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Last weekend, while attending Lexington, KY’s Southland Christian Church, I received an invitation to attend a “Poor Man’s After-Tax Dinner.” Located on a 115-acre plot that occupies a stretch of the rapidly disappearing farmland between Lexington and Jessamine County, Southland will host the gala, which includes a catered meal and a performance by the Dale Adams Band. On the church’s website, an announcement for the event asks, “Did you have to pay when you filed taxes? This month’s Gathering is designed to help you to forget your IRS woes.” The After-Tax Dinner will minister to those still reeling from the April 15th deadline, and, with any luck, it will foster solidarity among Southland’s flock, the majority of whom are members of the tax bracket whose wallets ache most severely after just having rendered unto Caesar the money that belongs to him.
Southland Christian Church, one of several worship centers in the United States that has earned the moniker “Six Flags over Jesus,” is Lexington’s largest megachurch. With a weekly attendance of 8,000 people and an operating budget that supports a staff of over eighty members, Southland far exceeds most U.S. congregations in terms of financial resources and social clout. In recent years, popular and scholarly studies have attempted to situate the megachurch movement within a broad cultural context. Although the majority of these analyses dispute the precise definition of a megachurch, most distinguish these multiplex sanctuaries from smaller worship communities by using the same criteria—i.e. weekly attendance, campus acreage, annual budget, etc.—that megachurches themselves draw on to represent their own success.  However, the essence of a megachurch is not its large buildings, but rather the theology of consumption that informs its programming. In this way, a megachurch ethos has infiltrated even the smallest congregations in the United States and has helped to solidify Christianity’s inextricable connection to consumer capitalism. To those who see megachurches as symptomatic of a flawed Christianity, market-minded church growth confounds one of the faith’s oldest dualities, the contradiction of living in the world without conforming to its ways, as Paul puts it in Romans 12. Megachurches at once reject “the world” and participate in it by seeking to win the lost and wow the consumer at the same time.
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Southland Christian Church, like other complexes that have developed alongside suburban warehouse-style retail centers, thrives by inundating its users with hip worship music, opportunities to purchase books, t-shirts, and other Christian kitsch in their on-campus stores, and, most crucially, biblical aphorisms that appear on PowerPoint slides, consumable to one’s liking. Megachurches select the title “user” (or sometimes “seeker”) to denote their members because market research has shown that “laity” or “congregation” suggests a stodgy image that alienates the target churchgoer. Megachurches also tend to rid their sanctuaries of traditional Christian iconography, like crosses, stained glass windows, and the Bible, because the same research reveals that these symbols make many churchgoers feel uncomfortable. Since the early 1990s, megachurches have increased their memberships by compelling Americans to abandon Mainline Protestantism, whose rituals and “irrelevant” sermons disinterest many Christians. Megachurches convince these spiritual nomads to join a new fold, where they can embark on a sheik, Christian journey and chat about it over coffee in the church bistro.
Though megachurches typically resist denominational affiliation, most of them adhere, at least loosely, to the precepts of evangelicalism. A term diluted by the sheer amount of Christians staking a claim to it, evangelicalism signifies a faith group that reads the Bible as an inerrant and infallible text, fully inspired by God. Yet megachurch attendees do not consider themselves to be fundamentalists, as this definition might suggest, but instead the beneficiaries of a “theological flexibility that [provides] the freedom to adapt to contemporary culture” (Symonds, Grow, and Cady par. 11). When megachurches advance such flexible theologies to attract new members, they also diminish the once-revered divide between the sacred and the secular.
Even while condemning megachurches for their synergy of proselytizing fervor and capitalist ideology, most detractors of the movement stop short of articulating exactly what makes these evangelical empires socially and doctrinally reprehensible. As Omri Elisha says, “[e]ven people who do not believe in Christ the Redeemer still want to believe in a Christ that throws a fit when money-changers show up at the temple” (par. 7). Many dismissals of evangelical capitalism clumsily appeal to a conviction that Jesus, the man who teaches that it is harder for the wealthy to enter heaven then for a camel to enter through the eye of a needle (Mat. 19.24), would not condone large, tax-exempt bastions of the right-wing agenda. Of course, this is probably true. Jesus would likely disparage megachurches, not-for-profit conglomerates that comprise a $7.2 billion industry in the United States (Sosnik, Dowd, and Fournier 94). However, those attempting to lay bare ideologies that undergird megachurches must first acknowledge the fact that evangelicals themselves have long since reconciled the quandary of navigating both the sanctuary and the market. Megachurch leaders realize how fluid the slippage is between evangelism and entrepreneurialism, and most have no problem admitting that evangelism is marketing, and marketing is evangelism. After all, when you’re “pushing a high-concept product [like] eternal life,” why separate these categories? (Sosnik, Dowd, and Fournier 99). In the minds of most evangelicals, the clarion call to recruit members and expand the church does not bespeak an ill-advised rendition of corporate entrepreneurialism, but instead implements in a literal way the ultimate marketing campaign, Jesus’ Great Commission to “go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Mat. 28.19).
In fact, most megachurches appropriate the capitalist creed so flagrantly that calling attention to the parallels between the church and the market is almost a moot point. Take, for instance, Ted Haggard, the former and now recovering (or is it recovered?) homosexual pastor of Colorado Springs’s New Life Church, who argues “that for Christianity to prosper in the free market, it needs more than ‘moral values’—it needs consumer value” (Sharlet 47). Or consider John Jackson, pastor of Carson Valley Christian Center in Minden, NV, a spiritual leader who refers to himself as a “PastorPreneur” (Sosnik, Dowd, and Fornier 99). And then there’s South Barrington, IL’s Willow Creek Community Church, perhaps the first market-driven megachurch. Willow Creek seeks out MBA-credentialed men (in lieu of those with a ministry education) to hold church leadership positions. The church, very adept at branding the spiritual experience it provides, has launched a marketing arm that generates additional revenue and offers consultations, workshops, and seminars. This line of programming teaches other pastors how to become business savvy leaders who can replicate Willow Creek’s stratagem and grow their own churches accordingly.
Though it may seem otherwise, consumer capitalism is not simply a benign template through which Christians can better understand how to evangelize. The capitalism that megachurches appropriate fosters the illusion that economic growth can create efficient ways of spreading Christ’s Gospel, thus supposedly enabling megachurch members to be more astute followers of Christ than those who attend smaller, less-equipped churches. In reality, the capitalist theologies that megachurches espouse enable the wealthy elite—and those who support them by acting as spiritual consumers—to posture religion in a way that, in actuality, establishes and maintains their social advantage. The confluence between evangelism and entrepreneurialism, albeit deeply problematic, also functions as a smoke screen that masks the means by which megachurches reinforce an economic status quo. Simply listing the striking resemblances between the church and the market obfuscates the ways in which megachurches implement spurious theologies and exert influence on mainstream society.
If a common thread unites megachurches, it is that these centers foster a version of Christianity wholly dependent “on the absence of conflict as one of its main selling points” (Sharlet 50). To impart a sense of having overcome conflict and adversity, evangelical megachurches rely on a set of stock narratives, like the American Dream and economic Darwinsim, each of which have evolved in keeping with marketplace sensibilities. Other narratives useful to the megachurch agenda, such as the idea that Christians wage a mythical battle of spiritual warfare against sin and evil, give rise to evangelicalism’s nexus with one of literature’s oldest tropes, the pastoral. Pastoralism, a tradition versatile enough “to both contain and appear to evade tensions and contradictions—between country and city, art and nature, the human and the non-human, our social and inner selves [etc.],” helps to explain the logic of retreat and victimhood that evangelicals embrace (Gifford 11). Additionally, the pastoral impulse elucidates many evangelicals’ fear of confusing and spiritually volatile urban environments. The location of most megachurches, their architectural features, and their landscape designs reinforce consumer sovereignty, all the while integrating the pastoral trope and lulling members into a bucolic dream state.
Narratives of the Marketplace
Consumption-based theologies allow megachurches to glorify the church-corporation capable of demonstrating its fitness to survive. Of the shibboleths that allow evangelicalism and corporate America to hop in bed together, few manifest as plainly as economic Darwinism. Megachurch pastors often attribute their growth not to the Lord’s Spirit, as one might assume, but rather to their church’s ability to outwit, outlast, and survive competition. According to Sosnik, Dowd, and Fournier, “successful megachurch leaders adapt to demographic and social change; they target potential worshipers based on their lifestyles; and they use multiple communication channels to deliver messages that are relevant to people’s lives” (95, italics added). Joel Osteen, pastor of Lakewood Church in Houston, TX, also interprets his church’s growth as a natural consequence of its ability to adapt. According to Osteen, “[o]ther churches have not kept up, and they lose people by not changing with the times” (Symonds, Grow, and Cady par. 4). The affinities between economic Darwinism and religion traces to Rodney Stark’s sociology, which insists that churches, when left unhindered to the market’s invisible hand, will “naturally come to meet the populace’s diverse spiritual needs” (Qtd. in Sharlet 51, italics added).
Not surprisingly, then, megachurches often sing their own praises to the cadence of an inspirational Horatio Alger-style melody. Like many successful corporations, megachurches recount their ascendance through tales that stress meager beginnings, cramped worship spaces, and sparse attendance, all hardships overcome en route to plush auditoriums and influential cable television ministries. For instance, Lexington’s Southland Christian Church boasts on its website that it grew out of “a vision […] One hundred and seventy-two people attended the first service on July 8, 1956. Nearly five decades later, [it averages] over 8,000 in attendance” (“SCC – About” par. 2). Along the same vein, Lake Forest, CA’s Saddleback Church represents its success on its website both in prose form and also in a “quick facts” format:
Year the Church Began: 1980
Founded by: Rick and Kay Warren
Size of first Bible study: 7 people
Average attendance today: 20,000+
New Believers baptized in past 10 years: 12,000
Church campus: 120 acres
As the Saddleback story goes, Warren, “fresh out of seminary,” left with his wife and all his possessions, which fit “on the back of a U-haul truck,” and went to California to start a church (“The Saddleback Story” par. 1). What began as a small Bible study, held in Warren’s modest apartment, evolved into “one of the most exciting journeys of growth that any church has experienced in American history” (par. 3). And finally, there’s the nation’s largest congregation, Osteen’s Lakewood Church, which dramatically trumps all other megachurch historiographies. According to Lakewood’s website, “[the church’s] origins were humble. In fact, the first meeting of Lakewood Church was held in a converted feed store on the outskirts of Houston.” Today, Lakewood meets in the refurbished 16,000-seat Compaq Center, former home of the NBA’s Houston Rockets. (One wonders if Lakewood’s account seeks to reference Christ’s own humble beginnings in barn, which, according to the Gospel narrative, still housed livestock at the time of his birth).
These Rags-to-riches narratives, even while conveniently appealing to the authority that the Bible’s Great Commission affords, pass off American Dream ideologies as an inevitable corollary to the enthusiasm of a thriving, God-seeking church. Megachurches often become havens where worshippers can invest in these narratives, in which oppressive ideologies remain invisible and are lost amidst the din of religious fervor. To rob evangelical narratives of their cogency, I appeal to a cultural studies paradigm that attempts to expose how megachurches typecast their members to fill the role of what Roland Barthes calls “myth consumers” (129). Evangelicalism’s narratives embody “the very principle of myth: [that which] transforms history into nature” (129). As Barthes understands, “in the eyes of the myth-consumer, the intention, the adhomination of the concept can remain manifest without however appearing to have an interest in the matter” (129). Only under these pretenses, for example, can megachurch pastors like Rick Warren can insist that the “goal is not to turn the church into a business,” (Symonds, Grow, and Cady par. 16) all the while knowing that his church’s status as an evangelical powerhouse directly stems from its wholesale adaptation of business strategies.
The success that Saddleback’s Rick Warren has enjoyed suggests that he ranks not only among corporate America’s leading managerial visionaries but also as one of evangelicalism’s most charismatic figureheads. In addition to commanding the allegiance of large congregations, megachurch pastors typically reach millions of other evangelicals via various forms of media, and none do this more prolifically than Warren, whose Purpose Driven Life (2002) is the fastest-selling nonfiction book of all time. The highly recognizable presence of key megachurch leaders presents a salient modern example of the “routinization of charisma,” a phenomenon, Max Weber suggests, that ultimately enables “the continuously effective routines of workaday life” (54). Through the interface of a powerful personality, the charismatic leader, what Weber likens to a creative genius and an entrepreneur, transcends the strictures of boredom and eventually motivates a group of followers to become participants in bureaucratic order. However, rather than maintaining an imposing persona, as many notable religious figures in the past have done, megachurch pastors strive to erase traditional boundaries between themselves and their congregations. Warren, who often wears informal Hawaiian shirts while preaching, reinforces consumer sovereignty with personally oriented, applicable sermons that, much like the message of nineteenth-century revivalist Charles G. Finney, reproduce easily and valorize the “sanctification of choice” (Clapp 136). Warren’s central message in many of his sermons and publications, that life “is not all about you; it’s about something greater than you” seemingly creates a paradox—a succinct rejection of individualism delivered via in a highly accessible and user-friendly package.
“The Lord is my Shepherd”: Evangelicalism and Pastoralism
Charismatic leaders like Warren fill the role of pastor, a figure whose metaphorical import extends to the Hebrew Bible’s famous pastoral poem, the twenty-third Psalm. As a gesture of informality, megachurch pastors often prefer the title “pastor” over “reverend” or “minister,” and in so doing they (perhaps unwittingly) mirror “the usual process for putting further meanings into the pastoral [by insisting] that the shepherds were the rulers of sheep” (Empson 12). A well-wrought literary mode, the pastoral encompasses a host of sentiments, many of which yearn for a retreat from the city to the serene countryside. The pastoral mode not only elicits a sentimental yearning for repose in nature; it also seeks to recreate a Golden Era in which the threat of loss dissipates. William Empson argues in Some Versions of Pastoral, (1935) his still-influential study on the literary trope, that the pastoral’s fundamental move reduces the complex to the simple (9). According to Empson, the “essential trick of the old pastoral, which was felt to imply a beautiful relationship between the rich and the poor, was to make simple people express strong feelings” (11). In this way, the pastoral appeals to emotion—a quality central to the evangelical experience—as a way of instilling “a deep desire for stability, served to evade the actual and bitter contradictions of the time” (Williams 60).
I believe that megachurches adopt the pastoral mindset, both in church architecture and theology, because it affords their attendees recoil from society and articulates a logic of retreat from societal woes. Because megachurches so thoroughly allow their attendees to escape conflict and unsettling situations, they both contradict Christ’s core message of conflict in the Gospels and maintain an economic hierarchy in today’s world. Megachurches replicate the logic of pastoral retreat literally, by occupying vast properties on the outskirts of urban centers, and theologically, by presenting a spirituality that blunts the ability for its members to engage in critical thought. In his synthesis of American pastoralism, Lawrence Buell identifies the pastoral’s susceptibility to subsume any real social critique. Buell considers Henry David Thoreau’s employment of the pastoral trope, specifically the way in which he uses it to disavow slavery in Massachusetts in Walden, and scorns “the insouciance with which [Thoreau] turns away from social confrontation for the sake of immersion in a simplified green world” (38). Thoreau’s “pastoral hedonism,” (41) a phrase also useful to describe many megachurch environs, allows him to ease away from social activism and become “an ultrarespectable plank in American civil religion, as much of a placebo is e pluribus unum” (42).
Megachurches do not reenact the pastoral’s fundamental movement from the city and into the country simply because they like to build on cheap, vacuous plots of land. Rather, the pastoral retreat in the form of megachurches fleeing the city ameliorates, for many evangelicals, the confusion of living in a fallen world. John N. Vaughn, a consultant who offers his services to aspiring church pastors, lauds megachurches for their ability to identify spiritual warfare in urban areas, distance themselves from such strife, and worship in a safe, serene locale. As Vaughn would have it, megachurches remain inaccessible to “gang members [and other] power groups [who] usually know that it is best to keep a respectable distance from worship centers, where the power of God is obviously present” (111). Megachurch members, warriors in a spiritual battle between Satan and the Children of God, are especially aware of spiritual attack, so it’s no surprise that they prefer to live, shop, and worship, as far away from demonic centers that are cities as possible. Jeff Sharlet, in his profile of New Life Church, demonstrates this scenario of “strategic retreat,” in which “believers are to ‘plant’ their churches as strategic outposts encircling the enemy” (50). While working on assignment in Colorado Springs, the so-called evangelical “New Jerusalem,” (44) Sharlet asked New Life church members if they could recommend any establishments in the city:
Whenever I asked where to eat, they would warn me away from downtown’s neat little grid of cafés and ethnic joints. Stick to the Academy, they’d tell me, referring to the vein of superstores and prepackaged eateries—P.F. Chang’s, California Pizza Kitchen, et al.—that bypasses the city. Downtown, they said, is “confusing.” (49)
The “confusion” megachurch members seek to avoid, whether spiritual or social, reinforces evangelicalism’s ability to seek repose beside the “still waters” of social affluence (Ps. 23.2). Further, the pastoral retreat fuels an insider-outsider dynamic, seen in the binary distinction between saved or unsaved, and raptured or left behind.
Of course, megachurches also locate in the exurbs to establish and reinforce class boundaries. Detached from public transportation, megachurches effectively exclude economically underprivileged people—i.e. those who do not own a car—from attending. In retreating from the city, megachurches also enact “choices regarding location and treatment of exterior grounds [that] indicate how that congregation conceptualizes the relationship between themselves and the rest of society” (Kilde 238). Often congregations further distance themselves from society by cultivating ornately constructed landscapes (and expansive seas of concrete parking lots), which surround megachurches and provide a buffer between the sanctity of its facilities and the troublesome, demonic outside world. Many other megachurches, such as Bellview Baptist in Cordova, TN and Willow Creek in South Barrington, IL, install lakes and ponds that reinforce the separation between their congregation and society. So too does the Saddleback Church pride itself on its landscape, which, as its pastor understands it, is a perverse application of the mid-1990s bohemian bourgeois ethos. According to Rick Warren, Saddleback attempts to provide a naturalist worship experience that connects worshippers with the environs of God’s creation: “When God made Adam and Eve, he put them in a garden, not a skyscraper,” Warren explains (Qtd. in Loveland and Wheeler 150). The Saddleback ministry, according to Warren, devotes “much more into putting money into landscaping, trees, and a park atmosphere than making an architectural statement” (Qtd. In Loveland and Wheeler 150). The extensive landscaping of megachurches not only appeals the pastoral rendering of nature, but also keeps Christians separate from the sin and contamination of the outside world.
If the exterior gounds of a megachurch takes worshippers back to nature, the church interior seeks to amplify culture, and the individual sovereignty that accompanies it. Large, spacious sanctuaries, oversized atriums, sprawling food courts, and open concourses, all of which are staples in megachurches, reinforce a consumer-driven sense of self-entitlement. The glut of space that megachurches provide their users allows them to “maintain control over [their] perambulations and decisions,” in a sense creating an illusion of choice that echoes the ways in which most members “accept or reject theology as [they] see fit” (Kilde 241). Megachurch landscaping and architecture, via a not-so-subtle adaptation of pastoral ideology, allows its users to fellowship, worship, and commune with the divine on their terms.
Megachurches further implement a pastoral, consumer-driven theology by organizing themselves according to a small group structure, which provides members a sense of community, replete with the elimination of conflict via consumer-based theology. Small groups, (or cell groups) unite people who share the same gender, marital status, hobbies (e.g. motorcycling or scrap-booking), or emotional needs (e.g. abuse victims or acne sufferers). These groups, which meet once per week, function as a multiplication of choices that enable free-market theology, “designed for total accessibility, with the illusion of choice between strikingly similar brands” (Sharlet 50). Small groups allow megachurch attendees to control their own social connections, and in this way the structure both enables and models the mindset of consumer sovereignty that is not just detrimental, but indeed essential to evangelicalism.
Megachurches thrive not because of the vast resources they offer but because they provide outlets for people to seek community. Sitting in an arena with 10,000 other worshippers can be a surprisingly lonely experience, so megachurches have implemented a series of small groups to ensure cohesiveness in their bodies of believers. Small groups “model outreach practices on proven business and marketing strategies—not unlike what Wal-Mart is doing by adding more-fashionable clothes or what Borders is doing with its smaller ‘express’ bookstores” (Warner par. 5). These groups, clearly the essential manifestation of consumer-driven theology, also simultaneously reinforce the church’s hierarchical power structure. The groups are led by men and are regulated by the church order. And this hierarchal structure “ensures ideological rigidity, even as it allows for individual expression” (Sharlet 51). In particular, small groups allow men to detach from the domestic sphere—also a pastoral fantasy—and bond with other men. Twitchell rightly asserts that the “sensitivity of the megachurch to male concerns is at the heart of its explosive growth” (Where 223). Male-only cell groups, often formed to reinforce the gendered roles of godly husband and wife, provide a place to “just talk, work on cars, go on field trips, discuss business, play games, tell jokes, and generate comraderie, [all the while] with the total support of their women” (223).
Megachurch small groups also become the impetus for instilling oppressive theologies, accomplishing social agendas, and maintiaining order. For example, the 2004 Bush campaign, in its shameless dissolution of the boundaries between church and state, realized that small groups are “an indirect mechanism for coalition building” (Sosnik, Dowd, and Fournier 97). According to Sosnik, the “Bush team was far less interested in what pastors said about politics from the pulpit than they were about what worshipers discussed with friends, family, and neighbors in the weekday small-group meetings” (97). Megachurch small groups have proved to be the ideal venue for spurious theolgies to circulate freely and avoid the censure of a formal sermon.
Render Unto Caesar
The anecdote with which I began this essay, Southland Christian Church’s “After-Tax Dinner,” indicates, if nothing else, that megachurch members pay tribute to the government in good faith that their obedience to governmental authority demonstrates their godliness. Such diligence perhaps stems from their reading of the Gospel’s famous meditation on paying taxes, Jesus’ verbal exchange with the Pharisees. In this pericope, a quintessential instance of how the Gospel message gets emasculated by evangelicalism, the Pharisees approach Jesus while he is teaching to a crowd and attempt to trap him by posing a politically loaded question, which places Jesus in a no-win situation (Mark 12.13). The Pharisees proclaim:
Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality, but teach the way of God in accordance with truth. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not? (Mark 12.14-15)
If Jesus answers that it is lawful to pay taxes, he offends the convictions of his Jewish followers, who swear allegiance to God alone. However, if Jesus upholds Jewish sanctity and advocates nonpayment of taxes, he provides the Pharisees with grounds to hand him over as a rebel and an insurrect against the Roman state. Instead of answering the Pharisees, Jesus retorts with an order and another question:
“Bring me a denarius and let me see it.” And they brought one. Then he said to them, “Whose head is on this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Jesus said to them, “Give to the emperor [or Caesar] all things that are the emperor’s, and to God, the things that are God’s.” (Mark 12. 15-17)
Jesus, in asking the Pharisees’ to produce a coin from their own pockets, forces their hand in the argument by exposing their own hypocritical collaboration with the Roman establishment. Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees diffuses a highly charged situation, yet, as most biblical scholars note, in this account Jesus does not affirm complicit participation with an earthly kingdom. Rather, he “shows an attitude of critical distancing vis-à-vis civil authority” (Monera 117-18). Jesus, as he consistently does throughout the Gospels, in no way advocates the support of the Roman Empire. Instead, his stance “shatters all pretenses to divine rights of secular structures of authorities” (117).
It should come as no surprise that megachurches co-opt Jesus’ interaction with the Pharisees in this passage and revise it in order to impart an understanding that ultimately maintains the established agenda. The most glaring instance is the Saddleback Church’s PurposeDriven ministry education arm, which produces curricula, pre-authored sermons, and Bible study outlines that church leaders can use in their own churches. One such lecture in PurposeDriven’s Matthew and Friends Leadership Training Program offers a tellingly conservative explication of Jesus’ conversation with the Pharisees. The lecture reads:
God wants us to obey others He puts in authority over us - God wants me to obey MY EMPLOYERS and MY GOVERNMENT. Jesus obeyed the rulers of His time. When the religious leaders of the day wanted to know what Jesus thought about paying taxes to an oppressive government, Jesus said - Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's. (Matthew 22:21b) (NIV) Jesus understood that earthly authority is just a temporary picture of eternal authority, so Jesus taught us to obey even flawed leaders now so we can understand how to obey the Perfect Leader, later. The Bible says - Everyone must submit to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those that exist are instituted by God. (Romans 13:1)
One doesn’t need a vivid imagination see the agenda of this prefabricated reading, especially its instruction to “obey even flawed leaders now.” Could this mean the Bush administration? Rick Warren, the overseer of Saddleback’s PurposeDriven ministry, presents free-association exegesis, an amalgam of Bible passages, and a pastiche of various English Bible translations and paraphrases in such a way that somehow hijacks the Gospel passage to mean exactly what it never could have. The uncritical explication here rejects the sense of conflict essential to Jesus’ message, yet it serves megachurches in their attempt to foster a consumer-driven worship environment in which the customer is king.
However, one wonders if megachurches can sustain the constant process of adaptability, change, and meeting the consumer’s needs. Consumer-driven ideologies might eventually delegate megachurches an ineffectual religious experience, an insiders-only meeting for believers. When he wrote his “Letter From Birmingham Jail” in 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. chastised the church for turning a blind eye toward social injustice. King wrote, “[i]f today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century.” While large churches did exist when King wrote, he could not possibly have imagined the full-extent of today’s technology-laden, ultra-landscaped exurban megachurches, which now wield a disproportionate amount of influence in the United States evangelical milieu, yet bear little resemblance to the Gospel’s representation of Christ.
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