The austere Greco-Roman columns mark the entrance to the 5,000 seat sanctuary. Housewives chatter while their husbands, somber in Sunday best, occasionally nod to each other. Children screech and my soul quavers. I step out of the car, filled with misgivings, my heart beating furiously. The asphalt glares up at me, accusing; the tar’s pitch black a reflection of the filth in my soul. Cornerstone Church, a non-denominational “place of worship,” gazes down at me from its spiritual pedestal. Somewhere inside those pristine white limestone walls, Pastor John Hagee waits – my soul is at stake and he will stop at nothing to save it. The immense glass doors challenge me to step inside, to believe, to be born-again. I stub out my cigarette, wrench open the portal of spiritual salvation and resolutely step into my very first megachurch experience.
Situated at the junction of Loop 1604 and Stone Oak Parkway on San Antonio’s wealthy Northeast side, Cornerstone Church juts out into the pulse of the cityscape, a monolith of pre-packaged, pre-heated Christianity. The flashing marquee, beyond colorfully announcing Pastor Hagee’s latest book, Jerusalem Countdown, also serves as a beacon to all those seeking salvation through the Word. Started in 1975, Cornerstone has grown from 100 to 18,000 members within thirty years – largely through the efforts of its founder and senior pastor, John C. Hagee. The sanctuary can seat over 5,000 people and its stage could accommodate a small circus. Beyond the sanctuary, there is the Vada Hagee Prayer Chapel, the Bythel Hagee Life Center, “A” and “B” Buildings, a bus barn, and the John Hagee Ministries International Media Center (home to 5 large satellite dishes, broadcasting the Truth to the far-corners of the world).
Cornerstone’s name is aptly given – as it is indeed, the cornerstone of what has become Hagee’s multimillion-dollar evangelical empire. Now an author of 11 books (several of which have occupied the #1 spot on the Times’ best-seller list), Pastor Hagee, or simply “Pastor,” is also the president and CEO of Global Evangelism Television as well as the president and centerpiece of the John Hagee Ministries. He entertains foreign dignitaries, speaks at conventions and sits on the board of directors at Oral Roberts University (a Christian university in Tulsa). And, apparently, is very well compensated for his efforts (to the tune of 1.25 million in 2001). His house (also in the Greco-Roman revival-style), is valued at over $650,000 and is in one of San Antonio’s wealthiest gated communities. His compensation package (larger than some Fortune 500 CEO’s) has raised eyebrows and ignited criticisms from other ministries. His detractors claim he is using the money from his donors (more than half of the JHM’s income is from donations) to bolster his net worth, marketing and selling products that return the profit to him – not to spreading the Gospel. But then again, you couldn’t expect the mouthpiece of God to entertain Prime Ministers of Israel in a duplex – or wear rags or turn water into wine, for that matter.
But, enough of the material. Let’s talk about the salvation of my eternal soul. Or, perhaps more precisely, how Cornerstone and Pastor Hagee went about trying to save it. Once inside the sanctuary, I am greeted with a huge display of brochures, announcements, and most importantly, catalogues. After all, how can I be expected to find God without the proper tools? I pick a few up and enter the sanctuary. After receiving the boot from my first three seats (apparently donors get seating preference), I find a spot in the north-northwest corner next to a man with a very large chin and in front of a woman with a very large family. The choir sings while the latecomers continue to trickle in. The words scroll by on the two massive screens: “Jesus sweeps me off my feet/Taking me so I can meet/The Lord, our God, his Word, so sweet” (rhyming is absolutely key to one’s relationship with the Lord). During vamps and key changes, hands shoot into the air. Some twitch, others sway, a few oddly grasp for the ceiling – but all channel God’s glory, their closed-eyed owners rapturously singing along.
About twenty minutes later, Associate Pastor Matthew Hagee (most beloved son of John C.) takes the stage for some announcements. Youthfire, the high-school aged fellowship group will be hosting the Jason Upton Worship Service (a most blessed Christian singer) on April 7th at 7:00 pm. Tickets are thirteen dollars in advance, but fifteen at the door – so “buy ‘em now, ‘cuz this guy saves!” The registration for the Search for Significance classes (finding self-esteem through Christ) will be closing on April 10th. A fee is necessary to cover administrative costs and other “essentials for the course,” so if you have already registered, please pay promptly. And if not, bring the checkbook to registration.
After announcements wrap up with hearty applause, the elder Hagee takes the stage to even heartier applause and shrieks of “Praise Jesus!” and “Bless Him!” The lesson begins simply enough. The theme for the month is “Promise, Problem, and Provision,” complete with a cunning drawing of a mountain and a path around it. I don’t really catch much of what Hagee says as after almost every sentence, the sanctuary drowns in applause, shouts and yells. But I can tell it is important because the man with the very large chin is constantly nodding while the woman with the very large family punctuates the lecture with “Praise Jesus!” and “Bobby, stop playing with that! He’s speaking the Word of the Lord!” Another twenty minutes roll by and I’m beginning to get caught up in it. There is an invigorating and genuine enthusiasm that permeates the gathering. Perhaps this is the way to find salvation, swept up in a sea of praise, surrounded by several thousand of my fellow beings. And then I’m blindsided, and the real sermon begins.
“Brothers and sisters, America is filled with deception,” Hagee begins, during a slight lull in the roar. “Deception in spades,” he repeats, his voice changing timbre. What deception? What is he talking about? The answer follows shortly.
“HARRY POTTER!” he roars, “WITCHCRAFT! DEVILRY! SATANISM!” he continues. “You let your child read that trash – you let Satan into your home.” But wait, Harry Potter is fighting Lord Voldemort – the epitome of all that is evil. Satan, if you will, in the form of a wizard. How is Harry Potter evi—
“FEMINISM IS DECEPTION!” he rants, changing tact, leaving my thoughts scrambling for a toehold. “Men and women were NOT created equal – and feminism is the demon that will deceive your household! Do NOT open the door for it!” What!? Where did that come from? What about your wife? Does she know you’re saying this? That’s she’s not your equal? And, just as quickly, the topic changes again.
“ABORTION IS DECEPTION!” he continues, his face taking on a scarlet tinge. “What is more EVIL than taking the life of the most innocent of all?” he says, “That’s right! Nothing! EXCEPT BELIEVING THAT THERE IS ANOTHER GOD BEYOND OUR ONE TRUE GOD IN HEAVEN AND HIS SON JESUS CHRIST!!!”
The man with the very large chin had gone beyond mere nodding and now looked as though he was about to go into a seizure. The woman with the very large family was on her feet, shouting; hands wildly pumping the air, desperately seeking the Glory. Her children, all six of them, are also standing, screaming. I am alone in my silence, as shouts of “Speak it!” and “Praise Jesus!” wash over me. The entire congregation, except for those in wheelchairs, is on their feet, yelling, stamping, climbing on the pews. The entire scene is eerily reminiscent of the “Two Minutes Hate” of 1984 fame. And as the mass writhes in its spiritual orgasm, Hagee looks out across the floodwaters of holiness he has just let loose and slowly smiles, his sweating visage aglow.
According to Wikipedia, my Alpha and Omega for information, a megachurch is simply a “large church, frequently defined as having more than 2,000 worshippers for a typical weekly service.” However, the term “megachurch” encompasses far more than a simple calculation of parishioners. Over the past couple of decades, a megachurch has come to represent exurban Christian America in thought, word, and deed. The megachurch is Christianity’s equivalent to Sam’s Club or Costco: bulk prayer, worship, and salvation for lower than your average retail value. And not only is redemption reasonably priced, it’s ready for consumption as soon as you walk in. Huge television screens beam down at you while the air resonates with the Word – pumped from massive speakers strategically placed around the sanctuary. The message is simple (usually alliterative in presentation). There are no hefty books to thumb through, no stations of the cross to remember, even Communion has become anachronistic. After all, the consummation of Christ’s covenant with humanity is far too personal and time-consuming an operation to conduct with 2,000 people every week. You’re praising Jesus with 1,999 other people and it’s great. Why be selfish? Praise songs with simple melodies and easy-to-learn lyrics have replaced the more complex hymns and spirituals (and who sings in Latin, anyway?).
And John Hagee has perfected this easily accessible, easily consumed version of Christianity at Cornerstone. He has pared down the commitment, time and energy one needs to devote to religion to the barest minimum. You simply show up at 8:30, 11:00 or 6:30 on Sunday and worship. For a little over an hour, you can cleanse your soul, praise the Lord and find peace. And you don’t need to strain yourself, either. The music is simple. The message is alliterative. And the energy of the Lord just floats around the room – all you have to do is lift up a hand and you can catch it. Your spiritual renewal complete, you can go about your business. Of course, donations are accepted. After all, how can John Hagee have the energy to whip your congregation into a jingoistic frenzy three times every week without his steak dinners?
As the congregation begins to settle down, the post-coital bliss in the air is palpable. People pant, their eyes glazed, the orgasmic power of spiritual salvation still suffusing their bodies. The band begins to play as the choir re-enters, singing something slow. The screens begin to scroll the lyrics as the congregation shakes itself from its dopamine high. The bass thumps through the pews. “Our God is a Mighty God/He Reigns on Heaven and Earth” rings through the sanctuary as Hagee takes the microphone.
“And that, brothers and sisters, that,” and he stops, his eyes magnified hundreds of times by the gigantic screens search the audience, “is the power of Christ.”