Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Megachurches, Evangelism, and Political Implications

The cover story of the May 23rd, 2005 of Business Week profiles a highly traditional organization that has adopted new marketing tactics, corporate hiring practices, and franchising, and most importantly for 1832, a strong right-wing political philosophy, all in an effort to attract new devotees. This would be perfectly normal if the organization wasn’t the evangelical American church. As is, the proliferation of such congregations poses a serious threat to traditional worship based on the Lord’s principles, and the already blurred line of separation between church and state in this country.

Business Week’s article focuses on the “megachurches” that have sprung up in many locations across the country, and the pastors behind them, some of which have adopted the “prosperity gospel” endorsing the pursuit of profit and other material things. An egregious example is Atlanta church leader Creflo Dollar, who pulls up to the pulpit in one of his two Rolls-Royces and preaches by plane from his own Gulfstream III.

Not as offensive, but still questionable, are the strategies used by other megachurch leaders. For example, Willow Creek Church in South Barrington, Illinois eschewed stained glass, Bibles, crosses, and other religious symbols in their new worship center because “(m)arket research suggested that such traditional symbols would scare away non-church goers”. The expose goes on to describe the average Willow Creek sermon as a“self-help program with a positive message intended to make people feel good about themselves”. Whatever happened to feeling good about yourself at church because you knew you were saved?

Perhaps I’m a bit cynical, but it sounds to me like these new churches employ newly minted MBAs and rely on “guerilla marketing” because their true quest is for cash, not the personal salvation of their members. Maybe a better term for “megachurch” would be “un-church”, given the fact that the average sanctuary and facility tends to resemble a theater or an arena rather than a house of worship. In fact, Houston-based huckster Joel Osteen is spending upwards of $90 million to turn that city’s Compaq Center, former home to the NBA’s Rockets, into a 16,000 seat uber-sanctuary.

“Me and mine” attended a Christmas Eve service at a megachurch in Eden Prairie, Minnesota last year at the urging of a family friend, and found an environment lacking inspiration. Sure, we settled in for the service in stadium seating, and there were projection screens with words to the rather modern hymns and images of the guest pastor preaching (the former leader resigned after having an affair with a member, and you can’t make this stuff up), but it just didn’t feel right. Maybe it was the walk to our car (a Six Flags-esque tram would have been more appropriate) or the impersonality of the place (devoid of decoration, and almost impossible to run into a familiar face when 5,000 other congregants roam the halls), but I didn’t see the appeal.

Perhaps just as disturbing as the erosion of traditional worship in favor of “Disney environments”, “marketing whizzes”, and profit is the political indoctrination occurring inside the walls of these bland, large facilities, especially since the Senate is inching closer and closer to a 60-vote Republican majority, which would prevent Democratic filibusters on any issue.

Particularly troubling are some of the new measures that the B-Week article mentions that evangelicals would like enacted into law, measures that would be possible with a 60-person Republican majority. While such traditional wishes like expanded school prayer and a ban on partial-birth abortions are to be expected, the story notes that evangelicals desire new laws that “permit more federal funding for faith-based programs” as well as “laws allowing churches to endorse political candidates”. If these new measures don’t blur the line between church and state, I don’t know what would.

Certainly the highly-publicized ultimatum recently issued by a North Carolina pastor for his parishioners to either vote for Bush or leave the sanctuary crosses that line. Hopefully for the sake of our Constitution, politics and places of worship can remain separated, even if it becomes difficult to tell what these new “places of worship” actually are.