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I saw this really interesting piece about “church cannibalism” and it ties into something else I was reading about the dwindling of religious belief in America. What these two stories tell me is that Americans are steadily becoming less religiously observant over time, but huge megachurches are growing in membership and numbers. But I’m not sure that trend’s going to hold.

Megachurches aren’t a super-new thing, having their origins in the 1950s; I briefly attended one in the 80s as a teenager when I joined a Southern Baptist Church, and they weren’t even new then. Anytime a super-charismatic leader arises in Christianity, that leader may well seek to capitalize on his or her charisma by growing a small empire of devoted followers. As this incredibly good commentary post discusses, megachurches are a media spectacle–a product–an infomercial selling their leaders’ books and videos. But they are also venues containing vast numbers of people all concentrating on the same thing, and that gives them a great deal of drawing power. Their culture and membership reflect a more youthful attitude, from their younger-than-average leaders (Thom Rainer, a noted evangelical analyst, puts megachurch leaders’ average age at 47, with 25 megachurch leaders being in their 30s) on down to their congregants, who tend to be younger people than the older folks filling most church pews. And a big chunk of Christians now attend one. It’s not hard to understand why they’re so popular.

From the first second people drive into a megachurch parking lot (which may well be one of several parking lots or even a seven-story parking garage) to the moment they drive out of it, their impressions are being manipulated and managed just like they would be in any other corporate experience. There is a reason why corporate experiences and megachurches look so similar: they work. They work beautifully. Quite a few people respond very well to having their experiences manipulated and managed. Smaller churches, with their less-charismatic leaders and their sparser resources, just can’t compete with experiences these behemoth big-boxes can provide.

When a megachurch arrives in a town, the smaller churches already there have reason to worry about their own futures–for the same exact reason that a mom-and-pop housewares shop has reason to fear for its own future when a Bed Bath & Beyond comes to town. I think it’s hilarious that these megachurches act like their numbers are coming from brand-new converts, because the small churches in the area know exactly where those numbers are coming from: from their pews.

Mega Church (1)
Mega Church (1) (Photo credit: Flickmor)

There are some pitfalls associated with megachurch attendance, of course. For laypeople, they can easily get lost in the crowd, blend in, and never be noticed. I sense a distinct lack of personal engagement in a lot of the stories I see about megachurches, and that lack speaks to my own experience. I don’t think I actually even ever spoke with my megachurch’s pastor in the six months or so that I attended that church, and I was there twice a week; the full extent of my interfacing with non-youth-group church leadership consisted of the pre-printed tithe envelopes they thoughtfully mailed me for years after I’d stopped attending there. There’s a far more practical shortcoming, though. With so many people around, it’s also easy to think that “someone else” will volunteer at the church for essential tasks like Sunday School and childcare, but if everybody is thinking “someone else” will do something, then maybe nobody will ever actually step up to the plate and do it. By contrast, at the small “planted” church I later attended, everybody had to do something there, or else it very obviously wasn’t going to get done. It felt good to be needed and to feel useful, even if I was doing stuff I didn’t normally like doing. I really liked that at the end of a Sunday service, we all pitched in to tidy up the church while we socialized.

And, too, when there are thousands of people in a church, it’s a little easier to skip or stint on tithing, which may well be the real concern for megachurch leaders nowadays. In a small church, if someone decides not to tithe, that missing money may be a sizeable percentage of the church’s budget, but in a much bigger church, that money is a drop in the bucket. That said, if enough people make such a decision, all those drops add up and now Joel Osteen can’t afford to redecorate his second-favorite vacation house’s guest bathroom.

Things don’t look a lot rosier for the folks running a large church, though. As with social media, where a fraction of users end up creating content for a site while most users passively observe or enjoy that content, a small percentage of participants at a church do most of the stuff that needs to be done. But churches have shot themselves in the feet in one very special way: they’ve been presenting and advertising themselves for years as places where fun stuff happens, where parents can drop their kids off, where families will have activities to keep everybody busy and all age groups have a social reason to attend. So these non-contributing members can come to a megachurch and enjoy the facilities, drink the free espresso, eat the free food, use the free childcare, figure “someone else” will volunteer and tithe, and then collect their kids and leave at the end of the day like they were at a Jesus-fied theme park. It’s the ultimate modern convenience product–spirituality that uplifts a person and makes that person feel good without the need for any real personal investment.

Still, the business model works simply through sheer numbers. Church leaders from smaller churches being cannibalized by these huge ones can blame parishioners all they want for how people flock to the megachurch business model (and they certainly do), but for all the shame heaped upon their heads, people still leave for these bigger churches. Obviously, it’s the kind of spirituality that works better for them, but just like Christians tend to do with abortion, pastors blame the wrong end of the equation: they’re upset with parishioners with leaving, but I’m not seeing a lot of close analysis about why parishioners are doing so. The reality-free bubble that Christians inhabit is in full swing with this situation. Many of these leaders seem to be focusing on the bells-and-whistles of the big-box churches; when they finally confront the truth that younger people are fleeing in droves for these largely non-denominational campuses, they may well decide that the problem is that they need more fog machines when the real problem is far more endemic and institutional–and impossible to even address without facing some excruciatingly uncomfortable truths, let alone fix.

It’s kinda like Wal-Mart’s situation in a lot of ways; it’s not in me to blame a person for shopping there, because the problem is not consumers but rather the leaders who have created a system whereby Wal-Mart can exist with the business model that it uses. It’s really not fair to blame people for taking advantage of a flawed system if it helps them feed their kids on ever-shrinking paychecks any more than it’s fair to blame Christians for preferring to attend churches that they feel fit their lives better than their old ones could. Such Christians may well find that the bubbles of these megachurches pop quickly when confronted with reality.

Indeed, I perceive a lot of good news when I survey the landscape of megachurches and megachurch culture. Their members tend to be a lot more progressive than the smaller ones; as one example, Mars Hill is a flat-out Calvinistic hardline church, but I don’t see that kind of hardline posturing among its members, who seem fairly liberal as a group. Though members tend to skew evangelical in practice and feel it is important to share their faith with outsiders, in my personal experience with these folks I find that their theology isn’t very well-developed or informed, so they’re pretty easy to deal with overall; they seem to rely heavily on apologetics materials, especially those written by their dear leaders.

Speaking of which, it’s hard to escape the feeling that these churches are just extended sales pitches and mass-marketing machinery for their leaders’ books and videos. Most of these leaders aren’t going to risk seriously alienating big swathes of their customers parishioners with anything too confrontational or condemning. They’re not going to want to make outsiders feel unwelcome, so out go the complicated songs or overly-involved rituals. For that matter they won’t want to make even members feel unwelcome, either, so one won’t often encounter too much hard-to-understand doctrine or theology. Christianity is slowly becoming more of a cultural affiliation than anything else, and this transformation of the religion into an easily-digested popular pablum is a very bad sign in my opinion; the religion is being cut off from its grandest traditions, its deepest thinking, and its most robust philosophical ideas and turned into THE ANGLE, that extra-something that will save believers from their own poor choices and help them get ahead of all the non-believers, a winning lottery ticket they hold that nobody else does, a feel-good always-there daddy or boyfriend who yuvs them thissssss much (… “and then he spread out his arms, and died”).

Just as they are easy to join and easy to attend, these churches are also easy to drift away from; I’ve heard quite a few of their ex-members talk about leaving and nobody even noticed, so a person on the verge of deconverting or disengaging from Christianity (“disengagement” means to stop attending church, reading the Bible privately, praying, witnessing to outsiders, and other external shows of faith) may well drift into a megachurch as the last stop on the ride.

Megachurches and their cults of personality may well be their own worst enemy, in the end. As the saying goes, the bigger they are, the harder they fall. These churches’ main strength, their hugely-charismatic leadership, is proving to be their main Achilles Heel. The internet has led to greater transparency among church leaders, which means that wrongdoing that could be kept under wraps for years long ago now comes out very quickly and spreads almost immediately. Mark Driscoll, to return to that earlier example, has had a slew of scandals attached to his name in recent years, and those scandals are finally causing his megachurch empire Mars Hill in Seattle to disintegrate–to the point that Mars Hill has had to lay off nine staffers and redouble its begging for extra donations from members. Mr. Driscoll himself is facing some serious setbacks, what with his publisher putting his newest book on hold and refusing to reprint another one. The beleaguered megapastor is also seeing repeated demands from his flock for accountability regarding his actions and financial handling of the church’s affairs. A constant stream of gaffes, most followed by a weak apology or empty gestures toward change, has finally peaked in a recent huge kerfluffle over some deeply disturbing comments he made on a church-sponsored discussion forum some years back regarding “pussified” Americans. This latest gaffe seems to be the straw that broke the camel’s back; while I agree that it’s not totally fair to hold someone accountable for ancient forum comments, anybody with perception can see that he hasn’t changed at all since then, so I think this new criticism is quite valid.

We are indeed becoming less religious as a country, with churches having to squabble and fight over ever-shrinking pieces of a rapidly-dwindling pie. Those who remain religious are either drifting into “None” status or else consolidating into huge big-box megachurches with oodles of consumer-driven marketing and attractions, while smaller churches that are either unwilling or unable to compete find themselves fading away for lack of funds and membership. And the people who head for these megachurches may well find that after the emotional high of being in a huge group of people all doing the same thing wears off, their new pastors don’t quite live up to the hype and the experience they have maybe isn’t quite as rewarding as they’d hoped it would be. Given how often these pastors seem to be running into scandals and problems, megachurches’ reliance on charismatic leaders to fuel their explosive growth may well be its ultimate weakness.

I’m not entirely sure that smaller churches should even want to compete with these megachurches, with the inevitable meltdown coming their way. I think that these huge churches are going to go the way of shopping malls, which were similar in a lot of ways–super-huge conglomerations of consumer culture that couldn’t keep up with changes in society. Now many of those old malls are shuttered wastelands, and I’m betting that we’ll start seeing that same thing happen with the megachurches that are now Christianity’s big fad.

And I’m okay with that.

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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...