This week, USA Today published a story about the burgeoning McChurch model of evangelical Christianity, Gannett religion writer Cathy Lynn Grossman’s “Multi-site churches mean pastors reach thousands”. To work within the language, as multimedia “ministries” have proven over the decades, man’s reach–even for the man of the cloth–exceeds his grasp.
Churches, taking a cue from both the hostile takeover/merger model of the early 90s, and the late 90s-early 00s trend of rapid market saturation (see Kreme, Krispy, and Coffee, Bad Seattle), have undertaken efforts to either expand into campus or satellite models or takeover older, struggling church organizations, bringing them under one umbrella. This is no cooperative effort, it is assimilation of resources by ambitious church organizations. The silence of denominational entities regarding such strategies is tantamount to tacit acceptance. After all, most evangelical movements have stalled out in recent years, overt expansion efforts have tanked and the cultural tide continues to turn against Judeo-Christian values.
What’s more, evangelicals, who have in recent memory voted along conservative lines, would likely complain about federal bailouts and federally-orchestrated corporate takeovers during the financial crisis while failing to see that what is happening right now in Christianity is the exact same thing. (In a line of thinking I hope to explore here in the near future, fundamentalist Christianity and neo-liberal politics make for strange bedfellows.)
My point is simple: this is not a healthy development here in the twilight days of Western Civilization. Rather than facing self-inflicted existential problems and addressing the legitimate disconnect between communities of faith and surrounding communities, church leaders have opted for taking over smaller, vulnerable churches. Evangelicals, frankly, are cannibalizing themselves.
And for what? Over what?
First, it’s obvious that the cardinal virtue of modern Christianity is not compassion or religious fervor, but efficiency. This isn’t even a recent trend, as long as Christians have turned to media and broadcasting to get their message out (and I would add, ironically, minimized) we have implied that what really matters to us is our ability to get as many people to view or hear our noise. These McChurches have even re-engineered their auditoria or sanctuaries to accommodate this new pundit model of preaching, galvanizing the importance of populism in a time when populism is already well-entrenched. So, each week, a talking head entertains and informs, while underling pastors take on the messy burden of interacting with people and running the day-to-day operations of a local satellite/campus. Neil Postman would be sharpening his critical carving knives.
Even then, actual populist influence is marginal at best, when church consumers don’t even have to go to church and can subject themselves to as many pulpit pundits as they wish by television, podcast, web stream, radio or blog.
This is hardly a grassroots effort or a groundswell of democratic revival. It is creating churches too big to fail, and crushing the import of the long-held tradition of the sovereign local church; is it then no real surprise that a ‘fellowship’ like the Assemblies of God is making troubling strides toward full denominationalism while its larger churches are taking over floundering or failing churches? It’s ecclesiological fascism, no different from what is happening in Washington in regard to current economic policy.
More bothersome to a gadfly like yours truly, the margin of error in regard to quality teaching of the scripture is slimmed significantly. When the number of voices goes down, so does the correlative buffer (while Grossman doesn’t address this point, the numbers in her work back up the analysis here). Given our propensity for exercising our noetic effects of sin either at or away from the pulpit, the damage caused by even a little leaven with a much larger batch of dough is far too risky for my comfort, and should be for any thoughtful, sincere believer. If a giant like Lehman Brothers was brought to its knees because of some seemingly insignificant bad decisions, or Steve and Barry’s (RIP) or Krispy Kreme oversaturates the market, spreads their supply chain too thin or hits any stretch of bad economy, well, we see what happens. Lehman is gone, Steve and Barry’s is gone, and seven-year-old KK storefronts are either boarded up, torn down or turned into bad Mexican restaurants. (Hey, at least many of these satellites meet in movie theaters or hotel conference centers! Some vote of confidence in the quality of your product.)
So the church becomes even more static and monolithic, more subculturized and less dynamic in a race to see who can impress each other the most at conferences and webinars for others to plagiarize. All the while, the gospel is eschewed in favor of flashy ‘worship services’, video announcements and PowerPoint, funny pastors who tell a bunch of stories and tie it together with a moral that may or may not be actually scripturally authentic.
(Ironically, many church plant efforts are exercises in the exact same thing in an effort to establish themselves. Could it be that the plant wants to be, in all its pubescent glory, treated like a grown-up? Or that these mega-McChurches never matured past their piss-and-vinegar years of adolescent indignation? Are these questions that we particularly care to answer?)
Like Christian television that markets itself as evangelization while primarily catering to people already in the niche, the franchise church is less about the former than it is about centralizing the latter. The aforementioned Assemblies of God, in its “Decade of Harvest” initiative, failed in many ways, but was proud to tout hitting the goal for churches opened in the 1990s. The celebration was unjustified, though, by the fact that more churches closed than they managed to open, creating a net loss. Edith Blumhofer’s reward for pointing this out was banishment from her position as (un-)official historian of the fellowship.
Proving Santayana’s adage true, they’re doing it again, this time with unbelievably raised stakes…
1) In a down economy.
2) With a federal government desperate to find new revenue streams to exploit.
3) Amongst a people who are increasingly disinterested in Christianity in favor of democratic syncretism.
Exactly how is this a sustainable development in the history of the church? How is this any different from people running up their credit cards in the hope that the rapture will come and take them away from their obligations? Never, in the history of American Christianity, has the person, Christian and otherwise, been less important. Never has the Christian consumer been more catered to. Perhaps the two are not unrelated. As we embrace the values that make America rich, powerful and self-important (values that really have little to do with American ideals anyway), we alienate ourselves from the people we are called to reach with the gospel, as well as from the God whose gospel we proclaim.
If it is indeed the onset of winter of the Christian age, I suppose we ought to throw a party. It just so happens to be the Donner party.