A couple of Sunday mornings ago, I had my first experience of a Texas “megachurch”. (It was a weekend of firsts in other ways too. The evening before I attended a packed, standing-room-only Divine Worship vigil, at the US Ordinariate’s impressive Cathedral parish. But that’s a story for another time.)
Champion Forest Baptist Church occupies a huge complex in northwest Houston, replete with a cavernous state-of-the-art auditorium, lecture halls, social spaces, basketball courts, and a car park seemingly the size of Rutland. It can fill them all too. As it also does its two satellite campuses, dotted among Houston’s web of concrete flyovers.
I was there at the invitation – or rather, at the enthusiastic reception of my self-invitation – of Mark Lanier. Mark is regarded as one of the top criminal lawyers in America. He is also, among much else, a gifted apologist and evangelist, and founder of a simply stunning – as in Oxford College Libraries: Greatest Hits, full reconstruction of ancient Cappadocian basilica, lifesize Tardis and Dalek models, and – oh, did I mention there’s a train? stunning – theological library.
While it is tempting to divide up these activities among various alter egos (high-powered attorney by day, Christian disciple by night and on Sundays), that would miss the point entirely. Lanier’s law firm website describes him, matter-of-factly, as “Attorney, Author, Teacher, Pastor”. There is no bifurcation here.
He is, if I may put it this way, an American Evangelical version of the kind of layperson that Vatican II – channelling the prophetic vision of groups like Opus Dei and the Catholic Worker – desired, indeed expected, it would produce:
The laity, dedicated to Christ and anointed by the Holy Spirit, are marvellously called and wonderfully prepared so that ever more abundant fruits of the Spirit may be produced in them… Thus, as those everywhere who adore in holy activity, the laity consecrate the world itself to God. (Lumen Gentium 34)
Since I was tagging along anyway, Lanier asked me if I’d join in the regular class he teaches after the main service. Naturally, I was delighted to accept. It would be a real pleasure to meet with the (as I naïvely imagined) dozen-or-so worshippers willing to hang around for an extra hour. You’d struggle to get that kind of commitment in a British Catholic parish, I thought. Even with the draw of free coffee and donuts.
In the event, there were coffee and donuts enough for the 700 or more class members (a low turnout, I was told apologetically, due to big football game that afternoon). Furthermore, the whole thing was filmed, to a professional standard, and livecast over the internet:
So here it is, on the off-chance that you’re interested. My megachurch debut, discussing Bob Dylan, John Calvin, St Thomas Aquinas, how not to be a Trinitarian heretic, and all kinds of other stuff. If you like, you might think of it as your “Week of Prayer for Christian Unity” treat/penance (delete as appropriate).
In short, I had a great time. Everyone I met was full of warmth and welcome for this sign-of-the-cross-making, Aquinas-quoting, mortifyingly-arm-waving (watch the vid!), Downton Abbey-accented stranger in their midst.
What’s more, after my talk, a cradle-Catholic-now-Baptist came up, excited by a certain upcoming book on Fátima. Not a bad way to spend a morning.