American Christianity in the twenty-first century is preoccupied with church growth. The institutional church is focused on maintaining and expanding the church itself, not on building and expanding the reign of God. As a result, most churches are internally-focused. Evangelism is for the purpose of increasing church membership and church treasuries, not for furthering God’s reign in human society.
This is not to say that megachurches don’t do any work in the area of social justice. Many support soup kitches, help rebuild hurricane devastated areas, and send youth groups on work trips to Appalachia. But, by-and-large, they are politically conservative and focused on their own parishioners’ needs and comfort.
The megachurches are rapidly becoming the model for American Christianity. Even small to medium-sized congregations are trying to emulate them in order to achieve numeric and financial growth. Still, megachurch congregations only represent 1% of the Protestant church landscape.
church growth strategies
Rick Warren, auathor of The Purpose-Driven Life and The Purpose-Drive Church, is the founder and pastor of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California, a congregation averaging 22,000 weekly attendees on a 120-acre campus.
Warren leads church-growth seminars based on Saddleback’s experience. Over 45,000 pastors and church leaders from 63 different denominations in 42 different countries have attended. Warren’s book The Purpose Driven Church and the related publications of Saddleback’s literature ministry have influenced tens of thousands more who have never attended any of his seminars.
the Saddleback model
According to Warren, the following must occur in order to transform a traditionally-styled church of any size into one that can boast dramatic growth:
- A contemporary-styled “seeker service” aimed at drawing in the unchurched from the community must replace traditional Sunday worship
- The dress must be casual
- The music must be contemporary, replacing the organ with a band and using the choir as a backup for soloists
- The message must be positive, dealing with self-esteem, interpersonal relationships, and motivation for success
- The ministries of the church must be geared to meeting the needs and special interests of those who attend throuigh small support groups that bring together people with shared needs or similar interests
- A spirit of compromise must prevail focused on what works, what is least offensive, and what is positive and uplifting
Warren encourages his seminar attendees to view Saddleback Church as a model for their respective ministries and to use as much or as little of his strategy as they deem worthwhile. He cautions that unless the main aspects of the program are incorporated (the contemporary style and positive-only content of the message, music and program) then the resultant growth will be something far less than dynamic.
Many Christians speak of Jesus as their “personal Lord and Savior,” much as they would speak of a personal trainer or a personal shopper. Jesus serves their needs. He no longer calls them to serve others.
Bill McKibben observes that in megachurches such as Saddleback:
“The pastors focus relentlessly on you and your individual needs. Their goal is to service consumers—not communities but individuals: ‘seekers’ is the term of art, people who feel the need for some spirituality in their (or their children’s) lives but who aren’t tightly bound to any particular denomination or school of thought. The result is often a kind of soft-focus, comfortable, suburban faith.”
the largest megachurch
The latest “star” in the megachurch movement is Joel Osteen, TV evangelist and pastor of the nondenominational Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas. Osteen claims the nation’s largest congregation with over 30,000 members.
Osteen preaches an extremely popular human-potential, self-esteem, self-help, “feel good” theology. It was so successful that Lakewood eventually had to hold six weekly services in its 7,800-seat sanctuary before moving to a new facility in July 2005. Lakewood purchased the colossal Compaq Center, formerly home of the NBA’s Houston Rockets. After a whopping $95 million in renovations, the Compaq Center now houses Osteen’s empire and can seat over 16,000 at one time. The New York Times reported Lakewood’s 2004 revenue at $55 million.
(Note: After Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in August 2005, Lakewood refused to house evacuees in its new facility.)
In 2004, Osteen published a best-selling book titled Your Best Life Now: Seven Steps to Living at Your Full Potential. Osteen advertises his book repeatedly during his television ministry broadcasts. He appeals to the American fixation on self-improvement, on self-esteem, on self.
In its review, Publishers Weekly wrote: “Although the first chapter claims that ‘we serve the God that created the universe,’ the book as a rule suggests the reverse: it’s a treatise on how to get God to serve the demands of self-centered individuals.”
A reviewer at Amazon.com made this comment: “Where in the Bible does it say that God accepted the form of humanity in the person of Christ, came to earth, taught for three years, and then was mercilessly executed for the purpose of making us rich and happy?”
comforting the comfortable
As Bill McKibben writes:
“The tendencies I’ve been describing—toward a comfort-the-comfortable, personal-empowerment faith—veil the actual, and remarkable, message of the Gospels. When one of the Pharisees asked Jesus what the core of the law was, Jesus replied:
‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’
“Love your neighbor as yourself: although its rhetorical power has been dimmed by repetition, that is a radical notion, perhaps the most radical notion possible. Especially since Jesus, in all his teachings, made it very clear who the neighbor you were supposed to love was: the poor person, the sick person, the naked person, the hungry person.
“American churches, by and large, have done a pretty good job of loving the neighbor in the next pew. A pastor can spend all Sunday talking about the Rapture Index, but if his congregation is thriving you can be assured he’s spending the other six days visiting people in the hospital, counseling couples, and sitting up with grieving widows. All this human connection is important. But if the theology makes it harder to love the neighbor a little farther away—particularly the poor and the weak—then it’s a problem. And the dominant theologies of the moment do just that. They undercut Jesus, muffle his hard words, deaden his call, and in the end silence him. In fact, the soft-focus consumer gospel of the suburban megachurches is a perfect match for emergent conservative economic notions about personal responsibility instead of collective action. Privatize Social Security? Keep health care for people who can afford it? File those under ‘God helps those who help themselves.'”
There are real problems in the watering-down of the gospel and in the packaging of Christianity as entertainment.
William Sloane Coffin once said:
“We Christians mean well—feebly. We may be repelled by materialism, but we are caught up in it. We are troubled by widespread poverty, but we overly esteem wealth. In short, ours generally is a superficial religious identity, and a superficial religious identity is just that—superficial.”
personal and private religion
The Christian churches of America have de-emphasized the central message of the Gospels—social justice and concern for the poor. Today, Christianity has largely become a personal and private religion. Individual (usually sexual) morality has become far more important to church leaders than the immorality of an unjust society. Christians spend far more time condemning abortion or homosexuality than working for justice among the world’s poor.
Jesus spent most of his ministry in the company of “sinners,” such as prostitutes and tax collectors. While the Pharisees and religious leaders of the day condemned Jesus for his emphasis on forgiveness and his association with these so-called sinners, Jesus in turn condemned the Pharisees and their supporters for their emphasis on judgment, their apparent self-righteousness, and lack of compassion. He told them “Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God.” (Luke 11:42) The Christian church in America is largely a Pharisaic religion. We are tithing mint and dill, but neglecting God’s call to justice.
There are real problems in the watering-down of the gospel and in the packaging of Christianity as entertainment. There’s always a danger when Christian gospel is shaped to appeal to the dominant forms in a culture. When this happens, Jesus is frequently found missing.