A friend of mine who is a Harvard-educated attorney and former Episcopalian recently announced that she had become an "evangelical Christian." What she meant by that statement was that she had joined the growing ranks of Americans attending a non-denominational megachurch, this one in Southern California.
I have struggled to clarify my feelings about this important movement in American Christianity. Are megachurches a valuable avenue for evangelism, bringing the young and disenfranchised into the practice of our faith? Or are they a threat to Christian traditions and teachings that have -- thus far -- withstood the test of time? I conclude that the answer to both of these questions is a resounding, "Yes."
Evangelical megachurches are person-centered communities. They offer exciting and action-packed Sunday services, as well as a variety of social and recreational activities that entertain and educate in a welcoming atmosphere emphasizing Christian themes. At its best, this is an attractive form of worship with more appeal to contemporary families than much of what is offered by a centuries-old denomination like ours. At its worst, this is Christianity-meets-the-Mall-of-America.
The absence of traditional liturgy is both the good and the bad of a megachurch. On the one hand, a search for freedom of religious expression drives many away from established churches.
On the other hand, in an effort to maximize appeal, megachurches tend to emphasize positive messages while deemphasizing the negative or difficult ones. A favorite "evangelical" Gospel passage is John 3:16: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son..." which, in its updated version, is cast as "Jesus loves you all the time, no matter what." Messages like Matthew 19:21 ("...sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.") and Matthew 19:24 (that pesky "eye of a needle" thing) may not fit the religious outlook of the megachurch, where giving often is intended for the immediate benefit of churchgoers, rather than for larger missions that include society's outcasts.
The irony of evangelical megachurches is that their members generally identify themselves as being religiously conservative. Nothing could be farther from the truth. These feel-good houses of worship espouse the most freewheeling and liberal of interpretations of the teachings of Christ.
And that, sadly, is part of their attraction. What is happening in these communities is a confusion of what is politically and what is theologically conservative.
On the First Sunday of Lent, my "old-fashioned" Episcopal Church took us through the traditional Penitential Order. It was not particularly fun, but it reminded me of what Lent is all about and why I love my church.
I believe the point of Christianity is not to make us feel good about ourselves, but rather to challenge us to become better and, whenever possible, more Christ-like. The church should not be a place where we create a new and lasting comfort zone, but rather a place where we are disturbed. For those who read the Gospels -- all of the Gospels -- the words of Christ are much more disturbing than they are reassuring.
In my reading of the Gospels, Jesus emphasizes the difficulties inherent in following him. Being a true Christian is neither easy nor comfortable. But it does require some degree of discipline.
Could it be that adherents to a traditional and penitential liturgy like ours are, in fact, the true religious conservatives? Could this also be one reason why membership in our denomination is flat, while churches like my friend's are growing? The future of evangelism may depend on how we answer both of these questions.