Monday, March 25, 2013
Money, Motive, and First Baptist Dallas
It's the question Christ's disgruntled disciples asked of Him when a woman anointed His head with expensive perfume three days before His crucifixion.
It's also the question many Dallasites are asking in the wake of First Baptist Church's dedication of its splashy new fountain at their remodeled campus downtown.
Dallas' First Baptist is no stranger to controversy - in fact, sometimes, the congregation courts it. "There's no such thing as bad publicity" seems as true in Hollywood as it does at the century-old bastion of Baptist evangelism in the heart of Big D. Lately, its current pastor, the Rev. Dr. Robert Jeffress, has been boldly challenging the media to consider his perspective on a range of volatile political issues, from Mitt Romney's Mormonism to Muslims and Christians worshiping different deities.
Even the NFL is believed to have pressured Jets quarterback Tim Tebow to cancel his scheduled appearance at the inauguration of First Baptist's gleaming, $130 million worship space this coming Easter Sunday. Jeffress has made a name for himself as an advocate for heterosexual marriage, a viewpoint whose popularity is withering in the face of modern pressures for accommodating same-sex marriage.
Glass, Steel, and Spectacle
So it comes as no surprise that First Baptist Dallas is encountering some stiff criticism of its gaudy new construction project, which has already been toured by our local media. At the princely sum of $130 million, it's purportedly the most expensive Protestant church building program since flying buttresses were all the rage. Last night, a lavish, outdoor, multi-jet water fountain featuring a tall cross upon a conical pedestal was turned on, complete with colored lights and geysers. And taped music.
"Defiantly excessive" is the term that comes to mind. The elegant cross fades from their fountain's focal point, just as theology and doctrine become mere sideshows in the rest of First Baptist's new space. According to news reports, the church hired a Disney designer to create a fantasyland for their five-story childrens' ministry department, which is named after Andy and Joan Horner, founders of a costume jewelry company. Jeffress crows that it's "the most spectacular childrens' area of any church in the world." The congregation's new 3,000-seat sanctuary - twice the size of their historic one, yet touted as "intimate" - features what they boast as being the world's widest video screen.
Instead of being drawn to Christ in wonderment, you're forced to wonder: are they competing for lost souls, or bragging rights? (Neither of which, by the way, are things for which followers of Christ should compete.)
Apart from the extraordinarily high bar First Baptist is setting, against which other churches in north Texas may now feel compelled to compete, these stunning features of the congregation's new home seem fairly unnecessary, and even counter-productive, in terms of contributing to the Kingdom of God. Other Dallas churches that use gimmicks like tricked-out play areas for kids will have to sink even more money into facilities for wooing children - and their parents - already programmed to appreciate sensory overload. And although First Baptist claims it needs all these bells and whistles to attract the throngs of hipsters moving back into central Dallas, those hipsters aren't the conventional families with kids First Baptist apparently assumes them to be, but gays, cohabitors, and empty-nesters. In other words, if they're even interested in going to church, they don't have kids. They're also people for whom style has lost its substance, and they're interested in deeper meaning than spurting fountains and wrap-around video screens.
Or maybe First Baptist is throwing all of its eggs into one expensive basket, trying to compete out of one location with suburban faith empires like Prestonwood Baptist and Fellowship Church, whose satellite congregations are sprouting like weeds all over north Texas' more desirable neighborhoods. Not only is it sadly funny to note how these suburban congregations never plant churches in black or Hispanic neighborhoods - while First Baptist has soldiered through all of central Dallas' grim years - but church envy is a plague, particularly among Southern Baptists, and it appears First Baptist is relishing this opportunity to set new benchmarks others will have a hard time exceeding.
Indeed, at $130 million, Dallas' First Baptist has a remodeled facility that will likely set the standard for casino-as-church bling for years to come. However, as questionable as this project's execution has been, it's not like all that money, as many of the congregation's detractors assume, is being spent at the expense of the social welfare programs the unchurched expect from churches. For years, First Baptist has been a major player in local charities to the homeless, working poor, elderly, handicapped, immigrant, pregnant, and fatherless in Dallas. They also have a robust international outreach effort, both as a congregation, and in partnership with the Southern Baptist Convention.
So to complain that "all that $130 million should have been spent on the poor" demonstrates ignorance about what the church has been doing behind the scenes. It's not even like $130 million represents a waste of money for a facility intended for the corporate worship of Jesus Christ. Shouldn't we be lavish in our worship of God? Just as the woman who anointed Christ with the lavishly expensive perfume honored His deity by doing so, there technically is no dollar amount or even a financial metric by which believers should be restrained from offering to Christ's glory through extravagance.
Obviously, now, extravagance is a relative concept, and if you haven't got the money, you can't spend it. That fact applies to anything and everyone in our capitalistic marketplace. If you can't afford to get a more expensive house or car, you don't. If your church can't afford a pipe organ, you don't commission one. If your church can't afford the type of worship space $130 million can buy in Dallas, then you don't build it.
It's one thing to question what you've bought for $130 million. But it's mostly envy to complain that $130 million was spent at all.
And First Baptist Dallas can obviously afford the $130 million. Several news accounts have indicated that there will be no debt on any of this new construction when the doors open early Easter morning. Besides, Biblically, it's not a question of whether that amount of money should be spent, but if Christ is the focus of the property and what takes place inside of it.
So far, based on looks alone, it's hard to see if the congregation's $130 million has purchased anything more than something new and different. Some of that $130 million went to tear down older, uninspired buildings that somebody deemed obsolete. What they've replaced those uninspired buildings with, however, looks no more inspired than a dated shopping mall. Dallas' elegant Meyerson Symphony Center a few blocks away speaks more to spirit, ascendancy, and holiness than the new First Baptist. Although it was built 25 years ago, it only cost $80 million. Shucks, even the sprawling Winspear Opera House, whose exterior I personally detest, has more gravitas and awe than the new First Baptist. It cost $180 million four years ago.
True, the new First Baptist fits better into the glassy corporate aesthetic that defines downtown Dallas, but that's not exactly a compliment when we're talking houses of worship. Then again, however, Baptists have been notable recently in their aversion to anything that looks like conventional worship, from their worship services, to the architecture of their mega-churches, to even dropping the "Baptist" from their names.
It's Not the Money, It's the Mixed Motives
Back nearly 2,000 years ago, the argument about spending tremendous sums of money to honor Christ was just getting started. Yet a couple of days later, one of the guys complaining the loudest about all that perfume gone to waste was taking 30 pieces of silver in exchange for handing over our priceless Lord and Savior to be killed.
Sometimes, it seems to me that while we're eager to spend wildly on church building programs in the name of Christ, we're just as willing to sell out our honor of Him by peddling a mockery of the price He paid on Calvary to set us free from sin.
I'm not saying that the quality of corporate worship First Baptist Dallas offers to Christ equates to the 30 pieces of silver. I am saying, however, that it's hard to see how the pretentious excesses of First Baptist's new home is going to give it much legitimacy as a center for Christian worship.
Perhaps, hundreds of years ago, builders of Europe's great cathedrals received similar flack for their grand edifices. The difference, of course, is that most of those cathedrals were built as representations of God's grandeur and holiness. First Baptist's new edifice may appear grand to some people, but it's no Medieval cathedral. Like the buildings it replaces, it may last only a little longer than the point at which its future congregation tires of it.
Then again, even the timeless architecture of history's glorious cathedrals won't ensure they'll stand forever, either.
Meanwhile, God's likely pleased to see that at least one of His congregations is joyfully lavishing this amount of money on a project like this in His name. Its aesthetics may be disappointing, but at least First Baptist isn't nickle-and-diming or hoarding the wealth God has given it.
Plus, with our regular summer watering restrictions here in parched Texas, that spurting fountain might not turn into much of a distraction after all.