dear jesus, meet my needs

Today in my Religion and Popular Culture class the topic was Megachurches.  However critical I may be of things in my own personal perspective, I remain (or like to think so) sensitive to religious traditions, when presenting them for discussion in class (especially at a public university, where the makeup of my students is less predictable than, oh, say, Baylor.  Here I’ve had students write on their info sheet in answer to the question: “What would make this class ‘fun’ for you?”, “making fun of religion”).  So, how to talk about churches with memberships (or at least attendance) in the thousands that would rival small towns, and house their own skate parks, gyms, paintball parks, coffee shops, credit unions and even McDonalds, without jumping straight to the “wtf” comments.

It’s really tempting to talk about megachurches as this brand new phenomenon—and in a way, of course they are—but not necessarily as a religious phenomenon.  The more-or-less standard measure sociologically speaking of a megachurch is a weekly worship attendance of 2,000 or more.  In the grand scheme of things, churches with at least 2,000 people in worship in a given week isn’t something that emerged in the 1970s amidst all our quaint community, family churches of the good-old-days.  We can go back (on these shores) to at least the First Great Awakening in the decades before the nation’s founding to see people flock in great numbers to hear charismatic preachers and sing exciting new hymns.  Big churches centered around compelling personalities and musical styles persists throughout the history of American Christianity, particularly its Evangelical iteration.

Likewise, observers of the megachurch ‘trend’ point to the ready-and-willingness to utilize, adapt to and co-opt modern technology for religious use. Of course this is nothing new either.  The printing press was developed; Bibles were published in large quantities for mass consumption. And so on.  The usage of technology for religious purposes is not in itself innovative, but there certainly is a link between the widespread broadcasting over radio and television of worship and evangelism that grew in the 1960s and 70s and the megachurches that developed about this time as well.  Perhaps this represented not just an adaptation to ‘secular technology,’ but an attempt to co-opt the mass media.  Media, technology; okay, there’s something there, yes.

But, the book from which we were reading, identified several elements of these churches that they seem to draw from “secular” culture (anything not of the “sacred,” and here used as ‘value-free’ description), he calls evidence of “internal secularization.  The characteristics he uses would likely not arouse much controversy among megachurch leaders, as they do adopt the same vocabulary (with little exception).  The characteristics are overlapping and really seem to sum up what distinguishes these megachurches as a unique phenomenon in the scope of American religion.  These churches follow a unique model of Packaging, Organization and Programming that reflect the business and consumer focused “secular” culture.  The churches see themselves as marketing a product for a target audience; their consumers are the ‘unchurched’ or the ‘seekers’, and they are selling Christianity, but in a way that is entertaining, and that serves the needs of the consumer.  The churches describe their task (including in worship) as staving off boredom.  Responding to our media saturated culture, services look and sound like a “secular” performace—lights, video, music, and a charismatic preacher.  These churches also serve as a one-stop shop for all their consumers’ needs: childcare, food, exercise, self-help, financial needs, education, etc.  In essence, in addition to weekly (or bi-weekly) worship services, megachurches offer a baptized version of everything available in the secular culture.   Members are safe within the walls and infrequently need to look elsewhere for any of their “needs” to be fulfilled.

As I read over the chapter in preparation to discuss this in a public university classroom, I was struck by the similarities between megachurches and higher education institutions.  Now that I have had a pretty good taste of a state university system, the similarities between the two types of institutions are really quite glaring.  Particularly in the business-consumer-entertainment focus.  Public universities are not necessarily unique in this, but I think it is more pronounced because they are susceptible to state bureaucracy.  The purpose of the university is to sell their product to consumers: they sell degrees to students.  How can they sell the most degrees to the most students in the most cost-effective manner?  And the professor’s role in all of this is to comply—to entertain and give the student what they want (an easy A?).  Classes don’t suck because the material was organized poorly, or because the student just didn’t try; classes suck because they were boring. Or the teacher “gave me a C”.  Not every student is like this, of course, and I hope not every professor or administrator buys into this model, but the more stories I hear, the more inevitable this shift seems.

(image from ucla magazine website)

It seems that megachurches then do not represent a uniquely religious phenomenon, but reflect overall shifts in culture.  Our culture is becoming more consumer-oriented and certainly entertainment-focused (the way newsmedia has shifted as well is certainly an example).  The question seems to be how to adapt to culture (because adaptation is inevitable) but also to do so and remain authentic to the institution’s purpose and identity.  Are megachurches selling Christianity or something else?  Are they selling transformation, community, and commitment that comes through the Christian message of grace and love?

Likewise, are universities selling education or are they selling pieces of paper and the freedom to drink liberally for 3-5 years?  Is my vocation to help people ask questions, think critically, write clearly, and communicate well, or is it to entertain and not bore people who rarely claim to not be bored?

It’s frustrating to observe (what I see as) such unhealthy parallels in two institutions that I care so much about.  I certainly think culture is important and people are important, but I believe that cultural institutions fail people when they don’t challenge, question and transform them—whether in the service of education or religion (or both, of course).

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3 thoughts on “dear jesus, meet my needs

  1. Interesting parallels. I don’t think I would have made this connection myself, but now that you mention it, it makes complete sense.

    I also think we have to look at it from the perspective of the “consumer.” Religious and Educational institutions would not be providing these “services” if they weren’t in such high demand. Unfortunately, people want comfort when they go to a church. They don’t want to stick out, or feel like they are doing something different from “the norm.” And, the added perks of not having to take care of their kids for a couple hours is a bonus. Students are not always mature enough to realize that what they are buying is an education, not a degree. (for more, see: http://ejholladay.wordpress.com/2010/01/28/sundays-on-the-phone-to-monday-tuesdays-on-the-phone-to-me/)

    And, here’s the other unfortunate part. These things have been the reality for a long time, and that’s not going away. If anything, our culture is shaping more people to want easy religion and easy education. So, we are stuck trying to find the solution – how to show people that there’s so much more substance to be grasped. Getting there is going to take a great deal of push and pull against our ever “progressing” culture.

  2. I like the analogy here. It’s for this reason that I make my students work their ass off for their grades. In my mind, a 10-12 page paper and weekly writing responses isn’t that much work, and my way of saying “If you want to consume this, it’s going to have to consume you first.”

    • Well said Myles. And Meredith, good to find your blog. Its been a long time. I am sorry for the fact that we never talked much in Waco–I always sensed that conversation with you would be worthwhile. There were a number of people like that. I suppose that I was afraid that the age difference would somehow interfere. So, now I am talking to you through the nearly anonymous medium of the blog.

      At any rate, the parallels you and Myles spoke of are certainly there but it strikes me that there ought to be something distinctly different about these two institutions. Its not surprising that the university has followed suit given the fact that the modern American university has no way, politically speaking, to withstand a culture in which the only good held to be common is the assumption that our only obligation as citizens is to pursue individually chosen ends. Thus the goal of higher education has become the production better informed consumers, and not the production of those who might be able to withstand capitalism at its worst.

      What concerns me is the fact that the church, by and large, has followed in this direction. And it tempts me to make distinctions I am not comfortable making–like making a distinction between true churches and what MacIntyre might call the “simulacra” of church. Again, I am not comfortable with such distinctions as it dredges up notions of Augustine’s visible/invisible church. Perhaps, more to the point, the distinction implies that the visible church is composed of those for whom true faith is some inner reality, some inner kind of experience, that is more legitimate than that of the majority of those who claim faith. It seems to me that in the era we live in this kind of distinction can only underwrite the regnant consumerist model of the church. I suppose that I think Yoder put it best when he described baptism as the original revolution, by which he meant God’s “creation of a distinct community with its own deviant set of values and its coherent way of incarnating them.” Its hard to see the church when I look at mega churches. I think that often times, there are communities within the mega church, but I don’t see any lasting value community qua community. O well, I imagine I have said enough.

      Again, Meredith its good to find you. I had no idea you were in Pennsylvania now. What are you doing–working on a Ph.D.? Teaching?

      O well,

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