The cover of the April 8, 1966, issue of Time magazine posed the question, "Is God Dead?" More recently, The April 13, 2009, issue of Newsweek magazine boasted a cover story entitled, "The End of Christian America."
Well, the answer to Time's question in 1966 was certainly no ... but what of Newsweek's claim? Are we not in a postmodern, progressive, enlightened era? After all, books promoting atheism seem to be all the rage. The last several years have seen the publishing of a plethora of books arguing the atheists' case. Heavyweights Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion) and Christopher Hitchens (God Is Not Great) led the way.
I thought it would be interesting to check out the local Christian scene. After all, if God is dead anywhere in Arizona, would that place not be progressive and enlightened Tucson?
At the time, Easter was fast approaching, and it seemed to me a good occasion to observe a Christian service. As luck would have it, Calvary Chapel Tucson was having a free "Resurrection Celebration" downtown at the Tucson Convention Center Arena on Easter Sunday. I decided to attend.
I have only vague recollections of my last rock concert, but this was definitely bigger. The traffic on Broadway Boulevard heading downtown was backed up almost to the Snake Bridge. Once I was on Congress Street, I thought I would be clever and work my way around to Stone Avenue, then to Cushing Street, where I would park on the street by the Convention Center; I often did this when attending gun shows there. Alas, all the street parking was taken, and it appeared that the neighborhood streets were filled as well. I got in line for the main parking lot, which turned out to be full. There was a dirt lot across the street in back where I managed to find a spot.
While walking along with the crowd, I realized that I still held many of my childhood ideas of what church is like. In New England, where I spent my childhood, that meant a room filled with old, gray-haired men in suits and old women in navy or maroon suits and white gloves.
However, the crowd was diverse in both ethnicity and age. Even the dress ran the gamut. Many women wore their Easter outfits: pastel sun dresses with white shoes. Others, mostly young and middle-age mothers, were more plainly dressed, though they put pretty dresses on their girls. Some, mostly the young, were inappropriately dressed for the occasion; I confess to being old-school in that regard.
Inside the arena, it was like, well, an arena. The seats were packed with people; there were two huge video screens; onstage was a warm-up band playing inspirational music.
Pastor Robert Furrow gave a great sermon. A pastor for 28 years, he's excellent at connecting with the audience. He came off as a regular guy speaking to peers. He actually told the following joke: A man was touring the Holy Land with his family, including his mother-in-law, with whom he had strained relations. While they were in Jerusalem, the mother-in-law died. The man went to see the funeral director, who said, "The bad news is that it will cost $5,000 to send her home for burial. The good news is that it will cost $150 to bury her right here, in the Holy Land." The man thought for a while and said, "Send her home." The shocked funeral director said, "Why would you send her home for $5,000 when you can bury her here, in the Holy Land, for $150?" The man said, "Look, 2,000 years ago, a guy died and was buried here, then he came back to life. I don't want to take any chances."
I'm really bad at judging the size of crowds, but I suspect the people numbered in four figures.
Meanwhile, in California, Rick Warren draws about 20,000 people a week to his Saddleback Community Church (205 people attended the first service at Saddleback in 1980). You may have heard of him; he gave the invocation at President Obama's inauguration. He also authored the book The Purpose Driven Life.
While declines in the Catholic Church and others are often cited by the likes of Newsweek and Time, little attention has been paid to the dramatic growth in nondenominational, evangelical churches like Calvary and Saddleback. Are Christian churches changing? Sure. Is secularism overwhelming Christianity? I think not.