Friday, August 05, 2005

The "Bottom Line"

It is well known in ecclesial circles that mega-churches survive on advertising. The rule of thumb is that they lose almost as many members through the "back door" as they gain through the "front door," so, like the myth of the shark, they have to keep "moving forward," or they die.

Which is why Lakewood, according to the Houston Chronicle article, is in the "business" of "marketing salvation," although Joel Osteen prefers to say he's reaching out to the "unsaved and the unchurched." Advertising plays a big role in this effort, as it does for all "mega-churches." The last billboard campaign Lakewood ran had a simple motto: "We Believe in You!" A curious slogan for a "Christian" church.

Willow Creek Community Church is another "mega church that has been much studied by students of ecclesiology. G.A. Pritchard, a Ph.D. candidate sympathetic to the aims of Willow Creek's theology, studied it's "seeker services," which were designed to draw in the "unchurched" and convert them to Christians. The process was supposed to be a four-step model that drew the unchurched into a full communion among the community of believers. (An explanation of the process is available in Bill Hybel's book, Rediscovering Church.) The only problem with it was, it didn't work.*

Pritchard's study concluded that "unchurched" members of Willow Creek were certainly drawn to the "contemporary worship, which was an attractice TV variety show format, with up-tempo songs led by a "praise leader," backed by a rock band, and demanding little more than listening skills from the "congregation." The idea was this "seeker service" would be as familiar as possible (and so it was consciously modeled on a TV talk show, with the "preacher" as the "host"), and by constant exposure to a "moral" message embedded in an entertaining package, the unchurched would deepen their commitment to God by furthering their commitment to the church, and become active and engaged church members. Except few did; most, predictably, took the path of least resistance. They came for the cake and coffee, the candy, so to speak, and left. They never asked for more.

That "plan," by the way, is based more or less on older European models of church, where one becomes an active member of a community. The Baptist "revival" models I am familiar with from my childhood, provide the model for Lakewood: the same basic message repeated endlessly, a message which keeps the individual constantly returning for a renewal (or revival) of their "salvation." Just how tiresome that model can be for preachers became clear to me when I came across an article in one of those magazines for the "business of your ministry" in Seminary, which proclaimed a great new idea for putting zip and spark back into your December preaching, a time of year when you the pastor are just as hassled as anyone else, and running out of ways to sell salvation (non-denominational and congregational Protestant churches tend to live and die on the one message of "salvation." We'll have to talk about that seperately). The discovery? Advent.

Lakewood doesn't observe Advent, and my one experience with it's "mission outreach" was indicative of the mindset that Christianity is "all about salvation" and "all about membership." The UCC here in Houston owns a HUD apartment complex, maintained for low-income families. It is near the original Lakewood building, and for a few years Lakewood provided turkeys to the residents at Thanksgiving. The year that stopped, Lakewood refused to deliver the turkeys, and required the residents to pick them up personally. This, of course, was impossible: most of the residents worked, and few had cars. The intent was clear: you want 'em, you pay for 'em, and "pay" meant: listen to our "sales pitch" for "salvation."

What does a mega church want to do? In my experience, as the Houston Chronicle article says, they want to sell salvation. In a seminary class, we watched a video of a "seeker service" from Community Church of Joy in Glendale, Arizona. This time the sermon was preceded, not by scripture, but by a "sketch." A large, overweight woman in a very loose fitting dress (her appearance was intentionally clownish and boorish), with juice cans for rollers in her hair, and a broad Southern accent, came out and gave a monologue about herself and her children. It was clearly fiction, but she was clearly meant to represent "trailer trash," a "hillbilly." But what I saw, was my extended family; my lower-middle class relatives. What I saw, in a supposedly "church" setting, was a mockery of people I loved. But this was supposedly excused because the "purpose" of the "message" was "salvation." Salvation at the expense of others was apparently a price even my class-mates were willing to pay.

Oddly, when I expressed that in the class, only one person, the African American woman who had felt persecuted in an almost entirely-white, almost entirely Midwestern school, sympathized; and the woman from Kentucky. And the African American woman only understood me when I compared it to an actor appearing in blackface, and mimcking black Americans. Everyone else thought I was being overly-sensitive. But the idea of even a "seeker service" which portrayed the children of God as objects of ridicule and an object lesson in what not to do (the thrust of the "sermon" that followed, based on the monologue) was deeply offensive.

If salvation is to be marketed, and that is an acceptable way of doing it, I want nothing to do with salvation. But this leads us to the question McKibben is getting at: what, then, is church for?

*Willow Creek Seeker Services: Evaluating a New Way of Doing Church, by G.A. Pritchard. Funny, when you go to that page, you're likely to get a list of books that reads like this:
This Little Church Went to Market : The Church in the Age of Modern Entertainment by Gary Gilley
Dining With the Devil: The Megachurch Movement Flirts With Modernity (Hourglass Books) by Os Guinness
Ashamed of the Gospel: When the Church Becomes Like the World by John F. MacArthur
Deceived on Purpose : The New Age Implications of the Purpose-Driven Church by Warren Smith
Rediscovering Church by Bill Hybels
Who's Driving the Purpose Driven Church? by James Sundquist

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