Saturday, July 18, 2009

On Megachurches and Evangelical Culture

Sorry I didn't post a new entry yesterday. I was at the beach.


To Rod Dreher, in response to his recent blog post about American Evangelical culture:

As a member of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, I guess I would be considered an Evangelical. I’m not really sure what that word means anymore, since it’s been tossed around so many times. But your latest blog entry made me think about where the American Evangelical culture is going. Since I’m no theological expert, I don’t know how exactly to address the issues you present in your post. But perhaps my own story can shed a little light on the matter. Now I must warn you that I’m not an expert on either the Lutheran Church or Evangelical culture. These are just my observations as a regular guy trying to find his place within the Body of Christ.

Before I became a Christian at age 17, I didn’t know anything about church. My family practiced what I like to consider “wedding and funeral Christianity;” the only time we went to church was when some one either died or got married. So all I knew about church was you sing some songs, the preacher yells about Heaven and Hell, they sometimes give you crackers, and they often ask for your money.

Shortly after I gave my life to Christ I started going to my then-girlfriend’s church. The church considered itself to be non-denominational, but was closer to Pentecostal. So picture a young Christian, very new to the faith, surrounded by people waving their arms around, speaking in weird languages, and having sudden “prophetic visions.” It was . . . interesting. Even though I never felt fully comfortable, I liked what they preached—being saved through faith alone—so I stuck around for about a year.

Then I discovered the magic that was the Megachurch. A girl that I had a crush on at the time (I should point out that my girlfriend and I had broken up by this time) went to a Saturday night service for college-age kids called “Oasis.” (Hip, ain’t it?) They had an acoustic praise band that did all the current worship hits (“Open the Eyes of my Heart,” “Breathe,” etc.), and they often played clips from movies that somehow illustrated the night’s sermon. This is different, I thought. But I felt more at home at this church than I did with the other one. For starters, everyone praised God in English only. But more importantly there were a lot more people there my age, and they had a lot in common with me. So I left the tongue-talkers and joined the megachurch.

I have to be honest; I had some great times at that megachurch. I got baptized there, I saw Building 429 perform there a couple of times, and I made some really good friends. There were a couple of things, however, that put me off a little bit. For starters, since the congregation was so large—over 2,000 if I’m not mistaken—everybody had their own little cliques instead of everyone being a part of a big family. Second, the praise band would often drag a worship song out for about six or seven minutes. One can only sing “I’m desperate for You” for so long until one becomes desperate for the song to end. And third, some of the sermons weren’t as deep. One time—I think it was the Sunday before Memorial Day—the preacher used burgers to illustrate how pleasing the things of God were compared to the things of this world. I’m not making this up! According to this guy, worldly things are cheap and unsatisfactory like bad fast food burgers, while the things of God were real and pleasing like the burgers you make in your own back yard. Instead of feeling spiritually renewed, I just felt hungry.

Then one day my family and I packed our things and moved to Maryland’s Eastern Shore region. Now that my beloved megachurch was over a hundred miles away, I needed to find a new church. Our new house was literally across the street from a small Lutheran church, so one Sunday I decided to give it a try. It was definitely different from what I was used to. Instead of movie theater seats, this church actually had wooden pews. Also, the service was outlined in a bulletin, and the praise band (I went to their 11 o’clock “contemporary service,” which basically means they play acoustic instruments instead of an organ) was much, much smaller. But overall I enjoyed the service, and decided to come back next week.

The more I went to the Lutheran church, the more I fell in love with its sense of tradition and structure. I think part of it is because since our world is so full of distractions, it’s nice to have some sort of structure to keep one focused (of course the point of the Lutheran liturgy is not the structure of the liturgy itself, but to focus on Christ). But mostly it’s because this felt more like a real church, rather than a weekly multi-media Christian conference.

Also, my church is a lot tighter-knit than the megachurch. We even have nametags so everyone will know everyone’s name. The congregation feels more like a family. There aren’t a lot of people there my age, though, but that’s not a big deal to me. I feel like I finally have a home church where I feel connected.

Now with all this talk about “feeling,” I don’t want you to think that I’m dabbling in Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. Trust me when I say that I, too, think that modern religion has been watered down by this whole idea that “God just wants me to be happy and be a good person.” I see that especially in the “prosperity gospel,” where supposedly God gives presents to good little girls and boys like Santa Claus. God is a giver, of course, but from what I’ve read in the Bible and experienced in my own life, God gives us what we need but not always what we want.

There’s also what I like to call “the Self-Help Gospel.” It’s sort of like the Prosperity Gospel, only it’s more focused on the individual’s happiness than bank account. The Self-Help Gospel makes it sound as if Christianity is all about thinking positive thoughts. While positive thinking is not a bad thing in and of itself—it’s a legit technique used in cognitive therapy, and I’ve definitely benefited from it in my own struggle with depression and anxiety—that’s not what the Gospel is about. It’s about how Jesus’ death atones for our sins, and gives us new lives. That’s where ultimate joy comes from.

So now we’re back to the original question, “How to effectively address this crisis, which affects all American churches today?” I’m not sure, to be honest. That’s a tough question. I think you said it best in the comment section when you said it’s all about balance. We need to be able to communicate the Gospel to our modern culture, but not get so wrapped up in being “relevant” that we forgot what the Gospel is. There also needs to be a balance between emotion and intellect. Too much emotion makes church mushy, while too much intellect makes church cold.

Well, that’s my story. Sorry that this is so long and rambling. Take care, my Birkenstocked brother!

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