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.
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).