Witnessing the spectacle of Faith Chapel


Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

Faith Chapel reminded this pilgrim of both the Alberta Bair Theater and the MetraPark arena.

Faith Chapel, 517 Shiloh Road
Service, 9:30 a.m., Sunday, March 16, 2014
Length of service: 1 hour, 15 minutes. Length of sermon: 41 minutes.

After having made six forays to churches of varying size, I decided it was time to take on one of the big boys.

I chose Faith Chapel, that modern-looking colossus of glass and wood that rises up on Shiloh Road just south of Broadwater Avenue. As long as I’ve been in Billings it seems to have been the biggest church, the one that other churches look to with awe and envy … and sometimes with bemused condescension.

The rap on Faith Chapel has always been that it has stripped away so much of the formality of traditional worship, and so ramped up the glitz and gadgetry, that it is hardly a church at all, but more of a theater with a Christian focus.

AtYourServiceBut in the words of Pope Francis, who am I to judge? I will say only that the theatricality of the proceedings was quite pronounced. And it certainly did not look like a church, inside or out. The enormous lobby area, itself bigger than half the churches in Billings, contains a reception desk, a coffeeshop, a bookstore and a scattering of lounge furniture.

The auditorium—it’s difficult to think of it as a sanctuary, just as one could hardly refer to the stage as an altar—is bigger than the Alberta Bair Theater but smaller than the arena at MetraPark. In a way it resembles both, with its balcony and sweeping half moon of cushioned seats, like the ABT, and its high ceiling crisscrossed with steel bracing, like the arena.

The sound system was excellent and the quality of the two video display screens flanking the stage was superb. A six-piece band with two singers was blazing away as I arrived. The music was very loud and the house lights were nearly extinguished, so that I searched out a seat with some wariness.

What is this series about?

To read the essay that introduced this series click here.

The music went on for 23 minutes, with a collection taking place in the meantime. The band, led by a raffish-looking keyboardist with carefully mussed hair, was perfectly competent and well-rehearsed, moving smoothly from song to song amid flashing lights and televised closeups on the two screens.

I said “song to song,” but once again I could hardly tell them apart. This was pure Christian pop. For me there is no spark to it, nothing to suggest the composer was experiencing religious rapture at the time it was composed.

There was also a bit of a pause in the music for a series of video announcements about upcoming church events—each one delivered in a short, professional segment with a narrator and musical background.

It really is astounding how much time and expense go into one of these services. I sat in the balcony, just above two huge soundboards run by three technicians. There was also a stationary camera operator, supplementing two mobile photographers working the floor and stage.

A few minutes before 10, Pastor Nate Poetzel took the stage. He was dressed casually, with an untucked checked shirt and jeans. He looked like a former football player who had gone into real estate. His delivery was just as casual, a series of personal anecdotes mixed with reflections on the theme of storms, specifically the storm in Matthew during which Jesus walks on water to his disciples, followed by Peter’s own attempt at that difficult maneuver.

Poetzel is a practiced storyteller, and he must have quite a fund of yarns if he could tell three long ones in the course of this single sermon. The first and longest story dealt with a strange illness he once suffered. His sermon was laced with colloquialisms, as when he said of being in bed while his face swelled up hideously: “I’m just laying there, like, freaking out.”

In the last story, nearly as long, Poetzel told of guiding a raft on the North Umpquaa River in Oregon, and of how his crew of six young Japanese females panicked in a dangerous part of the river.

The point, which he kept coming back to, was to trust that “whatever storm you face, know that Jesus sees you,” and remember that “I am not alone. God has not abandoned me.”

It was all fairly straightforward, delivered with a minimum of histrionics and evidently a lot of real emotion. I regretted that I had never attended Faith Chapel during the long career of Stan Simmons, a church builder of considerable influence and, from what I understand, a powerful preacher.

When the service ended, what struck me most was how little like a service it was. Except for the short collection and the video announcements, it consisted entirely of music and a 41-minute sermon.

And as the house lights came up amid a last appearance by the band, there came the applause, cementing the impression that one had just witnessed, more than anything, a performance.

Previously: Chapter 1: St. Patrick Co-Cathedral.

Chapter 2: Mount Olive Lutheran Church.

Chapter 3: Full Gospel Revival Tabernacle.

Chapter 4: First Church of Christ, Scientist.

Chapter 5; First Baptist Church.

Chapter 6: Billings Freedom Church.

Next week: Eagle Ministries Inc.

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