Bill Bishop’s 2008 book The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-minded America is Tearing Us Apart isn’t a great book. I’d hesitate to call it a good book. But the chapter he devotes to Donald McGavran, Rick Warren, and explorations of the Homogeneous Unit Principle in the Church Growth movement is well worth the time it would take to track down this book at your local public library and read the 21-page chapter titled Religion: The Missionary and the Megachurch.
Bishop’s book is narrower and easier to read than Richard Florida’s The Rise of the Creative Class and Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, but it more or less documents the same basic cultural shift: about 1965 something happened in the United States and evidence began to surface that people had lost faith in traditional institutions: political parties, mainline churches, fraternal organizations, trade unions, and yes, bowling leagues. Now forty years later the mass of free agents created in the two generations after this shift have/are reorganizing themselves in new ways that bode ill/well for the distant future depending on your point of view. The reference points that this narrative interpolates are all from the social sciences: experiments in psychology labs, surveys, and data mining from pools of existing or byproduct data.
For someone like me with a background in mathematics and harder sciences this stuff makes me a bit queasy when it calls itself “science.” It just isn’t. As Ian Shoales once said: “If taking surveys is so scientific, where’s the control group?” But I digress.
Donald McGavran is of course the father of the modern Church Growth movement. He was a more or less failed missionary in India when he heard from Bishop J. Waskom Pickett the story of Ditt, a man from the Chuhra caste in Punjab, who became a Christian, and through whose efforts in his family, village, and caste converted most of his caste between the 1870s and about 1915. The realization that this sort of social-network-borne evangelism worked transformed missionary practices, in Bishop’s story, from being centered in missionary schools and hospitals that were primarily outposts of a kind of religious colonialism to being centered in “peoples.”
McGavran brought this idea home to Fuller Theological Seminary, codified it in the language of the social sciences, and it gelled as the Church Growth movement. Bishop also tells the story of how this idea came to Warren, and how it serves as a prime example (for Bishop) of how it created the modern megachurch, both as something with a strong internal identity and (more importantly to Bishop) as an identity separate from the outside world.
Bishop (spoiler alert!) is a political liberal, and tells the story of the transformation of missionary work from services (schools and hospitals) to evangelism in the language of modern theological liberals, by casting it as Public Protestantism (social services, good works) vs. Private Protestantism (evangelism, good theology). As such he has kind of a tin ear for the conservative elements of the narrative; so when he refers to theological conservatives thinking evangelism is “the better way to make the world a better place” it’s clear that he’s stuck in his own frame of reference and as such doesn’t understand anything that doesn’t make sense in that context.
I mean after all everybody knows that theological conservatives aren’t primarily concerned with making the world a better place.
It’s helpful to have this background on paper when hearing contemporary discussions of “purpose-driven churches” and the Church Growth movement generally; its critics are so rooted in their own point of view it’s sometimes hard to tell what they’re so upset about. E.g. when Paul Washer engages in this sort of vague hyperbole
What does Jerusalem have to do with Rome? And what do we have to do with all these modern day social sciences that were actually created as a protest against the Word of God? And why is it that evangelism and missions and so called church growth is more shaped by the anthropologist, the sociologist and the Wall Street student who is up on every cultural trend? [link]
It’s helpful to have some idea what he’s talking about.
A few weeks ago over at Phoenix Preacher in one of his Linkathon postings Brian Daugherty asked why we don’t see more “Why I Am Not A Calvinist” or “Why I Am Not Reformed” postings on various blogs. It’s a fair question, and one that has been much on my mind.
It isn’t a subject I want to wade into very deeply now, but I think if I had to I might start with something like “because I would go out of my mind hearing a sermon out of Romans every Sunday.” But that’s hardly an adequate answer, and it’s not what I want to talk about today.
If instead I had to put together a list of reasons why I’m not a Missouri Synod Lutheran, I might start with a couple of recent sermon reviews from Issues Etc.:
- A review of what appears to be a sermon from Saddleback Church on “The Daniel Plan” diet program [mp3], featuring Chris Rosebrough
- A review of a sermon by Brent Kuhlman on 1 Corinthians 2:1-12 [mp3, link]
I’ll give you a clue up front: Wilken and Rosebrough hate the first sermon, while Wilken doesn’t just love the second sermon, but recommends it as a pattern for every sermon.
The first sermon (if you can call it that) is a discussion by Rosebrough and Wilken of Rick Warren’s endorsement of a diet plan based on the story of Daniel and his fellow captives and their choice not to eat the king’s food, but to eat only vegetables and drink only water (Daniel 1). Let me be clear: I think it would be a great idea for many of my fellow Christians (including myself) to get a grip on their calorie intake, be mindful eaters, etc. I think it’s a great spiritual discipline, and a defense against the sin of gluttony. That being said, I can’t agree with Warren’s approach here. I don’t think this is appropriate use of the pulpit, and I’m embarrassed for Warren and Saddleback.
But I can’t take the tack Rosebrough and Wilken take here; I don’t hear Warren suggesting that losing weight gets a person into Heaven, and that’s what they say he’s saying by responding to this with the neat soundbite “there are lots of skinny people in Hell.” They’re right to call Warren out for connecting God’s blessings with our “blessability,” or whatever, but their analysis is all wrong. I think they’ve misunderstood what he’s saying, so their response is unhelpful. Fleeing various sins is part of the process of sanctification, not a part of salvation, and I’m surprised to hear them responding to this as if Warren were saying it is.
I hesitate to mention that when Wilken has a Roman Catholic guest on Issues Etc. he doesn’t cover this same ground, where it would seem to be more appropriate. But I digress.
By way of contrast, Wilken highly recommends Kuhlman’s sermon. The core of the text is Paul’s quote that when he was in Corinth he was “determined to know nothing among you except Christ, and Him crucified.” Wilken interprets this to mean that every sermon should be about Jesus’s death on the Cross as the sufficient sacrifice for our sins. This is apparently orthodox Lutheran teaching, at least in the LCMS. I tend to understand this text as being a description of Paul’s description of his intent when he was visiting the young, vulnerable, worldly, etc. Corinthian church and not as a basis for a universal directive applicable to all believers at all times in all places. It’s indicative, not imperative. Also, I think this reading is contrary to the spirit and intent of Paul’s letter; I consider his letter to be a sermon, since it was meant to be read openly before the church, and Paul deals with many issues in addition to soteriology.
Beyond that, Kuhlman’s sermon makes me cringe. He trots out straw men, and lousy ones at that. He belabors familiar and accepted points in a funny voice. And Wilken’s analysis of Kuhlman’s sermon compounds the problem by drawing a false dichotomy between Kuhlman and straw men of his own. I have to suggest that when Wilken suggests that the only choices for preaching style are either what he and Kuhlman have to offer and ear-tickling consumer-driven pablum he’s at best oversimplifying and at worst condemning other Christians on the basis of the teaching of men.
I have to admit that if I had to sit through a sermon like this every Sunday I would go out of my mind. The only rationale I can imagine for doing this week after week would be the mistaken (and I dare say mystical) belief that simply hearing Scripture read is a means of grace, and the text itself doesn’t matter, etc. Wilken suggests that he has been accused (conveniently by unnamed accusers) of creating fat, lazy, spoiled Christians by preaching the same sermon every Sunday. Let me be one of them: I believe preaching the same thing every Sunday dulls the soul and stunts spiritual growth. I can’t imagine why anyone else can’t see this too.
The Grassley staff report written by Pattara and Barnett [PDF] also cites some of the history of the way the pastoral housing allowance has run afoul of the IRS in the past. The pastoral housing allowance, for those just joining us, is a provision in the tax code that allows “ministers of the gospel” to receive money from their churches tax-free as a housing allowance; it is meant to parallel the tax-free benefit received by pastors who have use of a parsonage paid for by their church.
The examples cited by the staff report are meant to summarize the case law, and are not intended to be representative either of typical use of the allowance or of extreme uses of the allowance. Here’s a quick rundown:
- 1987: PTL was paying not less than $2000 a month to Jim Bakker as a housing allowance, plus picking up his utility bill, which ran $1000-2000 a month. That’s a really soft number, but it works out to at least $36000 a year for a $1.3 million house.
- 1993: Leroy Jenkins was using a parsonage in Ohio and taking the allowance for a second house in Florida where he was spending most of his time conducting crusades. The IRS denied the allowance for the Florida house. No amounts are given.
- 1995: Walter V. Grant was taking $175,000 a year as a housing allowance before he was imprisoned for tax evasion.
- 1993-5: Rick Warren takes allowances ranging from $76,300 to $84,278 as a housing allowance each year for a house purchased in 1992 for $360,000.
The court case surrounding the Warren allowance mushroomed (pages 13-15) and ended up in front of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals [link] where Establishment Clause issues were raised and not entirely resolved; one of the results was the Clergy Housing Allowance Clarification Act of 2002 (CHACA) [link]
In other words, Mr Southard’s tax attorney would have you believe that the fair rental price plus utilities for a $2.3 million house in Newport Beach was $11,000 a month.
This brings up two more issues: 1) apparently anyone can be a “minister of the gospel” for tax purposes provided they have a church to pay them; the Grassley staff point out that Paul Crouch of TBN fame ordains various station managers and department heads to this end, and 2) the allowance is not capped.
This certainly seems like a lot of money, especially when compared to the national average:
Note that the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the average housing expenditure for all households in the United States in 2007 was $16,920. (page 14)
Remember that the Rick Warren we’re talking about here, who is taking a $6000-7000 a month housing allowance isn’t the best-selling author we know today. That didn’t happen until 2002 [link]. In 1994 he was just a megachurch pastor from California.
I have a hard time making sense of these numbers; if I had to estimate my own housing costs they’d come out somewhere near the 2007 average. I’ve been to a couple of pastors’ houses here in the Santa Fe area, and while they were nicer than mine, etc. it’s hard to imagine that their expenditures were twice mine (say $32,000 a year). I have a hard time believing that any pastor needs a million-dollar house, and an even harder time believing that if he needs a million-dollar house that he should be able to pay for it and maintain it tax-free.
Even allowing for that it’s hard to comprehend a preacher taking 90% or more of his compensation in the form of a housing allowance. That seems dishonest both to the letter and the spirit of the law. I think if I were attending a church where the pastor were taking even a $50,000 tax-free housing allowance it would give me pause.
Anyway, in conclusion, I hesitate to mention this now, but we will need to think about what this means later when we come back to the case of Joyce Meyer; it’s important to remember that she’s the star pupil of the Grassley investigation for having made some changes and joined the ECFA, so it may be helpful to look at how she treats the housing allowance.
As I’ve said before, it’s a perilous thing to visit someone else’s church, and it’s doubly perilous to talk about it in public. I tend to visit churches when I travel, partly to see what’s going on in the Church Universal, partly because I’m not entirely happy with the church I attend most regularly, and partly because I sometimes visit a church looking for something in particular. One of the grave dangers in visiting a church is to have in one’s head a picture of how everything should go, and to criticize everything that doesn’t measure up to that standard. Another grave danger is to decide that whatever a group of people who call themselves Christians want to do is okay and there’s nothing left to do but describe what group X is doing.
It turns out there aren’t lots of guides online to visiting churches. There are some interesting points from the Ship of Fools Mystery Worshipper columns [link], but they seem to be most appropriate for people with Anglican or UK Catholic expectations. There’s a guide for visiting Episcopal Churches for non-Episcopalians [link], courtesy of a real estate company in Tennessee. There’s a list of ten tips courtesy of a layman of the United Church of Canada [link]. And there’s David Cloud’s 2003 visit to Saddleback [link]. And that’s about it, so far as I can tell.
It’s my general impression that in a random church most of the people there would be somewhere else if they knew where to go. So it’s not fair to wonder why, after visiting a particular church, to wonder why anyone puts up with what I’ve just seen week after week. It’s because they don’t know what else to do. Or they’re afraid to leave. Or they’re resigned to staying. Or they have some commitment to the church that keeps them there. People who actually love their church and look forward to going back week after week are rare.
It’s important to remember when visiting a church that there are things that are essential and things that are not essential, and it’s important to keep the distinction between the two clear. For example, I don’t particularly like contemporary music; I was raised on a series of Baptist hymnals, and I’m accustomed to four-part harmony pitched so I can sing along, with verse-chorus distinctions. And I don’t think it’s necessary to sing every verse of a given song; sometimes the most beautiful words in the English language are “third verse as the last.” But I have to remember e.g. that there’s nothing necessarily wrong with guitars in church, and repetition, while occasionally tedious, isn’t actually evil.
Finally, every church has something weird going on, something unhealthy or wrong-headed, and there’s nothing innately wrong with pointing it out. It’s just vital to do so gently and without scorn. And it’s helpful to do so without Christianese if possible: i.e. no “they shame the Word of God with their lack of attention to its teachings” when “the sermon was only ten minutes long” would do.