The last several posts have discussed the tendency displayed by certain individuals to seek power over others in the evangelical church. In some cases, this thirst for power is driven by the desire some men have to build a following of people in order to achieve secular political ends. In other cases, the seeking of power is driven by a desire some have to set up a “money farm” made of a large number of contributors to finance a pastor's desired lifestyle. Then there are those who seek power simply as a means of building up their own personal empire, to satisfy their ego. Many power-seekers are driven by a combination of these motives.
The Christian church has always had to deal with those who seek power because of eritheia, or “selfish ambition,” as one Bible translation puts it. But most of those driven by eritheia have historically been limited in what they could accomplish in the pursuit of their goals. Throughout history, it has been very hard for individuals to start their own religious empires, since this required making disciples, writing or printing literature, and securing funds to spread one's message, and this all had to be done largely by hand and on foot. Few succeeded among the many who tried, and those who succeeded did so because they were well-connected or because they were willing to suffer a lot.
The printing press, the Industrial Revolution and the technological advances that took place afterward have made it increasingly easy for would-be empire builders to achieve their goals. Instead of wandering on foot or horseback through miles of countryside distributing handwritten tracts to local villages, men could print literature on a press, saving a great deal of time, and as society advanced, they could go from place to place with much greater speed than was possible on foot. Later, they could transmit their statements via wire, and then by radio. This trend of progress has continued to the present, with the Internet, expressways, jetliners, HDTV, and satellite radio, to name a few. It is now very easy for one individual to broadcast his statements to a very large audience – a few keystrokes and mouse-clicks will do it.
The technological advances that brought us the 20th Century to us tended at first to concentrate power in the hands of the few who had the capital to afford the means of mass communication. Yet those advances greatly amplified the power of the owners of those means. For instance, owners of newspaper chains or radio/TV networks were relatively few, and they were broadcasting to a very large audience of people who could not afford to buy a radio station or newspaper chain. Our society came to be dominated by a few voices, heard by all, but not widely contradicted. America was one of two dominant superpowers for a long time, and later America became the sole superpower. During the days in which America was a mighty economic powerhouse, it was also a mighty export powerhouse – and one of the things exported was American culture. Though the American economy no longer produces many physical things of value for export, American culture is still an export commodity. Go to Mexico and you will see people wearing T-shirts with American slogans. Go to China and you can buy bootlegged CD's of music by now-dead swing band artists and living rappers, metalheads, folk-rockers, hip-hoppers and country/western artists, to name a few. Newspapers in England now regularly feature Internet links to articles dealing exclusively with what's going on in the USA. Almost everyone knows where California is, even if they live ten thousand miles away.
American pop culture, with its music and its norms, is increasingly the dominant culture of the industrialized world, and is slowly eroding other, very different cultures that have existed for thousands of years. American pop culture has also taken over the Church in America. Many Christians have their own opinions about whether this is a bad or good thing. Some have very strong feelings about this, and they back themselves up with lots of Scripture and interpretation. I have only a few things to say about the rightness or wrongness of the present American church culture, as I am much more interested in describing where I think the American church is headed.
The power of the technology of the 20th century was used in innovative ways by some of the early “church growth” pioneers. Robert Schuller began his Crystal Cathedral congregation by holding church services at a drive-in theater. Oral Roberts was one of the first televangelists. Billy Graham and Greg Laurie have held huge rallies and crusades in outdoor stadiums, assisted by large and powerful sound systems and multimedia technology. The successes of these men have affected the culture of the American church in general. While some of these men and their methods have been controversial, their results have been attractive.
Many pastors have seen the phenomenal success of some of these pioneers, and have tried to imitate them in order to achieve the same numerical results. The Christian publishing industry has also helped to reinforce this imitation by holding up a select few influential megachurch pastors as models to be imitated by those who want their churches to grow. The message that has been communicated is “Get big or get out! If your church is not HUGE and full of young adults, it's not healthy!” The effect has been to create a large swath of very similar churches whose similarity cuts across denominational lines. Their emphasis is on reaching the “relevant” generation, which is usually somewhere between 13 and 29 years old. The methods used to reach this generation have tended to standardize around praise bands, multimedia presentations, cool celebrities, skate parks, coffee bars, and the like, in order to make church as cool and “relevant” as possible. All of this is necessary to hold the interest of young adults who have been conditioned to have abnormally short attention spans by a steady diet of mainstream, car-crash-per-minute, scene-change-every-few-seconds, fast-beat American media. But all of this takes a great deal of electrical energy, manpower and expensive equipment.
For this reason, “church growth” as practiced in America is in danger, as well as the modern American megachurch. These are being endangered by the same processes that are endangering other large, far-flung enterprises of modern industrial civilization. Our society as a whole is now facing absolute limits on the amount of crude oil available for use, and since crude oil is the basis of our modern economy, our society is facing limits to economic growth. Financial arrangements which depend on assumptions of economic growth are beginning to unravel, since that growth is no longer guaranteed. Globalism is being endangered. Because of Peak Oil and other resource peaks, it is becoming costlier for China and other low-wage countries to import raw materials and energy resources such as oil, and costlier for these countries to ship their finished products to the rest of the world. This is undermining the business model of large big-box store chains such as Wal-Mart. Rising oil prices and foolish biofuel mandates are also making food scarcer and more expensive. The real estate crisis has caused the value of many homes to drop steeply, and banks are far less willing to issue mortgages, leaving many Americans without borrowing power. Americans are being forced to conserve, cut back, be frugal and re-localize their lives.
What does this mean for an established megachurch or a “wanna-be” megachurch? First, membership of such churches is likely to shrink in the days ahead. This will be due to the rising cost of commuting. Most megachurches were conceived under the assumption that energy and oil would remain cheap forever, and this assumption is being proven false. And as the cost of electricity rises, it will also become more expensive to heat, cool, and light the church buildings, or put on a “rockin'” multimedia service. As the cost of transporting goods rises, the gourmet coffee served at the end of the service will become unaffordable. In short, all the technological enhancements that make for an attractive, “seeker-sensitive” church will go away, along with those people who only came to church to experience those enhancements. Also, tithes and offerings will decrease, because members of the congregation already being squeezed by a faltering economy will view church as a “discretionary expense.” Churches that want to transition to megachurch status will not be able to afford the music gear, multimedia system, paid staff, CCLI licenses, and other things required to imitate the big guys. Churches that are already in debt may lose property along with the rest of foreclosed society.
The coming difficulties will have a few good effects. First, they will change the status of the Church from that of an aggregator of consumers with lots of money. This will drive away those who are interested in church leadership solely as a means of getting rich. It will also make things harder for those who want to build an ecclesiastical empire for themselves, since as churches become smaller, would-be empire builders will have to visit more churches in order to have the same effect that they do now by visiting a few megachurches or publishing a book. The range of these would-be empire builders will also be limited, since travel will become more difficult and expensive. Indeed, one of the solutions I see for the present state of American evangelicalism is that the Church must become “de-scoped” so that it no longer presents such a temptation to those who lust for money and power. Peak Oil and the financial crisis will accomplish this nicely.
As the megachurch culture is tested by the demise of a cheap energy economy, many elements of that culture will be tested. Those elements that possess timeless, enduring value will remain, and those elements that are mere fluff will be swept away. It will be interesting to see what songs are sung in church when there's no praise band to back up the singing, or what stories will be told when there are no multimedia special effects to enhance the storytelling. Rather than being mere clones of moderm American McCulture, churches will once again evolve their own denominational distinctives, their own culture. They may well become contributors to vibrant local cultures – a very good thing, indeed!
In the near future, it is quite likely that a larger percentage of those who go to church will go, not because of some techno-program, but because they truly believe. But one of the dangers of the coming difficult times is that in times of difficulty, rigid legalistic churches and groups might become attractive to suffering, disoriented people looking for certainty in life. This is a problem which the Church has faced since New Testament times, and its cure is education – sound teaching in the doctrines of the Faith, which equip people to resist being enslaved by religious empire-builders. This is the approach used by St. Paul when he wrote the epistle to the Galatians, for instance.
I shall have more to say about education in a later post. I will finish by summing up a few key points: The spread of the Gospel is a good thing. Growth in the Church is therefore good, as long as it is defined as growth in the number of people who follow Christ. “Church growth” is a bad thing to want, if it is desired solely as a means of creating an ecclesiastical empire for some pastor. However, the lust for this kind of “church growth” seems to be rampant in American evangelicalism, both among rigid, fringe cultic groups and among mainstream, youth-oriented, “seeker-sensitive” churches. The cure for enslavement to a fringe cultic group is to educate Christians to understand their freedom in Christ. But the cure for the big-box “seeker-sensitive” McChurch empire is coming from Heaven itself, as we all move to the downside of Hubbert's Peak.
And now, we are through with the discussion of Power. Our next subject will be Lust. Stay tuned...