By Alexander Samuels
I am not a fan of Mark Morford. I want to make that absolutely clear right at the beginning of this blog post. Who is Mark Morford? He writes a column for the San Francisco Chronicle that appears on Wednesdays and Fridays on SFGate.com. He has been described by the Christian Resource Network (and proudly promoted as such on SFGate.com) as . . . "[A] misguided, lost and carnal individual . . . filled with vexation and ignorance of God [who will] gladly cheer the anti-christ." An alternative weekly newspaper in Detroit, the Metro Times, "endorses" him by saying, "Morford writes like a man possessed by demented angels. His twice-weekly column routinely features jaw-dropping, unflinchingly liberal prose so biting and sweet and innovative it amazes us that a mainstream daily would keep this guy on the payroll."
The reason that I bother to even bring him to your attention is because in his column this past Wednesday titled "Huge crowds, rabid devotees and no Mick Jagger in sight. Are you afraid?" (hat tip to the Christianity Today Weblog) he takes on the topic of mega-churches. He freely admits, by the way, that he has never set foot inside a mega-church.
I warn you that you might find some of the things he has to say offensive. You might ask why I would even bother to discuss a column written by a "demented angel"? Perhaps it is because I have my own doubts about mega-churches. The slick Madison Avenue approach to doing church has always concerned me, and here we have an admitted liberal pagan criticizing the very kind of church that is supposed to attract people like him. I am also concerned that politics can get in the way of the Great Commission. Let us see what Morford has to say:
These huge churches are, in short, redefining the Christian experience in America, growing faster in the past 20 years than even Wal-Mart has been able to destroy small towns and hope.
They are places like the New Life Church, perhaps the most powerful and frightening of all megachurches, home to the famous and heavily shellacked Pastor Ted Haggard and his 11,000 fiery "Left Behind"-addled throngs located in the heart of honey-let's-never-go-there Colorado Springs.
Pastor Ted, that is, with his bright red hot line straight to the White House (he and our sanctimonious, war-happy prez speak at least once a week), Pastor Ted who, along with the snarlingly pious James Dobson of the violently militant Focus on the Family sect of frothy true believers, helped terrify the Federal Communications Commission and slam women's rights and galvanize all those mad throngs of confused Christians to vote to keep Dubya in office all these shockingly impeachment-free years. Praise Jesus.
Because, make no mistake, these are the churches, these are the pastors who help guide White House policy and contaminate American culture and who wish to curdle your creamy progressive openhearted independent-minded soul into rancid cheese. These are the churches for whom BushCo tried to codify homophobia in the U.S. Constitution and for whom he appoints countless right- wing misogynist lower-court judges and nominates a neoconservative Supreme Court justice who is so white and so male and so gleamingly, blindingly conservative he might as well be Dick Cheney and Antonin Scalia's immaculate love child.
Obviously, this guy's political opinions are somewhere to the left of my own, but note how he takes this opportunity to lump conservative politics and Christianity together. For instance, James Dobson is described as "snarlingly pious" and Focus on the Family as "violently militant." But let's get back to Morford and his opinion of mega-churches:
Maybe the appeal is self-explanatory. Maybe you walk into one of these stadium-size God-huts and everyone is forcibly blissed out and everyone is just numbly patriotic and everyone is throwing hand-rolled tubes of nickels (most megachurch parishioners have very low median incomes and little more than a high school education, and the vast majority are as white as bleached teeth) into the giant golden donation vats and snatching up freshly published copies of "He Died for Your Lousy Little Sins So Put Down the Porn and Listen Up, Sicko."
Is this the appeal? The narcotic of delirious crowds? The intoxicating caught-up-in-it-ness? The drug of mass self-righteousness, sterilized and homogenized for easy suppository-like karmic insertion?
Or is it the Jesus-as-megastar thing, with the pastor as the ultimate cover band and his flock a teeming mass of fans who don't really understand the lyrics and get the message almost completely wrong and yet who are, you just know, good and honest people just trying to find their way in a lost and debauched and war-torn land? I saw AC/DC and Iron Maiden on a double bill in Spokane in 1983 and just about saw God. Is that the same thing? No?
Of course, people want to belong. People are desperate to connect to something, anything, bigger than themselves, something that professes to have answers to questions they don't even know how to ask. Especially now, especially when the country's identity is imploding and moral codes are deliciously evolving and we are no longer the gleaming righteous superpower we always thought we were and instead are much more the fat self-righteous playground thug no one likes.
Please note that Morford is aware of the disconnectedness and emptiness in most people's lives—perhaps even his own. He believes, however, like most political liberals, that the correct political agenda will solve all these problems. Unfortunately, some Christians even believe that. He even blames mega-churches for John Kerry not being elected president.
Still, why does Morford choose to pick on mega-churches when he admits that he has never even visited one? Perhaps he sees the mega-business of mega-churches, where pastors often act as chief executives and use business tactics to grow their congregations as a political threat more than anything else.
In this observation, at least, he is probably correct. These churches tend to lean politically "right." Politics aside, mega-churches have problems that are much greater than Morford fears. When it comes to basic Christian theology, there is more and more evidence that these churches are giving up on traditional religious doctrines. Preaching is light and encouraging, without much solid teaching,and no one is held accountable and called a sinner. The simple appealing offer of these mega-churches over more traditional houses of worship is "good times."
Mega-churches may be training up a new generation of Republicans, but as Christians this generation will be totally ignorant of what their faith has to teach them about living for God. The church of Christ is called to be more than just a feel-good community center.