I have been asked by quite a few people to give an account of my trip to Riverview Church in Perth. Many people were surprised I was going there, and I think some were even upset a bit. Being an advocate of house churches, an anarchist, an emerging church worker and someone very concerned about the poor and the marginalized, I can see how people would wonder about my trip there.
I am also aware that I will most likely not make everyone happy with my response here, I might not make anyone happy, but thats what I get for being such a big mouth. I would point out however that everything I am about to say is very superficial. I spent a couple of hours at this place and a couple more with Phil Baker. These were just my impressions from my limited time there.
Let me first say that I have been critical of the mega church for some time now. I realize that some of this comes from some of the criticism I have received from them, and my natural desire to fire back. I also have felt I need to defend my position, and that this defense will quite naturally result in some negativity towards the mega church. I think that recently, even in the last month or two I have realized a few things, and even felt a bit guilty about some things I have thought and said previously.
Okay, well enough lollygagging:
I met up with Phil Baker almost as soon as I arrived in Perth. I had actually met him once in Melbourne but didn't remember it. He was very nice, and very personable. He talked freely, and I enjoyed our time together. We talked a bit about my life, presumably to get some ideas for the interview on Sunday night as well as to learn a bit about me. And he shared a bit about himself. He shared some of his own issues, and problems that he had faced and seemed to be on the same page as me in some controversial theological areas. He talked with pride about some of the social justice things Riverview is involved in, and I was very pleased to hear about them. My first impression was that he was a very charismatic leader, very inteligent, and was honestly wrestling with some difficult issues. I did notice that he was very careful in the way he said things. I think my first impression would usually be that he was being a politician, but it did not seem this way to me. Rather it seemed he had learned to be cautious because of his position, not in order to attain it.
The next bit may be slightly out of order.
When I arrived at Riverview I got pretty much what I expected at first, friendly greeters, nice building, cleanliness, organization. All of the things that really big churches usually have. I was welcomed by one of the staff and lead to our seats, they explained that things fill up quickly so stay put. Someone brought be a bottle of water which was appreciated.
The service started and to be honest I was a bit taken by surprise. I had actually never been to a service like it. The stage was set up more like a concert, and the lighting and even stage smoke was very concert like, this I had seen before. The music was loud, and very upbeat to start with, again I am used to that. But what I wasn't used to was the stage full of people hopping up and down, dancing and wooping it up. The entire area in front of the stage was immediately taken up by a large group of younger people that were also jumping up and down. Everyone seemed to be very into it. And it was done very well, great graphics on the multiple television screens, the words were easy to read, the musicians were fantastic. My reaction? Well, to be honest, it just isn't my style at all. I felt it was a bit overbearing. I prefer to be lead in worship, but felt almost pushed. I prefer more meditative worship and this was definately not that. Now ofcourse that is what I prefer, I have no problem with others liking something different.
They had a skunk band that was out for a rock festival play a song. These guys were very very good. They had a great sound and I would enjoy seeing them in concert. They actually did play a set after church was over.
They showed a video clip of a church baptism, and Phil told us of another baptism that had just happened that week. Now I am a big softy when it comes to baptisms so I really enjoyed this. Nothing more exciting to me than people giving their lives over.
They took the offering. Now they probably did a bit more of a hard sell when doing the offering than I would be comfortable doing, but I was very happy to see them explaining how giving is part of maturity, and what we do with out money is part of our faith. There was no give so God will bless you, greed manipulation. It sounded nothing like the prosperity stuff that I have heard many times. They also spoke the now standard line, "if you are visiting, please don't feel obligated to give", which I like.
The sermon was challenging. Phil is definately a great speaker. He talked about one of my favorite verses Acts 2:42, and spoke a bit about the unity of the church. I ofcourse would have emphasized the meeting in homes more than he did. :)
He then interviewed me. He asked me some questions to be a bit entertaining, but also asked me some questions to allow me to talk about incarnational mission, and giving up your life to follow Christ. He asked me about luke warm Christianity and I was able to talk about giving up our own lives for others. I did not feel censored, or compromised at all. And it was fun.
Afterwards Phil wrapped things up, did an altar call, and took an offering for me and my ministry. They were very generous.
I talked with some people afterwards and they were very friendly, and inquisitive. Then Phil took me and my friends, one who is a member of Riverview, to dinner at a nice place. We had a few beers and some great food and I grilled him for a while about the church and its small groups and his philosophy of leadership. He was happy to answer all my questions and we had a great chat.
My overall impression: Most of the stuff I didn't like was merely style issues.
I am still concerned about the tendency of big churches to spend too much of their resources on maintaining the church rather than reaching out, but they look at the church as part of their outreach and appear to be very generous and supportive of outreach initiatives.
Community is so important to me that I felt their small groups should be given a higher profile and a bigger push. People would definately not consider their small groups church, but rather a church program or add on.
I think they are really trying to reach out to the people in Perth and beyond. I also feel that Phil recognizes that if they did everything perfect they still wouldn't come close to reaching everyone, and is happy to support and champion other initiatives.
I am scared of how much power a church that size has, and I suspect it would not be good for me to be leading one like it.
Overall I liked Phil, and I liked what the church was doing. I would never go to a church like Riverview, but I know many people obviously would. Infact my friend who has never gone to church, said he would like to return. I hope they will continue to be challenged to be more and more involved in social justice issues, and supporting incarnational mission initiatives. I am also very thankful for their warm welcome, and generous natures. Phil even went to the trouble to read my blog and by me a thoughful gift. I was blessed by Riverview.