Home > Current Events, Media > “It’s hard to find God in a megachurch” and other stories

“It’s hard to find God in a megachurch” and other stories

Intelligence Squared sponsored a dial-in debate between journalist Mollie Ziegler Hemingway and “megachurch and leadership expert” Dave Travis [blog] on the premise “It’s hard to find God in a megachurch” [link, free registration required]. The introduction for the debate doesn’t look promising; apart from some soundbites (Robert Schuller, Eddie Long, George W. Bush, Ted Haggard) there’s this definition:

The evangelical movement has a globally influential role, and the megachurches are an important element of it. They have huge congregations with inspirational, charismatic pastors. They are run like businesses and, it might seem, often with rather business-like objectives of raising funds and satisfying customers.

Hemingway gets off on the wrong foot from the start:

Most notably, the size and charisma aspects affect the relationship of the pastor to his congregation. These features require for lowest common denominator preaching; it becomes based on ‘You’, rather than Christ.. Equally, sacramental worship is not feasible with a congregation of 2,000 people. In small congregation churches, members are active. In megachurches, the audience is passive, consuming rather than engaging with gospel entertainment.

Yes, there are problems when the relationship between the preacher and church is out of whack, but she trots out the “big/passive, small/active” red herring: neither of these is necessarily true. And while her point about “gospel entertainment,” whatever that is, is probably apt, she’s made the mistake of making the conservative Lutheran method of worship standard so everything else is deviant.

The problem of America’s churches is that they’re market driven, but megachurches are market driven on steroids.

I have no idea what “market driven on steroids” means; this sounds like a fancy way of saying “very market driven” or “very very market driven.” And of course it begs the question “market driven as opposed to what?”

Hemingway is offering the usual talking points here, as if the alternatives in the megachurch debate were the LCMS standard on one side and Joel Osteen on the other. Briefly: not everyone outside a megachurch is looking to “receive sacraments for the forgiveness of sins” and not everyone in a megachurch is looking for “your best life now.” I’m disappointed in her presentation and don’t think it was effective, especially once she conceded that church size isn’t the problem.

Dave Travis on the other hand offers a fairly standard set of church growth arguments: “we took a survey, here are some results, lo and behold they support our model of church.”

Here’s part of his opening argument:

People are moving from small to big institutions in every sector of America’s society. In the church, this is not necessarily an obstacle to a healthy relationship with Christ; it just creates a different one. Yes, in megachurches, preaching is simpler in approach than smaller churches, but accessibility to doctrine does not make it un-challenging. In fact, megachurches preach what is relevant to the congregation.

I’m not sure how the first two sentences are related to one another; if there’s a causal connection between other institutions getting bigger and churches getting bigger I don’t see it. He concedes that megachurch preaching is simple and includes mention of the relevance of the text to the believer, but doesn’t point out any differences between sermons that are relevant to the believer and sermons that are consumer-centered. It’s a weak presentation, but Travis is mostly stuck responding to the moderators’ opening comments and Hemingway’s opening comments.

Travis doesn’t handle a question about pastoral accountability well; he answers a poorly-presented question about congregants in a small church engaging in question and answers with the pastor by saying megachurch pastors take feedback via websites and response cards. He also interacts poorly with a question about authoritarian preachers.

Hemingway responds to the same question by presenting the same lousy argument “churches should be defined by creeds and sacraments, not market research” and equivocates between creeds and sacraments on the one hand and Scripture on the other. I don’t know what if anything Hemingway can say about churches that are neither focused on creeds and sacraments nor driven by market research.

I think Travis misses an obvious knock-out punch that goes like this: The Hartford Institute, which provides definitions and lists for American megachurches, lists 1408 churches that meet its criteria. Of these seven are part of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod [link]; does Hemingway’s analysis apply to these? If so then all her bluster about creeds and sacraments is nonsense; if not then her distinction she’s making above is invalid.

I hate to say it, but I don’t see a winner here; neither party actually interacts with the premise. Hemingway’s argument is just special pleading, and she grows increasingly shrill as the discussion progresses. Travis comes closer to interacting with the premise by relating survey results about church attenders’ impressions of their relationship with God, but never suggests that there’s any way to close the gap between those results and an actual God. Hemingway can’t seem to see past her tradition. It’s a mess.

On the whole I’m left wondering if there is any common ground between the two sides, and whether this is an issue a debate can resolve. I would recommend listening to this debate anyway; 25 minutes isn’t very long to sort out issues like this, but it’s helpful to hear where the discussion is now (nowhere, mostly). As I said several months ago, this still sounds like a dialog between a dead church and a dying church to me.

In other news, Dee at The Wartburg Watch offered a take on Cruise With A Cause 2011 a couple of weeks ago [link]; her comments cover some of the same ground I covered [link], from a different angle and somewhat more pointedly. She also points out that the online biography for Ergun Caner appears to mix in elements of his brother Emir’s biography.

And finally: I found myself awake between 1:30AM and 2:30AM and ended up taking a peek at the KAZQ [link] overnight offerings. They offer GOD TV [link] as a second OTA digital signal (Digital channel 32.2) and on their primary signal in the wee hours. I got to sample the late Barry Smith’s program Mystery Babylon [link, link]; it caught my interest when I saw the word “Weishaupt” on the whiteboard behind Smith and heard his Kiwi accent. His presentation was a fairly typical fast-and-loose “Freemasons are apostate; Freemasons run the English-speaking world” presentation. Highlights included

  • Smith’s claim that floor tiles in contrasting colors, especially in black and white, in public buildings, are a secret Freemason symbol
  • Smith’s claim that certain hand gestures require Masonic judges to free Masonic criminals
  • A dissection of the symbols on the back of a one-dollar bill that sounded even stranger with a Kiwi accent

GOD TV currently offers two or three episodes of Barry Smith programming a night and another in the afternoon; Joe Bob says check it out.

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