Sometime soon, I hope, I’ll read the new offering from David F. Wells of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary: Above All Earthly Pow’rs. It was given a short review in the always gripping back section of First Things (May 2006 issue).
It seems that the third third of Wells’ book will be the good stuff: a “devastating polemic against the evangelical megachurch phenomenon,” as Neuhaus writes, “with its pandering to ‘seekers’ in search of a vaguely spiritual uplift devoid of concern for truth or serious discipleship.”
I particularly like this quote of Wells, cited by that trenchant former Lutheran:
This is probably the first time that Christian people anywhere in the West have thought that ecclesiastical architecture is, in principle, offensive, that religious symbols, such as crosses, should be banned from churches, that pulpits should be abandoned, that hymns should be abolished, that pews should be sent to the garbage dump, and that pianos and organs should be removed. All of this has been happening on the forefront of this movement. This is probably the first time, too, that churchgoers have wanted their buildings to be mistaken for corporate headquarters or country clubs.
I remember, ages ago, a conference where a noted “church growth” guru was holding forth. This was far back in the ‘80’s, when the blueprints for the megachurch society were being drawn. It was a grand coalition: old-timey pentecostalists; very chic “Third Wave” signs-and-wonders charismatics (from John Wimber’s folk); honest-to-goodness orthodox mainline clergy who today would be called “crunchy cons”; Christian marketing and development specialists; and progressive revivalists; were all flocking to the famous workshops marketed under the aegis of the Charles Fuller Institute, especially those run by the likes of C. Peter Wagner, Carl George, and the not-yet-focus-driven-Rick Warren (he looked different back then).
The thing I remember especially, at an overhead-projected-pre-power-point presentation, was this remark that said it all: “Seminarians are taught too much Bible and doctrine in seminary, and not enough administration.” And just in case the audience didn’t get it, the speaker repeated himself in that Nuremberg sort of anaphora one usually finds in Amway cheer-meetings: “Pastors know all they need to know about religion. What they don’t know is the business of growing the church.”
A cold, clammy hand wrapped its fingers around my mind that day, and I willingly – for a while – took up the banner of “evangelism uber alles.” Under that banner, we embraced a deep pragmatic program of subjecting everything to the “operational definition” of evangelism, which is simply recruitment and institutional development. In other words, it was the same terms from the marketplace hoisted out of Wall Street and foisted onto the church.
Why not? In the post-modern climate of dismissing everything old as dull, ineffective and “irrelevant,” there wasn’t anything Biblically wrong with changing forms and structures. This stuff was all just cultural dross. What mattered was the content of the Gospel, just that simple radical of the “crisis initiation” of a person associating himself with Christ, and calling that radical experience “salvation.” Everything else was “discipleship,” group assimilation, and further institutional development (aka “evangelism” or “mission”).
The groundwork for the megachurch movement was laid down in the church growth movement of Win Arn, Lyle Schaller, and most notably C. Peter Wagner. The philosophy, as put down by an old colleague of mine (who is still the numero uno guru of church planting in my old denomination, whom I admire for his undeniable success), is nutshelled by this maxim:
It matters little in church growth what you teach. The only thing that matters is that you make enough “people spots” for people to fill them. When the sociological “spots” are made, people will fill them.
And then, to prove his point, he added: If you don't believe me, look at the Mormons. Look at the PTL Club. Those people are really good at making "people spots."
(Today, I would add the Muslims.)
Almost sounds like “nature abhors a vacuum,” doesn’t it?
In addition to Wells’ undoubtedly valuable sociological analysis of the megachurch movement, what remains is a cultural and doctrinal analysis. I suggest that the megachurch movement is a phenomenon that could only happen in a post-modern environment.
I suggest, too, that the church growth movement long ago jettisoned dogma and religion, and as a result, produced today’s megachurches which are less about Christ, and a whole lot more about kitsch.