Rob Stennett's debut novel is a hilarious yet poignant tongue-in-cheek look at the megachurch phenomenon and one man's skyrocketing ascent to pastor stardom. Ryan Fisher is a Denver realtor who needs more business (a timely theme for today's marketplace!). While flipping through the cable channels, he hears the factoid that there are 80 million evangelical Christians in America. All of them, he figures, need a house.
After placing a “Jesus fish” ad in the Christian business directory, his business increases. But soon Ryan realizes he has to back up his new ad by joining a church. When he does, and sees the pastor in action and tries on the role himself around town (with people he doesn't know), he wonders if he couldn't launch his own megachurch. “If there was a church with a sharp professional website, a prime location, a clean memorable brand, and a focused mission statement, it could compete, couldn't it?”
High on a power trip, he decides that he could. Ryan and his wife, Katherine (who are trying to have a baby without success), move to Bartlesville, Oklahoma, and begins “The People's Church” in a Chuck E. Cheese outlet on Sunday mornings (the first Sunday the curtains won't close, and he preaches in front of the mechanical rodent band). Seventeen people show up. Cowboy Jack, who sings on karaoke night for free beer at the Greasy Spork, is recruited as the worship leader. He specializes in writing Christian lyrics that he sets to old rock-and-roll tunes. Ryan decides that if he's going to run a church, he needs to model it after a talk show --- its own look, feel and personality. He settles on an Oprah-like model, whereby the church interviews someone who is having trouble that the church can help solve, and then has his members focus on random works of kindness around town.
But Ryan's touchy-feeling, do-good theology catches on around town, and before he knows it, he's drawing big crowds. Nearly one in ten of the population of Bartlesville is attending The People's Church. Trouble is nipping at Ryan's heels, however. Cowboy Jack and Katherine find each other a little too attractive, a religious fundamentalist wants to kill Ryan, Oprah wants Ryan for her show, and local church pastors who don't like seeing their own numbers dwindle and undertake some background research on Ryan. Before long, things fall apart. Ryan admits that he's not a Christian, even though he's pasturing a large new church. “But I'm what Christians need: I'm their new voice….I'm making Christianity more palatable,” he tells Katherine.
The fresh narrative style coupled with funny footnotes throughout set this novel apart from the usual Christian fiction fare. Rob Stennett, an award-winning screenwriter and a playwright, knows how to craft a good scene, and the pacing never falters as the story pushes to its inevitable conclusion.
Bonus features include Sheriff Summersby's rib-tickling, color-coded crime handbook for Bartlesville (“Code Beige: Public nuisance after 3 p.m.”), Cowboy Jack's Songbook (including Britney Spears’s “Save Me Jesus One More Time” and Will Smith's “Getting' Jesus Wit It”), an hilarious author Q&A and an excerpt from Stennett's next novel, THE END IS NOW, due out in 2009. This sparkling addition to Christian fiction will provide plenty of thoughtful introspection about churches, worship services and pastors today even while it succeeds as pure entertainment.
Reviewed by Cindy Crosby on May 27, 2008