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DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Has “Come Again!” Replaced “Follow Me.”?

Written by: on February 4, 2020

Rectangles of colorful fabric saturated with images and prayers adorned the walls of the lobby which appeared to be strategically designed to resemble an elitist country club. Unlimited Fair-Trade coffee, complete with images and stories of coffee farmers and their families, was free for the drinking. Popular music playing at just the right volume set the soundtrack for dozens of conversations as hundreds of people arrived.

Images of popular cartoon characters invited parents and their children to the Children’s Center where the kids were free to access virtual reality devices, a table filled with organic, gluten and dairy free snacks, and the mini trampoline park. After dropping off their kids, the parents were free to pursue the Fair-Trade market where handmade goods from throughout the globe were marketed and sold with the promise that 100% of the proceeds would return to the artisans.

Rather than an expensive morning at an ethical theme park, these were my initial observations during a recent visit to an Evangelical megachurch. It was a Christian Disneyland.[1]

The worship service was hosted within a technologically sophisticated auditorium and was inaugurated with the sounds of cathedral bells. The church itself didn’t have a bell tower, so the sound was a part of a video that showed the rolling of ancient bells from the Old City of Jerusalem. The lights faded with the sound of the bells, except for a single spotlight that illuminated a flickering candle. A poetic explanation of the light symbolizing the presence of Christ emerged on the screens with the sound of billowing wind behind it. This was immediately followed by the spoken assurance that, just as in Acts 2, the Spirit of Jesus was among us.

The service itself was a mixture of monastic contemplation, rock concert, stage theater, and an extended Ted Talk. Toward the conclusion, the pastor invited us into the sacrament of Eucharist, referencing the table experience where the family could partake of the symbolic body and blood of Jesus. An ancient-looking table complete with loaves of bread and bottles of wine adorned a portion of the stage that had remained in the dark until the time was right. Rather than sharing an actual table with real bread, real wine, and real human proximity, we were invited to receive the elements of communion that were contained in a two-for-one plastic-wrapped package that was conveniently located in the back of the seat in front of us.

After one final set of rock music that went from somber to celebratory, the congregation was inundated with a visual presentation of community announcements and invitations. Each opportunity appeared to be intentionally targeted toward key demographics within the congregation as they marketed a plethora of therapeutic programs at a significant cost that promised to increase your happiness, refine your focus, strengthen your marriage, help you raise Godly kids, and empower you to change the world.

After nearly ninety minutes of riveting entertainment, the church concluded with our commissioning to re-enter a broken world as active participants of restoration.

This experience is a manifestation of what Vincent J. Miller, in his book Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture, identifies as the commodification of traditionally religious experiences for consumption.[2] Written from a Catholic social location Consuming Religion “explores how consumer culture changes our relationship with religious beliefs, narratives, and symbols.”[3]  With his opening line Miller identifies consumer culture as a “profound problem for contemporary religious belief and practice”[4] yet points to “commodification-culture” as the core issue.  He argues that commodification demands the abstraction[5] and fragmentation[6] of religious experiences from the roots of their traditions such that they become disembodied, convenient consumables for narcissistic spiritual[7] seekers.[8]

According to his review of Miller’s work, Daryl McKee agrees with Miller that consumer culture did not emerge out of thin air. Rather, consumer culture was the inevitable outcome of various influences, including “a capitalist-induced acquisitiveness, advertising, a self-centered therapeutic culture, alienation from work, and isolation of single-family housing.”[9] The emergence of consumer culture and the practice of commodification, mixed with what Miller refers to as the virtue of “Christian desire,”[10] the perpetual longing for God, permeate the contemporary religious experience and replace the “long term process of self-transformation” with the “momentary action of self-disposition.”[11]

There are four images in the aforementioned illustration that especially affirm Miller’s caution with regard to the danger of commodification-culture.  First, while the prayer flags are both a creative approach to prayer and a compelling decorative installation, their presence in an Evangelical mega-church is a co-opting of the sacred ritual of the Tibetan prayer flag. It was a commodification of an unfamiliar prayer technique that was likely disconnected from the traditions and beliefs of Buddhism, ignorant of the unique origins of this tradition, and intended to satisfy the experiential preference of the congregation.

Second, the architecture of the building itself seemed to cater to elitist consumer culture through its well-designed interior which was void of any religious artifacts or imagery. Aaron B. James, in his analysis of megachurches in conversation with Miller and Michel De Certeau, argues that, while megachurch architecture appears to cater to the consumer, it is, rather, an intentional tactic that is rooted in the memory (tradition) of the Puritan movement.[12] It’s a creative argument that is reasonable, yet I would suggest that the congregation would have to be as well versed in Puritanism’s caution with regard to the presence of religious imagery in order to make the connection.

Third, the tolling of the ancient bells of Jerusalem, while a compelling way to gain the attention of the congregation, flirted with a co-opting of an ancient Hebrew practice in which the sounding of the bells indicated the presence of God in the Holy of Holies.  The sound was a reminder to them of the nearness yet inaccessibility of God.  The irony is found in the marriage of the sound of the bells with the sound of the wind and the presence of the flame.  This additional element mimicked the arrival of the Holy Spirit during Pentecost which represented the radical accessibility of God’s power and presence.  The marriage of these two sets of images was stirring yet disassociated from their traditions and commodified for contemporary consumption. The two elements are in direct contrast with one another.

Fourth, the image of Eucharist was the most egregious in its commodification. First, the ancient term, Eucharist, rich in meaning, is usually associated with Catholicism which is a tradition that many Evangelicals misunderstand and are suspicious of.  Second, the sacrament was initiated with a retelling of the Last Supper but was void of any theological commentary on neither what it meant nor why we partake of it.  Third, the image of the shared table on the stage gave the impression that this is a meal to be taken together, yet the pre-packaged elements indicated that individualism and convenience were more valuable than the inconvenience of re-membering as the Body of Christ.

The morning was visually stunning. It was inspiring. We were encouraged to take it in like an intravenous infusion and made to believe that what we had just experienced was all we needed in order to re-enter the broken world on restorative mission. It was a marriage of Buddhism, Evangelicalism, Moral Therapeutic Deism, and Catholicism but no one seemed to mind, much less notice. The obvious value was less about “re-entering the world on restorative mission” but was, instead, “Come back in a week because that is what we’ve trained you to do.”

~~

[1] Miller, Vincent. Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture. Continuum: New York. 2005, 62.

[2] Ibid. 225.

[3] Ibid. 3.

[4] Ibid. 1.

[5] Ibid. 10.

[6] Ibid. 10.

[7] Ibid. 89.

[8] Ibid. 90.

[9] McKee, Daryl. “Miller, Vincent J. Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture.” Journal of Marketing (2005) 264.

[10] Miller, Vincent. Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture. 7.

[11] Ibid. 144.

[12] James, Aaron B. “Rehabilitating willow creek: megachurches, De Certeau, and the tactics of navigating consumer culture.” Christian Scholar’s Review, vol. 43, no. 1, 2013, p. 21+. Gale Academic OneFile, https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/A349114568/AONE?u=minit_train&sid=AONE&xid=8cc0aea5. Accessed 4 Feb. 2020.

 

About the Author

mm

Jer Swigart

9 responses to “Has “Come Again!” Replaced “Follow Me.”?”

  1. mm Darcy Hansen says:

    Jer,
    Your post clearly articulates some of the reasons I left the evangelical megachurch we belonged to…add that they didn’t affirm women in all areas of ministry, and it’d be a match. My heart continues to break for those ensnared by such trappings, who are willing to settle for fast-food communion, mere crumbs, rather than the richness of Jesus, the Bread of Life and the Living Water. They have to return each week. Not only because they’ve been trained, but because its difficult to live well when you’re eating crumbs for sustenance. Such a meager existence.

    Do you think megachurch leadership even realizes what it’s doing, why it’s doing it, or how it got there? And if they did, what would they do to change it?

    In my megachurch experience, I realized somewhere along the way, the leadership sold its soul to the devil. They didn’t even know who they were anymore.

    This book has been the hardest for me to read. I so want to believe the leadership teams of these megachurches just don’t know what they’ve become. But deep in my heart, I think they do know, and they like it and would not change it for the world. Homeostasis is a powerful force. Feeling important when caring for the masses is a powerful drug of choice, especially when linked to “Kingdom work.”

  2. mm Jer Swigart says:

    Darcy,

    I’ll start with the assertion that I don’t think megachurches are evil. Misdirected? Perhaps. But evil? No.

    I remember very well my desire to climb the ecclesial ladder. I aspired to be in leadership in just such an environment for, based on the reading we’ve been doing over this past couple of weeks, to attain a role in such an institution was the greatest good. It was the top of the food chain.

    My process of awakening to the systems of white American Evangelicalism slanted my perspective on her megachurches. As I’ve navigated disorientation toward (hopefully) a restorative reorientation, I’m far more sympathetic toward the megachurch and its leadership.

    Do I think they know what they’re apart of? I’m not sure that I think that they do. They’ve been groomed within a consumer-religion system to believe that being a disseminator of spiritual commodities to the masses is a desirable place to achieve. And, they’re rewarded with platform and accolades for achieving such lofty positions. As they offer commodities, they’re appetites for personal relevance become satisfied. It’s a different kind of co-dependent consumerism.

    When I work with megachurch leaders, I’m repeatedly surprised by how ingrained the ideology of white Evangelicalism and the myth mass-producing disciples. It grows my empathy and strengthens my desire to provide immersive experiences that catalyze for them the process of disorientation and then accompany them through to a restorative reorientation.

  3. mm Shawn Cramer says:

    Jer, I was able to have a “divine appointment” with a disillusioned mega church pastor outside smoking a cigar on old rocking chairs outside of a mattress shop (there’s a story there). He lamented the fact that with the law of diminishing return that megachurches (and really any group in a commodified culture) has to provide in an increasing amount that which lured people in to begin with. If that is entertainment, that entertainment must increase in intensity; if preaching, then that, too, must increase in its ability to inspire. I would imagine there are a few things churches or communities of faith could offer in increasing amounts – intimacy with God, community, and involvement in restorative mission.

    • mm Jer Swigart says:

      So well put, Shawn.

      Intimacy with God, community, and involvement in the restorative mission are the very soul-cravings that we are designed with. All three cost us everything…and in them is found true joy (Phil 2). I do wonder how consumer culture has duped us into the myth that immediate gratification that can be attained as inexpensively as possible is better than the long, slow, costly reality of transformation.

  4. mm John McLarty says:

    “…no one seemed to mind, much less notice.” That’s the proof right there that today’s Church (and not just the Evangelical megachurch) and modern Christians have become so interconnected with culture that we really have no idea who we are or what we are about. But we’re all still on a quest to make some meaning out of this whole thing.

    • mm Jer Swigart says:

      Something I’ve found helpful and refreshing in churches is when there are explanations, either in written or spoken form, that connect worshippers to our ancient and cosmic tradition/community. Explanations of what we’re looking at, what we’re reading/reciting, what we’re tasting, etc are humbling and inspiring reminders that we are a contemporary stream in a millenias-long movement. While I imagine this would get repetitive, over time, I wonder how it would succeed in connecting our experience of worship to the roots of the movement.

  5. mm Greg Reich says:

    Jer,
    I truly appreciate your blog. I struggle at times with the rock and roll entertainment mindset of many churches on most Sunday mornings. I also agree they are not evil, but at times wrong focused. What brings me hope at least in my perspective is I see a heart for the community and loving on people. By all means we as humans are not perfect. There is an old saying “Every tall mountain casts a dark shadow.” There is a human ego (dark side) to every church, mega churches due to their shear size have a larger human ego side. In a world consumed by options and programs churches tend to focus on what is demanded. I know there needs to be a balance. I focus on not being part of the problem and prayerfully asking God how to be part of the solution.

    • mm Jer Swigart says:

      Great intentions lie behind what I see happening within megachurches. I’m encouraged by the growing number of megachurch pastors who are growing in their awareness of how consumer culture informs their programming. The trouble is, as is so common once a person has achieved a level of a certain level of perceived success, to resist the paradigm will often if not inevitably compromise the longevity of the leader’s employment and/or undercut the very metrics that have made the church “successful.” It is a courageous undertaking for a megachurch leader to confront the system.

  6. mm Dylan Branson says:

    I think the tension I see with megachurches comes from the desire to create community while giving people a place to hide. I’ve talked with many people who attend one of the “megachurches” here in Hong Kong and the most common thing I hear is, “We go because of the worship and the preaching.” When I ask them about their experience with community, they typically shy away or say that they’ve found it extremely difficult to find and build a community there. This is important because when we aren’t connected with the church community, we become consumers of church culture and it inevitably adds to the isolation. Part of the question is whether people are actively seeking that community within the church context; but for those who are and cannot find it, how can we encourage them or help them to find that community? Perhaps this is why you hear Christians say that their “real” community lies outside of the church.

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