The American mega church is a true cultural phenomenon. Nowhere in the scriptures are there mentions of mega churches, nor calls to found them. Paul calls for the foundation of a church alright, but in the sense of attracting many followers across a broad geography. He didn’t direct believers to show up, en masse, to worship in a large building with a Jumbotron, house band, paid vocalists, a light show and a celebrity minister(s), pastor(s) or spiritual leader(s). As far as Paul was concerned, someone’s front room would do.
Either Paul was short-sighted or lacked a marketing sensibility.
In Europe, as Christianity developed and was practiced by larger gatherings of locals, the faithful did raise money to build magnificent structures to the glory of God. Places like Notre Dame in Paris, the Duomo of Florence and St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome arose and even now, centuries later, stand as testaments to faith and architecture. Notre Dame has had a recent run of bad luck but Parisians are having it rebuilt to its original look, if not flammable infrastructure. There are no plans for a Jumbotron to be included.
Ironically, many of America’s mega churches are basically architectural eyesores, housed in former warehouses or abandoned big box retail stores. The founders slap a cross somewhere on the front, rent some folding chairs and launch a marketing campaign. If it works, you can become rich. Putting serious money into a Notre Dame knock-off before you have 30,000 tithing members is risky.
One of the earliest U.S. mega churches that did go for grand architecture was Robert Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral in Orange County California. To illustrate how early in the mega church phenomenon this occurred is the fact that under its soaring glass walls and roof were WOODEN PEWS! That’s right, hardwood, uncomfortable, straight-backed torture seats. Really, the only upside of wooden pews is that squirmy children can be made to lie down with their heads in mommy’s lap as long as the rest of the row bunches up a bit.
One could speculate that if God, The Son and The Holy Spirit didn’t want some psychic and physical discomfort in the process of sitting in church recalling what appalling sinners that each parishoner had been the previous week, Heaven would have never allowed the rise of “stern denominations” such as Lutherans, Mennonites, Quakers, Jehovah’s Witnesses or wooden pews.
But wooden pews are a rarity in today’s mega churches. Today, almost everyone gets their own theater seat, padded, bottom and back. Some of these seats even have a tilt-back option. Thus, the parishioners are comfy enough to sit through at least three rounds of tithes and offerings before butt and wallet fatigue begin to take over.
I regret to report that The Crystal Cathedral had to eventually take bankruptcy and is now a Catholic congregation. I’d wager that the wooden pews played a role in its demise. That and the extreme building and maintenance costs, the exorbitant salaries and the limo transportation expenses for Robert Schuller and his extended family, with their many hands in the big money salvation jar.
Of course, the expense of such luxuries as padded seating, Jumbotrons, sound systems, light systems, complete orchestral ensembles and salaries appropriate for celebrity pastors, takes a boatload of money. Ergo, the multiple “asks” for money. And, one needn’t even attend the church to continue an automatic tithe 10% or more from one’s bank account thanks to such entities as tithe.ly, an on-line clearing house that calls itself “The pastor’s best friend”. For a mere 2.9% of the tithe plus 30 cents per activity, Tithely will shoot that money directly to the mega church’s bank account. No sermon attendance required.
For the record, many mega churches are stalwarts of their communities, giving many millions to charities, providing volunteers to worthy causes, sheltering those in need and governed by principled deacons or elders who are also members of the congregation. Their books are open and their tax returns available to their members and the local press. Here’s the other shoe …many others are simply big businesses, privately owned, accountable to only the founders and uniquely positioned for major scandal. Those scandals fall into one of two categories, often, both at the same time: money and sex.
Throughout history, money and sex scandals have been experienced within the Christian church community. No real news there. The problem with the mega church is that bigness can give rise to big scandals. Take a small local church where the pastor has a fling with the choir director, embarrassing to be sure but hardly CNN News. But, if you are Eddy Lee Long of mega church, New Birth Missionary Church in Georgia, famous for your ringing denunciation of homosexuals, and then it comes to light that you are paying five young men from the congregation to travel and have sex with you, well the headlines write themselves.
Georgia can also proudly claim Creflo Augustus Dollar as one of its own. His World Changers Church International, with 30,000 prosperity gospel adherents, has provided Creflo and his minister missus, two Rolls Royces, a private jet and a multi-million dollar crash pad in New York City. He moved his church from College Park, Georgia, south of Atlanta to John’s Creek on the north side where the economic demographics are better for private jet supporting.
The Clown’s most recent favorite hypocritical mega church smut-bomb is the Australian-based Hillsong mega church outpost in New York City. The recently fired pastor of that mega church, Carl Lentz, was let go for “moral failures” and “breach of trust”. Let’s unpack those anodyne phrases. Besides carousing around with Justin Bieber, something that could qualify as a firing offense, Reverend Lentz, a former college basketball player from Virginia Beach, VA., was exposed as a serial philanderer. The Clown isn’t talking about just boinking the choir director. No, Rev Lentz apparently didn’t stop there. He had developed some high-profile parishioners who were into high-profile New York kind of partying which often included some beautiful and available women. It’s not clear whether Rev Lentz asked these women if they were altos, sopranos or could even carry a tune. It’s probable that he wasn’t recruiting for the choir.
It’s abundantly clear that mega church services are way more entertaining than many smaller church experiences, unless those experiences involve snake handling, speaking in tongues or dedicated “fanners” who revive the spiritually overwhelmed who are unconscious on the floor. Smaller membership denominational churches, e.g. your Presbyterian, your Methodist, your Nazarene, etc. with their small choir accompanied by an upright piano, wooden pews and a weekly dry sermon and bake sale announcements are no real competition in the arena of “fun”.
The Clown wonders, however, if Paul, or Jesus for that matter, would be more comfortable in one venue or the other. One senses that if Jesus were sitting through one of Creflo Dollar’s prosperity, be-all-you-can be and “give me more money so God will give you even more money back” sermons, he would be tempted to break out the cat-o-nine-tails and chase Creflo and Missus Creflo into the parking lot where they would take refuge in their matching Rolls Royces. The Clown would pay to see that.
Observoid of the Day: With COVID deaths in U.S. now north of 500,000, which is 17 times as deadly as the seasonal flu, shouldn’t it have “magically disappeared” by now?