It shouldn't be a surprise to hear that mainline Christian churches have been losing members. Between 1958 and 2008 almost 20 million people have either opted out of church membership altogether, or have joined more emotionally expressive and technologically savvy evangelical, prosperity theology or premillennial churches. Today, there are 38,000 distinct Christian denominations worldwide (not churches -- denominations) with the prosperity and premillennial brands growing fastest.
TV's Kenneth Copeland and Benny Hinn are probably the best known contemporary prosperity theology advocates, while the late Jerry Falwell and the writer Tim LaHaye are, more or less, in the premillennial camp. I say "more or less" because the multitude of ideas about millennialism is so plentiful it may be impossible to track them all down.
The premillennial preacher Jim Bakker, who you may recall as the founder of the Praise the Lord TV program, currently owns and operates a television ministry in Blue Eye, Mo., a tiny little town straddling the Missouri-Arkansas State line. Blue Eye is 25 miles south of Branson, Mo., and Branson, simply for the sake of a little verisimilitude, is the place where old country music stars go to die. Blue Eye is mostly industrial chicken farms.
When Bakker ran Praise the Lord, he was a prosperity theology preacher. Since his release from prison, he has switched over to premillennialism and preaches a pretty good end-times sermon. We might feel confusion over Pastor Bakker's change of theological heart until we learn that he owes the IRS $6 million -- a circumstance that would probably make His Holiness the Dalai Lama a premillennialist. In any case, I have heard him preach several time and can testify, brothers and sisters, that Jimmy can still leave 'em popeyed.
Back in the 1930s, H.L. Mencken wrote a piece on Amy Semple McPherson, a radio evangelist whose personal life and theological frames of reference was at least as confusing then as Pastor Bakker's is now. I remember the essay mostly because Mencken coined the phrase "a counterfeit hell robber," to mean that Lucifer was in no danger of losing customers due to Mrs. McPherson's entertaining efforts.
I don't know if McPherson was a charlatan or not, but I love Mencken's phrase because it seems to so accurately summarize the plight of mainline churches today as they try and survive alongside the Jim Bakkers and Benny Hinns of the world.
How will mainline churches survive?
What mainline pastors and Catholic priests tell me is that people today want a more "relevant" religious experience. When they are pressed to define what they mean by relevant, they describe something that sounds suspiciously like a fast food meal: easy in, easy out, cheap, convenient, no challenges. If you watch programs on the evangelical Daystar Network, or attend a "contemporary" church service some time, you will get the general idea immediately.
Historically, mainline churches succeeded because they embraced three ideas that are essential for cultural and human flourishing: First, membership was useful. It helped members place themselves in society and within the context of a certain range of societal standards; it helped structure time and relationships, particularly the parent and child role; and membership was probably good for (your) business.
Second, mainline church membership was often pleasurable. One developed friendships, witnessed the passing of fellow members one came to know fairly intimately over time, and received comfort and joy by sharing births, weddings and burials. Church socials and pre-service fellowship periods, which are common in mainline congregations, are further opportunities for affiliation, fun and pleasure.
Third, the church inculcated a spirit of private and public (and non-political) virtue that organized responses to crisis, to the poor and to gaining qualities of character that caused one to be a "better" person. Through contracting (usefulness) and by witnessing and experiencing (pleasure), one would grow in acceptance of a realized self and of a realized God (virtue).
(Let me, by the way, disclose that I am a contented, happy member of a little mainline church in a little county town and testify these three ideas are alive and well there or are, at least, not abstract in any way.)
How these three ideas play out among the 17,000 members of Joel Osteen's Lakewood Church in Houston, Tex. -- or other mega churches -- is a mystery that I haven't been able to solve. I end up wondering: Who among the 17,000 authentically witnesses the rituals of another's life, tests a fellow member's public and private virtues, or competently helps structure their affiliations within society and culture?
While it is certainly possible that aspects or elements of these ideas may be part of the Lakewood worship experience -- and that I just miss them because of my sinful nature, or because I'm just a Snooty Boy Wisenheimer -- it seems fair to say that the increasing numbers of viewers of programs featuring Television Evangelists have a mostly abstract or secondary worship experience. TV may entertain from time to time, but it rarely challenges us to be useful, to reciprocate pleasure or to engage virtue. Watching TV is passive, while the ideas embraced by bricks and mortar churches are active and transactional ideas that must be experienced to be real. Authenticity, especially Christian authenticity, is almost always sweaty from the labor of attaining it.
Televangelists, and their viewers, often mistake confession for authenticity. Jim Bakker, for example, frequently tells his audience about his going to prison for fraud, how he rediscovered his Christian values and beliefs while there, and how and why he is a more genuine Christian today.
Pastor Bakker concludes each program with requests for a Love Offering of $125. Then, he and wife Lori, the new and improved Tammy Faye, will send you a box of freeze-dried food in an amount suitable for the duration of an end time to be announced.
Similarly, the Televangelist Marcus Lamb, who claimed last week to be the target of a $7 million dollar extortion scheme because of an extramarital affair, also claims that he is a stronger, better, and more committed Christian and husband because of the affair and the associated publicity. The miracle, of course, is not that Pastor Lamb is now a better husband, but that anyone should know that he's got $7 million lying around. Who knew that the message of Jesus Christ was so profitable?
The point is not that Televangelists are scoundrels, or that many Christian pastors are hypocrites -- we know that human beings fail sometimes -- but that these grand ministry failures represent examples of what many mainstream churches have, in desperation, come to believe is relevant.
Mainline pastors resent it when "elitists" within their congregations describe these more relevant worship services as a species of television variety or reality programming, and they often respond by saying these critics are "traditionalists" or "reactionaries," or simply, "irrelevant old people." They say it sotto voice, of course, because these old farts, especially in small and rural churches, are the ones who pay the bills.
What pastors really hate though is when traditionalists ask them, "What good is it to evangelize a people without expecting them to be useful, to reciprocate, or to be publically and privately virtuous?"
This question is often the one that precipitates pastoral study of potentially lucrative and alternative careers in the financial services or hospitality industry sectors. Or, they think about starting another more "relevant" church that is, structurally, very self-expressive but with no stated expectations of self-control.
We can certainly be sympathetic to the plight of these mainline pastors and churches. But we can't hide the fact that these more "relevant" forms of worship seem to resemble Facebook friends where omg and lol are sufficient replacements for the time, work and history that most genuine friendships -- and spiritual lives -- require.
That seems like a counterfeit to me.
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