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March 26, 2007

The Business of Preaching

This is an interesting excerpt from Dan Gilgoff's new book on the rise of James Dobson. I've made this point before, but so many of us experience James Dobson in his political incarnation that we forget that his prominence and power comes precisely because millions of Americans don't. The megachurches, with their remarkably innovative techniques for constructing social capital and a feeling of connectedness, have been fairly explicit responses to greater geographic dispersal, weakened family ties, and increased insecurity, and so forth. Many of us who don't experience the megachurches as anything but occasionally malign actors on the national stage are quite poor, I fear, at understanding why they are important and why their influence is proving durable. Which is odd, given that the very foundations of the liberal critique of contemporary society -- increased economic risk, civic deterioration, etc -- are exactly what the churches help address.

March 26, 2007 | Permalink


They fill the same role as the old political machines, for different groups (European ethnic immigrants vs. white intra-country migrants moving from exurb to exurb and office job to office job) who have the same problem (high mobility and low social capital). The old Tammany Hall or Chicago machines weren't concerned so much with policy; for a lot of people, it was just a way to get a job for your cousin, and the same goes, more or less, for the megachurches.

Posted by: Dan Miller | Mar 26, 2007 3:32:27 PM

I think a substantial part of the liberal critique of modern America is also the tendency to make everything bigger ... Wal-Mart, large corporations, SUVs, suburban sprawl. The megachurches feed this trend, in addition to—from the outside— appear to offer a "lowest common denominator" form of Christianity.

Posted by: Nicholas Beaudrot | Mar 26, 2007 3:41:53 PM

The megachurches feed this trend, in addition to—from the outside— appear to offer a "lowest common denominator" form of Christianity.

Not sure what that means, but Dobson and some others with megachurches present a strong form of Chrisitanity that doesn't seek the broadest possible base of membership.

Posted by: Sanpete | Mar 26, 2007 3:54:58 PM

Well, there's a paradox at work, in that in recent decades churches that preach a strong moral code have grown and flourished better than more liberal churches that stress tolerance and social justice. But preaching a strict moral code is not the same thing as having high barriers to entry. If you go to a megachurch, you'll experience contemporary worship style, a Starbucks stand in the lobby, everyday language, pop-style music. It's "user-friendly" to the point of being vapid (IMO).

Megachurches really are a triumph of marketing. Many of them are independent and non-denominational, so they are less encumbered by large bureaucracies and centuries-old doctrines. They really do engage in a kind of market-testing, and can tailor their services and doctrines and respond to "user input" a lot better and faster than historic churches.

Posted by: Dix Hill | Mar 26, 2007 4:27:41 PM

Not sure what that means, but Dobson and some others with megachurches present a strong form of Chrisitanity that doesn't seek the broadest possible base of membership.

While we could quibble over whether Dobson and crew seek the "lowest common denominator" and the value judgment it implies, they do all have a vested interest in appealing to the largest, most diverse audience they can.

Theologically and doctrinally, the various megachurches around the country are virtually indistinguishable from one another. Certainly in Kansas City there is a profound difference between First Family Church and The United Methodist Church of the Resurrection, but Willow Creek, Saddleback, Phoenix 1st Assembly, the Calvary Chapels of Costa Mesa and Ft. Lauderdale are going to offer pretty much the same experience musically, technologically, with sermons and in their array of ministries.

As Dobson worked on growing his business, he started to shed the distinctives of his tradition (Wesleyan-Holiness, specifically Church of the Nazarene) and embraced the type of generalized Baptist/Calvinist Christianity that dominates American Christian culture - even in many of the Mainline denominations.

Posted by: Stephen | Mar 26, 2007 4:31:22 PM

Dobson, himself, is an interesting figure precisely because his role is not that of traditional preacher, mediating the Word of God. Dobson mediates secular psychology and media culture, for a Christian audience.

He spends most of his time and energy counseling people about their family lives. The trust he is given in this role, is then abused to support right-wing Republican politics.

What he says about family issues is not, for the most part, particularly objectionable. What he says about politics is. How can one attack such an individual, effectively?

Posted by: Bruce Wilder | Mar 26, 2007 4:40:27 PM

I agree with your comments, Dix and Stephen. It's worth remembering, though, that Dobson's mainstream conservative Christianity is still a more restrictive and assertive form of Christianity than you get at some megachurches, and from, say, Unitarianism and even Episcopalianism, where there is greater latitude in what's acceptable belief and behavior. (That the churches are similar in different locales is a somewhat different matter. Mormon churches are very much that way, by design, but Mormonism is still quite distincive and demanding.)

How can one attack such an individual, effectively?

By just attacking what's objectionable. No need to attack the rest.

Posted by: Sanpete | Mar 26, 2007 4:56:57 PM

The megachurches feed this trend, in addition to—from the outside— appear to offer a "lowest common denominator" form of Christianity.

Not sure what that means, but Dobson and some others with megachurches present a strong form of Chrisitanity that doesn't seek the broadest possible base of membership.

I was thinking specifically Joel Osteens, Neil Clark Warrens, and Rick Warrens of the world (Warren is something of an ally with Obama, and I respect his influence and willing to work in a less partisan way, but as for theology the big evangelical churches are treated as lightweights). It's not like there's a social expectation that everyone goes to confessional.

And, as an outsider, it just seems odd on spec; how can you form tight social connections in a 10,000 seat auditorium? I mean, if I had season tickets to the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets, I'd probably get to know the other season ticketholders sitting around me. Maybe if one of them invited me to go to New Orleans on a clean-up trip, I might say yes. But I don't think I'd get to know them in any meaningful sense outside of the basketball arena.

Posted by: Nicholas Beaudrot | Mar 26, 2007 5:03:34 PM

Oh, and, what Dix said.

The "lowest common denominator" critique of megachurches is definitely a small-c conservative critique ... pop culture leading to the dilution of substance. It's just that liberalism has gotten a lot more small-c conservative over the last 20 years. Outside of health care, and global warming, and gay rights, the "radical conservatives", as Bob Reich likes to call them, are advocating much more dramatic change to the status quo (big tax cuts, privatize everything, free trade) than the liberals (incremental improvements on reproductive rights; balance environmental protection with economic growth, etc).

The "fight the trend to make things 'bigger' for 'bigger's' sake" critique is more distinctly liberal.

Posted by: Nicholas Beaudrot | Mar 26, 2007 5:19:11 PM

"And, as an outsider, it just seems odd on spec; how can you form tight social connections in a 10,000 seat auditorium?"

Cell structure -- they do small-group ministries. The massive Sunday services are the big funnel, but as people become more involved, they get connected with a Bible study or other small group that meets during the week, a congregation within a congregation.

Posted by: Dix Hill | Mar 26, 2007 5:19:30 PM

There are some interesting points in the comments, especially mentioning the mainline denomination focus on social justice and more liberal belief systems. That being said, Dobson and the megachurches are not presching "lowest common denominator" Christianity but rather providing a "feel-good" atmosphere with a much more authoritarian theology than has previously been present in mainstream American Protestant thought.
As TFA pointed out, Dobson was not interested in the typical psychology of his time in drawing clients out so they could solve problems on their own, but rather giving them his opinion as the final, correct answer. This is probably why he became more fundamentalist over time as well, as that is a belief systems focused on knowing the "correct answer."

The megachurches have become very good at creating community; that's where your kids' softball team or boy scout troop is located, it's where you can go for Mom's Day Out or find a work project to volunteer with for the weekend. You find like-minded people (who live in similar houses, drive similar cars, and probably look like you too). You have them over for bible study and progressive dinners and never have to see people who are different. There is something very comforting about this and it fits well into the megachurch format, which in turn supports the FotF culture.

It is a very insulated form of christianity, but it seems to work for lots of people. What happens though, when people like Dobson, use their power for evil instead of good? Will people living in that culture, raised in that culture, be able to decide on their own where good and evil reside?

Posted by: Cowboy Diva | Mar 26, 2007 5:56:26 PM

I don't think megachurches are that hard to understand... I think it's a good insight into just how blase and elitist the New York Times is, though, that they treat something rather ordinary and obvious as somehow mysterious and odd; but that's a New Yorker for you - if you can't account for it 25 square blocks in Manhattan it must be... weird.

Or maybe it's just that I watch things like Joel Osteen and Joyce Meyer (and Creflo Dollar, come to think of it) to pass the time. I don't need to watch much - they strike me as the same sort of low grade religion I used to get going to Episcopal services: it would be nice if we were nice to each other, and that starts by being a decent person, and the bible could help you figure some of that out. This is hard to argue with, but it's also really soft; if anything, I think the megachurches have helped ratchet down some of the "christian right" hard edged stuff that used to be there - Osteen and Meyer and their ilk are way, way less intense about both religion and politics than Robertson, Falwell, Oral Roberts etc ever were.

I think Dobson's less worrisome for the left - who have long since given up on finding any kind of common ground with him, his politics or his organizational web - than he is for the GOP, which has reached the limits of the coalition of values politics that Dobson represents and the "country club" GOP of wealthy older folks who have never been so into all the hot button issues, but mostly want small government and low taxes and the right to be left alone. Indeed, theirs is the Episcopalianism that fits quite nicely into the Osteen/Meyers megachurch aesthetic. I don't think megachurches are mysterious, or unknowable, or something that liberals can't figure out with a little effort. The mistake, I think, would be buying into a "sophistcated" urbanized dismissal of their appeal and their success at building community in areas marked by isolation and rootlessness. I just don't think that makes them quite the same thing as the set of elements that coalesced into the "moral majority." And we'll shoot ourselves in the foot if we push them, by our judgements and ourt disdain, into beoming that. Those communities could just as easily be attracted by well tailored focused progressive messages as by anything Dobson's selling.

Posted by: weboy | Mar 26, 2007 6:06:41 PM

This is definitely true, and the same factors are at work in the LDS (Mormon) church as well--another one liberals don't like (for good reasons). We haven't done a good job of building competing institutions that provide a sense of community without the retrograde politics. There was a good article, I think it was the cover story, in the Atlantic a few years ago about the megachurches, which made many of the same points you're making.

Posted by: beckya57 | Mar 26, 2007 6:35:52 PM

That the churches are similar in different locales is a somewhat different matter.

I think I wasn't clear; it's important to note that all these churches present a very similar experience despite the very different traditions from which they have come.

I wonder if the most distinctive characteristic of American society is our impulses to consolidate and homogenize all aspects of our existence. You can travel almost anywhere in the country and find clothes, food and entertainment that is exactly the same as everywhere else in the country. That's what is happening with the megachurch movement.

Those communities could just as easily be attracted by well tailored focused progressive messages as by anything Dobson's selling.

I agree that a sneering liberal elitism isn't necessary or productive. However, the above statement is off-base. Megachurches have very high percentages of people coming from more liberal Mainline denominations precisely because those denominations are liberal. People become part of those communities looking for the type of message that James Dobson and other very conservative authors provide. Olsteen indeed preaches a bland, "be nicey nicey" message, but his congregation will prove extremely resistant to anything progressives might say.

Posted by: Stephen | Mar 26, 2007 6:48:49 PM

A very good point Stephen. As anyone with any experience with evangelical or charismatic megachurches could attest, it is a mistake to look no further than the slick contemporary packaging or superficial resemblances to feel good mainline theology. In some respects the megachurch phenomenon recalls the pre-Cathedral church culture of the middle ages. That is, the church as fortress in a threatening world. Otoh, their vast congregations and protestant character conspire to give every Sunday service the atmosphere of a tent meeting revival. This quality is largely lacking from the practice of most mainline denominations today.

I think it would be salutory if more people unfamiliar with this form of religion would attend some services. The complete submersion in an alternate reality that is utterly consuming and self contained is the common thread that connects them all.

Traditionally churches in this country have been seen as a part of and a support for the larger community. Increasingly, in the case of the Megachurches, they are supplanting that community altogether and even undermining it.

Posted by: WB Reeves | Mar 26, 2007 7:31:15 PM

Megachurches have a lot of people coming from all sorts of places, Stephen; many, I suspect are coming from very secular lifestyles with little real religion, and others may be coming from liberal churches because the theology is liberal (and thus, more wishy-washy than an Osteen, if such a thing is possible) - I like being Episcopalian, but one reason I like it is because the Bible is, well, more like the optional text the professor has on reserve at the library than the required reading I will be expected to know for the test... I can see why some people might want a little bit more. And my point is, with Osteen or Meyer (or a number of others), a little more is just what they get, a little more bible, but focused on the bland, hard to disagree with parts (which as others have noted is full of American optimism that if you just be better, you will succeed). That's why I say the progressive message needs to be tailored - the kind of things that will move the hip urban progressive crowd is not what these people are looking at - though the concerns - about their health care, their dead end jobs and their financial concerns - are just not that far away. It can be done, and I think the past election was about showing some early forays into making it work. I'm just saying we need to build on that, and not play up the "scary megachurch" storyline.

Posted by: weboy | Mar 26, 2007 7:31:36 PM

For an excellent book for understanding the historical and social roots of the kind of Christianity we are seeing today, I recommend:

Spirit and Flesh : Life in a Fundamentalist Baptist Church

Posted by: Kevin Rooney | Mar 26, 2007 7:32:09 PM

One of the main points I took from Ault's book is that the conservatism embodied by the Baptists he spent time among was something they brought to their particular faith community, rather than something they learned within it. That is, are these churches simply well-managed aggregations of our more authoritarian citizens?

Posted by: janinsanfran | Mar 27, 2007 1:09:09 AM

I have always enjoyed the discussions of religion and churches on this board. They always are restricted to the Christian religion. I understand that it is the dominant religion of the US, but there are Jews and Muslims as well.
When can we whale on the Jews and Muslims? Surely there is something icky about them you find detestable as well. Perhaps the Muslim attitude toward women would be a great place to start. Hey they like women....just ask any Muslim that owns one.


Posted by: Fred Jones | Mar 27, 2007 5:21:08 AM

Not sure what that means, but Dobson and some others with megachurches present a strong form of Chrisitanity that doesn't seek the broadest possible base of membership.

Posted by: Sanpete

Others have already pointed this out, more or less, but if Dobson and Co. aren't seeking membership, they sure are having a lot of luck with it finding them.

More likely, in my opinion, either they actually believe what they're saying, or they have decided that aesthetically-homogenous and culturally-restrictive is exactly the right way to maximize membership. If so, they seem to be right. They would never get everyone no matter what their message, but they're as close as any one group would get without going Catholic.

And, shorter Fred: Pay attention to me!

Posted by: Cyrus | Mar 27, 2007 8:40:34 AM

And, as an outsider, it just seems odd on spec; how can you form tight social connections in a 10,000 seat auditorium?

I do not attend a megachurch, but I am a conservative, Evangelical Christian. The biggest thing people do not understand about the megachurches is that they are really about regional small groups which meet on some other day of the week. People really want a few things out of a church:

1) community
2) inspiring music and sermons

Megachurches can do (2) very well by leveraging their numbers. They accomplish (1) by their small groups.

I suspect that most of the progressive readers here would be more sympathetic, at least in theory, to the house church movement: groups of 10 or so Christians worshiping in someone's home rather than at a physical church. That is the niche that small groups for the megachurches fill.

Posted by: Justin | Mar 27, 2007 10:17:29 AM

As an addendum to Justin's point, I think that inquiry into the psychology of crowds would be of equal importance. People who, rightly or wrongly, feel themselves to be an embattled minority draw a great deal of psychological sustenance from gathering in large groups. The history of political movements throughout the 20th century is replete with examples of this.

Fred, as you say Christianity, in all its myriad and sometimes contradictory forms, is the dominant theology in the US. I suspect that dominance is reflected to some degree by those who comment here. Speaking for myself, having four ministers in my immediate family, it is the religious tradition that I have the greatest personal connection with. It seems natural that I would be more interested in it than in other traditions. I imagine this would apply to great many others as well.

Posted by: WB Reeves | Mar 27, 2007 11:08:52 AM

Cyrus, they're definitely seeking membership. It's just not being done by dumping the theology and rules as has been done to a great extent in more liberal churches. As has been pointed out, part of the attraction for those coming from more liberal churches is that Dobson's churches do stand for something more definite and restrictive, in contrast to the drift of culture. That's true of most of the fastest growing churches.

Speaking for myself, having four ministers in my immediate family

Wow. You must be the grey sheep of the family.

Posted by: Sanpete | Mar 27, 2007 11:56:22 AM

Wow. You must be the grey sheep of the family.

No, I think black sheep is much closer.

However, the prodigal son is closer still.

Posted by: WB Reeves | Mar 27, 2007 1:42:56 PM

It's just not being done by dumping the theology and rules as has been done to a great extent in more liberal churches.

That hasn't been done. Most of the more liberal churches never had a bunch of the rules (dancing, drinking) that the conservative churches came up with. So there wasn't anything to dump.

Further, the theological development of the mainline denominations has not been without deep consideration and difficulty. Look at the current problems the Anglican Communion is having; the Episcopal Church gets all the attention and the blame, but it's not the only province wrestling with the issue of homosexuality and the status of women.

We also can see how the conservative churches have been just as likely to change in their own ways as the more liberal churches that "drift" with the culture. Every Evangelical denomination in the USA has a legacy of strong woman preachers and leaders, yet many of them have rolled that back. It's either official, like with the Southern Baptist Convention, or in practice, as with the Nazarenes, Wesleyans, Assemblies of God or others. There is a much wider body of serious theological study dealing with why churches should accept homosexuals than there is for why churches should turn their backs upon their own tradition and deny women a place of leadership.

As far as having these "strong" doctrinal stands, Conservative Evangelical churches in the south, where members are dependent upon tobacco for their livelihood, are strangely silent upon the issue of smoking, whereas being from the West I've seen people denied membership because they were observed smoking a cigarette.

Posted by: Stephen | Mar 28, 2007 12:28:06 AM

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