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Too Much Challenge, Not Enough Entertainment

This man evidently had a problem with gluttony, one of the seven deadly sins.

There’s a headline in today’s Chicago Sun-Times: “Megachurches Challenge Worshippers.”

Imagine that!

The headline’s claim doesn’t quite fit the story by Cathy Lynn Grossman of Gannett News Service. Her experts are finding that megachurches’ growth is leveling off and occasionally declining a little. Willow Creek Community Church, the granddaddy of them all in suburban Chicago, is a bit alarmed by its own internal research showing that going to church doesn’t change its members’ lives that much; once they get people through the door, there isn’t much spiritual growth taking place. So the founding pastor is trying to improve that by challenging people more. (Good for him.)

Grossman’s story contains this quote, which I find astonishing:

Philip Goff, director of the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture at Indiana University in Indianapolis, said the megachurch story is not really about growth.

“It’s about shifting allegiances,” Goff said. “People want to feel good about who they already are. If church is too challenging or not entertaining, they’ll move on.”

This fits, I suppose, with Americans’ well-known propensity not to want to think too hard; how else does one explain George W. Bush’s re-election? Beyond that, it also sheds light on why mainline denominations like the Episcopal Church are losing members while “prosperity Gospel” purveyors, crooks and Fundamentalist nutbags win more and more jets, book royalties and mansions.

This reminds me of covering a Jerry Falwell rally in Cincinnati 20 years ago when I was the editor of a Gay newspaper. He was in town to fulminate against “homosexuals and abortionists,” of course; I forget the immediate precipitant, a resolution in City Council he was for or against. That part didn’t stick with me, while the look and content of the Falwell Traveling Road Show always will. Because there really wasn’t any content at all.

The rally was held outdoors with a big tent covering a stage in suburban Loveland; the audience sat under a sunny sky. I remember how my heart pounded as I found a seat in the back, a not-so-intrepid Gay reporter. Would goons (“security”) see my notebook and start making trouble? What about the audience around me? Was I safe there, or was I foolish for going by myself? At any rate I wanted to see this guy, in case he shed some light on who the big preacherman was and how he did what he did to gain such a following. The audience was a few thousand people, more than I could ever draw but not so many considering Falwell was nationally famous.

And then the show started; that’s what it was, a show. The warmup act was a “choir” from Falwell’s Liberty University in Virginia, but they didn’t sing hymns or spirituals or Christian pop; they sang patriotic songs, “It’s a Grand Old Flag,” “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and that sort of thing. The stage was festooned with Stars and Stripes; John McCain should have so many. The 50 or 60 students, nearly all of them White, sang and pranced enthusiastically through every cornpone number they could think of. It was sort of like Up With People gone berserk; as Wikipedia says, “so anodyne in its cheerful meaninglessness as to lend itself to easy parody.”

That day Falwell wrapped himself in the flag but not the Cross.

Eventually the Big Man got introduced and bounded onstage; I must say he was superficially charming, in the way that con men often are. His speech consisted of a few invocations of “our Judeo-Christian heritage,” which I suppose explains why a Baptist minister managed not to mention his Lord and Savior even once. Okay, then it was time to start tossing the crowd some red meat. We were there to hear about homos and abortionists about to bring the wrath of Almighty God on the wicked city (this would later turn into blaming us for Osama bin Laden), and Falwell didn’t travel all this way with his buses and trucks, a stage and tent and sound system, to disappoint his fans.

But before he could get too revved, the skies opened up and pelted the earth with a hellacious rainstorm. He made a quick quip and kept going for a minute or two, but by this time the audience decided that covering our heads with newspapers wasn’t going to work, so we all made a beeline for our cars.

The sudden downpour was “an act of God,” Ohio’s Gay Newspaper later reported.

* * *

I guess when you feed people a steady diet of unchallenging entertainment and call it religion, that’s what they come to expect. But when did church become about making people “feel good about who they already are” instead of about worshiping God, listening to what God says and doing what God says to do (“Take, eat, this is my body”)?

And evangelicals accuse Episcopalians of getting everything backwards? Ha!

You won’t find a stage in an Episcopal church; you’ll find an altar. You won’t find any video screens, indoor fireworks, rock bands, shopping malls, ATM machines or American flags; you’ll find crosses, crucifixes and people crossing themselves. If the sermon makes you feel good about yourself instead of challenging you to do and be in the image of God, and to find and respond to the image of God in everyone you meet, then quick, notify the bishop at once.

What megachurches have done is to take 2000 years of Christianity, reduce and package it into a consumer product and sell it like a Big Mac, though it isn’t really food. Joel Osteen, whose megachurch in Houston draws 43,500 a week, according to the Gannett article, has a new book out called “7 Steps to a Better You.” No doubt Oprah’s got a similar title, and Dr. Phil can’t be far behind.

I do not want my religion dispensed by corporate America.

But I do know this: Fundamentalists are right to be wary of Lesbian, Gay, Bi and Trans people. We challenge religious authority and conventional wisdom, even the Bible itself. We make people think; yegads!

But then, so did Jesus. He’s the guy I want to hear about. I don’t want anyone telling me what to think; I want someone who provokes me to think in ways I’ve never done before.

Without that, church is nothing but spiritual empty calories.

I need real food. If I were capable of getting through this life on my own, I’d probably do that; but I can’t, I need help, I need a community, a gathering of people who are God-focused, not “me”-focused.

Certainly not Osteen or Falwell or Warren-focused. God save us all, with particular mercy for those who confuse God with “American Idol.”++

2 Responses

  1. I do have a problem with Christianity being wrapped up in any flag and any country. The faith is a faith without borders or ethnicity. It is a challenging faith that challenges us at our very core to be something other than what we are.

    God bless

  2. interesting blog

    pls do the interview on mine…

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