Upon This Rock, I Will Build My Megachurch

Week 25 of 52 Churches in 52 Weeks:

Hope Lives at Rockford First. Bible Quoting Robots? Not So Much


*** SPOILER ALERT! ***
CONTAINS SPOILERS TO AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON

The Egyptians had theirs, then the Romans and the Greeks. Today, super heroes are swooping in to becoming a new form of American mythology. Created by pen, ink, and imagination, comic book tales have come to life on the silver screen pitting Good against Evil.

But unlike mythologies of ancient civilizations, today’s six-pack gods with their seven-figure paychecks and CGI super-powers live in an American society that is largely dominated by religious belief. To second Captain America’s response to Black Widow’s warning about locking up with caped Norse gods:

“There’s only one God ma’am, and I’m pretty sure He doesn’t dress like that.”

Skydiving in, I knew Avengers: Age of Ultron had a Hulkulean task to match-up to the original. The fanboy inside me wanted to throw Thor’s Mjolnir at the explanation of why Samuel L. Jackson was slumming in Hawkeye’s barn (…if only I was worthy). But my biggest nitpick was how the villain was set up.

Avengers: Age of Ultron at the movies.

Hey Banner, let’s make Ultron.

“OK Stark.

Uh, it’s not working.

Shoot, let’s go to the party instead.

Soon as the scientists leave for cocktails, the artificial intelligence known as Ultron has uploaded all he could chew from the Apple of The Web of Knowledge of Good and Evil. He emerges firing lethal shots of pulsor beams and sarcasm, firmly establishing himself as the villain by being a party pooper.

While the Avengers play the blame game, Ultron has ascended the throne of a desolated church in a fictional European country. It’s here that Stark’s manmade creation develops a God complex to foreshadow the battle to come:

“They put the (church) in the middle of the city, so that everyone could be equally close to God. I like that, the symmetry, the geometry of belief.”

Ultron’s recruits his apostle twins, Pietro and Wanda Maximoff, then puts his ideological plans in motion. His mission for world peace concludes that mankind must be extinct. Ultron isn’t diabolically evil, he’s more fascinated by the beauty of a clean slate. He wants to take a page from Darwin and evolve into something better, but doing so requires inspiration found in Genesis. When Wanda learns of his plans to cleanse the human populace to start over, Ultron’s retort to Wanda’s “why” is simple. “Ask Noah.

I had come for a superhero movie. I left with a twisted shade of religious symbolism that had been narrated by a soulless theologian. Before nicknaming Captain America as “God’s Righteous Man”, the most resonating soundbite came from Ultron when he tossed a vibranium canister of minerals to his personal Peter (Pietro). Ultron quotes Matthew 16:18:

“Upon this rock, I will build my church”

April 5, 2015–1:00 pm Easter Sunday Service: Rockford First in Rockford, Illinois

Upon a city called Rockford, I attended a megachurch.

Week 25's visit for 52-in-52 was to witness how one of the fastest-growing megachurches does Easter. Despite my original negative perceptions of colossal worship stadiums, I’ve grown quite fond of them. Megachurches are like the movies when it comes to bridging Christianity with today’s pop culture. It’s a spiritual box office that looks to gross the highest number of souls, pitting Christ as the top attraction on the marquee.

What’s fascinating about megachurches is how much micromanagement goes into every little detail. From the coffee shop’s marketing to the pastor’s shoelaces, everything is evaluated to present the grandest blockbuster production for the spiritual seeker. It makes me feel hip, young, and I momentarily forget that I’ll be as old as Jesus in two years. Then I remember when I forget something, that’s a sign of old age and I should probably stop that…

That said, megachurches tend to try too hard in attempts to cater towards pop culture.

Passing around a collection plate is soooooo 2003. If you want to tythe, make sure to do it with a PayPal account.

Hymnals? Are you kidding? That’s what the subtitles on the IMAX screen is for.

Oh, and don’t forget the Exit sign also needs a slight hint of pantone in the lighting to commemorate spring.

Organ music may have been all the rage during the Protestant Revolution, but today we need a New Year’s countdown mixed with silhouetted musicians and a laser light show that would make a Guardians of the Galaxy fight scene look like a 4-year-old birthday party (radiant electric blue colors are preferable). If you really want to get people pumped, do a techno mash-up of MacBook Pro combined with a cello that will go on Star-Lord’s next mixtape.

Too much of a stretch you say?

See for yourself.

After the opening number, Jeremy and Jen DeWeerdt introduced themselves as the Rockford First Couple, tagged with their Twitter and Instagram usernames (apparently, you can’t be happenin’ with an email or Facebook anymore).

The superpastors promoted the new Starting Your Journey DVD they recently filmed on Route 66, given away for free upon request. In the high-octane-for-a-Christian film, Jeremy is reimagined as Vin Diesel driving fast and furiously in a Dodge Challenger RT while obediently maintaining the speed limit. He preaches going on a journey, using a road trip as a metaphor towards building a relationship with God. “When you start a journey, you need a destination”, he says, and Jesus Christ should be invited to ride shotgun. Then he does donuts in the Nevada desert.

Rockford First features trendy sermon furniture, such as a tabletop with a circumference juuuust big enough to prop the Bible and a chair that requires an All State policy to sit in.

If driving a Dodge Challenger in the desert wasn’t modern enough for anyone’s taste, there’s always the sermon furniture which looked to have come straight out of the Jonathan Adler Collection. Besides, what would Groot say about how many trees were murdered to make a wooden pulpit? It’s all about Going Green nowadays, so the sermon needs to include a trendy tabletop made of eco-friendly composites, coupled with a chair that is ergonomically impossible to sit in.

The Easter sermon itself was obviously centered on Jesus proving that He is God as only He could resurrect Himself from the dead (don’t tell that to Agent Coulson on ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D… it’s probably why Jesus stars on NBC with A.D.). What’s inspiring is despite our shortcomings in life choices, decisions, or sermon decor, Christ found grace in our failings to sacrifice Himself for us.

Also, if He had a Dodge Challenger RT, He would also would have drove donuts like the pastor. I’m making that up.

In Age of Ultron, Stark and Banner take a second stab at creating an A.I. savior, being breathed life by Thor’s godlike lighting spark. Vision flies out and is puzzled at what he sees. He is half-man, half-something else. As the Avengers question his purpose, Vision retorts, “I am…” and trails off with “I AM” (a Biblical reference in itself).

Having been deemed worthy by the handle of Mjolnir, Vision joins the Avengers in the final battle of Good versus Evil. In the film’s grand finale, the Avengers fend off Ultron’s robot army from a Do Not Push button that would plunge a flying city to crash towards Planet Earth. And at the center of it all?

The church.

While I poke fun at Rockford First’s sermon decor designer, doesn’t God redesign our own lives? While traditional churches are stuck in the mud with conservative mindsets that people should stick to an aging church, places like Rockford First seek to breathe new life into our faith based on cultural norms. I can appreciate this church isn’t afraid to go out on a limb to reach new believers by shifting it’s resources to extend it’s hand to others.

In Vision’s final scene, he’s tracked down the last escaping Ultron robot. Out of power, Ultron’s last ammunition is with his words. “Stark asked for a Savior, and settled for a slave”. Vision retorts that Ultron missed the point with mankind, that “there is grace in their failings”. Akin to Vision, there’s a certain beauty that despite having all power, Jesus settled to slave for our sins by being among us in our own failings. Through that association, He was actually our Savior all along.

“A thing isn’t beautiful because it lasts”

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