Reflections

A Magazine of Theological and Ethical Inquiry from Yale Divinity School

From the Editor: Minor-Key Theology

Author: 
Ray Waddle

Lately I’ve made several megachurch visits, and this is what I found:

Plenty of parking awaited outside, and coffee flowed inside. Near the café in the vast lobby, sign-up desks beckoned us to join community service teams that are “fun, cool, non-threatening.”

During worship, people strolled in and out. The auditorium seating was comfortable, the praise band vigorous, the PowerPoint sharp on three enormous screens. The sermon expounded on Exodus and God’s liberating power: “you are worth rescuing,” the minister told us.

My feeling was: Here’s a place mindful of the souls and demographics that gather here. It’s a huge yet cozy space for finding faith and making new friends.

These impressions might sound familiar, maybe too familiar – a big-box modern church in action. Megachurch scholars warn against easy generalizations. We need to see megachurches with clarity because they are not going away.

I had another feeling on my visits: unease. The more I encounter non-denominational megachurches, the more I wonder about the future of America and religion’s role in shaping that future. Will all churches look like this? Will mainline churches give up their identities, their resistance, and ease into this style of faith and practice? Would that be so bad?

Visiting a megachurch, I am always made aware of the dividing lines that now mark American religion. One divide has to do with an attitude toward informality. The more formal or traditional churches are more slowly paced. Their music orbits around a hymnal. They esteem silence. They value the eucharist or communion, which is centered around an altar up front.

Yet this divide is nearly passé, because the informal new churches are prevailing – or at least winning the publicity battles. Fresh generations are gravitating to the cineplex architecture as well as to the implied theology. The theology declares God is intimate and approachable and doing things in the noisy details of our busy lives right now.

A different theology speaks through the liturgical cadences of many long-established mainline churches – a theology of majesty, awe, beauty, reverence, history, and Social Gospel activism. It speaks in the Scripture lessons and in the stone archways and stained glass too. But fewer young people and young families worship in churches founded before 1946, according to research cited in Beyond Megachurch Myths: What We Can Learn from America’s Largest Churches (Jossey- Bass, 2007).

There’s another divide – call it “scale of operation.” Big churches are generally doing better than smaller churches. The economies of scale needed to run a congregation seem to favor them. More to the point, many big churches embody notions of twenty-first century success. Researchers Scott Thumma and Dave Travis say big organizations look normal to Americans these days.

“After a week of working in a major corporation, shopping in a food warehouse and megamall, viewing movies in a multiplex theater, and having children who attend a regional high school, it seems incongruous that this family would feel comfort- able in a forty-person church,” they write in Beyond Megachurch Myths.

“So the force of cultural conditioning is on the side of megachurches.”

But that is just what makes Christian critics nervous about megachuches. The big gestures and assertive rhythms seem to borrow much from secular values of presentation. Such church services look and feel like the style and pace of the rest of the week.

As a lifelong mainline churchgoer, I always assumed that congregational life should resist the grain of business-as-usual, because Jesus did. His life and teachings were jarring because he was al- ways tripping up the conventional thinking, the easy conscience of power, the public performances of high-octane piety. Blessed are the meek, the poor in spirit, he said. The last shall be first.

That off-balance ethic suggests that confident professionalism isn’t precisely the point – not if it aims to deliver a merely frictionless religious experience that studiously ignores the turmoil and paradox Jesus brought.

People of course face enough turmoil in life these days already – much of it caused by bad mentors, bad choices, bad debts, the bad advice of a complacent culture that merrily celebrates overspending, sarcasm, and secret self-hatred.

Can churches be counted on any longer to dissent against such secular values of excess and violence? When I read of “mainline church decline,” I worry that the future will contain fewer and fewer churches that can stand up to twenty-first-century secular assumptions – the libertarian-style techno- revolution still furiously underway, a climate of un- sustainable growth, a surging casino culture that enshrines the lottery as public policy and sneers at progressive tax reform. Unless I’m mistaken, the recent financial meltdown, triggered by ruinous, de- regulated risk-taking and swaggering greed, brought very few condemnations from churches.

American mainline church history shows that congregations have a role in making secular culture more humane. Mainline church values helped discredit slavery, racial segregation, slum lords, child labor, sexual discrimination, and disrespect for creation. Fueling this confidence was mindfulness of the Golden Rule, the Sermon on the Mount, the prophets, the face of Jesus in others. Even today, in towns and cities across the nation, mainline churches provide the moderate local voice, a moderating public influence in a overheated culture vulnerable to gaudy internet rumor, dangerous misinformation campaigns, and nameless angers.

Perhaps the “religious economy” today faces what the American economy itself is undergoing – a painful restructuring, a forced self-scrutiny, a downsizing of traditional ways of conducting business. But as the writers in this Reflections is- sue make plain, mainline church values of Biblical hospitality, community, discipleship, beauty, liturgy, and neighborliness must be part of any future wit- ness against the roaring powers of discouragement and destruction.

In crazy times, church must be the place where people sense holiness, pray, and listen. When they are alert to their own identities, congregations reconnect people in a new day to ancient substances of human feeling – bread, wine, sacred text and poetry, exchanges of the peace. Congregations give the world a space to hear God and stir conscience. 

Issue Title: 
How Firm a Foundation? Churches Face the Future
Issue Year: 
2009