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January 23, 2004

London's Daily Telegraph publishes an article about the latest spiritual fad sweeping the US -- the megachurch:

An advertisement for the Saddleback Church invites congregants to attend "God's Extreme Makeover" - a revival of Christ in their hearts named after the latest television fad, in which volunteers undergo plastic surgery.

Leaflets at the door to the main hall proclaim "You Can Bring Your Coffee Into Any Venue". Children run around in baseball shirts proclaiming that they are part of God's own squad. The thousands inside are able to sing along to spiritual songs - not traditional hymns - from the words on giant karaoke screens suspended above a light rock band.

This is the United States' latest religious phenomenon. As Americans like going to shopping malls for all their consumer needs in one spot, so self-styled "megachurches" are the fastest growing form of service in the country.

Ah, yes, we Americans love everything when it's bigger and glitzier, even our places of worship. Why have one church with one altar and one celebrant when you could have four major worship groups and 18 minor ones going on simultaneously? Who needs hymnals or songbooks when we can have giant-screen plasma televisions hanging from the rafters? Of course, in our society, you may find it difficult to determine exactly what is being worshiped when televisions are present.

I suppose it's too much to expect that the mass-market, one-stop approach that we love in the retail world would not apply itself to our spiritual life, but it seems we've Wal-Marted Jesus. Smaller churches are just so much less efficient at getting butts into the pews. It's not enough to share the Gospel and enrich ourselves spiritually; we need to be entertained as well, and God forbid (pun intended) we should have to skip our cup of coffee! Nor does the Wal-Mart/Costco analogy stop at just efficiency but also with the "product" itself:

But what their events lack, and what makes them controversial among America's traditionalist Christians, is a clearly defined doctrine. ... They are taught that through God they are victors not victims, and no one is called a sinner. Aping the popular self-help books popular in the modern age the approach adopted is "Jesus meets the power of positive thinking".

Eddie Gibbs, a professor at the Fuller Theological Seminary, has described it as a conscious process to "remove every obstacle that keeps people from coming into the Christian Church".

In other words, they've discounted sin, overstocked forgiveness and discontinued consequences at the Jesus Depot. Look, I'm the first person to recognize that traditional denominations sometimes overdo the fire and brimstone, maybe old-line Baptist and Evangelical denominations more so than others. But there is a difference between striking a balance and simply deleting all of the "negative" parts of the faith, at least if you're serious about teaching and celebrating Christianity. Jesus preached love and forgiveness, but he also taught that actions had consequences, some of them severe, if one did not repent of sin.

The description given in this article (which may or may not be accurate, of course) isn't "Jesus meets positive thinking"; it's New Age self-esteem worship with enough of a Christian theme to bring in the multitudes. Hearing this from the pastor doesn't create a great deal of confidence that the Telegraph is mistaken, however:

"Don't forget Christ used user-friendly language. He spoke to his followers in parables."

Unfortunately for Pastor Rick, this statement betrays his ignorance of at least the historical and rhetorical context of the Gospels. Jesus didn't speak in parables because they were "user-friendly," a ridiculous term for this context anyway. He used parables to illustrate points, but the meaning of these parables often escaped Jesus' audiences and even His disciples. Jesus Himself states that their meaning is not meant to be understood at the moment on at least one occasion. And Jesus did not limit His teaching to a Roman-era version of "I'm OK, You're OK." When Jesus entered the temple, He charged the money-changers, forcibly ejecting them from the temple. One wonders what Jesus would do when faced with the Saddleback Church Cafe.

UPDATE: A couple of alert readers (pretty darned smart, they are!) have posted comments that the Pastor Rick mentioned in the Telegraph article is Rick Warren, the author of The Purpose-Driven Life, a well-received book on Christian faith. Its description from Publishers Weekly indicates that Pastor Warren is no lightweight:

Warren certainly knows his Bible. Of 800-plus footnotes, only 18 don't refer to Christian Scripture. He deliberately works with 15 different Bible translations, leaning heavily on contemporary translations and paraphrases, as an interesting way of plumbing biblical text. The almost exclusively biblical frame of reference stakes out the audience niche for this manual for Christian living.

Warren's book has some flaws, at least in the view of some readers who have commented on it at Amazon. I still mistrust the mass-market approach to Christianity that inevitably makes it into an encounter group rather than a celebration of Christ's teachings, but hopefully Saddleback can avoid these pitfalls. Just stop selling coffee and make people focus on the message, not the customer service.

Sphere It Digg! View blog reactions
Posted by Ed Morrissey at January 23, 2004 10:53 PM

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» Six Flags over Jesus from QandO
Captain Ed writes on the explosion of mega-churches. Good lines.... I suppose it's too much to expect that the mass-market, one-stop approach that we love in the retail world would not apply itself to our spiritual life, but it seems... [Read More]

Tracked on January 24, 2004 1:21 PM

» Would you like fries with that baptism? from Pinwheels and Orange Peels
"McJesus." That's what Captain's Quarters has dubbed the new trend for churches to supersize everything to bring in the masses. These "megachurches," IMHO, are just television evangelism in a new shell: "listen to me and I'll make you feel good [Read More]

Tracked on January 24, 2004 3:43 PM

» McJesus update from Pinwheels and Orange Peels
Donald left a comment over at Captain's Quarters that makes an excellent point: the church spotlighted in the Telegraph article is Saddleback Church, pastored by Rick Warren, whose book The Purpose-Driven Life has sparked a revival of sorts in the [Read More]

Tracked on January 25, 2004 4:37 PM

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