The 1,500 worshippers fill the former warehouse, now turned into a sanctuary. Before the service, the congregation sings praise songs and old-time Gospel hymns, led by a 160-member choir.
The service is informal and lively. People hug each other. The minister prances on the stage, preaching at full-throttle, dynamic and mesmerizing. In the pews are celebrities, people with testimonies, many having been helped by the 31 ministries this full-service church operates-prison outreach, 12-step programs, support groups for troubled people, help for the needy.
Agape International Spiritual Center in suburban Los Angeles has some 7,000 members. It is a growing church, very much like the hundreds of megachurches throughout the country. But intermixed with the Christian praise songs are the "Oms" of Eastern meditation. In the obligatory bookstore, the Bible shares space with books by gurus, self-proclaimed goddesses, and mystical pop-psychologists.
Agape calls itself a "church," but it makes no pretension of being Christian at all. Rather, as its pastor, Michael Beckwith, explains, it is "'new thought' combined with ancient wisdom."
"We don't believe you are born into sin," he explained to Cathy Lynn Grossman of USA Today. "We are born into blessings. While some seek salvation, we call it 'self-elevation.'" Agape calls itself "trans-denominational," but it is really trans-religion. "Muslims, Jews, Christians, Buddhists, young, old, rich, poor-we cut across all lines," said Rev. Beckwith, "to reach what is true."
The New Age movement has discovered the church growth movement. Or perhaps religious entrepreneurs are realizing that Christ, as He said, is the ultimate stumbling block, an obstacle to growth in this new cultural climate.
One of the greatest ironies in the cultural aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks is that, at the very time Americans, and specifically Christians, are targets of an Islamic jihad, all of a sudden Muslims are getting so much good press.
Documentaries and news stories on the beneficence of Islam fill the media, and schools are inviting Muslims to tell about their religion. Imams from the local mosques are prize performers at the raft of interfaith services being held to honor those killed and "to bring our country together" in this time of crisis.
The enemy, we are told, is not Islam but intolerance. It is that narrow-minded, restrictive view of religion that is to blame for the terrorist attacks and the Taliban oppression. People who think "theirs is the only true religion" are the real enemy, a charge, of course, that sticks not just to the Taliban but to orthodox Christians.
This is the way a number of commentators are framing the issue. Columnist Thomas Friedman says that "World War II and the Cold War were fought to defeat secular totalitarianism." This new world war, he says, is against "religious totalitarianism."
He defines religious totalitarianism as "the view that one faith must reign supreme and can be affirmed and held passionately only if all others are negated." Conservative Christians and Jews hold to this view, he says, as well as Muslims.
"Can Islam, Christianity, and Judaism know that God speaks Arabic on Fridays, Hebrew on Saturdays and Latin on Sundays, and that he welcomes different human beings approaching him through their own history, out of their language and cultural heritage?"
The war, says Mr. Friedman, must be fought not just on the battlefield but in houses of worship. It is urgent that the different religions "reinterpret their traditions to embrace modernity and pluralism and to create space for secularism and alternative faiths." Or what? one wonders. Laser-guided precision bombs on churches that teach that Jesus is the only way for salvation?
In his new book, The Spiritual Society: What Lurks Beyond Postmodernism, Frederic Baue predicts the rise of a new syncretic religion, based on the premise that all of the world's religions must be combined into one. Written well before Sept. 11, the book seems eerily prophetic.
To say that all religions are true means that no religion is true. The only way to bring them under one umbrella is to deny their distinctive teachings and to construct a totally new religion. To not allow different beliefs, to deny the validity of any kind of distinctiveness, and to insist that everyone conform to one over-arching ideology-that is totalitarianism.
If the culture is indeed drifting toward a new syncretic religion, Christians may see "churches" like Agape grow bigger and bigger, as their own numbers decline. Christians will find themselves demonized as "intolerant," perhaps our culture's worst term of abuse. Christians have endured martyrdom, but can they endure unpopularity?