Thursday, May 19, 2005

Mega-Church article in Harpers, via The Revealer

Sooner or later Jeff Sharlet's two-part examination of the mega-church phenomenon will be read and commented upon throughout the Christian community. Part I, available in the current Harper's Magazine, is also available online at The Revealer, where Sharlet is a principal contributor.

“Church” is insufficient to describe the complex. There is a permanent structure called the Tent, which regularly fills with hundreds or thousands of teens and twentysomethings for New Life’s various youth gatherings. Next to the Tent stands the old sanctuary, a gray box capable of seating 1,500; this juts out into the new sanctuary, capacity 7,500, already too small. At the complex’s western edge is the World Prayer Center, which looks like a great iron wedge driven into the plains. The true architectural wonder of New Life, however, is the pyramid of authority into which it orders its 11,000 members. At the base are 1,300 cell groups, whose leaders answer to section leaders, who answer to zone, who answer to district, who answer to Pastor Ted Haggard, New Life’s founder.

There is a lot to be said for economy of scale, critical mass, social leverage and political influence. But I'm not sure how well the idea relates to faith. Faith connects inversely with threats, uncertainties, doubts and pain. Faith is in some way the opposite of certainty. It is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. The mega-church mission seems to be the replacement of hope with certainty, the realization of seeing instead of squinting to understand the unseen.

I'm unconvinced, but who am I to argue with a wave of spectacular, unalloyed, in-your-face success. The Brownsville Assembley in Pensacola was as close as I ever got to a big church. It was too big for me, except as a visitor. I was impressed with what they had accomplished, but when I tried to imagine myself as a regular member there, I had a hard time seeing how that would be different from being in a big, well-organized club. That was several years ago and it was miniscule compared with today's big churches. I guess I'm just a small-church guy.

Mega-church enterprises are the result of the combined efforts of a lot of good people to create a haven of safety and support for each other. That part appeals to me, in the same way that I have a high regard for the Amish and Bruderhoff communities. I have read about L'Arche communities which seek to incorporate into a larger community those who are, in the old language of the prayerbook "in mental darkness." In very alien environments the protection of a compound has always been used by organized groups, from missionaries to scientific expeditions to military bases.

As protected populations such groups are not only tolerated, but sometimes encouraged by the larger communities in which they are located. The greater community would rather not be aware of groups like the Branch Dravidians or other cult-like outfits who come and go as much as they like as long as they keep to themselves with their crazy behaviors.

In the case of a mega-church, what's not to like about a place where people can swim, exercise and play safely? Where the welcome mat is always out for anybody that wants to join? Indeed, we all know how dangerous the world can be. How corrupt. How full of crazy people. We know the public schools are a cesspool of immorality, watched over by a cadre of teachers and administrators whose mandate to teach competes with other assignments that have nothing to do with education.

Large numbers of people retreat into private schools, gated communities, and surburban or rural settings where they no longer interact daily with the detrius of modern civilization (if we can call a litany of social ills "civilization"). I suppose I see mega-churches as parallels to gated communities.

That's why I like the notion of small churches. Small churches, especially older ones, are the Kingdom's equivalent to tree bark...not too pretty, not very interesting (certainly not exciting), but totally essential, winter and summer, to the survival of the tree. As much as I appreciate the work of mega-churches, I fear for the safety and survival of the little ones. I remember a convesation I had with the rector of a small church. We were discussing the mega-church phenomenon and he pointed out that mega-churches "regard churches like ours as feeder churches." Small churches, not masses of infidels, are the fields of harvest for the big ones. There are a few big fish in small ponds, but I know good people whose little lives and visions could never withstand the gale forces of a big church. That is a population of Christians that I want to see protected. At this point I don't hear anybody speaking for them.

1 comment:

Jim said...

Faith is in some way the opposite of certainty. It is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. The mega-church mission seems to be the replacement of hope with certainty, the realization of seeing instead of squinting to understand the unseen.

Hoots, I agree that faith is certainty and assurance without seeing. But I don't think we can infer that seeing and visible certainty are contradictory to faith. Jesus did not rebuke Thomas for wanting to see his scars; in fact He answered Thomas' request. Then He also blessed those who would believe without seeing.

You know that I have recently blogged about megachurches, questioning whether they are true churches or merely full service Christian corporations. And my conclusion was "maybe," with the point drawn that relationships, not size, define a true church.

To relate this to your post, I think lots of small churches parallel gated communities as much as large ones, and that's why they stay small.

The important thing is for Christians NOT to hide within their own closed communities, but to make sure and "hang out with the wrong crowd" as often as possible.

Blessings to you.