Now, Religion in the News, a report and comment on religious trends and events being covered by the media. This week’s item is from the Christian Science Monitor, December 30, 2003, with the headline: “The Rise of the American Megachurch”, dateline Houston.
“After a rousing live performance of ‘Jesus is better than life’ broadcast over three Jumbotrons in the Compaq Center, Victoria Osteen steps to the podium in front of 16,000 cheering Sunday worshippers and proclaims, ‘We’re going to rock today. This place has been rocked a lot of times, but it’s never been rocked for Jesus.’
“But earlier this month the Compaq Center, the sports arena which has been home to two Houston Rockets championships, took on a new role as city leaders officially turned the keys over to Lakewood Church—the largest congregation in the United States, with more than 25,000 attendants each weekend, according to Church Growth Today.
“In an era when small and medium-sized churches of almost every faith are losing members, megachurches continue to grow—last year by 4 percent. Their success is due in part to the ushering in of a new business-savvy approach to religion. But more important, experts say, these churches are thriving because of what’s being ushered out.
“Gone are traditional religious dogma, rituals, and symbols, replaced by uplifting songs and sermons. Congregants are taught that—through God—they are victors, not victims. The messages are encouraging and easy to swallow, and no one is called a sinner. It’s ‘Jesus meets the power of positive thinking.’
“ ‘There’s none of that old-time religion; none of that hell-and-damnation, fire-and-brimstone preaching,’ says Alan Wolfe, director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College. ‘The message tends to be more upbeat, one of empowerment. And it seems to be working. These churches are packed.’
“While Texas has three of the largest megachurches in the U.S., the institutions have spread across the country, largely in the suburbs of the big cities. And while they represent a small percentage of churches in the U.S., the numbers are growing.
“Today there are 740, according to Church Growth Today, a Bolivar, Missouri, organization.
“They appeal to people of all ethnicities. Lakewood attracts virtually equal numbers of blacks, whites, and Hispanics. The idea is to be inclusive and inoffensive. There’s no talk of controversial subjects, such as abortion or homosexuality.
“Organs have been replaced by electric guitars, hymns with rock-and-roll tunes. Nowhere is there a cross or a candle, and the language is contemporary, with not a ‘thee’ or a ‘thou’ to be heard.
“In addition, megachurches are good at reaching young people raised in an entertainment-saturated culture. Some have created separate services for youth. Many have more of a rock- concert feel to them and use plenty of multimedia.
Take the DeSelles, for instance. They have been coming to Lakewood for sixteen years, but at one point, grew tired of the 70-mile round-trip drive each Sunday.
“ ‘We tried other churches closer to home,’ says Angela DeSelle, waiting in line to buy Lakewood T-shirts at a former Compaq concession stand. ‘But we kept coming back. Our teenagers love it here.’
Back in his seat amid the sea of people, Joshua, their 14-year-old son, mutters in typical teen fashion, ‘It’s different. It feels a lot more comfortable here.’”
Tom: Dave, it’s tough to pick on—at least to some degree. There are large churches that don’t have the problems or the issues that are being presented here, and they’re effective, you know, for the Lord. But at the same time, there are some things that I think ought to be addressed.
People, young people raised in an entertainment-saturated culture—so we’re going to give them entertainment. This young 14-year-old says, “It’s different. It feels a lot more comfortable here.”
I had an old pastor one time said, “It’s the job of every pastor to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” I think that’s part of what God’s Word does.
Dave: Well, what was it Billy Sunday said, “I’ll make them either mad, glad, or sad, one or the other.” We should stir people up a little bit. If you get in there and you just feel comfortable—I don’t know that people felt comfortable in the presence of Jesus. He said, “I am the light of the world and the light condemns the darkness.”
So, I don’t know Tom, to—there’s a saying you know, if you attract them with entertainment, you’ll have to keep them with entertainment. And as the world gets better and better at entertainment, then the church has to get better and better at entertainment.
I remember, Tom, many years ago, when I was in the business world. We lived in a very large house. We had many meetings in our house. We’d have 125 people in our living room for a meeting—sometimes Jewish people, sometimes foreign students, and so forth. But we also let other groups use it. And I won’t name the group, but we let a particular high school group—very, very good, seemingly—use the huge room on one end of the house. And I couldn’t help but listen in a little bit. It was fun and games until the last thirty seconds almost, when they sneaked in a word about Jesus.
It doesn’t seem like the message of Christ: “Except a man deny self and take the cross and follow me.” We’re getting so much psychology and attracting people with the methods of the world—somehow it doesn’t seem quite right. And Jesus was asked, “Are there few that be saved?”
He said, “Very few. Broad is the road that leads to destruction. Many there be that go in thereat; and strait is the gate, narrow is the way that leads to life, few there be that find it.”
So Tom, on the one hand, as you said, we don’t want to criticize people. You’ve got a big church, praise God, if they are really hearing the truth. On the other hand, if you have to dumb it down, if you have to compromise…and what it says here, you don’t hear about hell, you don’t hear about the blood, you don’t hear about repentance, but you get a positive upbeat message. I don’t know. Are you getting the message across of the Bible, of God’s Word?
Tom: And what do people then expect? For example, if I’m getting something that’s so watered down, so upbeat as it were, and true issues in my life come along, those are not going to be helpful to me. But more than that, I mean we don’t even want to get into problem solving. Knowing Christ, who He is, what He’s done—this is what we cling to. This is what we put our faith in and our trust in.
Dave: That’s better than any entertainment, Tom.
Dave: Yes. Tom we probably mentioned it before, but music—that really bugs me. Small churches as well as large ones. They’ve thrown out the hymns that have doctrine, that have truth, that have conviction in them. And we’ve got—I’m sorry, some Johnny-come-lately, everybody that has a guitar thinks he can write songs—and some of them are really pitiful, shallow, repetitive—at least let’s have some of the old hymns okay?
Tom: Well, we want content, Dave.
Tom: Biblical content as opposed to what’s going on out there emotionally. That’s a real problem.
Dave: They may give you a good feeling with the beat and the tune, but what does it do in the heart? And there’s some real solid teaching and worship and praise in those old hymns.