Megachurches and the Religious Right's Decline

by Matthew Raley This week I got an email that epitomizes the alliance between evangelicals and political conservatives.

A megachurch pastor from southern California wrote that he can no longer be silent about the health care bill before Congress. What issue has driven him out of reticence? Married couples, he said, will pay more for health insurance than cohabiting couples, and as marriage goes, so goes yada yada. And why did he write me? Because there's a webcast I need to watch involving U.S. senators and the Family Research Council. It's going to be "saturated in prayer." Would I please forward the email approvingly to my congregation?

This email is the fruit of a spinmeister power lunch.

The issue is exactly right to get my attention. The government's imposition of financial burdens on married people ticks me off. I agree that this is the way morons do statecraft. Furthermore, given the anger many people have about the nation's course these days, electrifying my church with unity and passion is easy as clicking "send."

But how many hits of this drug can a congregation take before it's hooked?

These days, I'm arguing that the alliance between evangelicals and the conservative movement will not last. The grass-roots base of the religious right is in churches, and churches are closing. Last week, I described the economic strains behind many closures. But I left one matter open: hasn’t the growth of megachurches enabled evangelicals to reach out to the larger culture? Shouldn't smaller churches close so that resources can be used more efficiently in large ones?

To be sure, the number of megachurches has burgeoned. Warren Cole Smith notes the finding of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research (A Lover's Quarrel With the Evangelical Church, pp 17-18) that there were less than a dozen churches in America with attendance greater than 2,000 in 1970. In 2004 there were more than 1,200. But Smith finds a significant hole in this apparent success. Citing David Olson’s research, he reports (p 150) that from 1990 to 2000, a decade in which the number of megachurches more than doubled, average Sunday attendance at a Christian church fell from 20.4% of the population to 18.7%.

Larger church size is not compensating for fewer churches. But it is sucking pastors into the non-profit sector's media point-scoring game.

Racing to be found among the churches that survive the slow liquidation, many pastors use issue- and media-oriented appeals to create a sense of momentum. They become vendors for “parachurch” ministries that have annual revenues in the tens of millions of dollars, organizations like Focus On the Family, Promise Keepers, and the Family Research Council.

Smith notes that the number of religious and charitable tax-exempt organizations nearly doubled in the 1990s, to around 750,000 (p 18). “A majority . . . were evangelical parachurch organizations.” Solicitations aimed at me, like this week's email, are unending. I am invited to purchase all forms of media for curricula, to give financial support to these organizations from the church budget, and, in a practice Smith notes (p 37), to purchase blocks of tickets to mass rallies. (“If the church is not able to resell the tickets to its members, it either gives them away or the seats remain empty. It is not unusual for an event that is officially sold out to have 20 percent of the seats go unused.”)

A pastor has every incentive to buy congregational life off the parachurch shelf. I can get a curriculum for men’s groups that kicks off with a stadium conference nearby, that feeds weekly meetings with study guides, and that allows me to push play on a DVD rather than preparing a talk. The content will be okay, and I can ride the larger promotional efforts of a marketing team, guaranteeing at least decent involvement.

Whenever I can push play, I have another half-hour or so to manage a crisis.

The lure of achieving significant outreach through media attractions often proves impossible to resist.

In 2004, Pastor Rick Warren (not the author of this week's email, by the way) led evangelicals to embrace Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. For the first time on this scale, evangelical pastors became movie promoters, advertising the film, walking through neighborhoods with door-hangers, buying blocks of tickets in local theaters, and preaching sermons timed for the film’s release. These efforts were not just aimed at outreach, but at showing demographic clout to Hollywood.

The pressure pastors were under to march in this parade was intense. One of my prominent local colleagues, in a fit of world-historical ecstacy, called the film “the biggest evangelistic opportunity in 2,000 years.” (Our church skipped the parade.)

Subsequent church attendance numbers in America didn’t budge.

In an attempt to build energy, then, churches large and small have become media vendors. They have wedded media cycles to the pulpit. Pastors devote time and money to marketing instead of the slow, hard-earned relational work of teaching the disciplines of the faith. Listening to many evangelical preachers, you’d be forgiven for thinking the road to heaven is paved with DVDs.

Megachurches have not reversed the decline in church attendance because they tend to produce media-driven church cultures. Such cultures are degraded, incapable of nurturing godliness.

Which is why I will neither promote nor watch tonight's webcast.