By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
It was God's will.
@body:The first thing you notice about Eagle's Nest is the chairs. There are more than 1,000 of them, in neat rows, and despite that there are four services held every week, they all look plush and new. The gray upholstery is conspicuously unmarred by the permanent depressions that are the inevitable product of hours of contact with a parade of posteriors.
That's because people don't come to Eagle's Nest to sit. They come to move--and be moved.
The church, currently based in a converted warehouse located in a north Scottsdale strip mall/industrial park, is open and airy. In the front is a large bandstand, surrounded by a maze of amplifiers and equipment, a high-tech altar to sound.
Senior Pastor Mike Maiden, who came to Arizona seven years ago from California--where he was a student of Gary Greenwald, a charismatic religion pioneer--says the church's aim is to show people that "God wants us to enjoy life, and Him, through songs."
"By getting into the music, you create an atmosphere of God's presence, where He can be tangibly felt, where He is personally approachable.
"You also create tons of fun."
Whatever else it is, for a music lover, an Eagle's Nest service is fun. The service starts off with an hour or more of supercharged gospel, a period Maiden calls "pressing in," led by the Praise and Worship Team band.
As the songs build in intensity, the faithful often close their eyes, raise their hands and move rhythmically. Some dance and flail about, weeping and crying out, others simply tap their feet. All begin "pressing in" to the song, trying to open their minds and hearts to God.
Participation is a priority. To that end, a tall, white screen stands next to the stage, where the words of songs are displayed so that worshipers may sing along, united in Holy Karaoke.
Maiden, who despite his soft-spoken demeanor bears a resemblance to the late screamin' comedian and sometime-preacher Sam Kinison, says the basic idea is to "release yourself through the music, so that God can reach you and you can reach God." The music is a barrier buster. By listening to bouncing, hard-driving songs, people get excited. And when they get excited, their inhibitions--the walls of "mature" reserve--are broken down. They become high on the music, unafraid to show their real emotions--and to receive guidance and love from Him.
"When you get to that point," Maiden says, "you experience happiness that can't be described."
Many Eagle's Nest parishioners certainly have unique experiences of some sort. For one thing, despite being in church, these people look happy, and none of them are nodding off and drooling into their prayer books.
Eagle's Nest is not for everyone. Those seeking great doctrinal discourse on the eternal questions should probably look elsewhere.
For instance, after the "pressing in" music, there may be a sermon by Maiden--mostly consisting of glittering generalities about love and the importance of "Christ's sacrifice of blood"--that invites fervent murmurs of affirmation from the parishioners. Or, if the band is particularly hot, it may play for the entire two-hour service.
In general, substance takes a back seat to sound and fury. Christianity--Eagle's Nest style--is above all a sensory religion, where spirit mixed with volume is pumped directly into the spinal chord, bypassing the frontal lobes.
And that, believers say, is precisely the point. From the sweat lodge to the steamy, tongue-speaking air of the old-time revival tent, a little raw experience, they say, has proved to be enlightening. And while the question of whether dancing and perspiring for God is a ticket to heaven is a matter open to debate, the joy at Eagle's Nest is palpable.
There are lots of families with kids, and average-looking, middle-class, 9-to-5 folks. The racial makeup reflects Arizona's, with a plurality of whites, but also a substantial number of Hispanics and blacks. The believers are impossible to pigeonhole--well-scrubbed young couples holding hands, wrinkled old men swiveling and gyrating … la Elvis, button-down attorneys shaking and sweating as they stare skyward, all absorbed in divinely martial lyrics like this:
Making war in the heavenlies
Tearing down every high thing
That exalts itself against
The knowledge of God.
The reaction can be as powerful as the sentiment. On one recent night, a young, tee-shirt-clad man with a scruffy beard stands watching and listening to the music. Suddenly, he jerks violently as a spasm seems to shoot up his leg. He then begins pitching and twisting frantically--finally collapsing, weeping, into his chair.
A man nearby raises him to his feet and smiles. Scruffy beard grins back, and they begin happily bopping to and fro, singing and unabashedly proclaiming to the world: We love God. And we love to rock.
Attuned as she is to the sensibilities of what she calls "the secular," i.e., the rest of the world, Nancy Jackson cautions that at first, such behavior may seem bizarre. But she urges outsiders to put it in cultural perspective.
"People get high at football games or in bars all the time, and they get loose and unafraid to jump around, yell and scream, show their innermost feelings. But when they do it while sober for God, society calls it weird.