The Mass Cult of Big

The Crystal Cathedral, Garden Grove, California

The following is essentially a piecing together of selections from a Facebook thread in which I participated today. The following quotation led off the discussion:

We have become fascinated by the idea of bigness, and we are quite convinced that if we can only ‘stage’ something really big before the world, we will shake it, and produce a mighty religious awakening. – D. Martin Lloyd-Jones, 1958

This response was given by a poster:

“Doing something big, for bigness sake is silly and egocentric… however we shouldn’t fear something becoming something big…”

This was followed by a back-and-forth discussion. Here are my responses, more or less, stitched together and revised a bit:

I don’t fear big. But I am deeply suspicious of it.

Why? “Big” almost always means systems and ideology, but rarely attention to persons. It is typically about marketing, not about communion. It almost always means vanity (though usually is not advanced enough for real pride), but almost never any humility. It is usually about control and not about freedom. That’s why.

I am not talking only about church size, but about more than that, i.e., philosophy, politics, economy, architecture, education, etc. But even if we were talking solely about church size, a church designed to be big is automatically subject to all those problems. It is so prevalent one could almost assume that it’s written down in some sort of mega-church mega-manual. But such things are by no means prevalent on the much smaller scale. Why? Because human beings can only truly know so many people. After one’s communal capabilities are saturated, the only way to maintain things is through ideological and technocratic systems. Even the mega-churches at least sense this, which is why they do “small groups” to try to offset their technocratic leviathan.

Yes, some little church communities do indeed exert a kind of control over members, but that is rather the sectarian/cultic impulse, which is not really about the question of big/small or systematic/local, but rather of fierce personal loyalties. The fact that a mega-church cannot command such loyalties is precisely because of its inherent weakness—it is not about incarnational communion, but about marketed, corporatized consumption. Loyalty is created to a product, to programmes (which are a kind of product), not to persons.

If a mega-church is less susceptible to cultic-style control, it is essentially because it is a corporate entity that does not and cannot care. But it exerts a far more subtle and pernicious kind of control over its clients. It is one vast system, and if the mice wandering around in the maze do not realize they are in a maze, so much the better! The control here is essentially the control of the consumerist market, keeping consumers trapped in their own passions and desires. The rules it enforces are the demands of ideology and system—why do you think mega-churches need so many signs, ushers, automated check-ins for kids, etc.?

At least a little cult-like religious community still maintains the clear sense for its members that it is a set-apart elect. Members can more easily leave such a group, because all the control is usually focused into one or two people, and members may more easily have full social networks that are not comprised by the sect. And at least there is the possibility for repentance of the leadership. In a mega-church, if one head of the hydra is cut off, no one particularly questions the whole system. They just find another head to run the monster.

Loyalty should be only to Christ, not to personalities or religious products or programmes.

Yet “big” tends to lead in such directions almost without fail. “Small” actually quite rarely does. Very few small churches are cults of personality. But big ones quite often are, and they are more often (and sometimes simultaneously) cults of religious product.

It is telling that, in the early years of the Church, when congregations started becoming large enough that not everyone in the same city could easily join together for worship, the bishops began delegating their authority to presbyters to lead spin-off congregations.

And then when the faith was finally legalized in the early 4th c., there wasn’t a sudden move to building gigantic church buildings so that the full Christian population of cities could recombine.

The general rule was always small and local, even when necessity did not require it. It was because of a theology of the Incarnation and the communion that it creates, something that simply cannot scale up indefinitely, because of the God-made limitations of human personhood.

A desire to scale up indefinitely is indicative of a defective theology of the Incarnation, usually one that is devoid of any ecclesiology. Church is conceived of not as communion, but as rock concert.

It is true, of course, that some 3,000 people were baptized into Christ on Pentecost. That’s actually a fascinating and telling example, though—the Apostles were clearly perfectly capable of attracting a mass “rally” of sorts, but there’s only one example of such a thing ever happening. This exception proves the rule.

It is one of the great (at least linguistic) ironies of modern American Christianity that it has become a mass religion—a massive religion about masses of people, but without any hint of the mass.

Ite, missa est.

14 comments:

  1. Father, do you think this artificial world of bigness and pseudo community is the result of a Theology predicated on artificial (created) Grace. That is, the Filioque?

    In other words, if we can’t truly be connected with, united with and partaking of God, we cant be intimately united with one another, either? Therefore, we create artificial means to feel connected?

    Cue texting and the internet.

    1. In some sense, yes, I think this is true, but not in any self-conscious way. Few mega-churchers would even know what “created grace” actually means.

      It’s really simply much more a result of a defective Christology, one that de-materializes salvation.

      1. Sure, I didn’t mean that anyone would be self-consciously promoting created grace in such circles. Simply that they’re living out the world that has been tradition-ed to them (whether they admit/realize it or not).

  2. Father bless,

    How do you see large Orthodox churches like Hagia Sophia (in its own time), or the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow fit into the idea of communion/small/local?

    1. Those of course do exist, but they are a rarity and not by any means the rule. It is also notable that they are both essentially cathedral churches and therefore not considered the norm. (To be honest, though, I don’t think either is really the ideal.)

      The general pattern in Orthodoxy is small and local. One can even see this within established monasteries, where there many be many altars that serve simultaneously, while the larger, central katholikon is used mainly for feast days.

  3. Wendell Berry talks often about the need to recover human scale economies of society, relationship, and exchange. I think Krindatch’s research just released by the Assembly of Bishops underscores this intuition. We see in his research that the more deeply one transgresses Dunbar’s number (wiki it) the weaker the connection of the members to the local church becomes. This isn’t just a church issue however, we need to make a concerted effort to recover human scale economies in our lives generally if we wish to resist in any way the dehumanizing effects of globalized, post-industrial corporatism.

  4. This idea of BIG within Christianity has various elements to it of which the reasons are multi-faceted. BIG equates success, at least in marketing stategies. And running the church like a business has become rather popular these days – a sign that secularization is alive and well within Christianity. Within this particular scheme, church becomes the product and people become the consumers. Of course, a product that doesn’t sell will soon fade into oblivion.

    So how does one sell people on the idea of mega-church? If a product has mass appeal, it will sell – simple as that. But first, a perceived need must be met, even if that need is a delusion…ok, that’s a strong word. 🙂 Let’s say, (to soften it), even if that need is dispensable. Furthermore, that perceived need must be successfully inculcated/instilled within a targeted population/community. Mega-churches have become MEGA because a certain demographic within the “Christian” sphere has become convinced that this is the way to go -it’s state of the art ecclesiology at its best, at least in the minds of those selling the product.

    However, certain methodologies must be used in order to reach the goal of MEGA. These methodologies must be applied in such a way so as to fulfill a projected growth formula. Polls can be taken to inquire into which demographic is most likely to be convinced of the utility and attractiveness of MEGA. Questionaires being sent out to various neighborhoods are an efficient means to extrapolate the necessary information. As the foundation is being laid, the promoters of MEGA-Churchianity are hard at work selling their product, using all the latest technologies – posters, websites, blogs, billboards, radio/tv advertisements, proselyting, etc., with the expectation that popularity, publicity, and good talking points will ensure an abundant yield.

    Of course, none of the aforementioned addresses why this movement is growing, that is, what is the psyche behind MEGA-Churchianity’s appeal? Rather, I just pointed to various strategies that are used in its promotion. I think the psychological/sociological reasons for why MEGA has become the personal and preferred choice of many who call themselves Christian is an even more intriguing subject to consider and discuss.

    1. Why Mega? Isn’t it brand management? Branded christianity vs. Incarnational Christianity. The “I went to church and all I got was this T-shirt” type of brand. Fact is, that’s all a fair amount of people have been exposed to, and so it seems a non-threatening way to experience the “look-at-me” God… the God as I want him to be… a neon sign about “me” as a (self?) annointed member of a group. I suppose they are at least trying on the only christianity they’ve been shown, making it personal by wearing the t-shirt, and so you gotta give them some points. And fairly, have these people seen or tasted real Incarnational Christianity to know what they’re missing? and for that matter, have they seen any real Incarnational Christians ? The fact that we fail to witness effectively in a manner and place accessible to them isn’t their fault. I’m not convinced it’s our fault either… only I’d wonder sometimes whether we’re as concerned about the salvation of others as we seem to be about our own… which while job # 1, ain’t gonna happen without theirs… if we really do believe in the Incarnation. Hmmmm… but there I go and confuse myself.

  5. I recall being invited to a MEGA-church in the early 90’s. It was in NYC and our friends insisted we attend. The location was in what was once a very well known theater. As we walked in with our friends, they did their best to find a good seat. While being ushered to our places, I will never forget the comment made to us, “Sit down and enjoy the show.” And a spectacular show it was!

    I would say a feature of mega-churchianity is entertainment. Ya gotta put on a good show to keep peoples’ attention. Bring out the best gospel singers, make sure you’ve got the latest and greatest technology with projector screens, sound systems and all that comes with it. It’s as if the promoters are thinking something along the line such as, “We’re here to delight and dazzle you so that you’ll keep coming back time and time again.” Of course, I doubt that they’re thinking this way explicitly. Rather, they may be thinking that making use of the latest technologies and putting out grade A singers and musicians is making use of the talents that God has given them to promote the gospel. This then, is where the rubber meets the road.

    What is mega-churchianity’s understanding of the gospel? What are the necessary ingredients that are required in this gospel and what can be ignored and left by the wayside? Furthermore, just exactly is the understanding of worship in this setting? I would say that the answers might vary depending upon which mega-church we’re talking about. However, it wouldn’t be a stretch to suggest that most megas are descendants of 20th Century Evangelicalism. True, some megas are seeker-sensitive, others are emergent, others are YRR (young-restless-Reformed), others are prosperity-health & wealthers, others are Baptistic with an arminian bent, and no doubt some other categories could be added. So, while these various megas may have doctrinal disagreements, they all have one thing in common – MEGA. Furthermore, I would say that they all believe they’re fulfilling the Great Commission and therefore, bigger is a necessary ingredient toward fulfilling that goal.

    But what are the underlying motivations of those who partake in the Mass Cult of Big? What draws them to this structure of church? Why choose Big over and above all else? I can say that from my own experience of having attended some Mega-churches here and there, I had no inclination to involve myself in that arena. Big was not better for me. Colossal auditoriums had no appeal, but rather, seemed impersonal and out-of-touch – lacking a human element. True enough, many humans gather in these huge auditoriums -(and that’s really what they are in essence, rather than what used to be called a sanctuary) – but the gathering is quite like that of attending a cinema. Those in the audience – (and that’s really what it is, rather than a parish community of believers gathered in divine worship) – are quite like spectators, anticipating the latest talking points on a particular subject of theological interest along with a musical performance added in for good measure. Motivations may vary as to what draws various contingents of a particular population toward MEGA, but the features I’ve mentioned are a commonality among all of them. I would agree with Father Andrew’s analysis: “…it is not about incarnational communion, but about marketed, corporatized consumption.”

  6. As a Heterodox (and one who is looking at Orthodoxy) larger churches have the appeal of not allowing for exposure of ones self to others. Not that this is right. But, it is more than just an appeal of entertainment. Remember, folks are looking for answers to life and these institutions because of their size denote legitimacy in the world.

  7. These mega churches are mostly devoid of any clue that this is a church. There’s a cross on the stage but it’s brown and fades in between the huge pipe organs.

    I, too, attended a mega church for a few years before converting to Orthodoxy in 2009. The mega church had recently built a theater large enough to encompass 5,000 “worshipers” seated comfortably in their movie-style seats with coffee cup holders facing a stage where trained singers performed every weekend. A cross was hung from the ceiling above the stage but the emphasis was not on the cross. The emphasis was on self-help – how the Bible can help me. Sadly, this is how many Protestant congregations are trending whether they are a mega-church or not. The most frequent complaint I’ve heard of Protestants who attend an Orthodox Divine Liturgy or a Roman Catholic Mass is “I didn’t get anything out of it.” What an unfortunate but all too common perspective that God owes us something.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *