I have written at length about the megachurch movement and why I am convinced it is so dangerous to authentic, organized Christianity. I have thrown about the word communitarianism as a pejorative. I have spoken of the importance of the community over the individual in what might be considered a very classical liberal way. So what gives?
Perhaps if you have read much of my writing you have noticed that I call myself a paleoconservative. Surely you must say, if I truly am such, I realize full-well that the Straussian neoconservatives and the progressive liberals alike would likely make the same arguments. They argue that the United States was founded on liberal principles, deep Lockean principles that recognized natural rights.
Of course, I know such claims are at best complex and at worst utterly false. The United States was founded on conservative principles, and the US Constitution was perhaps only a compromise between a Hobbesian and Lockean view. The states and their constitutions, the entities that really mattered in 1788-89, were definitely conservative instruments. Rights were viewed not as natural but derived from British tradition. In honest truth, no man in nature has the right to anything he cannot defend. We know this is true but like the philosophical position that this may not be true. But I digress, what does this have to do with the megachurch you say.
I do not hold that the individual is supreme, that the natural moral law and reason alone can suffice to inform a man of what is right. As a true conservative, in the philosophical sense of the word, I know full well that the experience of the ages and tradition combined with received knowledge are the main ways that men come to know truth.
This then is the crux of what might appear divergent views within my own mind on the subject of the megachurch movement. I argue that their communalism diminishes the individual, and the authority structure they set up is potentially dangerous. It is not a traditional authority they prescribe but one of their own design. Yet, I am a man that believes that it was the local communal Reformed Protestant nature of America through most of its history that defined us. It was, from the perspective of many, a very illiberal history and circumstance, but it worked well. In short, I agree with communitarianism, just not the sort that Drucker and his ideology invented.
My main argument against the megachurch movement was that it was built upon bad ideology deriving from bad philosophy. And, perhaps most dangerously, they are built upon the premise that they must be relevant, they have to offer something the people want, in order to get them in the door. It is this reliance upon relevance, combined bad ideology that makes this movement so dangerous to organized Christianity. The megachurch movement and its churches will fail because the culture will drive them eventually. I am opposed to submitting or seeing others submit to community and authority built upon such a base.
But these churches identified some real problems and attempted to solve them. They used, and sometimes, misused, techniques straight out of America’s conservative tradition to get after the problem. The various Protestant denominations in the US in the late 1980s were dying or dead, stale, stuffy, feckless beasts. The pastors, boards of directors and initial groups of elders that founded what would become megachurches were predominantly generation X folks, they had sat in those stuffy pews, saw exactly how ineffective those churches were and wanted something different. Many of these churches got their start in the mid-late 1990s, this was just off the heels of the failure of the Moral Majority and the exposure of many televangelist. It was a pretty bad time in Christianity.
Peter Drucker offered a model to Bob Bufford and the Leadership Council. Early generation megachurches based mostly upon strong pastor personalities, such as Rick Warren’s Saddleback provided examples and lesson-learned. The Leadership Network supplied the template, and the disgruntled, dissatisfied upstart GEN Xers took it and built churches, everywhere.
They identified a problem, applied methodology and systems to the problem and created solutions. It is hard to argue with that. Except for the foundation, Drucker’s ideology, and his stated intent. His was a vision to fundamentally change society, through building community in churches. The problem with utopian ideas is just that, history generally has something to say about the frailty of man’s ability to reason out complex social issues with brilliant solutions – generally the best of such ideas fail the worst, sometimes with catastrophic results.
History has taught us that the best way to move forward and solve complex problems is by relying upon the experience of the ages, to fall back on tradition, to fix what is broken rather than create something new, shiny and brilliant. The innovators of my generation, GEN X, that abandoned traditional career paths and forged ahead to build Amazon, Google, Facebook, and our digital world would disagree with that statement, as too would those folks that built started those future megachurches in the 1990s. But there is a difference in building an online shopping mall and digital warehouse and redefining how to ‘do church”.
Success is something that is hard to argue with, yet success does not make a thing optimal or even correct. Do we yet know the cost of Amazon on society and our way of life? If someday the only real purchasing option is online will that be better? We do not know. We do know that sort of innovation was transformative and abandoned tradition rather than refurbish old practices? Is the social media revolution truly good for mankind? I suspect not in total, but it is too soon to say. The point is, yes, those innovations have thus far succeeded, but at what cost? And, again, technological innovation is not on the same level as changing the church just because you can.
What will be the cost to the success of the megachurch movement? What happens if it fails, now that so many formerly dying churches have been drained?
As a Christian, Protestant, conservative, I applaud the efforts by the megachurch folks to bring back community. I wrote about this very need in Retrenchment: Christian Defense of Permanent Things. For the same reasons, I am opposed to the idea of building a new and shiny thing, particularly for something as important as faith, theology and religion – Christianity itself. The ‘community’ of a megachurch is too big for accountability – too big to be called community. The group is beyond one’s circle of influence and of concern. The pastor and the staff are too far removed to be knowable. How can you keep accountability of a man that teaches you the word if his congregation is so large that you most can never break bread with him, and few can do it regularly enough in a personal way to actually know him?
What should that entrepreneurial generation Xers have done in the mid-to-late 1990s? If I think the megachurch movement has gone all wrong what should have been done? I agree with them, all the major denominations had serious flaws and error. There was no real possibility of working inside of them to effect change, not in the short-term, not to change the whole thing.
They should have done the only thing a right-reasoned conservative can do when faced with such a circumstance; retrench and double-down. Buying into what Drucker was selling, the Rick Warren-like model, was wrong and they should have recognized it from the start. That they did not perhaps speaks to motivation, but I cannot see into their hearts.
By retrenchment and doubling down I mean, in seeing the problem that existed in the church, they should have focused on the local church. If they saw it as dead an irrelevant, make it alive, while remaining true to what came before. If they wanted to build community, they should have begun in the local church. You do not have to move an entire denomination overnight to change the world, you do it the proven conservative and rational way, in small steps at home with people you know. The solution in 1990,1995 or 2000, when these megachurches got their start, was not that complicated.
Yet, that is not the path the leaders and founders of these churches chose. They picked a model that allowed them glory from building something bright and shiny. It was hubris, arrogance and pride that told those 20-something-year-old idealists that they knew better than the centuries of doctrine, procedure, and creeds that proceeded them. A bold statement, but I stand beside it. A lot of harm can come from relying upon oneself to try to do good.
If you want to know why I have written so vigorously about the megachurch, yes it is about what I have seen, things that are easily discernable as fruit from the movement. However, it is also something else. Look to the founding, look to Drucker’s own words concerning his intentions with The Leadership Network. Ask yourself about the thought processes of the young men that started these churches 25 or so years ago – why did they choose the Drucker model instead of putting their heads down and getting to work on the local church?
I suspect their egos wanted to build something.
“First principles, Clarice. Simplicity. Read Marcus Aurelius. Of each particular thing, ask what is it in itself? What is its nature? What does he do, this man you seek?”
This is all I will say on this issue.