Can I Get an ‘Amen’? Mega-Sermons in a Hurting World
A personal survey of churches that have more than 2,000 in attendance, and a comparison of their teachings on several topics.
This article, submitted by Geez Magazine, was awarded first place by the Canadian Church Press in the A.C. Forrest Memorial Award category, 2009. Please note the link at the bottom to read a different view from a reader.
To provide context for the “30 Sermons You’d Never Hear in Church,” we decided to look at 20 sermons you would hear in church – at least if you were at one of the ten largest churches in Canada or the U.S.
…for Dad visiting the church was in the same category as visiting Disneyland…
First, let me put my bias on the table. It goes back to a family vacation in California when I was nine. After two weeks of visiting roller coaster-less national parks, we finally made it to the big city. The main stop was, of course, Disneyland, but Dad had also planned a visit to the famed Crystal Cathedral, an Orange County church of impressive size and showy architecture. We did the tour, perused the gift shop and strolled the grounds. What sticks out in my mind, though, is that for Dad visiting the church was in the same category as visiting Disneyland, that semi-artificial, otherworldly land of fantasy and indulgence.
It’s not that he is irreligious, quite the contrary, but for him the ostentation and showmanship of the Cathedral put it in the category of spectacle, alongside Mickey Mouse and Fun Mountain. He didn’t make a big deal of it, but I guess he said enough that I got the drift. And it made sense. It still does. And that is my bias. I am prone to question displays of religious grandiosity, especially when they create their own little get-away realm. So I start with a suspicion of mega-sermons. But mixed with that is a curiosity and a growing openness to prejudice-softening surprises.
By “mega” here we’re talking about at least 2,000 people in the pews each week. Nearly 1,250 such churches exist in Canada and the U.S. The gleaming, beaming Crystal Cathedral was already mega back in the early ’80s, before religion had been fully super-sized. Now it has a congregation of 10,000, which, though big, puts it well shy of the most mega of U.S. churches, Houston’s Lakewood Church with its congregation of 47,000.
What is said from the pulpits of these churches that makes them so popular? To find out, the Geez research team chose a random Sunday (April 13) and started downloading sermons from the ten largest churches in the U.S. and the ten largest in Canada (see lists below). Here is some of what we found.
The not-so-moralistic majority
Obvious stuff first: these preachers were not ranting against abortionists, sodomizers, evolution scientists or liberal politicians. Though one of the churches – Thomas Road Baptist – is headed by Jerry Falwell’s son, we’re not dealing here with the stereotypical polemics of the religious right.
Sex and sports
Also obvious: the preachers were men. Twenty out of twenty. That’s not necessarily much different than other churches, but is, nonetheless, hard not to notice, especially in light of the surprising number of references to gender roles (almost always traditional), sex (including instruction for women not to refuse men their satisfaction – “the ‘not tonights honey’ have got to diminish”) and sports (a sort of go-get-’em-boys approach to faith). It’s the Christian message with a soft-sell macho tinge.
… the preacher is essentially a motivational speaker who entertains and enthrals…
Sanctuary as locker room
In many cases the preacher is essentially a motivational speaker who entertains and enthrals while pushing listeners on to personal success, which could be marital, financial, moral or eternal. The preacher in these cases uses an approach not entirely unlike a football coach. The language used is that of striving, strength, goals and winning (“every warrior has a cause to fight for”). The language of weakness, meekness, smallness and failure used by spiritual stalwarts like Jean Vanier, Henri Nouwen and the biblical Mary doesn’t seem to fit the mega-pulpit much better than it would the locker room at halftime.
While the 12 references to sports were of a positive or neutral nature, Oprah got less favourable play. The three references to the queen of you-can-achieve-happiness, self-help TV all reflected negatively on her (“Are you being obedient to the god of Oprah?” or “They may not teach this at the church of Oprah”). But with sermon titles like “Thirty Days to a No-Regret Life” and “I Want More . . . Self-control” as well as emphases on overcoming difficulties and attaining goals, many of the preachers covered terrain similar to Oprah. Of course the preachers add a Christian discipleship dimension, but it’s still a smiley, energetic approach to making your life better and more meaningful. Just look at the glowing face of Lakewood pastor Joel Olsteen (who wasn’t preaching on April 13) on the cover of his book, Become a Better You: 7 Keys to Improving Your Life Every Day.
The point here is not that self-improvement is inherently problematic but rather that it is, by definition, self-centred. It’s about you and your happiness and your success. Fifteen of the 20 sermons would fall in the category of “improving your life by the power of God,” without ever expanding beyond a sort of me-and-my-Jesus world view. Three made brief forays outside the gates of self-help land (mentioning creation care and sensitivity to the poor) and two placed church solidly in the context of a global community.
The issue is about what wasn’t said. What was not said in any but two of the sermons was anything like: The church is in a better position than anyone to stop the genocide in Darfur. When we participate in an economy dependent on exploitation, we erode our souls in the process. The indigenous people in the Arctic, whose way of life is melting away beneath them, are our neighbours.
For most of the preachers, the church is not cast as a collective force of compassion and change in a violent, warming world, but rather as a vehicle for individual betterment and eternal bliss, with care for the needy sometimes tacked on as a religious duty. (To be fair, some of the 20 pastors have adopted the green agenda even if it didn’t come through on April 13.)
The two exceptions were Second Baptist and First Alliance churches. In these cases the church’s mission was directly linked to caring for people on the margins. Listeners were asked what uncomfortable sacrifices God was requiring of them in order to do good with respect to Darfur and homelessness in their city. Bruxy Cavey of The Meeting House spoke against individualism, but offered mostly spiritualized rather than concrete ways for the church to address the needs of the world.
With most of the 20 preachers adopting a “be a better you” approach very similar to Oprah, why the occasional bursts of animosity toward her? I can only speculate that it might be related to the tendency for people – especially competitive males – to feel a strong need to differentiate themselves from their closest rivals.
The topic of money and success showed up in about half the sermons. It’s an awkward topic for Christians. Clearly the goal of the Christian is something other than “worldly success,” yet these mega-churches – which are, among other things, large businesses – could not exist without a lot of “success” ending up in the offering plate each Sunday. Several sermons reached the predictable conclusion that money is very dangerous (as a distraction from God), but in the end, wealth is okay as long as your heart is in the right place.
What was lacking from all but one sermon was anything resembling a systemic analysis of the dynamics of wealth: How do some people get richer than others? How does our affluence affect others? Reverend Young at Second Baptist was the only one to give any structural analysis, pointing out that some people get rich at the expense of others, and the rich can “manipulate the law” to further increase their advantage over others. However, his exhortation for people to “use [their] wealth for kingdom purposes” and his focus on individual morality isn’t exactly a vision for how the church could lead the way to a fairer economic system.
At the other end of the spectrum was Leon Fontaine who preached a “[God] is all for this stuff” (nice clothes, makeup, nice homes) sermon at Springs Church. But if you cut out the extremes on either end of the sermon spectrum, you’re left with a warning about the personal, moral dangers of wealth and a back door to success that is left wide open, ready for anyone whose heart is right with God to march right in.
So in the midst of an economic system that is sucking the life out of the earth, consistently failing to lessen global disparity and reducing millions to landless servitude, the mega-sermonizers are more or less telling their flocks to just have the right attitude and make sure a preoccupation with money doesn’t short-circuit their morning devotions. In a world desperate for compassion, the people of God are largely being encouraged to focus on themselves. Christianity is removed from the context of history or the global community.
The writer of Romans says, “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world.” All of the 20 preachers would probably claim to encourage this sort of biblical non-conformity. But with their individualized and spiritualized message, their mega-Christianity turns out to be less of a counterculture than a layer of spirituality added to the existing culture – like icing of righteousness on a cake that is already too sweet. Sure Christians are encouraged to be different in terms of personal piety – what TV shows they watch, and what substances they use or abuse – but when it comes to participation in the politico-economic system that is trampling much of the world, most of these sermons offered nothing concretely countercultural, only a countercultural posture of the heart.
While these mega-churches are undoubtedly meeting certain needs, they are not, for the most part, geared toward the needs of the greater world. If you would have walked in the door of one of the 20 largest churches in Canada or the U.S. on April 13, 2008 you would have most likely walked into an other-worldly realm – something removed from the warming, starving, self-destructing world out there. And in that way it would have been kind of like walking into an amusement park.
Will Braun is editor of Geez magazine. With files from Janis Dahl, Aiden Enns, Aaron Epp, Matt Schaaf and Steve Thorngate.
Source: ChristianPost.com, 2007
Biggest churches in Canada (not ranked by size*):
- Centre Street Church, Calgary, Alberta
- Christian Life Assembly, Langley, British Columbia
- First Alliance Church, Calgary, Alberta
- The Meeting House, Oakville, Ontario
- Metropolitan Bible Church, Ottawa, Ontario
- The Peoples Church, Toronto, Ontario
- Queensway Cathedral, Toronto, Ontario
- The Rock Church, Lower Sackville, Nova Scotia
- Sherwood Park Alliance Church, Sherwood Park, Alberta
- Springs Church, Winnipeg, Manitoba
*Exact numbers for Canadian churches were hard to obtain. The above list is an educated guess based on information from The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada and ChristianWeek.
Quotes from the sermons:
You better make plans to go to heaven. . . ’cause it’s going to be great. – Marcos Witt, Lakewood Church
You are God’s kids, you are designed to succeed, you will win. – Leon Fontaine, Springs Church
James is saying, “you fat cats, you’re just waiting to be slaughtered. . . .” And by first-century standards, 95 percent of us present here are wealthy. So, while I’d love to say that this is just about the rich, [excluding us,] the ferocious fact is that James is talking about you and me. – Ed Young, Second Baptist Church
I guarantee you that before your life is over, you will need this message. You may not need it right now, and I respect that. Go ahead and get the tape. – T.D. Jakes, The Potter’s House
We just last week traded out our bigger SUV for a smaller SUV. – Bob Coy, Calvary Chapel
Boy, my time ran out fast today. I rebuke that clock in Jesus’ name. – Marcos Witt, Lakewood Church
It’s a cliché but it’s true; take it one game at a time. Jesus said it in Matthew, take it one game at a time. He said, “Don’t worry about tomorrow for today has enough trouble of its own. Just win today.” – Greg Hochhalter, Sherwood Park Alliance Church
Our clamoring for power, authority and influence is actually everything gone wrong. – Bruxy Cavey, The Meeting House
Can I get an “Amen” this morning? – Jeff Henderson of North Point Church, after making the point the King Solomon could have asked for anything, even a Playstation 3. He didn’t get the amen.
Some of the pop culture references in the sermons:
YouTube, McDonald’s, the Chicago Bears, Spiderman, Burger King, Paris Hilton, the Houston Astros, Facebook, Jeopardy, M&Ms, Google, Posh, the LA Clippers, Howard Stern, Bill Maher, Taco Bell, Mercedes, Back to the Future 4, Home Depot, The Sopranos, The Superbowl, MySpace, the Phoenix Suns, Deal or No Deal, Hank Williams, The Simpsons, V8, Monopoly, The Flintstones, The Grammies, hi5, Field of Dreams, Elizabeth Taylor, Tammy Wynette, Swiss Chalet.
Originally published in Geez Magazine, No.10, Summer 2008.
Used with permission. Copyright © 2009 Christianity.ca.
Related Letter to the Editor
More Research Needed