Over the past few years I have been fortunate to hold subscriptions to both Christianity Today and Christian Century magazines. I don’t always do the best job staying on top of my stack of publications, but over the past two weeks I have carved out time during my day to browse through my collection and learn more about the current state of Christian world. Over the next few days I’ll be commenting on a few of the articles I found intriguing.
First among the articles I found of note was a Christianity Today piece in the August 2009 (current) issue entitled, “Mega-mirror: Megachurches are not the answer or the problem.” I grew up in a large church in an East Texas town, and have served as a volunteer or staff person in three different large churches since college. The CT article briefly captures the ethos of the American megachurch, references recent studies that have grabbed headlines from major media outlets (such as this Hartford Institute For Religion Research report, “Not Who You Think They Are: The Real Story of People Who Attend America’s Megachurches”), and draws parallels to the ways overseas missionaries adapt themselves to the culture in which they minister so that they might share Christ. In the same way for megachurches in this country, the CT article concedes that, “In corporate America, it may be necessary to use the ethos of marketing to gain a gospel hearing.”
This proposition has been, and continues to be, quite seductive. In an effort to make inroads into the world of suburban, middle to upper professionals, church leaders have adapted the best techniques of the marketplace to build a constituency. Most churches who have implemented marketing techniques have appealed most to the power-brokers of our communities, and, as the CT article acknowledges, have yielded success. And I concede that this is a good thing. But along the way, I have questioned whether such techniques, or means, in the end, can be justified by the type of person (Christian) that they produce.
After acknowledging that American megachurches have achieved some good by adapting themselves to the culture, CT issues a challenge. CT returns to those missionaries working overseas, who, in cultures where polygamy was practiced, were willing to tolerate such an idea for the first generation, but by the second generation were working to teach fidelity between one husband and one wife in marriage. The piece raises the question as to whether the cultural adaptations made by America’s megachurches to reach the masses have resulted in a loss of “gospel culture,” and challenges megachurch leaders to consider how their second generation ministries might shift away from business and consumer language.
CT cites a number of familiar but disturbing findings from the “Not Who You Think They Are” study (sponsored by Leadership Network), highlighting that megachurch attenders are:
- younger (young and single adults are more attracted to megachurches than to smaller churches);
- transient (nearly two-thirds have been in these churches fewer than five years); and
- passive (45 percent of them never volunteer at church).
CT states, “Spiritual consumerism is clearly one reason the megachurch attracts so many–and one reason many wonder what type of faith people are being discipled into.”
The CT article then takes an interesting turn. The editors chose to cite that, when the data is analyzed more closely, it can be demonstrated that the megachurch is “more like a megaphone,” amplifying the reality of the American church as a whole. The article states that most medium-sized and smaller churches “are not that much different in demographics,” and even goes so far to say that “many a small church chases after ‘strategies and programs’ that can ‘meet spiritual needs’ and ‘multiply effectiveness.’” Stated differently, CT simply believes that “business culture” is far more dominant than “biblical culture” in our churches, and those pointing a finger at megachurches as either the problem or heralding them as the solution have failed to recognize systemic shortcomings that plague us all. After challenging the reader to admit that all churches fall short of God’s glory, the article ends by saying, “Once we all admit that, the Spirit can start working with us to create a gospel culture in our churches.”
In response, I have to ask, “What exactly is a gospel culture?”
While the CT piece borderlines on being prophetic, in the end I was disappointed. The reader was told that “business-like” and “consumer-driven” megachurch ministries are problematic. But in the final three paragraphs it seemed as though those ministries, who in their second and third generations should be shifting toward a new ethos in ministry, are simply let off the hook underneath the umbrella of “we are all broken.” It seems as though the CT article points to the reality that there is another way to think of ourselves ecclesiastically, and that there is another way for us to exist as the church in America that is in greater accord with the gospel, but, in the end, does not provide us with even a hint of how that might be accomplished. We are only given the vague appeal for “gospel culture.” I understand that there is an appeal to the Spirit, but the writer(s) also say that the Spirit will “work with us.” So, what are we to do?
When I have engaged in discussions with large-church leaders (and even smaller church leaders) who are extremely market-driven I have found that the greatest limitation to their ability to move beyond the “salesmanship” mentality is either that of imagination or that of faith. Many leaders do not believe that a message that is unsensational or lacking in hype will result in the growth of the church. Without cool graphic work, excellent promotional videos, or email marketing heralding the next thing at the church as “the most exciting and best thing we have ever done,” there is a fear that people will be bored, they will disengage, and they will be lost forever, as though the work of bringing people to Jesus had everything to do with the leader and their ability to manipulate the environment, and little to do with the power and grace of God.
If the CT article is right, that “Each American church in its own way has been co-opted and fallen short of the glory of God,” I pray that we as leaders would have the imagination and the faith to dream that things can be different, and rather than throw up our hands in despair, continuing on in our old patterns, I pray that we would begin to work toward what a gospel culture might truly be, acknowledging that a result resembling that dream would not be to our own glory, but to the One who called us and sustains us.