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Thursday, May 4, 2017

Issues With Megachurches and Modernism

Today I am writing this post based on some insights gained from my professional work.  I work at home as a remote assistant for a website marketing company, and part of what I do is building spreadsheets by visiting denominational websites and gathering the URL's and emails of church staff and then submitting them for research and analysis.  Over the past several months, one of our projects has been a fairly large Evangelical Protestant denomination with many "megachurches" (by this criteria, any congregation with a membership of over 2,000), and I want to share some observations I have noted:

1.  Generally, with a given congregation on this website, there are two numbers given - one is membership, and the other is average attendance.  The trend I saw was that attendance was in general 1/3 of the total reported membership of these congregations.

2.  A second thing I have noticed with many of these huge "megachurches" is the ungodly number of staff members.  Some have upwards of 100-200 paid professional staff, and the ironic thing is that these staff members often are designated "pastors" for some weird reason - if one is responsible for cleaning toilets, they are "Pastor of Plunger Control" or something (that is facetious, but it shows that there is a validity to the concern).

3.  A third observation is also demographic in nature - in many of the cities these supposed "big" megachurches are, there seems to also be social issues such as rampant crime, drug abuse, homosexual activity, etc.  Given the low attendance and overstaffing of many of these same congregations, it shows a sort of inconsistency in witness.

There are some other less-important but still pivotal things about these big congregations which also stand out.  Many of them embrace a "contemporary" worship atmosphere (rock bands, pastors giving motivational talks, etc.).  Also, many of them eschew usage of the denominational heritage they identify with - if they are "Baptist," for instance, they refuse to use that name in their congregational name.  Thirdly, there are other semantic issues - terms like "missional," "relevant," etc. - that seek to almost deceptively downplay what these congregations are really about.  However, there is one standout phrase I want to talk about briefly that really sheds light on who and what these congregations stand for, and it is an odd statement.

I have seen more than my share of these big congregations boasting that "they are different from everyone else," yet when you visit about four or five of them that say that, they are exactly the same - loud rock bands, dimly-lit sanctuaries, etc.  So, what is so "different" about them?  In reality, the only difference they all have is departing from a lot of established Christian practice, and in doing so they are slowly secularizing.  The fact is these congregations, no matter how "different" they say they are, in reality they are cultural conformists - they ape each other, and they also ape the secular culture around them, so there are no true differences about them.  That of course leads into what the whole of my discourse is going to be about, and I want to start with a personal story.

Some years ago, my wife and I attended a congregation of a large Pentecostal denomination in a nearby town that met in the living room of the pastor.  The pastor himself was young, and he was also one of these early "trendy" pastors who wanted to supposedly "reach everyone where they were."  In doing so, there was no structure to the church services, and chaos rather than reverence reigned within the life of the church and its pastor - it was not uncommon to see kids running around unattended, screaming to the top of their lungs, and the pastor himself preached dead messages that sounded like a combination of Oprah Winfrey and Joel Osteen (if there is a difference!).  It came to a head on a Palm Sunday one year, when instead of observing one of the holiest of seasons in the Church, this pastor decided to turn it into a day of volleyball and hot dogs in his backyard.  I was appalled, and refused to attend that day as instead I went to a local Methodist church within walking distance of our house then and had a much more fulfilling experience.  I of course was eventually condemned for that, and told I was essentially "bound by tradition" and the pastor's wife even targeted me for a "deliverance session" which was designed to make me over in her image, which I am happy to say didn't work at all.  Several months later, that church disbanded, and in time so did the pastor's family - he and his wife divorced, and he was later defrocked by his denomination.  In time, his wife continued in ministry, and after some years she actually grew up somewhat and I am friends with her today, although I don't necessarily see eye-to-eye with her ideas on several things.  But, at least it is respectful.  I tell that story to illustrate that trying to be "trendy" and "relevant" often is not God's ideal - Tradition exists for a purpose, and it is not necessarily bad despite what some iconoclastic Evangelicals say.  I will talk more about that in a moment, but before I do so, I will always and ever be an unapologetic traditionalist - being a traditionalist has served me well personally, as it has encouraged growth and responsibility.  But, more important, it is about following an order that Jesus and His Apostles set at the very beginning of the Church itself, and while some minor things may be updated and developed over centuries, the basic core of faith, order, and practice will always be Apostolic in the truest sense.  That being said, let's address the apparent iconoclasm of today's "megachurch" and show how in its quest to be "different" it is in reality deficient.

The first thing I want to do is a little lesson from St. John of Damascus.  St. John (676-749) was a saint of the Antiochian Eastern Christian tradition who was alive at around the time Islam was starting to become a threat.  While his family were originally subjects of the Byzantine Empire, when he was quite young the area they lived around the city of Damascus in present-day Syria fell to the Islamic invaders in AD 635. and when he was older St. John actually served the court of the Ummayid Caliphs that ruled the area.  Although later becoming a monk, St. John knew the inner workings of the Islamic government.  At that point in time, Christians were still in considerable numbers, and in order to transition power, Islamic rulers often relied on Christian and Jewish (and in some regions, Zoroastrian) officials to administer their territories, so this was not uncommon.  It was only in ensuing centuries that Islamic aggression, as the religion grew and spread, began to persecute and suppress other religions. It was in this environment that St. John was raised, and it had bearing later on one of his most important works, Three Apologetic Treatises Against Those Who Decry Holy Images, which was directed at both the Islamic radicals of his day as well as the efforts of the Byzantine Emperor Leo III, who instituted the Iconoclastic Controversy that caused issues for the Church for some time (information taken from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_of_Damascus, accessed 5/4/2017).  What he wrote though is of significance for this day and age, when a new type of iconoclasm in many "megachurches" has created what my Theology professor at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Dr. John Bergsma, calls "spiritual amnesia" among them.  It is at this point I will reference St. John's material to the best of my ability to illustrate my point.

Icon of St. John of Damascus

If you enter a typical "megachurch" environment, it is like a shopping mall or a theatre - bare, spartan, and merely utilitarian.  This is because many Evangelicals hold to a quasi-gnostic view that essentially anything appealing to "the flesh" is evil, and it is also based on a very bad misappropriation of Exodus 20:4-5, the second of the Decalogue (Ten Commandments): "You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth.5"You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me."  This is the very verse that St. John addresses in his writings, and in doing so he makes some interesting distinctions.  First, he notes the importance of how the tangible communicates the divine, in that God created the tangible and it reflects His glory (Andrew Louth, Trans. St. John of Damascus:  Three Treatises on the Divine Images.  Crestwood, NY:  St. Vladimir Seminary Press, 2003. p. 26).  This is also concurrent with what Aquinas and Bonaventure would note later, in that they identified two "books" God has authored (Scripture and Nature) and that one cannot contradict the other, yet Scripture (embodying divine Revelation) through supernatural grace elevates, heals, and perfects Nature.  Note also what St. John says later : "I say that everywhere we use our senses to produce an image of the Incarnate God Himself, and we sanctify the first of the senses (sight being the first of the senses) just as by words hearing is sanctified. For the image is a memorial. What the book does for those who understand letters, the image does for the illiterate; the word appeals to hearing, the image appeals to sight; it conveys understanding (Louth, p. 31-32).  Later, he also says this:  And who will say that these images are not loudly-sounding heralds?  And these were not placed at the side of the tabernacle, but right in front of the people, so that those who saw them might offer veneration and worship to God who had worked through them. It is clear that they were not worshipping them, but being led by them to recall the wonders they were offering veneration to God who had worked marvels. For images were set up as memorials, and were honored, not as gods, but as leading to a recollection of divine activities (Louth, p, 32).   What this means then is that imagery and sacramentals (the term which we today understand them) serve both a catechetical and devotional purpose, and as a catechetical aid, iconography in particular can be invaluable, as seen on the outside of a Romanian Orthodox parish like the one below: 


When Evangelicals misappropriate Scripture based on the faulty view of sola Scriptura, they in essence disconnect themselves from the life of the Church and its heritage.  This is why many of their own churches are often bare, spartan, and so uninspiring - remove the sensory participation in worship, replacing it with something inferior (such as rock bands) and it is a slippery slope toward secularization of the Church.  Dr. John Bergsma relates this to the concept of parousia, which although often has an eschatological application, it also can have a more direct liturgical application as well - Bergsma notes, in a 2016 Lenten reflection, that Deuteronomy 26:4-10 reminds us of the importance of memory in worship, and memory creates parousia (presence) in the true sense because it creates identity - it prompts us to memory of the saints, the Councils of the Church that defined and transmitted our faith, the martyrs and the persecutions they endured, and even the Old Testament in connection with the kerygma.  When those things are either ignored, downplayed, or outright rejected by Evangelicals, it creates what Bergsma calls a "religious amnesia." (John Bergsma, "Lent as Spiritual Warfare: 1st Sunday of Lent," at http://www.faithandreason.com/2013/02/lent-as-spiritual-warfare-readings-for-1st-sunday-in-lent/, accessed 5/4/2017)  And, in our need for that memory and identification, the true memory of sacred Tradition is replaced with inferior "traditions of men that fall woefully short.  I have experienced this many times myself back in my Protestant days - the depressing Sunday night services of some Baptist and Pentecostal churches where the pastor is forced to just pick hymns out of a hymnal or project a bunch of meaningless choruses on an overhead while a handful of people halfheartedly wish they were at home watching the Packers game instead.  There is no sense of sacred things, no reminder of what we are doing nor why we are doing it, and definitely no continuity.  I always left those types of meetings somewhat depressed and lacking, and I personally hated feeling that way.  Yet, many Evangelical Protestants insist on doing things that way, and some will even go to the extremes of trying to "whup-up" the service a little by pretending to "dance in the spirit" and do other such things - if a person chooses not to participate in those activities, they can become a target for "deliverance" as they are accused of being controlled by a "spirit" who is keeping the "anointing" away.  In reality though, it is the people encouraging this behavior that quench God's spirit, for by rejecting what God created us to understand and what He has established even in Scripture, they deprive themselves and others of the fullness of communion with God.  This is why bare shopping-mall megachurches with bad rock bands masquerading as "worship leaders" fail, and that is why attendance at so many of these places is low compared to memberships.  It also may be the reason why so many of them have overstaffed facilities - they are naming people "pastors of this" and "pastors of that" in a desperate attempt to "reach out" and identify shortfalls, but in reality they create bigger issues.  And, that in short is the problem of the "megachurch."

Much more could be said on this, but for brevity's sake I want to propose a remedy.  If you are an Evangelical Protestant who can identify with a sort of emptiness and dryness in your worship - despite the mall-like settings and cranked-up rock bands - I would encourage you to study how the early Church worshipped.  It is not an attempt to re-create the first-century Church by any means, but what you will see as you take the time to look into it is that there is a continuity of liturgical and sacramental dimension to Christian worship and spirituality, and that all senses are engaged in it - sight, sound, touch, etc.  It is doing, as the Psalms proclaim, the worship of God with our whole being as He created us to do.  Therefore, it is not in any way "evil" or "idolatrous" to have statuary, iconography, and other sacred arts in the Church, but rather they serve to remind us of who we are and what our heritage is.  When we begin to see it that way, it transforms us.  God bless until next time.