PASTOR Max Lucado
ADDRESS 19595 Interstate 10
PHONE 210-698-6868
MAIN SERVICE Saturdays at 5:00 P.M.; Sundays at 8:30 A.M., 10 A.M., and 11:30 A.M.

Having grown up in the Church of Christ, I have been interested in observing, at a modest distance, the differences that have evolved over the years between the small-town churches of my youth (similar to the Oak Hill Church of Christ in Luling, which I reviewed in July 2006) and “seeker friendly” megachurches such as San Antonio’s Oak Hills Church, by lineage a Church of Christ but one that has moved sufficiently far from its roots to have dropped the name. With a weekly attendance of approximately 5,500, Oak Hills, located at the northwest edge of San Antonio on Interstate 10, is one of the state’s largest congregations and led by one of its best-known preachers, Max Lucado.

After following several corridors one Sunday—past offices, nurseries, a coffee shop, and the UpWords bookstore—my wife and I found the elevator and stairs to the second-level worship center. If the banners hanging from the rafters of this large multifunctional space had read “State AAAA Champs, 2005” instead of “The Holy Spirit, Our Power” and “The Church, God’s Battalion,” one might well have assumed that this was the gymnasium of an affluent high school. Most of the congregation of about 1,500—there are four weekend services at this campus, plus two others at auxiliary locations—sat in comfortable, movable chairs on the main floor; the rest of us sat in theater-style bleacher seats. Dress and demeanor were casual, with some worshippers wearing shorts and a number carrying mugs of coffee.

As the service got under way, we immediately saw and heard a superficial but nonetheless decisive difference between the Oak Hills Church and most churches of its parent body: a choir and a band! With guitars and drums! The nineteenth-century founding fathers of the Churches of Christ, in a desire to restore the first-century church by imitating its practices—an approach they hoped would encourage unity among all Christians—interpreted the absence of mention of instrumental music in early church worship as warrant for prohibiting it, instead favoring a cappella singing, usually in four-part harmony. In recent years, however, a small but growing number of Churches of Christ have elected to break with that tradition. At Oak Hills, I later learned, the decision to introduce instrumental music proceeded slowly, with much discussion, and then only partially. It began with the use of instruments in one of the weekend services, a compromise designed to attract people who found the prohibition off-putting and to mollify those who still preferred an abstinence-only approach. Soon, however, the balance tipped. At present, only the 8:30 a.m. service retains a cappella singing.

An old friend who serves as a leading elder at the church acknowledged that substantial numbers of members had left Oak Hills to attend other churches, “some specifically because of the instrument, others because of the ‘slippery slope.’” That perceived drift included a greater public role for women, who have traditionally taken no part in the worship of Churches of Christ beyond singing from their pews. At Oak Hills, women hold some official ministry positions, lead worship, and address the congregation (as in making announcements) but are not yet deemed eligible to fill the pulpit, serve as elders, or preside over communion.

As more and more people from non—Church of Christ backgrounds began attending Oak Hills—they are currently estimated to number a bit more than half the congregation—church leaders learned that many had been reluctant to even set foot inside a Church of Christ because of its association with a strong form of legalism and a widely resented (though increasingly less common) assertion that members of other denominations are not really Christians. So, following the lead of more and more churches everywhere, Oak Hills dropped the label in 2003 and prefers to be known simply as a “community church.”

Undoubtedly, much of the credit for Oak Hills’ growth must go to its pastor. Though only 53, Lucado (pronounced “Lu-cay-doe”) is an amazingly prolific and successful author. Beginning with a reworked collection of columns he wrote for a church newsletter while he was an associate minister fresh out of Abilene Christian University and then polished during a five-year stint as a missionary to Brazil in the eighties, he has written more than fifty books, published in more than twenty languages worldwide and with aggregate sales in excess of 50 million copies—more than either Joel Osteen or Rick Warren (The Purpose-Driven Life) and second only to Billy Graham among living inspirational authors. Christianity Today has called Lucado “America’s Pastor,” and in 2005 Reader’s Digest named him “America’s Best Preacher.”

No preacher will receive such high marks on all scorecards, but Lucado is an uncommonly good communicator. He has an excellent eye and ear for the details of a story, delivering his messages with a range of voice and tone that captures attention without being theatrical. On the day of our visit, he recounted the story in John 8:1—11 of the adulterous woman whom religious leaders had apprehended and were prepared to execute when Jesus intervened. Lucado noted that the woman had been “caught . . . in the act,” indicating that her self-righteous accusers had likely set a trap for her. Even more important, they were using her as bait to trap Jesus. “The law of Moses commands that we stone to death every woman who does this,” they said to Jesus. “What do you say we should do?” Lucado then described the scene in which Jesus stooped down, wrote something in the sand, and said, “Anyone here who has never sinned can throw the first stone at her.” As her accusers dropped their stones and slunk away, Jesus looked up and said, “Woman, where are they? Has no one judged you guilty?” When she answered, “No one, sir,” he said, “I also don’t judge you guilty. You may go now, but don’t sin anymore.”

The lesson, Lucado emphasized, is that for those who will accept Jesus as their savior, every sin they have committed, or will commit in the future, is forgiven. Jesus has left a message for everyone, he said, not in the sand but on a cross. That message is “Not guilty. Let my forgiveness cover you. Put the past in the past. It’s time to move on, relieved of guilt and shame.”

This assertion of radical grace was a notable departure from the sermons I heard as a child. The message I received back then was that the slate got wiped clean at baptism but that every slip thereafter would be indelibly inscribed in a heavenly account book. On Judgment Day, if your good works outweighed your shortcomings, grace might serve as a sort of “bridge loan” that would allow you to make a down payment on a heavenly mansion. But the notion of walking around feeling fully accepted by God was simply not part of the arrangement. Recently, however, grace has made amazing headway among Churches of Christ, particularly those with younger preachers and congregations, often to the disdain of those who fear it will be viewed as a license to sin. That possibility obviously exists, but I can say without hesitation that had I heard such an encouraging message during the first two decades of my life, I would surely have regarded it as Good News.