The Megachurch Movement II
Bill Long 10/18/06
Sociological Factors/Style Issues
The previous essay tried to explain the theological or ideological reasons why Megachurches began to emerge in America in the 1980s. I contended in that essay that a combination of Evangelical theology and Fundamentalist political involvement helped fuel their original growth. In this essay, however, I am interested in the social factors which led to the development of these churches.
The first is the mobility of American society and the desire for people who move to establish "instant" connections with others. Megachurches have low barriers to entry, as antitrust lawyers would say, and offer opportunities for engagement without financial or personal risk. When you combine this with and the clever placement of many of these churches--right in the regions where new growth is occurring, you have an almost perfect formula for success.
But Megachurches wouldn't have flourished without a second factor--and that is the loss of "denominational loyality" from American Protestantism. Many Protestants, of course, still see themselves as loyal to a certain "brand" of Protestantism, but most baby boomers gave up denominational loyalty when they abandoned loyalty to a certain brand of gasoline. In other words, you ignore labels and go to the place where you get the best "deal," the best "bang for your (spiritual) buck." The largest designation by far of the Megachurches is "Independent." Even those which are part of a denomination (such as Crystal Cathedral or Saddleback Church), de-emphasize the denominational affiliation. We want religious "bang"; we often don't care where it comes from.
Third, this generation of religious seekers wants a faith that is "relevant." It is interesting to me that this is the term that keeps coming up in surveys about why Megachurches appeal to people. What used to be called "practical Christianity" is now "relevant" Christianity. These two quotations say it all:
"Woman: I think there is a very definite relevance to today: practical application, lifestyle, when it comes to the word of God, really giving us insight as to how to apply that to everyday living.
Man: I just think it’s got great leadership and it makes a message that is thousands of years old, relevant to society today. I think that’s the key to it. It’s a contemporary setting, and it makes the message of Jesus Christ relevant to where people are at in 2005."
The best example of a book discussing a "relevant" faith is Rick Warren's The Purpose Driven Life. Here he lays out what it takes, in his judgment, to live a life pleasing to God in our day.
Finally, the Megachurch gives worshippers a sense of triumphalism--that they, though possibly beleaguered by the world and nearly overwhelmed at times by its wiles, are, when together, a vital and powerful force of thousands. It is harder to get the feel that you are able to triumph in the world when there are just "two or three" gathered in Christ's name.
Style Features of Megachurches
A relevant faith, preached by folksy and often charismatic male pastors, in a brightly-lit auditorium, with upbeat music (whose words are projected on screens around the auditorium), then become features of the "style" of the Megachurch. But most of them are driven, seemingly paradoxically, by small groups. Small groups meet weekly in members' homes or other comfortable places and provide the opportunity to make faith practical, so to speak. These groups study a book of the Bible, a book of practical Christianity (like Purpose Driven Life) or a spiritual classic. Discussions, however, are wide-ranging in small groups. Though some are more faithful than others in "sticking to the text," there is a lot of "sharing of life's stories" and mutual support of members going on. Thus, when a person enters into the auditorium with thousands of other worshippers, s/he is already identified with a group of ten or more and thus has both the small and large community to nourish one's faith.
The Hartford Seminary Foundation project studying the Megachurch also pointed helpfully to some myths about these churches which ought to be dispelled. Most of these churches are not simply mouthpieces for the Republican party or a "hard-right" agenda, though some are. Most of them have ministries of service and even social justice, and emphasize the importance of service to the community and the world as part of one's Christian responsibility. Many still have a tie to denomination or to certain traditions of worship and theology that come out of the Protestant Reformation.
Just as secular writers dream of ways that they might get an endorsement by Oprah Winfrey, so religious writers would love to get into Megachurches and peddle their wares. On on occasion I had the opportunity to do so--promoting my book on the Book of Job in a few forums over a weekend at such a church. The result? More than 165 book sales. For those of you on the outside, you might say, "What's the big deal with that number?" For those of us on the inside of book writing, you say, "Wow!"
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long