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Model Ts, the Modern Nuclear Family, and Megachurches

Written by: on February 3, 2020

The emergence of the megachurch onto the American landscape in the 1980s, though seemingly novel at the time, has deep roots in the Protestant movement, beginning in the 16th century when Huguenot architect Jacques Perret envisioned and then constructed a large, multi-functional worship space. Then in the Revivalism of the 1700s, George Whitefield “pioneered a theatrical, engaging form of revival preaching, which attracted crowds of thousands. Best known for his open-air meetings, Whitefield also commissioned a number of “Tabernacles” throughout England, the largest being Moorsfields Tabernacle and Tottenham Court Tabernacle.”[1] This megachurch trend continued in London into the 19thcentury with Charles H Spurgeon’s construction of the Metropolitan Tabernacle.[2]

The 19th century Institutional Church Movement in America, influenced by Charles Finney, further facilitated the rise of megachurches. Buildings that hosted thousands for worship, also housed colleges, gymnasiums, bowling alleys, and ministries to care for the poor.[3] Shifting populations of the 20th century increased awareness of these large communities of faith, leading pastors and ministry leaders to believe the megachurch movement a novel and innovative institution. Enamored with innovation, pastors such as Bill Hybels and Rick Warren thought the movement was unique and considered the model transformative for the American Evangelical tradition.[4]

Megachurches share common characteristics in that they have congregations over 1500 people, “…come out of the Protestant tradition, offer a multitude of programs tailored to people’s needs, and frequently aim to achieve broader cultural importance.”[5] Their rise in popularity parallels the development of evangelicalism and capitalism in both England and America.

In Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture, Vincent J. Miller argues “The most profound problem with consumerism is not the consumption of goods, but the ways in which it trains us to treat everything, including religion, as an object of consumption.”[6] By examining the emergence of consumer culture in the 20th century, he proposes the commodification of culture, fueled by productivism, results in:

“the liquidation of cultural traditions, (where) beliefs, symbols, and practices, are abstracted from their traditional contexts and engaged as free-floating signifiers, put to decorative uses far removed from their original references and connections with other beliefs and practices…(thus making them) less likely they will impact the concrete practice of life.”[7]

Miller highlights how the “Fordist” era of capitalism and the rapid spread of the single-family home contributed to the highly “critiqued aspects of consumerism: inefficient mass consumption, selfish individualism, political passivity, disengagement, and so forth.”[8]

For the purpose of this reflection, focus will be given to the cultural effects caused “Fordist” era practices and the single-family home, both of which are underscored by Marx’s notion of alienation. Alienation “of men and women from their creative power as human beings” is a consequence of capitalism. Alienation, driven by objectification of the worker, happens when the product produced by the laborer is not owned by the laborer, but rather by the employer of the laborer. This objectification leads to “estrangement of workers from the self-realization in their labor” as “the relation between effort and creativity is shattered. Labor is reduced to time and energy exchanged for wages.”[9] Laborers are further stripped of skills by “industrialization and division of labor… (which, over time) becomes drudgery…(done) in order to pay for essentials- food, shelter, clothing.”[10] In short, laborers were stripped of their humanness, or their innate desire to create and produce the means by which to survive.

This stripping of humanness was amplified by the institution of the single-family home where daily tasks of production were replaced with automated appliances and dependent upon wages to maintain security. Increases in living standards and security against risk were positive outcomes of these institutions, while “social isolation, narrowed political and social concern, and the fragmentation of culture” were negative outcomes. Much like laborers being deskilled in industry, women were deskilled within the single-family home, as they were “reduced from an active craftsperson to a passive consumer.”[11] Social isolation ensued, causing the breakdown of extended familial and communal relationships, as well as loss of individual identity. Life’s focus became more about maintaining one’s home and nuclear family, through political and economic means, and less about caring for those in need in the community. This breakdown in the extended family and personal identity resulted in the destruction of traditional beliefs and practices as wisdom was no longer passed down from elders, but instead received through commercial popular culture.[12]

I argue the effects produced by “Fordist” practices and the establishment of the single-family home are mirrored in the American evangelical megachurch culture, where structures are sustained by hierarchical leadership teams whose skills and talents dictate how the megachurch functions. Volunteers, much like industrial laborers, are alienated from their created purpose in life as they passively intake information, and objectified as they mindlessly institute ministries and programs developed and dictated by megachurch leadership. This alienation is most pronounced amongst women in ministry, where voice and agency are often stripped, leaving but a backbone of volunteer labor of which megachurches are built and maintained. These volunteers labor in vain, as the commodification in the megachurch culture creates religious institutions filled with watered-down belief systems, devoid of traditional contexts, and impotent to significantly impact life for the people, individually nor communally.

Like the Model-T and the “withering under the weight of consumerism” nuclear family, the megachurch model is outdated in its ability to effectively disciple followers of Jesus Christ. The Church does not need more commodified converts filling convention center seats, but rather She needs faithful followers who are experiencing profound spiritual transformation and leading the way of shalom in this world.

We exist in a time where evidence of Christian impotence abounds. In his discourse conclusion, Miller shares correctives for the commodification of culture/religion, which include restoring tradition and community, providing solid theological education for leadership and laity, and incorporating historical liturgical practices.[13] While these practices would lead to better stewarding of our Christian tradition, their impact will be unsustainable if people remain stripped of their human agency within their religious and capitalistic structures.

In Soulful Spirituality: Becoming Fully Alive and Deeply Human, David G. Benner notes that “being human is not sufficient to becoming fully human.” Being fully human is evidenced by:

“a well-developed capacity for non-possessive love, being grounded in reality and alive in the present moment, a personal philosophy that makes life meaningful, the capacity for forgiveness and letting go, inner freedom of choice and response, creativity, respect for others, the capacity for reflection on experience, and an identification with all humans, not simply those with whom one most easily identifies.”[14]

For me, this description of actualized humanity sounds much like what Jesus modeled when he walked on this earth in all his humanness. Thus, working to become fully human, to become like Jesus, within these oppressive systems is the true challenge of our generation, just as it has been for generations past and will continue to be for generations in the future.

 

 

[1] David E. Eagle. “Historicizing the Megachurch.” Journal of Social History published by Oxford University Press (2015) Abstract, 5-6. Downloaded from http://jsh.oxfordjournals.org/ by guest February 26, 2015 onto http://people.duke.edu/~dee4/articles/eagle_hist_megachurch.pdf. Accessed February 3, 2020.

[2] Ibid., Abstract, 5-6.

[3] Ibid., 8-9

[4] Ibid., Abstract, 1.

[5] Ibid., 3.

[6] Vincent J. Miller. Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture (New York, NY: The Continuum International Publishing Group, Inc., 2005) jacket cover.

[7] Ibid., 32.

[8] Ibid., 32.

[9] Ibid., 34.

[10] Ibid., 35.

[11] Ibid., 48.

[12] Ibid., 50-53.

[13] Ibid., 195, 201.

[14] David G. Benner, PhD. Soulful Spirituality: Becoming Fully Alive and Deeply Human (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2011) 35.

About the Author

mm

Darcy Hansen

13 responses to “Model Ts, the Modern Nuclear Family, and Megachurches”

  1. mm Dylan Branson says:

    I would argue another consequence of the “Fordist” culture is the cookie cutter approach we take to churches. What I see more often than not is a “one size-fits all” approach that tries to bring a stifling sense of uniformity rather than unity. While guidelines or structure is good, when it becomes the be-all-end-all of how we actually “do church,” we lose the beauty that differences can make.

    Last night in our small group, we were discussing Ephesians 4:1-16 and one of the observations we made is that when churches preach “unity,” they often mean “uniformity” or “conformity” to their values or structures. I think this is often easier to see in smaller churches. Do you see this playing out in megachurches?

    • Darcy Hansen says:

      Dylan,
      Agreed on the cookie cutter approach. The megachurch mentality is shared amongst other megachurches through curriculum, best practices, etc., thus creating a uniform approach with how to navigate discipling large numbers of people. Logistically, I understand the reasons, but it often leads to teaching for the least common denominator so as to make sure all feel welcome.

      In my experience, as long as I was cool with the beliefs senior leadership had (some beliefs not even mentioned in their “Statement of Faith” but still present, nonetheless), as long as I didn’t ask questions or rock the boat, then I was more than welcome to stay. But when I began asking harder questions, inviting conversation, and proposing ways to help facilitate change, I was told it would be best I sought another church that has some of those practices in place.

      All are invited to the table, as long as they only want the “prepackaged Eucharist” (from Jer’s post this week). Homogeneity and homeostasis are what make for stable environments, especially when in large establishments, but they don’t really promote growth. Diversity brings instability, and that’s super messy and goes against comfort levels. Thus, uniformity and conformity dominate.

  2. mm Jer Swigart says:

    Hey Darcy. While the elimination of women for spaces of leadership within the church began far before the emergence of the megachurch, I would love to read your reflections on how you understand the prohibition of women as another expression of dehumanizing consumerism?

    • Darcy Hansen says:

      Jer,
      My thoughts are many. A conversation would likely be best. I’ll try to make this concise though. Within non-denominational, evangelical, conservative megachurches (in my experience, as I can’t speak for all megachurches) women are usually the first to volunteer for service within the church and least likely to be paid, even when doing roles that men are being paid for within the church. Women are assigned tasks with specific parameters that must be met to maintain the integrity of a specific ministry program. Many of these women are stay-at-home moms or are retired and have flexible schedules. Often their service options are women or children’s ministry, though depending on the church mission, there could be other options. Still, they have staff oversight and little voice outside their space of ministry. Their work is “Kingdom” work, but few see value in it outside the walls of the church, and I would argue, even within the walls, the value is diminished because they aren’t in paid ministry positions. The leadership language often sounds good and appreciative, but the reality is capitalistic/consumeristic models are in place that give lesser value to volunteers than to paid ministry work efforts. Women volunteers may not even realize what’s happening. I know because I was able to see behind the curtain a bit. But I believe the multimillion dollar women’s bible study/publishing/conference industry didn’t emerge because women were being treated fairly and with dignity within their church walls. I believe that industry emerged because women felt unseen and unheard amongst capitalistic/patriarchal christian structures that prefer the voices and efforts of paid ministry leaders (I would even argue, predominantly male leaders). To find value and step into their calling, women have had to create their own spaces. I don’t have stats, but I would argue post-WWII such activity picked up speed and has progressed to gives us voices such as Beth Moore, Kay Arthur, Pricilla Schire, Jennie Allen, Jen Hatmaker, Sarah Bessey, Rachel Held Evans, and more. The spectrum of belief is diverse, but a common theme remains- women weren’t fully welcomed in the spaces they called their churches, they were used for their volunteer efforts, but rarely given space for their gifts and talents to be realized (whether they agreed with the various doctrinal stances or not), and so stepped away to fill the calling in different ways (bloggers, writers, bible study creators, missionaries, etc), often by caring for other women in the church who are also marginalized and commodified. I actually think dividing ministry into men/women compartments is really unhealthy, and wasn’t modeled by Jesus. I’d love to read your thoughts or have further conversations to hear what you may have noticed in your experiences.

  3. mm Shawn Cramer says:

    Even the call to serve in megachurches as volunteers is presented as a commodified “value add” for the volunteer: “You’d be amazed at what you get from volunteering – the feelings of satisfaction and knowing you’re giving something back.”

  4. mm John McLarty says:

    “The Church does not need more commodified converts filling convention center seats, but rather She needs faithful followers who are experiencing profound spiritual transformation and leading the way of shalom in this world.” Amen. But how will a church be able to claim how blessed it is unless it’s full on Sunday with scores of congregants Tweeting quotes from the sermon? (This is only a somewhat rhetorical question.)

    • mm Darcy Hansen says:

      I’ve been considering wants and needs lately. What the Church wants and needs are two different things. I wonder if Her time of true suffering is approaching as the time of blessing fades away? When the unfruitful branches are pruned, it allows new growth and fruit to be produced. But pruning brings pain. It’s not what we want, but it is what we need. That doesn’t tweet very well though.

  5. mm Steve Wingate says:

    Being fully human is evidenced by…

    I agree with the outputs the author wrote in regards to what fully human “can” look like. Yet, I need to ask myself “how” does this happen. It surely does not happen by working harder or will power. And, I wonder, if it would be possible to make the mega church smaller like I witnessed in Medford OR would we still count out the mega church.

    • mm Darcy Hansen says:

      Steve,
      Feel free to pick up a copy of Benner’s book, Soulful Spirituality. A move toward being fully human looks like creating spiritually formative spaces and spiritually informative spaces. I think megachurches tend to lean toward the latter, thus while people are “saved” they aren’t being transformed. I don’t know what your church in Medford was like. I can only speak from my perspective and experience.

  6. mm Greg Reich says:

    Darcy,

    You stated “Like the Model-T and the “withering under the weight of consumerism” nuclear family, the megachurch model is outdated in its ability to effectively disciple followers of Jesus Christ.”

    In some cases I would agree. I don’t think effective disciples can be massed produced nor do I think in today’s Christian environment with the many political hot topics that there would be a consensus of what an effective disciple is. Though I attend and serve in a large church I have many concerns over the mega church concept. I would be interested to see statistics on where their growth comes from, new christians or transplants. I spend a good portion of time working with small church pastors and hear their concerns of how they regularly lose people to larger churches with more programs. They can’t compete with the demands of the people’s requests for more nor should they have to. In a church culture where people put more emphasis on the programs that are being offered than on what’s being preached or lives being changed what needs to happen? People hop from church to church until they find what they want or they just leave all together. It was not uncommon when I was bi-vocational pastor to have people leave and cycle through the other churches in the community only to return a year later. What drives a mega churches growth? Why do people flock to mega churches avoiding the smaller more intimate family style churches? If the mega church model was uneffective why are they continuing to grow? I see and feel your concerns I am just not convinced the issue is a size thing.

    • mm Darcy Hansen says:

      Greg,
      Great questions. Let me try and work through them. I don’t have all the answers. I’m wrestling, like you.
      1. Shawn would say we need to change our KPIs when doing the measuring. Butts, budgets, and baptisms are not indicators for changed lives. So how do we begin to measure that which is often immeasurable? How do we measure the fruit of the spirit of a community?
      2 and 3. I think people go to megachurches because they think its what they want-but its actually not what they need. What they need happens in places where they are seen, heard, and known. But to be seen, heard, and known is to be vulnerable, and in a society that values strength and “I’ve got it all together,” it’s tough to be vulnerable. In megachurches people can hide in their shame and isolation. They slip in, have their wants met, and slip back out to attend to their daily lives. Capitalism fuels this, because they are also tired. Being in a small church means they are seen, heard, AND they will have to contribute, and at the end of a long week paying the bills and living the dream, they don’t have time to contribute more. Having a leadership team of a megachurch do all the work because they are passionate about serving others and helping them know Jesus, makes the megachurch an easy place to be. And an easy life filled with material goods is a blessed life. Right? It’s a vicious cycle.

      Now I’m sure there are some in those megachurch spaces that are being transformed into the likeness of Jesus, and are sharing the love of God in the world. I just don’t know how effective of a model it is overall. Again, I don’t see Jesus doing discipleship this way, so I keep wonder why we think we should?

  7. mm Greg Reich says:

    Darcy,
    Good response! It is a vicious cycle that I pray will be disrupted. There is an old saying, “Give a man a fish feed him for a day, teach a man to fish feed him for a lifetime.” When people seek entertainment and not involvement they surely aren’t learning to feed themselves.

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