Wednesday, November 17, 2004

The Church as Industry

The church in America is undergoing massive change. I use the word "church" globally; there is no one church despite what the loudmouths would have you believe. The changes are happening primarily in the evangelical sector. I'll give you a loose definition of evangelical, based on my United Methodist upbringing. To "evangelize" is to reach out to either those folks in the church who may need to deepen their spiritual commitment or are looking for a deeper spiritual experience within the church, or to those outside of the church to "win their souls" for Christ.

Evangelism is deeply emotional, touching some of the most troubling parts of their lives, including relationships with spouses and children, finances, emotional health. Evangelism works best on middle and lower class people because they probably experience the most stress -- if your household income is less than $40K, and you're supporting 2 or more kids plus 2 adults, or if you're a single parent with a household income of $20K or less, there is a lot of stress there. When you worry about money, everything else bubbles to the surface; your self-esteem is affected because you think you haven't done well by your family or can't do any better. Couples fight over money as much as they do fidelity. You're not a nice person to be around, and your relationship falls apart. Or, the person you're with can't take the pressure, both from within and without, and leaves. Loneliness sets in. Knowing little about love and the importance of it leaves you hollow. You look for something to fill the void. Perhaps you seek comfort in food, alcohol, drugs, sex. Perhaps you seek a "deep" answer to a simple question and you visit your local church. You visit the Catholic church, which does its best to help you find answers, but mainly, you have to do the work yourself, and sift through dogma, dogma, and more dogma. Then, you try the local Protestant church, maybe a Lutheran church, maybe Presbyterian or Methodist. It's warm and comforting in its own way, but sometimes deals a little too much in external things like social justice. I know that feeding the poor is important, you say to yourself, and I know racial discrimination is wrong, and I appreciate that I need to be aware of how the White House is affecting me and that ain't what Jesus wants, but I'm hurting. How about something a little more personal? Here comes the warm and fuzzy, tug at the heartstrings from a charismatic voice. He (and it's almost always he) says something along the lines of "Maybe your heart is broken," "You're experiencing financial hardship," "Your marriage is in trouble," and before you know it, you're a blubbering mess, face bathed in tears. You're hooked like a dope fiend. Finally, someone gets it; someone understands what you're going through. It's this targeting of the deepest pains that brings people to the church, and in turn wins souls for Christ -- evangelism.

Please don't get me wrong. I have identified as a Christian, and I do believe that prayer works for me, even if I know that prayer is nothing more than a purposeful focusing in on the change you desire and surrendering of said desire with believe that the change will take place. I am clear that many will argue that if you can pray to some great unknown, you can simply believe in yourself and your power to make things happen. Ministers are not that different from motivational speakers or mental health professionals. For me, I find comfort in a great parent in whom I can seek solace, share what I feel are my deepest and darkest feelings, and can place my hope in when I want to experience transformation. Prayer is free, therapy is not. I am warmed by the foundational teachings of Christ -- love God, whom you can't see, and love your neighbor, who you see every day, and basing everything around those laws, if you will. I think evangelism in America has moved from winning souls for Christ to winning souls for its agenda. The increasingly disenfranchised poor and lower middle class have found an opiate in the evangelical church in America. The government has ignored me; they won't put money into my community, my schools are falling apart. I didn't get a decent education, so I can't get a decent job. My parents didn't get a decent education, so they couldn't get sufficient work. I grew up poor and not loved enough. I was taught that sex equaled love, or that I had nothing to give except to sex so that I could be loved. Poverty creates desperation, and desperation eradicates hope. Hopelessness creates pain, and pain requires numbing. Evangelism in its new form; the escapist, exciting bit of brightness experienced in a typical evangelical worship service, not the classic definition of evangelism, is the new opiate of the masses.

What is even more disturbing to me is the growth of the mega church. These are churches built in abandoned theaters or small arenas, or even converted factories and warehouses. Member rolls are anywhere from the mid-hundreds to the thousands, and in the case of a larger church such as The Potter's House in Texas, the high thousands. Some churches offer one-stop lifetyle shopping. A church my partner recently went to here in Brooklyn has not one, but TWO ATMs in the lobby -- placed, of course, at the entrance to the sanctuary. These churches on growth hormone have, in addition to Sunday services everything from Bible study to Christocentric 12-step groups, financial counseling, marriage counseling, support groups for men, support groups for women, programs for youth to keep them out of trouble, nutritional classes, fitness classes. Some churches have built their own schools and apartment complexes. One church in California has built a gated community. Another church in the midwest has built its own shopping mall. These churches aren't necessarily the ones you see on television.

Remember, many of these mega churches were built out of poor communities. Drive around an inner-city neighborhood and I guarantee you'll find a slightly out-of-place piece of modern architecture. Chances are good that it's a newly built church. The liquor stores are thriving, while you have to make a trip to find a real grocery store, but there is a million-dollar edifice sitting in the middle of the neighborhood. The corner store does a brisk business in salty, fatty, sugary processed food and drink, cigarettes, and lottery tickets while the neighborhood school's reading and math scores ride the bottom of the city's rating scales, and the artwork that is this gigantichurch sparkles amid the refuse that surrounds it. The same church my partner visited reportedly requires members and potential members submit their W4s annually -- man, do I hope that's just a rumor. Pastors of these megachurches drive luxury vehicles, live in million-dollar homes, wear custom-tailored suits while the numbers of people who visit their food pantries week after week (provided they have one) and daily soup kitchens grow exponentially.

My best friend is a pastor of a Lutheran church in the south Bronx. This 5-foot tall white woman from north Florida (which, politically is really the very deep South) has served a primarily Black congregation for almost 10 years. The church constantly struggles for money. They've lost funding for their youth program and had to lay off their youth minister. Another church I work with will be laying off the majority of the staff in its HIV program because of lost funds. Meanwhile, poor people who believe the hype that something they've done or haven't done is the reason why God hasn't blessed them with money, money, money, give 10% of what little they have to keep the megachurch going. Small churches with pastors who know their congregants, take the time to visit the sick, and work with community members, local police precincts, school districts, languish. They are emptying in favor of the exciting worship experience -- the one with the greatest escapism.

I want to believe that people are finding healing in these gigantichurches. I want to believe that people are being empowered to create better lives for themselves. I want to believe that they are finding God somewhere in the vaulted ceilings and video simulcast. I desperately want to believe that the members of these churches are getting as rich as the pastor, but I just can't believe any of it. How is it that your personal relationship with God is deepening within this cave called a church?

I will revisit this topic, but I'll end this with something attributed to Jesus Christ: "No one can serve two masters..."


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