One of the biggest changes in religion across America in recent years has been the growth of nondenominational churches.
Perhaps most striking in that change is the growth of megachurches. Just from 2000 to 2005, the number of megachurches doubled from 600 to 1,200, and new ones continue to form.
What these churches are known for, especially the large ones with big budgets, are high-end, big-sound, praise and worship bands, and pastors and leaders who dress fashionably, sound anything but churchy, and like the band, engage what’s going on in popular culture.
So naturally some have criticized these churches for assimilating to the broader society in their attempt to attract new members, rather than showing believers that they are “in the world, not of the world.”
The latest critic, the young Brett McCracken, has jumped into the fray with a book and a Wall Street Journal article that suggest that churches are doing nothing more than adopting the jargon, wearing the clothes, and getting so lost in marketing their image that they lose sight of the central message of grace, healing and caring for the least of these.
I understand that people can get carried away with trying to be cool. And honestly, I’m something of a holy and solemn liturgy kind of guy, but at the handful of seeker-sensitive, contemporary churches I’ve attended, the services are well-choreographed, high-tech, and just plain enjoyable. What I see going on are churches that work very hard at these productions, and pastors who are quite deliberate in their sermons to compel people to engage. They are paying attention to detail and putting in a lot of planning. Some have gone so far, like the folks at Andy Stanley’s North Point Church, as to poke fun at their style and format with a video that’s been getting viral. It makes me wonder, What could be more genuine? What could be more honoring to God than putting in a lot of work to draw people to a message of hope and salvation, and to even be able to laugh at yourself once in a while?
Scott Thumma, a sociologist of religion at Hartford Seminary, has specialized in what’s going on with the growth of megachurches, and is keen to point out that there are a number of myths that are perpetuated about these churches that are simply not true. One of the main points in his book, Beyond Megachurch Myths, co-authored by Dave Travis, is that megachurches aren’t simply a “lite” version of faith. It’s serious business. The leadership in these churches often stick to a clear and well-articulated theology, and they are keen on creating community and discipleship.
By the way, you may also want to note that McCracken has been taken to task for some of his overgeneralizations by Books & Culture editor John Wilson, as noted here by cool Christian Tony Jones. And if you now go to the WSJ article, you’ll see the writer’s own “corrections and amplifications.”
It’s really a question of the huge changes going on. Many of us tend to live in suburbs and lack a social center. The very capable leaders of these megachurches somehow tap into our need for a sense of place. That’s why some of these churches have coffee shops, bookstores, and exercise rooms. Their coolness, however far it may or may not be taken, is an attempt to create an attractive, socially engaging locale, a place where at its core those who come will find the deepest kind of guidance, and the most ultimate form of affirmation anywhere.