And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.
~ 1 Corinthians 13:13
When you hear the word “church,” what comes to mind?
For me it sparks memories of specific sights and sounds: towering steeples and ringing bells, stained-glass windows and well-worn pews, priests in elaborate vestments and parishioners kneeling reverently before majestic altars. And then, of course, there’s the music: robed choirs lifting their voices to soaring heights as they sing well-known hymns—some dating back centuries—accompanied by massive pipe organs.
These are things that have drawn me back to church again and again over the last 50 years, even in periods of profound doubt about the tenets of Christianity and the existence of God. The very fact that the language, the music, the rituals and the environment are so different from anything I encounter in the secular world is what brings me a feeling of transcendence.
For millions of other Americans, however, all of this is a turn-off—and for years, traditional churches have been losing members as a result. A growing number of people have abandoned religion altogether. For many others, though, the answer lies not in abandonment of Christianity but in a new kind of church—one that seeks to eliminate those very elements that I adore.
This new reality became all the more vivid for me on a warm, bright Sunday morning in September when I visited Wave Church on Great Neck Road in Virginia Beach. When I drove into the large parking lot it struck me that the building looked more like something you’d find in a suburban office park than anything resembling a religious sanctuary. This feeling was reinforced when I entered the expansive lobby. Two people in aqua-colored Wave T-shirts wished me a good morning and told me that if I had any questions I could inquire at the information desk. Inside, people of all ages were milling about, chatting in small groups, waiting in line at the coffee bar or browsing in the book kiosk.
I lingered for a few moments then entered the main auditorium, took a seat and looked around. High on the wall in the rear was a countdown clock showing how many minutes and seconds remained before the service would begin. Up front, meanwhile, various people were busy checking sound equipment while four huge video screens flashed announcements of various kinds.
Then, at precisely 11, the band—featuring electric guitar, bass guitar, drums and an electronic keyboard—began to play, accompanying several talented singers in an up-tempo, pop-infused worship song. A ballad followed, then two more, before a word was spoken.
Steve and Sharon Kelly, who’ve pastored Wave for the last 15 years, weren’t in attendance that Sunday; they were on a mission trip in Uganda. In their place, Josh Kelly, one of the “campus pastors,” walked on stage with a handheld microphone, greeted the crowd and, after making a few light-hearted remarks, announced that he wanted to read some testimonials from church members who’d had their lives changed by new or renewed commitments to Jesus: a couple that had overcome marital problems, a man who was facing serious illness and another person who was struggling to overcome drug addiction.
Then he called the crowd’s attention to the central video screen to watch a “church news” program. It was as slickly produced as anything you might see on a major television network.
After another song, Kelly announced with great fanfare that today’s sermon—inspired by the Netflix series Stranger Things—would be delivered by fellow pastor Joe Riddle. On two of the screens to each side of the stage there appeared the title of the sermon in professionally designed graphics: “Heaven and Hell.”
Pastor Joe Riddle
“We believe in a literal Heaven and a literal Hell,” Riddle proclaimed in an energetic yet conversational tone, before adding that he also believed without doubt in the existence of the Devil, angels and demons.
The good news, he added, is that no one needs to go to Hell.
“Hell is a choice,” he said, moving toward the audience and gesturing expressively with his hands. God loves us, but he does not force us to love him in return. That, he added, would not be love—it would be the “moral equivalent of rape of His creation. He wants us to make the decision.”
To underscore his point he momentarily took a break from speaking to show a clip from the film The Notebook—a scene in which Ryan Gosling is professing his love for Rachel McAdams but says he is willing to let her walk away if that’s what she chooses.
“What do you want?” he asks her.
The use of a clip from a popular film—not to mention the reference to a popular Netflix series—is a hallmark of the newer nondenominational churches. People I talked with said they like such churches because of their “relevance” and their easygoing accessibility. Among the hundreds of people in attendance on the day I visited, I didn’t see a single man dressed in a suit and tie. Polo shirts and khakis, on the other hand, were abundant, though many—women included—were dressed even more casually than that. And of course there are comfortable theater seats instead of pews.
This combination of the casual and the contemporary—with charismatic and dynamic preachers at the forefront—has attracted people in droves and resulted in the rise of the mega-church, with congregations in the many thousands.
Meanwhile, some younger pastors have started smaller churches in emulation of the more established ones.
James Davis is among them. Three years ago, he started The Rising, a church that meets each Sunday at the NorVa, the popular rock-music venue in downtown Norfolk.
Like an increasing number of Americans, the 34-year-old Norfolk native didn’t attend church as a child. But when Davis was 13, he told his parents that he wanted to start going.
“I’m not sure why,” he told me as we chatted over coffee recently. “It wasn’t as if I had some epiphany. Maybe it was because I knew other people who went and wondered why we didn’t.”
His parents were receptive and began taking him to different churches to try to find the right fit. It was a struggle.
“Every church that we went into,” he recalled, “felt as if we had taken a step back in time—into the 1950s or something—because of the culture they had created: there were the pews, the old music and sermons I didn’t care about. It was just irrelevant to us. None of it resonated.”
Davis thought about giving up on religion altogether, but something kept pulling him back to it.
“I had a strong sense that if there really is a God, and the Bible is true, then the decision I make about God is the most important decision I’ll ever make in my life. It will impact me here and now, and it will impact my eternity. So I started reading the Bible and looking at the evidence for Christianity and Jesus and the Resurrection. One of the things that really got to me was the story of the Resurrection and the response to it. I mean, there were people who saw something and were willing to give their lives for it.”
Feeling strongly that he didn’t want to be “just a nominal Christian,” he got involved with a youth ministry and quickly became one of its leaders. He soon began to feel that God was calling him to be a youth pastor, and the pull was so strong that he jettisoned plans to go to the University of Virginia in favor of Mid-Atlantic Christian University in Elizabeth City, N.C., where he earned a bachelor’s degree in Bible Studies.
Pastor James Davis
For the next six years, he worked as a pastor for a youth ministry, but in 2012 he decided that his calling was broader than that; he wanted to start his own church.
“When I say I felt like God was calling me,” Davis remarked, “it wasn’t like I saw God in the clouds, or I saw a picture of Mary in a piece of toast or something. It was just this prompting, this leaning, this feeling that this is what I was put on earth to do.”
As a first step, he and his wife went to a “church planting” assessment retreat, where leaders of established churches try to discern whether people who are exploring the idea are truly ready to act on it. They told Davis that they felt he was.
“I’d been afraid,” he admitted. “I thought, what if nobody comes? What if we don’t raise enough money? What if it fails? I also thought there had to be people who were better equipped than I was. I realize now that I was responding like Moses did when God called him. (Moses felt he wasn’t up to the task.) Finally, I decided that fear wasn’t a big enough enemy to bow down to. If God wanted someone else to do this he wouldn’t have put it on my heart. Sometimes things take place in your life that eject you from where you are so you can do something better—something you should be doing.”
When it came time to find a location, Davis considered Ghent because he knew he wanted to target a young audience. He soon discovered that every church in Ghent met in an old church building, and that was something he didn’t want to do.
“We wanted to be the sort of church who reached people who were far from God and see them raised to true life,” he said. “I couldn’t see them walking into an old church building.”
Finally, he settled on the NorVa, which was appealing both because it already had sound equipment, lights, a video screen and large stage but because, as a rock venue, it’s the last place people would expect to find a church.
The Rising at the NorVa
The Rising held its first service there on Sept. 14, 2014 and attracted more than 200 people, thanks to targeted mailings and radio ads on 96X.
The music—played by a band with electric guitars and drums—is a big part of the appeal, he believes.
“If you walk into most churches, you’ll hear music you never hear anywhere else. At our church we try not to be that way. Often the band will do a cover song from the radio. When people come to church, especially if they’ve been turned off by God, they typically come with a stereotype in their minds of what church is going to be and sort of sit there with their arms crossed. When they sit down and hear the music we have playing, hopefully it throws them off a little bit—and then when they hear a song they just heard earlier that morning on the radio, hopefully they’ll uncross their arms and hear the message.”
Among the people who find it appealing is Elizabeth Agbuya, a 34-year-old Virginia Beach resident.
“I was raised Catholic,” she told me recently. “We went to mass every Sunday throughout my childhood. I remember wanting to go up and eat the round bread. But I was too young. I also remember being really confused about the whole Jesus-God-Holy Spirit concept and the rituals of mass—sitting, standing, kneeling.”
Around the time she entered high school, her family’s church attendance waned. Nevertheless, because they kept going on Christmas and Easter at the very least, she maintained some connection with the Catholic Church.
A series of life crises, however, gradually made her realize that she wanted a different kind of religious experience. The first glimmer of this realization came not long after her older sister went off to college.
“We got a call that she’d been hospitalized after doing narcotics of some sort. She wasn’t an addict, but she had to leave school and come back home. I’ve never seen her in such a bad place.”
After enrolling at Old Dominion University and attending a court-ordered Narcotics Anonymous program, her sister started going to a church called New Life.
“She’s always been a huge influence for me, so one day I went with her. I remember thinking that I wanted a relationship with God. There was just this overwhelming joy and happiness that people seemed to feel in church.”
The experience also helped clarify in her mind ideas about Jesus, grace and forgiveness. “It helped me connect the dots,” she said. On the other hand, she recalled, she went through a phase in her late teens of partying a lot and “hanging around with dumb people.”
In her ongoing effort to find herself, that pattern repeated itself through a series of relationships, leaving college before graduation to accept an attractive job offer, and, at one point, becoming intensely focused on her body through yoga, running and Crossfit training. “That became a kind of religion for me,” she said.
The major turning point, however, came after she moved to Arizona to be with a man she’d met at a conference.
“We’d had a long distance relationship for a while,” she said. “He was a Navy corpsman and a firefighter. He seemed like a solid guy. I went into the relationship knowing that he was an atheist, but I thought, well, this feels good right now.”
Four months later, however, she learned that he was addicted to opiates.
“That rocked my world,” she said. “I became someone I never thought I would ever be. I became super controlling because I thought I had to fix him—to make things right.” Committed to this idea, she stayed with him—and 8 months later became pregnant.
The pregnancy strengthened her desire to go to church. Her boyfriend couldn’t embrace it, but she did. She was especially struck one Sunday by a sermon in which the pastor said that no one is perfect. “That’s where our struggle is,” she said. “We don’t accept ourselves for who we are. On top of this, we’re always trying to control things that we can’t control. We don’t lean on God. I continue to struggle with this—but that’s OK.”
Meanwhile, her personal crisis came to a head when they came home to Virginia for Christmas.
“He didn’t have any drugs with him, so he began going through withdrawal—and didn’t wake up for our daughter’s first Christmas. When it came time to go back to Arizona, I said, ‘You can go by yourself. Either go to rehab, or I’m not coming back.’ He refused, so I stayed. I was angry. I’ve never felt that angry, that sad, that alone. I kept asking myself, how the heck did things get to this point?”
Then, at Thanksgiving dinner, she had an epiphany.
“I remember saying grace,” she recalled, “and I felt so thankful. I remember thinking, I have a family that cares about me. My daughter’s healthy. We’re eating dinner together. I had never felt so much love, even though I actually felt like I didn’t deserve it since I’d been so angry at everybody.”
The following Sunday, her sister told her about The Rising and asked her if she wanted to go too. The experience resonated with her in a way that few other church experiences had. Indeed, within less than a year she went from being a visitor to being on the church staff. In particular, she said, the church changed her relationship with money.
“I used to feel tethered to my money,” she said. “It weighed on me.” After tithing (pledging to give 10 percent of your income to the church) she felt liberated.
“I really do trust God with my money,” she said, adding that she now gives more to charity than she ever had before, above and beyond what she gives to the church. At the same time, money has come to her at unexpected times when she needed it most.
“Some people would call that a coincidence,” she said, “but I don’t think it is.”
Money aside, she said, she likes The Rising because of Davis’ gifts as a preacher.
“James knows how to make the Bible relevant,” she said. “He is just blessed with the ability to relate. I feel as if God is speaking through him directly to me.”
She also loves the people.
“It’s become like an extension of my family. You can say you love somebody, and they’ll say it back, and you feel it. You get the most deep and intense hugs. People really truly care.”
Perhaps the biggest difference for her, however, is that she has come to realize that “going to church is just a fraction of your faith. Yes, it’s awesome to have that fellowship and a pastor you can go to. But at the end of the day, it’s about being in constant prayer. I’m always talking to God and asking, ‘Is this your will?’ It’s a constant tug at the heart.”
Agbuya said that on occasion she still goes to mass with her parents. But in contrast to The Rising, she said, it feels too routine and too structured. She was quick to add that if other people find solace in it, she is happy for them. She simply prefers the more modern service.
“Our worship band is awesome,” she said. “I mean, you’re actually at a music venue. You’re feeling the bass; you’re feeling the drums. It’s always a memorable experience.”
None of that resonated with me, on a spiritual level—but after attending services at Wave and The Rising I had a deeper understanding of why it would resonate for many people.
The greater struggle that I faced was when I began discussing specific beliefs. Both Davis and Agbuya, for example, told me that they believe, quite literally, in the story of Adam and Eve.
The Theory of Evolution is “just a story,” Davis said. Nor does he believe in the Big Bang Theory. I observed that, to my mind, neither one is at odds with a belief in God. Indeed, I noted, the description of the Big Bang sounds an awful lot like the description of creation in the first chapter of Genesis. To him, though, these scientific theories suggest that it was all an accident—a suggestion which in turn implies that our lives have no meaning.
In a similar way, I had difficulty with Davis’ message on homosexuality, which he explored in a sermon that remains available on the church’s web site. On the one hand, it is strikingly different from the hateful rhetoric employed in some fundamentalist quarters.
“We have a number of gay members and gay married couples at The Rising,” Davis told me, “and they love it.” Moreover, he said, when he was preparing for his sermon on the subject, he made a point of talking with gay people about it beforehand, to get their points of view.
On the other hand, he is firm in his belief that homosexuality is a sin. “I believe,” he said in the aforementioned sermon, “that if you’re gay God is calling you to be celibate.”
How can these two positions possibly be reconciled?
“It’s not my job to change people,” he said. “It’s God’s job to do that. It’s my job to love people.” Moreover, he said, “we are all sinners” and shouldn’t emphasize any one sin over another. By sin, he added, he means simply a “separation from God.”
Striking that balance between openly expressing his belief that homosexuality is a sin, and openly expressing love for people regardless of their sexual orientation, hasn’t pleased everyone. One couple, he said, left the church because they felt he wasn’t strict enough on the subject. Another couple left because they felt he was too harsh.
Bishop Courtney McBath
Many evangelical church leaders today, however, take the same approach, as I learned when I sat down with Bishop Courtney McBath, founder of Calvary Revival Church, one of the largest nondenominational mega-churches in Virginia. Located on Poplar Hall Drive, near Military Circle, the nearly 100,000-square-foot facility routinely attracts between 3,500 and 4,500 people per week.
I’d met McBath by chance because he happened to be the guest speaker at The Rising on the Sunday that I attended a service there.
A few weeks later, I sat down with him in his spacious, wood-paneled office for a lengthy and wide-ranging conversation. In spite of the differences in our beliefs, I found him to be one of the most thoughtful and authentic people I’ve ever met.
“I grew up in a small town in East Tennessee,” he told me, “and attended the Church of God, a small, conservative evangelical church. When I was 8 years old, I gave my heart to Christ. I wasn’t going through any kind of crisis—I was a kid. I just felt the Holy Spirit.
Two years later, he felt that his calling was to become a pastor.
Initially he planned to go on to a Bible college. But after getting high scores on his PSAT at 16, he began receiving letters of interest from some of the top schools in the nation, including Massachusetts Institute of Technology where he enrolled the following year. It was there, at the age of 17, that he began ministering at a Church of God in Boston. It was also there that he met the woman whom he would soon marry.
McBath continued his ministry in Boston for a few years after graduation, then moved with his wife back to Tennessee. Norfolk hadn’t been on his radar at all. But in 1989, he was invited here to preach at a youth revival.
“I didn’t know anyone here, other than a sister who lived in Hampton,” he recalled. “But when I landed in Norfolk I felt in my heart that I was supposed to come here and start a church. I went home and prayed about it, and a year later we moved here to start Calvary Revival.”
Its beginnings were humble, to say the least. “We started out at the Sheraton in downtown Norfolk with about 20 people,” he recalled.
After a series of moves to several other temporary locations, the church settled at a facility on Little Creek Road. When they moved in they had a congregation averaging 300 people or so. Seven years later, the membership had grown to more than 2,000. The explosive growth spurred the move, in 1998, to the Poplar Hall Drive facility, which now includes a separate office building, as well as the main facility, which has 28 classrooms for kids of all ages, multiple meeting halls, a music rehearsal room with recording technology, a room with a baptismal pool the size of a Jacuzzi tub and, of course, a massive sanctuary equipped with video screens and other amenities.
In spite of the church’s modern appearance, McBath’s theological beliefs are quite conservative. This struck me as odd, given his training as a scientist, but it was his experience at MIT that actually strengthened his faith in God, he said. He recalls, in particular, being in physics class and learning about the structure of atoms. When he asked his professor why atoms don’t fly apart, given that protons are all positively charged, his professor responded that they are held together by something called Van der Waals forces, named for the man who discovered them. The vague explanation didn’t satisfy McBath. “Based on science,” he said, “atoms shouldn’t hold together.” To him, it confirmed that there had to be another explanation. “The Bible says that Christ created everything, and by Him all things are held together, and I firmly believe that.”
Like Davis, McBath also rejects both the Big Bang Theory and the Theory of Evolution.
“I absolutely do not believe that Man evolved from some other species,” he said. “As a scientist I know that creation has evolved in that it has morphed and changed and some things that couldn’t survive didn’t survive, and some things changed so that they could survive. But the idea that man evolved from something other than man, I absolutely reject that notion. I believe literally that God came down and created Man out of the dirt.”
Unlike some fundamentalists, however, McBath acknowledges that the earth isn’t a mere 5,000 years old.
“God’s time and our time are so different,” he said. “God could have created Adam and Eve millions of years ago.”
On the matter of homosexuality as well, McBath’s beliefs are aligned with Davis’ and many others in the evangelical community. He believes it is a sin, but that it is our role to love unconditionally, not to impose one’s judgment on others.
This belief extends as well to his feelings about people of other faiths—a topic on which he was especially reflective.
“I’ve thought a lot about this because I have some very close friends like the late Imam Fareed, who just passed away a few weeks ago. That card is from his wife,” he said, gesturing to a thank-you note she’d sent after he’d participated in the funeral service along with Rabbi Michael Panitz. “I’m very close to those guys and have a great deal of respect for them.”
As for the question of what happens when non-Christians die, McBath said he continues to wrestle with it.
“The closer I get to folks of other faiths the more I wrestle with it. So my goal with my Muslim friends or my Jewish friends or my Hindu friends is to really represent the love of Jesus, so that in me they see something authentic—and even if they don’t believe in Jesus, my life and my love for them makes Jesus valid to them. But it’s a tough question. If the ultra conservative stand on that question is correct [i.e., only Christians can go to heaven] I’ll be heartbroken.”
That was an especially powerful moment for me. When I began my research for this article, I did so with prejudice. I’ll freely admit that. Like most liberals, I had tended to think of evangelical Christians as people who are diametrically opposed to my understanding of the spirit of Christianity.
And yet, sitting here before me was a man who treated me with the utmost respect and never once tried to persuade me that I was wrong. Moreover, I felt not even a shred of doubt about his authenticity, his willingness to examine the shortcomings of the church, and, above all, his love for humankind. Indeed, while McBath and others with whom I talked did not change my own views of Christianity, they renewed my faith in humanity and my belief that now more than ever we have the potential to heal our wounds if we are willing to encounter each other with more love and less judgment.
Read more about religion in Searching for God in the 7 Cities: Muslims, Christianity Part 1, Judaism, Buddhism and Transcending Religion.