Saturday, August 06, 2005

Mega-church Critic

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.

15 Comments:

At Saturday, August 06, 2005 9:51:00 AM, Blogger Roch101 said...

"and no one is held accountable and called a sinner."

And, after all, what good is church without some old fashioned stone throwing.

 
At Saturday, August 06, 2005 11:19:00 AM, Blogger Mickey McLean said...

When you come to this blog, Roch, you are in effect trying to hold us accountable for what we believe, right? Sometimes your criticism makes us think, and in the end makes us better Christians and better neighbors here in Blogsboro. It's the same way in the church: We are all sinners and need to hold one another accountable in our sin. If we don't, who will?

 
At Saturday, August 06, 2005 12:55:00 PM, Anonymous Alex said...

Roch101,

Maybe I am just a "stone throwing" kind of guy. I just don't believe that calling people to accountability is throwing stones. No one likes to endure criticism, but is all criticism "stone throwing?" I am no Martin Luther, but the Catholic Church would have done well to give his 95 "stones" a serious hearing. Criticism from within the church is often hard to take by other Christians, but when we fail to give it a serious hearing (especially if it is based on the Word of God) we tend to miss God's plan and purpose.

 
At Saturday, August 06, 2005 4:50:00 PM, Blogger Roch101 said...

"We are all sinners and need to hold one another accountable in our sin. If we don't, who will?"

Um, God?

John 8:7

 
At Saturday, August 06, 2005 5:55:00 PM, Blogger crallspace said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

 
At Saturday, August 06, 2005 6:16:00 PM, Blogger Mickey McLean said...

If we wait until God holds us accountable, Roch, it will be too late. We're not talking about harsh judgment here, like stoning someone to death; we're talking about gently helping our Christian brothers and sisters stay on track. This is especially important for a pastor, as a shepherd tending to his flock. (See Galatians 6:1.)

 
At Saturday, August 06, 2005 6:26:00 PM, Anonymous Alex said...

Well Dan, if you ever get to present your petition, be careful of that "violently militant focus on the family sect." They may try to brain wash you.

 
At Sunday, August 07, 2005 12:41:00 AM, Blogger George said...

Mickey, I enjoy reading and sometimes posting on this blog, principally because of the kinds of posts that this one exemplifies. Thank you for this interesting discussion.

In spite of the respect that I have when I read your postings, I do shudder at your occasional over-simplification of what liberals believe. For example, you say that "He[Morford] believes, however, like most political liberals, that the correct political agenda will solve all these problems. Unfortunately, some Christians even believe that." Here you've made an unsupported statement about liberals - - a statement which certainly doesn't include me although by any definition I am a true political liberal. You do misunderstand Morford and other commentators on this point however. He is not saying that there is a political solution to all of these problems. What he is wondering by implication is why Bush, et al, has brought these issues, which are by rights
moral issues that belong in the church, synagogue, mosque, family and/or school, into the political arena: the moral decay of our country; family values; the moral majority; terms coined or used to the advantage of our conservative bretheren. It is the history of conservative politics in the 20th and 21st century to use the political 'bully pulpit' as a leverage point for their favorite moral cause, and then try to find a law to fit later (see the case of that poor child Terri Schiavo).

Mickey, what I truly respect about you is your faith. My sense is, if you could separate your faith from your political label, then you would leave some room to see what I am talking about. After all, I dont go around saying I'm a "Liberal Christian" or a "Carolina Christian Progressive". Rather, I am a Christian in a broken world, trying to do my part to be a faithful servant of Christ.

Finally, thank you for your comments about the Mega churches. The one criticism that you leave out is that in addition to the superficiality of the "Come to church and feel good" thing (you know, McBible, McSermonizing and leave with a McSong) is that they have become all about the pastors, not the Gospel. The day those places open up and they announce that it doesn't matter who is in charge, because God is, then I will start to pay attention.

You and I probably disagree point by point on most every political and religious issue, but it sure is interesting reading your stuff. Keep up the great work!

God Bless.

Michael

 
At Sunday, August 07, 2005 9:43:00 AM, Blogger Roch101 said...

Mickey, you think Jesus was admonishing the Pharisees against stonings?

Matthew 7:1
Romans 14:9-13

 
At Sunday, August 07, 2005 10:59:00 AM, Anonymous Alex said...

Michael,

You have to blame me for some of the sweeping generalizations in this article since I wrote this particular piece. As always, your criticisms are received in the spirit in which they are given.

Thanks!

 
At Sunday, August 07, 2005 11:10:00 PM, Blogger Mickey McLean said...

Michael, thank you for your kind words and for your participation on this blog. And thank you, Alex, for clarifying who wrote what. I know it can be confusing at times since I post both what I write and what Alex writes.

 
At Monday, August 08, 2005 12:07:00 AM, Blogger Mickey McLean said...

Michael wrote:
"Mickey, what I truly respect about you is your faith. My sense is, if you could separate your faith from your political label, then you would leave some room to see what I am talking about. After all, I dont go around saying I'm a 'Liberal Christian' or a 'Carolina Christian Progressive.' Rather, I am a Christian in a broken world, trying to do my part to be a faithful servant of Christ."

When I started this blog, I named it what I did because I wanted to make it clear to readers that I was coming from both a Christian and a conservative perspective on various issues. (I'm also a UNC grad, hence the "Carolina" part.) And the "conservative" aspect doesn't just apply to politics; I am also theologically conservative, which is totally unrelated to political conservatism. However, I am a Christian first, although I sometimes find myself putting politics ahead of my faith, and I appreciate people like you holding me accountable for when I do. BTW, I used to be a "liberal Christian."

Michael wrote:
"The day those places open up and they announce that it doesn't matter who is in charge, because God is, then I will start to pay attention."

I agree. In fact, that is exactly what my church is trying to do as we seek out a new pastor, one who God is calling to lead and teach us. And pray for us and that pastor, that we will not forget that God is the one who is in charge. And pray for me, because I'm on the search committee.

 
At Monday, August 08, 2005 12:08:00 AM, Blogger Mickey McLean said...

Roch said:
"Mickey, you think Jesus was admonishing the Pharisees against stonings?"

Roch, I think we've reached an impasse on this one. Maybe we can return to it another time. I think it is a pastor's duty, not an act of judgment, to gently correct his flock and help them escape their sin. But first, as the original post noted, these pastors have to preach from the pulpit that there is such a thing as sin and then hold their flock accountable. And yes, all this has to be done in love, not by coercion or force.

 
At Monday, August 08, 2005 12:18:00 PM, Anonymous Tim in VT said...

In response to Mr. Morford, I have no response. From reading his thoughts it seems to me that to respond to him would be as close as one would come to "casting your pearls before swine". Please note, I am NOT calling Mr. Morford a swine, pig or any other epithet. I am simply saying that any response would likely be trampled without any hearing. His mind is clearly made up.

As to "mega churches", I have long had an uncomfortable feeling about them. I think that they are far from the New Testament (Acts 2) ideal. Note that as the church grew it spread out. They branched out into other cities, spreading the gospel as they went. I do not see much evidence of churches growing to huge numbers and staying in one place. In fact, I would say that the larger the group becomes, the less likely it is to be able to meet the objectives of nurturing and ministering to one another. As evidence, I would point to the unending stream of programs that these mega churches develop designed to help the congretation reach out to one another. It may be my own prejudice or preference, but I think the smaller local church is better suited to this goal, though I also believe that it is up to each congregation to decide where the balance point lies.

Finally, I would like to address the "liberals" out there who posted so many of the comments on this topic. What is it about "liberals" that causes them to be so vitriolic and hateful in their comments? Please, I am serious about this question. Conservatives are accused of being hateful, uncaring and mean. Yet it is the self-identified liberals that come up with the bile filled rhetoric. "...that pig Dobson" and the comments by Morford are but the most recent examples I have seen. Conservatives may have ideas that you despise, but I rarely see them reduced to name calling and venom to get their point across. Perhaps the "liberals' should give some serious thought to what part of their anatomy is causing these reactions - their brain or their gut. The answer may have alot to do with why your agenda keeps failing.

Lastly, when are the non-Christians out there going to get it? We CANNOT seperate our faith from politics, or anything else in life. Our faith IS our life. It guides us in every single thing we encounter. It is not a coat that we can take off or put on as the weather suits us. You will never understand us, or our "politics" until you understand that we are "new creatures" in Christ. It is not a hobby, it is core.

 
At Monday, August 08, 2005 5:01:00 PM, Anonymous Alex said...

Thanks Tim,

 

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