The Megachurch Juggernaut
The megachurch phenomenon is four decades in the making. Unleashed in the anti-establishment cultural shift of the 1960s, the first modern ritual-less services to gain megachurch traction were harvested in the Crystal Cathedral of Orange County, California. According to the New Yorker, televangelist Robert H. Schuller, founder of Crystal Cathedral, “advocated and launched what has become known as the marketing approach to Christianity.” These tactics included, among other things, referring to church guests as “customers.”
Rooted in Pentecostalism, the megachurch of today is breaking all kinds of new ground. The Madison Square Garden of the south? Yes, that actually is a church. In 2005 Joel Osteen, head pastor and televangelist of the world famous Lakewood Church, spiritual home to some 30,000 members, had, according to Business Week, laid out “$90 million to transform the massive Compaq Center in downtown Houston (former home of the NBA’s Houston Rockets) into a church…complete with a high-tech stage for his TV shows and Sunday School for 5,000 children.” Osteen predicted that the move would ultimately launch weekend attendance to numbers at or near 100,000. According to Lakewood’s website, Osteen’s “broadcast [now expands] into over 200 million households.” As of 2007, Lakewood’s congregation has grown to over 52,000 and climbing. Says Osteen to Business Week: “Other churches have not kept up and they lose people by not changing with the times.”
Modern megachurches tend to be characterized not only in size (over 2,000 members), but in subscribing to corporate standards of operation. Conspicuously epitomizing a “market approach” to Christ has given way to the term “seeker-friendly.” The seeker-friendly method aims at making church as unobtrusive and entertaining as possible in order to expand and exponentially thrive on an infinite base of new customers. Hence, what is often called—or what critics consider—a self-centered over God-centered theology seems to marginalize biblical orthodoxy by reducing God to a practical “domesticated deity,” to quote the New Yorker: “a God [demanding] no real sacrifice from his children.”
Megachurches are modeled off the Fortune 500 playbook where church leaders are literally CEOs. As reported in Business Week, Reverend Bill Hybels, founder of the 20,000 member strong Willow Creek Community Church in affluent South Barrington, Illinois, “hired Stanford MBA Greg Hawkins, a former McKinsey & Co. consultant, to handle the church’s day-to-day management.” Identical to Joel Osteen, Hybels strings together self-help programs with optimistic messages intended “to make people feel good about themselves.” Indeed, Business Week continues, “So adept at the sell are some evangelicals that it can be difficult to distinguish between their religious aims and the secular style they mimic.”
It’s a money making bonanza and it’s working. Megachurch leaders have become worldwide celebrities. Subtract the “churchese” and they’re disturbingly indistinguishable. Many Lakewood members are known to arrive with Osteen’s bestselling self-helper Your Best Life Now (or perhaps his newest publication Become a Better You) in one hand and the Bible in the other. Many times megachurch folks are without bibles at all. Saddleback Church pastor Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life has sold over 24 million copies to become the fastest selling nonfiction book of all time. Other megachurch leaders like Kenneth Hagin, T.D. Jakes, Joyce Meyer, and Kenneth Copeland are all bestselling authors.
God’s Millionaires: Want in?
At the crux of megachurch philosophy is the doctrine known as Word of Faith. Critics call it the prosperity gospel. Its main premise is that submission to God’s will promises Christians an abundance of wealth. Word of Faith prosperity gospel centers heavily on the spiritual riches those tested and devoted souls are guaranteed to receive, while at the same time preaching tangible returns as evidence of His preferential treatment.
Osteen’s first book is a veritable study guide. A clear-cut and uncomplicated read, it is filled with tales of trials and triumph from Osteen’s personal perspective. Nearly all of his stories hammer home Word of Faith philosophy: expect and you shall receive. But between the words there’s a very fishy message. God’s rewards, in return for Osteen’s faith, are almost always in the form of bountiful, material gains. Says Osteen in an interview with beliefnet.com: “I believe if we expect God’s favor, if we declare it, if we thank him when we see good things happening, we’re going to see more of that.” Osteen says he preaches on outlook, not cash. “I don’t think I’ve ever preached a message on finances.”
All well and good. Although, the conclusions in Osteen’s New York Times bestseller seem to suggest otherwise. The attitude of empowerment and expectancy that Osteen and others famously claim makes strange bedfellows when God’s justice is demonstrated expressly in the form of flourishing, financial growth. Following this curious line of logic “faith in Christ…will take you to streets of gold for all eternity,” noted author, radio host, and evangelical advocate Hank Hanegraaff, in an interview for his book Christianity in Crisis.
While faith has its place, there is the penultimate issue of tithing. It’s what Pat Robertson, televangelist and founder of the Christian Broadcasting Network, calls the law of reciprocity—give generously and you too shall receive generously.
Tithing has always been a cornerstone of the Christian church. Financial gifts from devoted church members have traditionally gone directly into church maintenance and outreach. But there is something different when it comes to the megachurch. Giving becomes a relatively addictive notion with what the tithe seems adhered to—that is, heaven-sent financial reciprocity.
But what is the collective substance of this megachurch phenomenon? Closer examination of Word of Faith doctrine seems possessed of all sorts of new questions: superficial group thought; distorted morality; corruption of the emotionally and financially vulnerable. Indeed, answers may rest in the fact that megachurches are now offering direct deposit in the form of tithes—from your bank card to the church account, that is.
Other Word of Faith oddities abound. One includes glossolalia, the religious practice of speaking in tongues. Or divine, on-the-premises faith-healings. Not too mention a peculiar piece of dogma dubbed “Little Gods,” which is the revelation, purportedly based on John 10:34, that man [sic] is not only made in the image of God, but that he actually is one. Joyce Meyer has preached it. T.D. Jakes told Charisma magazine that followers fail “to appreciate their [own] divinity.” Kenneth Hagin professed it in the December 1980 edition of Word of Faith magazine: “Every man who has been born again is an incarnation…. The believer is as much an incarnation as was Jesus of Nazareth.” The controversy that is Little Gods has been critically charged as heresy. In fact, in Christianity in Crisis, Hanegraaff labeled Word of Faith dogma as “cultic.”
Consecrating wallets at the expense of Christ seems a crisis for modern theology. But millions are flocking—in bodies and tithes. Of course, not all megachurches operate by a static set of rules, but the fundamental question remains: what is driving their appeal?
Reebok, Adidas, the Cross
The sign above the coffee shop at Faith Church in New Milfield, Connecticut says, Son-Bucks. No, it’s not Starbucks, although the color scheme and design are identical, only with Jesus in the middle. Faith [Mega]Church is colossal. Its bookstore is full of merchandise, school supplies, etc. The Faith Church website assures worshipers its “bookstore offers Biblical information in the form of books, tapes, and topical scriptures….” Some noted authors? Well, Kenneth Hagin, Kenneth Copeland, T.D. Jakes, and Joyce Meyer. Church on church marketing. Christ with commerce. A sales strategy if “He” ever saw one.
“Visit Willow Creek…and you are confronted with a puzzle. Where in God’s name is the church?” So began an article in the Economist. For sure, Willow Creek brings to mind the Time Warner building. Through its penetrating glass front doors (unstained) and its massive first floor lobby you can hop the escalator. Need to burn off some steam? Go ahead, hit the megachurch gym. Bookstore? They have one. Both Willow Creek and Lakewood host numerous onsite resource centers and fitness facilities, not too mention cafes and/or multi-choice food courts.
Church leaders argue these mega-amenities promote good old fashioned fellowship. Yet, observers are evermore pressed to find any symbols of Christ. Megachurch sanctuaries are being transformed into concert halls with glitz in lieu of altars, steeples, stained glass, and bibles. The cross is gone too. In fact, online browsers to megachurch sites are finding perplexing logo-like replacements. Christian City [Mega]Church—in Australia—has a tri-colored circle as its image.
Former megachurch reverend turned marketing mogul, Maurilio Amorim, stated it plainly to the New Yorker: “We’re trying to create a brand for churches…. We’re trying to create a culture.” No doubt. The marketing approach to Christ is funneling millions a year into megachurch coffers. A prosperous move, reports Business Week: this method of “marketing and services helps to create a brand loyalty any CEO would envy. Willow Creek [now] ranks in the top 5 percent of 250 major brands, right up with Nike and John Deere.”
Exit crown of thorns. Enter the swoosh.
McChurch in the Making
It was Sunday morning when I went to a service at the Ballenger Creek Elementary School in Frederick, Maryland. At this point in their development Frederick Christian Fellowship had yet to break ground on a permanent house of worship. A minor hiccup, so it seemed, judging by the influx of sedans in the parking lot.
Praise songs bounced off the walls like a pinball machine as fold-out chairs lined the cafeteria floor. Members and guests helped themselves to complimentary coffee and pastries before making their way to a seat. FCF founder, Reverend Randy Goldenberg, eventually took the stage. A fit, good looking, and charismatic guy, Goldenberg hit the ground running. His sermon was light—on Abraham’s obedience—and all seemed right with the world. But a peculiar thing happened. Concluding his service Goldenberg asked first time guests to raise their hands. At least half a dozen hands went up. Goldenberg pleaded with these folks to see an usher and exchange their personal information in order to claim a curious prize: “free lunch for your family at Red Lobster!” For a church without a permanent home this seemed a rather odd and inexplicable expense.
A chorus of “wows” hovered in the room like a haze. Goldenberg brought the service to a close. As parishioners helped with the refolding of chairs, one last remark came over the speakers: “For those Christians interested in taking communion, you can help yourself on the way out the door.”
Further research into FCF history exhumed another disquieting fact. As early as April 1994 the church was literally bribing people to attend. According to the New York Times, Goldenberg “offered $10 to all newcomers…an inducement [which] became national news.” What happened the following week was downright remarkable. FCF attendance was lower the next Sunday “but higher than it had been before….” The Times continued: “On the Sunday of the giveaway, about 300 people attended, nearly double the regular attendance. Most of the newcomers accepted the money and all but a few demonstrated that they had a conscience—they put the $10 in the collection plate. Goldenberg said that only 32 people kept the cash…. One week later, the pastor said, there were about 200 people in church, and, despite the lack of incentives, many new faces.”
FCF makes no secret of its goal. Says its website: “We believe that before all is said and done, before Jesus Christ returns, that God will use us to impact the lives of 20,000 people…” Membership is now near 1,500.
The Fruits of Mega-Scandal
Drawing in millions of devotees to a gospel of prosperity by diluting theological tenets and branding spiritual culture with a market approach to Christ has transformed contemporary Christianity into a cash cow of astonishing proportions. And God’s millionaires are at the helm: megachurch founders, associates, and theur portfolios.
An investigation by the New York Times into megachurches and their off-shoot companies reported: “Business interests are as varied as basketball schools, aviation subsidiaries, investment partnerships, etc…” The branding of faith with those quaint, little symbols (in lieu of a pesky, troublesome cross) is representative of a shift into commercialism in the battle for Christian market share, now made manifest in evangelical-corporate empires. Says Business Week: “All this growth, plus the tithing many evangelicals encourage, is generating gushers of cash. A traditional U.S. church typically has fewer than 200 members and an annual budget of around $100,000. The average megachurch pulls in $4.8 million.”
Megachurch and televangelist ministers gross enormous salaries. Much of the millions raked in are generated by books, iTunes, and DVDs. But how much is going back into the ministry, considering that, were it not for thousands of devoted followers, most of these [mega]ministers would reside in relative obscurity? According to the Washington Post the Senate Finance Committee has recently announced an investigation into at least six Word of Faith ministers. Megachurch pastors and televangelists alike—Joyce Meyer, Kenneth Copeland, and Benny Hinn among them—are subjects of a probe following reports of unrestrained spending on ministries and private estates. After allegations involving the purchase of “such amenities as private jets and Rolls-Royces” reported the Post, GOP Iowa senator Charles E. Grassley has “asked for credit card records, clothing and jewelry expenses, and any cosmetic surgery expenses” as part of the congressional query.
Not all preachers are duplicitous, just as most churches cause no harm. But megachurches are adding local economies to their calling. ChangePoint Church in Anchorage, Alaska, for example, has become a dominant socio-economic force. Reports the New York Times: “Church leaders say they hope to draw people to faith by publicly demonstrating their commitment” to the community. One way: leasing a cold storage facility to Sysco, a corporate food-distribution giant. Another? Construction of a colossal mixed-use sports center: part athletics, part ministry. ChangePoint’s business manager, Doug Rieder, admits that while he hopes the community will not divide over religious lines, “we do want to convert [people], no doubt about it.”
How do tax assessments combat this mixed-use challenge? Who holds the power in community politics as megachurch investments blur the lines between evangelism and a non-convert’s freedom of association? What are the parameters—in the murky waters of economics—when it comes to the separation of religion and (local) government? These are questions megachurch and community leaders must openly face.
What about the ethics of marketing to kids? Established megachurches from Willow Creek and Lakewood to up-and-comers such as Frederick Christian Fellowship are on the same page. “Kids are often a prime target of megachurches” finds Business Week. What is to be said of a corporate movement when kids are directly besieged? If the argument is that this message is biblical then please explain the disappearing bibles? Better yet, ask a child to explain it.
Individual Word of Faith pastors have been criticized for financially (and spiritually) bankrupting believers, but the movement has yet to be sanctioned. Christian City Church CEO Phil Pringle has a goal of building 1,000 churches by the year 2020. He’s even gone so far as to exploit the tragedy of 9/11 in an advertisement of millennialism and end times prophesy. And it continues.
How? The answer, so it seems—and raising the most red flags—is that this phenomenon remains unregulated. Due in large part to federal tax exemptions, mega- churches and televangelists are free to operate as they see fit on a secular, corporate-style powerhouse of unfettered profit-driven muscle. No wonder prosperity is gospel.
Jeff Keilholtz is a creative and political writer based in New York City.