The Last Gasp of Ecclesiastical Triumphalism
Wow! that's a mouthful (or an eyeful). When all I really needed to say to identify my topic is, "Mega Churches."
As one or two of you know, I've spent an inordinate amount of time in retirement worshiping in other people's churches. Some of those churches are deep into what the trade names "church growth." Each visit to such establishments leaves me strangely depressed. Sure, it may be envy, that Pastor Howard never managed in his fifty years to be so successful that additional chairs had to be brought into the sanctuary to accommodate the overflow; that each church I've served always, not just sometimes, but always, struggled to make ends meet and pay the bills. Yes, there may be a tinge of green in my attitude.
On the other hand, I note the depression is associated with an emptiness. That I've gone looking for the strong meat of the Gospel and been handed a paper stick with cotton candy.
Which is understandable, considering the desire in mega churches to pump the numbers. The preacher must be careful not to offend. Controversial issues will do that, so stay away from them. Probing the depths of the human soul, including one's own, is also fraught with all kinds of nasty consequences, if the truth is to be told, however lovingly. As teacher-pundit-homiletics professor Halford E. Luccock explained, I recollect from somewhere, that Jesus never got into trouble preaching about the lilies of the field. Right, what got him a cross was lambasting the Pharisees. And there we are, Pharisees, sitting and praying in the nave (and chancel!) every Sunday.
I suspect that those who willingly subjected themselves to my preaching for any length of Sundays might accuse me of steering away from hot topics like gay marriage and abortion. And that's true. I never considered the pulpit the place to air my own opinions. Jesus' summonses, yes; Bob Howard's peeves, no. But if "my conscience held captive to the Word of God" came upon a subject that needed addressing, then neither hell nor high water could stop me.
This past Sunday morning (09/23/07) I heard a good sermon on a hard text, the parable of the unjust steward, how faithful righteous souls can learn a thing or two from those with Machiavellian strategies. The preacher had obviously wrestled with the text... to wring from it Jesus' meaning. And, by my reckoning, he succeeded. I won't divulge his conclusion unless you ask me to, after struggling yourself with Luke 16:1-13. I left that service with a full soul-stomach, having dined on the strong meat of the Gospel, not a stick of cotton candy.
At the coffee hour, I spoke with a woman similarly nourished. She too had been a church butterfly. The pastor of her church may not have been afflicted with the church growth virus; but he suffered, I am led to believe, from an equally debilitating condition, playing one tune over and over. In her Sunday travels she too had happened upon a mega church or two, and found them unsatisfying.
She didn't say it, but I think I can suggest it was the cotton candy. Like my seminary friend and theologian Douglas Hall postulates about the present moment, in his essays on "The End of Christendom and the Future of Christianity," that what people crave is meaning, something to hold onto and make sense of their lives and the world. Others, famous others, have also observed this hunger for meaning: T. S. Eliot in "Cocktail Party"; Paul Tillich in his description of the tangent of the Gospel with the modern age; or, by negation, Samuel Becket with his "Waiting for Godot."
Meaning: that's not the mega church's stock in trade. Fellowship, sure... well, maybe. Five sure steps to a more abundant life, of course. For that matter, five sure steps to any middle class version of the good life. Feel-good service, certainly. Entertainment, why not? Uplifting music with easy lyrics, hallelujah! But meat and meaning, not likely. The whole truth? Rarely.
As Dr. Hall incisively discerns, the mega church and the numbers game in which it is engaged represent the last throes of a dying ecclesiastical order, once the game played by mainline churches and now, for this moment or two, revived by fundamentalist churches. Triumphalism, Christian domination and hegemony of culture, the burden imposed upon Christianity by the favor of Emperor Constantine long, long ago, is at an end. Most bishops and popes have yet to get the message. But for some time now, ever since 1914 one wise man has speculated, the "Christian Era" has been over... done with.
Father Andrew Greeley, the Catholic priest, sociologist, and novelist, said it all and said it right on a TV interview program years ago, about the church: "We are not called to be successful; we are called to be faithful."
Don't shed any tears for the end of triumphalist Christianity. Maybe, no certainly!, God has something new and better in mind for those who would follow Jesus in this post-modern world. What the precise form will be has yet to emerge. But of one thing I'm sure: the Sunday morning fare will not be cotton candy.