By Amanda P. Westmont
Walking through the front doors of City Bible Church is much like wading through the crowd into a rock concert. You can practically see the energy sparking in the air like a hormone meringue pie whipped from virility, youth and Axe Deodorant spray. The fact that the band keeps the base thrumming in anticipation doesn’t hurt at all.
After stopping to gawk at the stage, we found a pew toward the front and I wished I’d remembered the earplugs, which I recommend you bring if you plan to catch a service at City Bible Church. Along with a barf bag, a flask filled with Pepto-Bismol and a lighter, so you can raise a flame to Jesus during the drum solo.
I had to laugh when the band started in on the song “The Stand,” and I realized I knew all the words without looking at the big screen monitors behind the stage, of which I should note there were not one, not two, but SIX. Rock ‘n roll time for Jesus went on for about fifteen minutes before the band hit its peak and ended the set with their Jesusgasm faces.
Then Pastor Marc Estes took to the stage in his plaid shirt and jeans and led the troops in their first prayer.
I had every reason to like this guy. I mean, even I thought my predilection for cute, clean-cut, middle-aged bald men with goatees knew no bounds. But when he asked me to agree with his prayer by giving it “one big shout!” I couldn’t help but roll my eyes, especially when he followed that sentiment with a “happiest place on earth” cliche about his church being even better than Disneyland.
Then the lights dimmed and it was time for the video announcements! City Bible Church pretty much has its own TV channel, which you can see for yourself right here.
Each commercial was slicker and shinier than the last, like ads for VW hybrids or fancy newfangled feminine hygiene products with wings. But I couldn’t help but do the math in my head. My guess is that five minute video cost them a good ten grand to produce. I mean, these were commercials that had been test marketed. Then came the brochures,which were distributed to dozens of new visitors like Joel and me, along with shrink-wrapped introductory DVDs, logo-printed ballpoint pens and coupons for free drinks from their in-church Cafe. I’m no Catholic, but sitting there holding ten bucks worth of schwag overwhelmed me with guilt.
What a waste! All those dead trees could have fed a family of six for at least a day, if not a week. Each one of those stupid big screen TV’s was a year’s worth of groceries or enough to clothe and house a homeless veteran for a year. I kept waiting for the explanation. Where was all this money coming from? And more importantly, where was it going?
Unfortunately, I got the message loud and clear when the white popcorn buckets went around the pews for offerings.
“God promises that He will supply ALL your needs!”
“Blessed are those who give back!”
“I activate my faith by giving!”
“Let’s pray for prosperity!”
They collected the buckets and the sermon began, live-broadcasted from Vancouver to all four church campuses via satellite at who-knows-what cost. Pastor Frank Damazio’s lecture turned out to be about RELATIONSHIPS.
“Say relationships!” Pastor Frank preached as if he was teaching a foreign language. And who better to school me on relationships than a man who fully admits to being in a sexless marriage! I was all ears!
Apparently Relationships That Believe the Scriptures Rule are based on the inerrancy of the Bible. The Bible is the authoritative word of God and if that means you smack your wife for disrespecting you, the Bible TOTALLY has your back. This relationship thing is also based on the sufficiency doctrine, which says you have to look to the Bible in EVERY area of your life. Apparently this two thousand-year-old tome has every. single. answer, which only had me wondering what the Bible might say about the ethics of taking iPhone photos of Slug Bugs while driving just so I can get more points when Joel isn’t in the car with me. (We play slug bug for sexual favors!) What would the Bible say about my blog trolls? I’m guessing they should probably just “eat it [as] barley cakes, and thou shalt bake it with dung that cometh out of man, in their sight.” Eze 4:12.
But here’s where it got sketchy for me. Pastor Frank started hitting the big issues, BAM BAM, BEND OVER MA’AM – abortion, gay marriage, premarital sex, living in sin. Meanwhile, I was sitting in the pew getting scary text messages from a friend of mine. A friend who was raised at City Bible Church. A friend who was both literally and figuratively raped by a member of this church. When I first met her about four years ago, she told me how she had to get HIV tests just to be sure her molester hadn’t passed the virus to her before dying of AIDS himself. Because in spite of all that Christian homosexual reprogramming he’d received at City Bible Church, he was still having unprotected sex with men outside of his marriage.
Oh? Did I mention that? City Bible Church thinks, and I’m directly quoting from our interview with Pastor Marc Estes here, “God’s plan can’t be for you to be gay. That’s a false premise.” But I digress… This is about my friend and how when she went to the church leadership and told her story, they accused her of making it up in therapy. No one helped her and when she finally left the church and disappeared (after spending years working her way into leadership with CBC), no one bothered to check up on her or to see if she was okay.
This church hurt someone I love. They did exactly the opposite of WJWD. They shut not only their doors, but their hearts to someone desperately in need of help*.
So when Pastor Frank Damazio said, “even if you put a gun to my head, I could never marry two women,” I felt sick.
“People say I’m narrow-minded,” he went on, laughing. He held up his Bible and turned it sideways, adding, “Yeah. THIS narrow.”
I have never gotten up and walked out of a sermon before, but sitting there, holding that $5 brochure in one hand and my friend’s heartfelt text messages in the other, I wanted to leave. I wanted to throw up. I wanted to SCREAM.
But I stayed, because I also wanted to give this church every possible opportunity to redeem itself.
I’m sure you can already tell how that turned out…
Pastor Frank went on to list everything that is wrong with modern dating.
1) “Worldly” dating after my divorce was perhaps the most fun I’ve ever had in my life. It hurt no one, taught me more about myself than I’ve ever learned and after six months of “recreationally” “playing the field” for the “temporary enjoyment” of “sexual sins,” I was more than happy to turn my heart over to a certain bespectacled bald man. Something I never would have been ready for if I hadn’t played that particular field.
2) Just that morning, before church, I’d received a Facebook message asking me if I could “confirm my relationship status” with Joel Gunz. He’d asked me to go steady! (I clicked confirm, which is pretty much the only “I do” he’ll ever get out of me.)
Of course, it doesn’t matter how happy I am to be living in sin with Joel, because he doesn’t meet all eight of the magic criteria this church deems important in a mate.
According to City Bible Church, we are doubly doomed because the only litmus test for a healthy relationship is your commitment to God and the Bible. I’m sorry, but I call BS. The real litmus test for a healthy relationship is your commitment to YOUR PARTNER, not God. Joel and I might occasionally be down for a threesome, but it will never involve The Father, The Son or The Holy Ghost. Christians everywhere will argue with this, but I think our relationship is actually DEEPER because we leave God out of it. The way we treat each other isn’t based on a set of rules or obligations. There is nothing more INTENTIONAL than loving your partner simply because you want to. I get to wake up every day and choose Joel. Trust me when I say: it isn’t a decision I take lightly.
After fifty minutes of listening to how horrible and terrible and doomed to burn in the fiery pits of hell we were for all our “sexual sins**”, the telecast ended and Marc Estes took the stage again for the closing message. We had introduced ourselves to him before the service, which included our usual “so where do you guys live?” banter about how even though he hasn’t spent a night there in months, Joel will always answer “North Portland” because he doesn’t want to admit to living in Camas. Pastor Marc must have been listening carefully because he closed the service by looking me straight in the eyes (note to self: ditch the neon hair if you want to blend in better!) and saying,
“If you’ve already made mistakes, we want you to know you are welcome here. We want you to understand the big heart we have for you. Let us help you become all you can become!”
I tried not to blush at the compliment from such a cute bald guy.
Throughout the service, I’d kept my ears perked for something – ANYTHING – that would redeem this church. Maybe prayers for the sick, a call for volunteers to help feed the poor or serve the needy, a mention of even ONE THING this church does to help the less fortunate.
Yet there wasn’t a single word, not even a syllable, about how the money they collected would be used.
So after the lobby cookies (not made by volunteers, but purchased at Costco for $12 a tray) and free coffee ran out, we tracked the good pastor down for a little Q&A session. Marc Estes tried to convince us that this was “a Church for all people. Come as you are!” but he was just giving us lip service. After some probing, we learned they would never let us become members until we got married. Gee, what a shock.
My big question of the day still lingered, so I finally nutted up and blurted it out,
“What do you do with all the money?”
Marc laughed, sat back in his chair, patted his chest and informed me that church members (a club from which we had just specifically been excluded) were welcome to look at their audited books any time they wanted, but that they “give away over $1.5 million dollars a year.”
That sounds great, “But how much do you collect?” I asked.
“About four million in tithes.”
Hmmmm. Four million. In TITHES. Which means at the very least, it costs the church $2.5 million dollars just to keep their doors open. I’m already not a big fan of that ratio, but I think he was painting an overly optimistic picture. Because there is a difference between “tithes” and donations. If you look at the donation card (or at the online giving form), there are actually several ways to donate to City Bible Church that are not classified as tithes. Marc Estes claimed they take in $4 million in TITHES, but how much are they taking in for things like Missions, Scholarships, Acts 2 Offerings and the Faith Harvest? My guess is that number will match up pretty closely to the $1.5 million dollars City Bible claims to give away every year.
So what are they actually doing with the four million? Any current church members who’ve had a look at the books care to enlighten me? Or is the openness of their bookkeeping an urban legend?
Marc went on to explain the charity work the church does. I know he was trying hard to scramble, but nearly every example he cited involved some method of growing the church.
“We send buses to low-income apartment complexes and bring under-served youths back to our services.”
“We reach out to untouched ethnic communities and bring them here for services in their native languages.”
“Every Tuesday night we serve dinner to 250-300 drug addicts. Here.”
That’s not giving, that’s MARKETING.
He also mentioned they give away over 100,000 pounds of food every year. “More than the Oregon Food Bank!” Except that the Oregon Food Bank moved 72-MILLION pounds of food last year. And let’s be honest, 100,000 pounds of food costs, what, $50 grand? For a church that takes in millions, that’s not just pathetic, it’s criminal.
Of course, I’ll eat my shirt if I’m wrong and it turns out City Bible Church has strong, audited financial statements to refute these accusations. In fact, if they’re willing to share them, I’ll happily post them here on beliefnet.com for all the world to see.
I knew I wasn’t going to get a straight answer about their finances, so we let Marc continue to rant at length about creationism, his belief in a young earth, fundamentalism and how all science really does is prove the Bible unequivocally. But we got the gist of it. This is a church that wants two things:
1) Your money (for who knows what)
2) Your obedience (to a very strict set of rules and regulations they spend most of their sermons discussing)
In the meantime, Oregon is in the middle of perhaps its worst financial downturn ever. Unemployment is in double digits and record numbers of poor are visiting food banks. And what does City Bible Church want to talk about? Gay marriage and premarital sex. They want you to pray for the growth of their new Pearl District campus and the easy sale of their 217 property. If you’re like my friend and you go to them for help, you might just get turned away or ignored.
I think Kathy Escobar, one of the pastors at The Refuge, a beatnik Bridge-like church in Denver, Colorado, summed it up perfectly for me in her recent blog post about how “the world is crying out for hope while we’re talking about theology:”
“while we spend countless hours on the ins and outs of homosexuality possibly being a sin and women not being able to lead and who’s in and who’s out related to heaven and hell, the world is crying out for hope. people are dying–literally and figuratively–and we are spending millions of dollars & hours & blog posts & sermons and all kinds of other things that focus on “correct theology.”
why do we spend so much time talking about theology instead of actively being the hands, feet, heart, and eyes of Jesus?”
I dunno, but City Bible Church left me with more questions than answers.
*Lest you worry about the fate of my dear friend, while she still struggles every day with her faith and her history, she is easily one of the strongest, most fierce women I know. Because no one in the church ever advocated for her, she learned how to advocate for herself and has since become a voice for victims of rape and sexual assault. She’s also the one who turned me on to The Bridge, a church she claims, “Literally saved my life. I would be dead without them.”
**Luckily for Joel and I, it’s not pre-marital sex if you never get married.