the exact same thing, without coordinating with Bayside. This combination of moral forces, conservative and liberal, working on common causes is leading the way to making profound positive changes in the United States. Look for this to play out more and more in the coming years.
Of course, rock music, glow sticks and mosh pits aren’t for everyone. Bayside probably isn’t the place for you if organ solos, kneeling in pews to pray and the same traditional church services you’ve known for generations bring you comfort. Bayside even markets itself this way, calling itself “a church for people that don’t like church.”
Twelve thousand such people came together at Arco and had the times of their lives. Sacramento is better for it. Go King of Kings!