Mystery Worshipper: Church Hopper
Church: New Birth Missionary Baptist
Location: Lithonia, Georgia, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 26 September 2010, 12:00am
An enormous auditorium-style sanctuary with seating for 10,000. Flags of many nations were on the walls. The seats surrounded the stage in a semi-circle.
One of the largest churches in the United States, claiming 25,000 members. Their astoundingly wide range of offerings, especially aimed at young professional singles, has earned them the nickname "Club New Birth". They encourage 100 percent home ownership among their members, as well as 100 per cent freedom from debt. And they would like 100 per cent of the membership to tithe. Oh yes, and they have their own fitness center! New Birth Missionary Baptist is known as a good place for young professional singles to find a mate.
Lithonia is a small town to the east of Atlanta and is a predominantly African-American area. The town government has found itself at the center of some rather interesting scandals. For example, in 2006 it was discovered that the town's police force had been patrolling for months in uninsured cruisers, and that the mayor, embroiled in monetary troubles, had changed all the locks on the town council chambers without giving anyone new keys. The church campus itself sits on a 250-acre parcel of land.
Bishop Eddie L. Long, senior pastor, gave the message. Elder Darius Wise led the service. There was a worship leader but I am not sure of his name. There was no program given out and names were not projected on the screen. Elder Bernice King (Martin Luther King's daughter) spoke the blessing over the offering.
What was the name of the service?Sunday Worship
How full was the building?
Almost full, about 8,000 people. This fact was helpfully supplied by one of the elders on the stage: "I see about 8,000 people here!"
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes. There were ushers at the door to escort people to their seats. Later in the service we were asked to hug the people around us, which made us feel welcomed.
Was your pew comfortable?
Yes, very. The chairs were the kind you'd find in a movie theater – very well padded with armrests.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Very noisy. Gospel music was already playing loudly and some people were worshiping at the front of the altar. Others were talking in their seats. The young man sitting next to me had his head on his hand and admitted he had come straight from a night on the town to the early service. Presumably he was going home to sleep afterward – but maybe he should have just gone straight home!
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"God is in the house!"
What books did the congregation use during the service?
No hymnbooks were used. Song lyrics were projected on a large screen. People used their own Bibles so I am sure many translations were represented.
What musical instruments were played?
A full band – piano, guitars, drums. There was also a large gospel choir, dressed in black and white outfits rather than robes.
Did anything distract you?
A lady in the balcony kept waving a large red hoop with long tassels. A man stepped out into the aisle and did some kind of interpretive dance to the music.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Lots of clapping and shouting and hand-waving. A very lively atmosphere. Contemporary gospel music throughout. Unfortunately, I did not know most of the songs and the lyrics were projected only sporadically on the screen. But as things progressed, it became clear that this service was more than just a usual Sunday worship meeting (read on!).
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – Bishop Long came out accompanied by his wife, Elder Vanessa Long (also known as the "First Lady"); they held hands. Thunderous applause ensued. He gave his wife a kiss before starting his sermon. As a speaker he was very engaging but referred often to notes on his iPad.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Bishop Long took as his text Psalm 34:19 ("A righteous man may have many troubles, but the Lord delivers him from them all.") He spoke about handling painful and difficult situations. We need to focus on reality, he said. No one is exempt from trouble, but God is with us. Painful times only make the joyful times seem that much more magnificent. Now, this was an important Sunday for Bishop Long. He has four lawsuits against him for allegedly coercing young men into sexual relationships, and he had said he would give a statement during the service. However, he only said a few words about the matter, namely: "I've been accused. I'm under attack. I want you to know, I am not a perfect man. But this thing I'm gonna fight. And I want you to know one other thing. I feel like David against Goliath, but I've got five rocks and I haven't thrown one yet." And he left the stage with a flourish.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The gospel choir was amazing. There was a song with a chorus of "Our God is greater, our God is stronger" that was sung with so much conviction you could not help but believe it.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The rap on the churches that preach what is called "the prosperity gospel" is that you can sum up all their preaching as: "God wants you to be healthy and wealthy." This was alive here. Before the sermon, congregants read a prayer together from a screen, to the effect that: "We rebuke the spirits of debt, poverty, cancer, arthritis, insomnia, etc. and welcome prosperity and wholeness." In fairness, though, we were also asked to rebuke the spirit of envy, jealousy and other things of that nature. And Elder Bernice King mentioned that the "blessings of the tithe" may not always be financial but could also be spiritual or emotional.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Nothing. The place was so busy that no one could tell if you were lost or just waiting for a friend.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
I don't know if there was any. Nothing was announced.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
6 – I don't completely like the style of worship and prosperity message.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes. It is good to know God can be worshiped so many different ways.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The singing – and, of course, Bishop Long's "fighting statement."