Saturday, 23 January 2010

Evangelical US megachurches like Saddleback are market-driven, with transcendence not on the menu

By Harriet Baber of the Guardian Newspaper,England.

'O would some power the giftie gie us to see ourselves as others see us'. Robbie Burns

This is a critique of one of the 'show pieces' of American evangelical Christianity and one which many evangelical churches would aspire to be like. Also with it being 'Burn's night' it is perhaps apt to listen to the views of someone who holds a different perspective. Harriet does not mince her words here and I think many of them are well spoken. Certainly the business/ money aspects of many churches seems a far cry from the time when Jesus had nowhere to lay his head or when St Paul had to go through times of hunger through lack of finances!Tozer was also not behind the door when he wrote the following words about an old preacher called Meister Eckhart: 'Eckhart once preached a sermon on Christ cleansing the temple. He said, “Now there was nothing wrong with those men selling and buying there. There was nothing wrong with exchanging money there; it had to be. The sin lay in their doing it for profit. They got a percentage on serving the Lord.” And then he made the application: “Anybody that serves for a commission, for what little bit of glory he can get out of it, he is a merchant and he ought to be cast out of the temple.” Hard words indeed from Tozer that can and should cut us to the heart!

In a similar vein it has been said that if we want an example of how to be a good business manager we could well look to Western church leaders/Pastors, but if we want to meet a holy man or a really spiritual person we must look to the East but not to Christianity!If this is true should we not say: 'shame on us'!

Rick Warren at Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California. Last Sunday we drove up to Rick Warren's Saddleback Church in Orange County, a collection of affluent, politically conservative suburbs south of LA. The model of a modern megachurch, Saddleback boasts over 112,000 "unchurched occasional attenders" as well as 22,800 active members – many initiated in the temperature-controlled baptismal pools on its 120-acre campus.

Megachurches are market-driven. They study demographic data and plan marketing schemes tailored to their local target audiences. The oft-cited example of a target profile, developed by Warren, is Saddleback Sam: "A well-educated young urban professional … [he] is interested in health and fitness … but is overextended in time and money, and is stressed out. He carries a lot of debt, especially due to the price of his home. He is married to Samantha, and they have two kids, Steve and Sally."

Judging from Saddleback's promotional literature, Sam and Samantha have an insatiable appetite for therapy and self-improvement. Saddleback offers a generic "Celebrate Recovery" programme and customised support groups for "ADD Adults," "Diabetics in God", "Families with Incarcerated Loved Ones" and victims of other ills.

We entered the Worship Centre, an immense auditorium shell, where Warren was preaching from a stage at the front, where an altar might have been. Saddleback assiduously avoided traditionally churchy architecture, costume and decor. Its campus was relentlessly quotidian, designed to suggest the shopping malls and office parks where members spent their time during the week.

Warren described Saddleback's programme for "spiritual growth", with numbered headings. Spiritual growth, he explained, was (1) a lifelong process, (2) measured by obedience, (3) based on God's word and (4) would set me free. Free from what? From habits, hurts and hang-ups, from painful memories, worry, bitterness and guilt. How would I achieve that? According to Warren, Jesus had the plan. At Saddleback, he assured us, we would learn to follow his plan "systematically, sequentially and in a process" through the classes Saddleback offered.

This is the future of middle-class US Christianity, according to the latest American Religious Identification Survey (Aris). If the trend identified in the Aris study continues, we will see a country divided between conservative evangelical Christians and secular liberals – the latter hostile to religious belief, identified with evangelical Christianity. This is bad news because popular evangelical Christianity is religiously vacuous. It is directed to secular ends which, arguably, should be promoted by secular means. Saddleback is religion for people who don't like religion: transcendence is not on the menu.

Although almost half of Americans say they have had a religious experience, mysticism is likely a recondite taste. For the minority who have that taste – who seek God as an object of contemplation – Saddleback has nothing. Evangelical and mainline churches promote activism and are contemptuous of navel-gazing.

As a navel-gazer, I was depressed by Saddleback. It seemed the butt end of Christianity: stripped of history and icon?ography, wholly immersed in its secular surroundings, constructed according to a business model and promoted by motivational speakers – bland, cheerful, dull.

We drove away, past immaculate housing estates and strip malls iterating chain restaurants and shops, replicated in every suburb from coast to coast. I wondered why anyone would want to live in that charmless place, much less to get more of the same at church.


John Fitzsimmons. said...

interesting stuff

Andrew Kenny said...

I was perhaps too hard on saddleback as I have enjoyed some of the books that have come out of it and they are biblically based and revere God's word.
Despite this it is the business model that makes me uneasy.It is so slick, perfectly manicured for the intended clientele.Jesus did not minister to such a tidy,neat congregation:his was messy,unclean, even troublesome that consisted of some some who wanted to kill him.

Ρωμανός ~ Romanós said...

Mega-churches do not impress me. I am still an "early Christian" who is most at home in a house church setting, and in small congregational churches. My local Orthodox church that I raised my family in is a bit on the large size, but it's still a place where you can easily get to know people and fellowship with them.

Mega-churches seem to me to be a reincarnation of "imperial church," a concept that Orthodox Christians have to keep fighting back. If we want to sit on a throne next to Jesus, we have to be willing to first be nailed to a cross beside Him. Sometimes it seems that church leaders and mega-church pastors have got this concept turned around.

Business-driven churchianity is prevalent in America and is even making some headway with Greek Orthodox stewardship pundits, though the current recession has dealt a blow to their self-confidence and boastful imitation of prosperity gospel antics.

As for transcendence and spirituality and looking for it in "the East" but not in Christianity, excuse me, but that is tosh, plain and simple. These critics wouldn't even know real Christianity if they saw it, so let them go off traipsing after the Dalai Lama and other fakirs.

As for revering God's Word, I see a lot of evangelical churches smearing it all over themselves like body paint, but as soon as your back is turned they're washing it all off and trying to look nice for their real bosses. To revere the Word of God means more than quoting it and using it to pepper up a self-improvement or feel-good sermon. We have to live in the Word, making it our home.

Andrew, you know that I know that I am "preaching to the choir" as you and I are of the same faith and probably have most of the same priorities. I must just be venting. I haven't talked to you in awhile either. You are right (in your comment) though, that Jesus did not minister to such a tidy, neat congregation. That tension is always there for me... I am in an affluent church, and downtown right now are lost souls (I'm thinking now of youth; the older ones have mostly had their chance and rejected Christ) that could be saved if we just went out to them. But do we do that? Should we? It's almost not for us to decide, but if Christ commands us, then there is no question of following Him there. We just go.

Andrew Kenny said...

'As for transcendence and spirituality and looking for it in "the East" but not in Christianity, excuse me, but that is tosh, plain and simple. These critics wouldn't even know real Christianity if they saw it, so let them go off traipsing after the Dalai Lama and other fakirs'

Thanks as always for your comments and insight.I particularly liked :'If we want to sit on a throne next to Jesus, we have to be willing to first be nailed to a cross beside Him'.Regarding your comment on:
'As for transcendence and spirituality and looking for it in "the East" but not in Christianity'I do agree but for many this is their perception even though we would agree that 'true spirituality can only be found in Christ.

For many non-believers Christianity is loud, verbal with little depth.I heard it said once that the Bible Belt in America is 1000 miles wide and one inch deep. Of course this is hyperbole but it makes a point and warns us that we must increase the level of spirituality in the church- that is become like Christ.

Scott Starr said...

The criticism is largely fair. My main issue is that they are preaching a pop version of Christianity, rather than the radical, turn the worldly value system on its head version that Christ preached.

Craig Brotherston said...

Hi Andrew

Thank you for your comment on my blog. I am enjoying the 'journey' but don't quite feel equipped yet to share too many of my own opinions, as I guess I am still figuring them out!

I remember the names of yourself and your wife, but don't recognise you so much from your photo. Sorry!

I added your Authentic Mission blog to my google reader, so maybe you will be hearing from me.

Encouraging to hear you are lecturing at Belfast Bible College. I almost went there! Opted for Elim's Bible College (open learning) in England instead. It was a course choice in the end.


Craig Brotherston said...

Ephesians 1:22And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, 23which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.

I find it difficult to ever criticise church when I read the verses above. "the fullness of him" Wow! Now don't get me wrong I'm not suggesting that every church everywhere is perfect or anything... and I do believe it can be very healthy for church leaders to analyse what is going on in other places. However, I do think this can be done without criticism.

For me, this comes with a sense that church probably isn't supposed to look the same in every location, but that God through the Holy Spirit will speak to leaders of church everywhere and tell them how they should be reaching out to the people around them, in their situation.

For Rick Warren, this will look very different to a church in Northern Ireland, to church in Ukraine to church in China.

As for the comments on mega-church, I'm pretty sure in Acts 2 that 3,000 were added to the church in one day. This speaks to me of an 'overnight mega-church,' and of course people rejoice over this verse of scripture. So why do we not rejoice with other large churches around the world that are reaching many people for Christ?

Just some of my thinking that I'm trying to figure out!

Andrew Kenny said...

Craig, some interesting points there and wise ones at that.The criticism of Saddleback came from a journalist from the Guardian newspaper who would consider herself outside the evangelical fold.She is criticising the particular body of Christ that I am a part of (the evangelical)and probably in Saddleback, a church which many evangelicals would aspire to be like.That is why I want to take the criticism on the chin because I realise its her critique of ME and my fellow evangelicals.

I also realise that many of her points are well made and ones that we should take to heart lest we fool ourselves into thinking that seemingly outward success is in fact spiritual success.As Jesus said to one church:'You say, 'I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.':'But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked'.

Depite this I like your point that the church in different parts of the world will often be different-though it should have an essential devotion to Christ.Christians throughout the world are all united in Christ by His Spirit and because of that we should seek to pray for one another and build one another up.