Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Megachurch worship: supersize me!

Earlier in the year I posted this piece about a visit to Hillsong. I’m reposting it here, since the Pentecostal theologian Shane Clifton has written a response which I’ll be posting tomorrow.

Recently, out of curiosity, I went along to a service at a famous Sydney megachurch. It was quite an experience. They had it all: the hustle and bustle of important people; the man with a torch and walkie-talkie who met us at the door and briskly ushered us to our seats; the dimly lit auditorium with its brightly coloured stage; the use of words like “vision” and “awesome”; the advertising segments (last week’s sermon was available on DVD for only $14.95); the slick businessmen with their Rolexes and their glamorous wives; the exuberant music performed by handsome musicians and voluptuous singers (I confessed to my wife that I had committed adultery in my heart all the way through “All I Need Is You”); the give-your-life-to-Jesus altar call; and throughout all this, the ubiquity of what Peter Berger has called “the Protestant smile.”

There were no limits to the professionalism of this worship service. There was even a bit of product placement: the lobby was adorned with a lovely suite of iMacs; and the sermon was delivered from behind a lectern with an open MacBook on top, its illuminated Apple icon gleaming at the cameras. (It was like watching BBC television – I was waiting for someone to arrive at any moment in a shining new Audi.)

As for the preaching, it was motivating and highly inspirational: the sermon’s title (sorry, I’m not kidding) was “Ten Kinds of People That God Can’t Help.” The main idea was that you should “invest” your time in positive happy friends, instead of making bad investments in friendships with hopeless, unhappy people: “Why are you trying to help people like that when even God can’t help them?” The sermon’s best one-liner: “The Bible isn’t a book about God’s love for man; it’s a book about man’s love for God.”

But for me, the most interesting aspect of the service was the dominance of the screen. Every moment of the service, from start to finish, was broadcast on to huge screens around the auditorium. When the pastor spoke, he would address one of the many cameras. When the worship-leader spoke to the congregation, he would speak into the camera. Even the heartfelt altar call at the end of the service was addressed to the camera. During the worship songs, the screens would be filled with the faces of those gorgeously happy singers and musicians; then a camera would pan across the crowd of raised hands before cutting back to a shot of the worship-leader’s face, full of adoration and passionate sincerity.

What made this so interesting was that the songs’ lyrics were also superimposed over these images; so if you wanted to join in singing, you had no choice but to turn your face away from the altar (if there had been an altar), away from the congregation, even away from the flesh-and-blood performers on stage. In short, participation in worship was possible only through the mediation of the screen. The entire worship service was orchestrated primarily as an event of the screen, so that one could take part only by turning towards the screen and participating in its projected images of worship.

The Protestant reformers used to complain that the Roman Catholic priest was “doing worship” for the whole congregation, standing in their place and performing everything on their behalf – and a similar complaint is often made about today’s Pentecostal megachurches. But I think the function of the screen raises a much more interesting problem: not merely that the congregation is worshipping vicariously through the onstage performers, but that the entire worship event is actually taking place onscreen.

At this morning’s service, even the worship leader himself was not a direct participant in the worship event – the real worshipping subject was his onscreen image. The flesh-and-blood performer participates in this worship only indirectly, through a vicarious participation in his own projected image – a larger-than-life image which becomes the bearer of transcendence. Similarly, the congregation is involved in worship only vicariously, through the mediation of the screen. This is an instance in which the screen comes to possess more ontological depth than the flesh-and-blood world itself; the projected image becomes “more real” than reality.

Visitors to Manhattan are often struck by the uncanny familiarity of their surroundings: the city has been so frequently and so meticulously presented onscreen that the “real” physical environment seems a remarkable copy of the much-more-real world of the screen. “Oh look,” tourists exclaim: “It’s just like in The Godfather!”

In the same way, towards the end of the church service I glanced down from the vast screen, and for a moment I glimpsed the flesh-and-blood pastor speaking passionately into the camera. It was strange to see the man standing there like this: a miniature version – touchingly flimsy and remote and insubstantial – of the real preacher whom I’d been watching on the screen. I felt embarrassed to have seen him like this – like the embarrassment of visitors at a hospital, who don’t know where to look – so I quickly averted my eyes, and returned my gaze to the big reassuring smile on the screen high above.

For more on contemporary worship, see also The Pornographer’s Dream.

24 Comments:

myleswerntz said...

I like the part comparing pre-Reformation Catholicism to the 'gaze' of the technoservice here.

Also, re: the description of Scripture in the service here. I love it when evangelicals talk like liberals when trying just to be emotive. And by 'love it', I mean it makes me want to cry.

insidium said...

Hi Ben,

I think your concerns about Megachurches are justified in various ways - but I would also argue the opposite. That there is a greater interactivity in some ways than any other forms of worship. I often attend services on a Sunday at Christian City Church. I was extremely skeptical and held all my understanding, or intellectual self-righteousness as a music critic and humanities and social science student above humbling myself in worship to God, and would judge those around me. It was in this environment that my relationship with God grew, and the pentecostal focus on the Holy Spirit as a dynamic and very real person of God that is still working today is something needed throughout both protestant and catholic churches (or at least the ones I went to where I very rarely encountered God).

Some often laugh at the fact I say that I experienced God at a megachurch or discount the idea all together. Others view megachurches as a kind of psychological cult with God-words flickering around with little substance behind them. However, I think it's far more complex, and there are many people there who go wrongly to consume the music, images, and the self-help psychology, but there are other faithful Christians who genuinely worship the one living triune God, and when they reach out in a form of worship that is often abject to the rational Western mind, they are communing with God, worshipping God and the Holy Spirit is present and working powerfully. I often think of a young Kind David running through the fields worshipping God.

I often close my eyes for most of the service and worship God only, it's never about which singer is the best or the screen, or the multimedia. Whilst I may disagree with some theology from pastors which lean principally toward a conservative evangelical side of things, or overly emphasise the prosperity gospel, most of it is centred in the right place. I find it's a very difficult issue considering I've experienced all sorts in these churches, and there is life and revival there that the rest of the Body of Christ often lacks, but also a form of crude commercialism that can accompany it or the worship of mammon above God. I think all churches are susceptible to different forms of sin. I often wish we could just mash all the denominations together, and I yearn for the day Christ returns. I also experienced the Baptism of the Holy Spirit there and have seen things in the spirit etc. Most of my theology would be centred around the Uniting Church, and would hold a natural skepticism to CCC yet the intimacy I feel with God is often greatest at CCC with my family, and when worship is about the opening of heart, as opposed to the allignment of an ever fallible mind.

Have a look at a service:
http://www.myc3church.net/

I share your concerns, but for someone who has spent time at these churches with family, and the very person who evangelised me, I think there is another side very much worth considering. I had the revelation of Christ we were talking about at the School of Discipleship in your christology elective from CCC.

God Bless.
David.

Andrew said...

I have always wondered if someone "ugly" gets to lead worship.

exsultate said...

Ben,
I note that Mark Driscoll is looking to take his face global on the big screen of neo-Calvinism. Seems like there's something in megachurch culture, as Mars Hill and Hillsong usually don't inhabit the same space.
http://thatgreatcity.wordpress.com/2009/04/27/mars-hill-global-plans/

Ben Myers said...

Thanks for that link: "a multi-site campus model, so local churches set up a screen and Mark Driscoll preaches 40 times a year". What a terrifying prospect. It might be time to revive some good old-fashioned Calvinist iconoclasm: break into the churches and topple their gigantic screens...

ideola said...

The sermon’s best one-liner: “The Bible isn’t a book about God’s love for man; it’s a book about man’s love for God.”

Please tell me this was a tongue-in-cheek comment!

Beth said...

My problem with megachurches is not so much the elements of the "liturgy" that you point out, but rather, that the people who attend such churches seem, at least to me, to be mainly attracted by the vibrant, technological worship, the full-service daycare, and especially, the large and very active singles programs. I get concerned when a church has to "market" itself to congregants. The church is not meant to be a voluntary association of like-minded individuals, but rather, a body of diverse individuals who have been called by Christ.

I grew up in the south-eastern part of the United States and I found that people attended megachurches regularly while the church still had something to offer them, like a singles' program or a great child care program. But these people tended to stop going to church when it no longer suited their needs, like after they had found a partner or spouse or the kids had grown up and moved out.

My husband and I attend a small Church of Christ which appeals mainly to young, middle class and graduate student-type folks. There are some people with kids there, but because the church is so small, a full-blown childcare program and complete children ministry is not remotely feasible (it would take half our normal Sunday congregants to provide such a service). As a result, people with kids rarely stay at the church, choosing instead to attend a church with a much better children ministry program that can cater to all of their kids' needs and interests. But I get concerned that this just teaches the kids to see church as a voluntary association that is there to provide a service, not a calling and definitely not a duty to participate in. And consequently, our congregation continues to grow more homogeneous in age and ability as all the families flock elsewhere.

Liz said...

I am glad that Jesus didn't only invest in 'positive, happy' people. Think of all the hopeless, unhappy people that he helped. And for that matter, in the temple, Jesus praised the tax collector who was 'unhappy' about his sinful nature. And he criticised the Pharisee, who was 'happy' that he was not like other sinners.

Dan said...

I visited a fairly hyped up church in San Francisco once and it was just like this, only a little smaller. The saddest part was that this church was somewhere around 3 blocks from the SOMA district where homeless and homosexuals abounded and yet didn't seem concerned about it. On top of that, one of the worship songs was a (slightly) retooled Goo Goo Dolls song!

Ugh. Church is not supposed to be like that!

David said...

What you say reminds me of my own experience at Spring Harvest (in Minehead, Somerset) earlier this year. The worship seemed to consist of singing at the large face of the handsome man on the screen (I also wondered what effect on the "worship" it would have had if he had been ugly), and because the words were projected onto his face it was impossible to sing without singing to him.
I've also been to churches where they continually tell you to hang out with positive people; which is hard to do if you are naturally quite negative, because all of the positive people then start avoiding you - which consolidates your negativity.
Ironically such churches tend to be very disparaging about more traditional church services - their rituals, liturgy, set prayers, etc - without being able to see their own services as massively choreographed events designed to render the average Christian wholly passive (in a hyper-active, excitable kind of way).
Here is a link though, if anyone is interested, to a recent interview with a British author (one of my favourites) discussing his latest book, which is a parody of the kind of churchmanship-technique the charismatic movement allows to thrive:
http://player26.narrowstep.tv/nsp.aspx?player=Premier2&void=295294

Derek said...

1st, let me say that i agree with the dangers of megachurches (marketing, slick production, etc) that have been mentioned. But let me play a little devil's advocate a bit:

While your critiques are often valid, there is a lot more to mc's than just slick production. Megachurches are often the biggest givers in terms of issues relating to social justice. In short, they often "put their money where their mouths" are. In terms of worship, i know of few ways to better reflect a worshipful heart than to help those in need. This is just one of the many examples where i see megachurches really exemplifying discipleship.

This is not to downplay the weaknesses and idolatry that megachurches sometimes fall into, but i often grow tired of people not involved in one ruthlessly critique them while not giving a crap about people living in proverty, struggling with aids, etc etc. A speck and log issue if you ask me; one does not have to be rich to be consumed with marketing and wealth.

Gabaon said...

Ok, I haven't finished reading the whole post I just had to stop and let you know that I kept laughing out loud for almost five minutes when I read the part of your adultery-confession! : ) "Awesome!"

Erin said...

@ Beth:
You described precisely the issues confronting our church, as well. Helping form people who are not church consumers often seems at cross purposes with survival.

roger flyer said...

Beth and Erin-
As your leader, I say 'Press on' with your early adapter, reformation ideals. It's our only hope 'within', but it will hurt.
-Roger

roger flyer said...

As an aside, I personally know a once 'famous' worship leader who was dismissed from a 'christian'
record label by the A and R department with a sheepish: "Unnhhh, we have to let you go because...unhhh...you...unnnhh...aren't sexy...enough."

I am sorry to say that is a true story.

brgulker said...

It seems incredibly ironic to me to criticize the way a church uses techonology to communicate its message through an online weblog, doesn't it?

If the real pastor is the image on the screen, does that make the real Ben the blogger profile I see on the web?

Of course not.

Of all the good criticisms that can and should be raised against the megachurches (I've attended and served in them, btw), this one seems particularly weak.

For example, instead of criticizing the virtualization of worship, for example, why not criticize how much that virtualization costs?

Ben Myers said...

Thanks Brgulker, that's a fair enough comment, and I harbour no hostility towards new technologies. But I'm assuming that "church" and "blog" are two rather different sorts of social entities. (I love going to movie theatres too, but I'm still critical of churches that become like movie theatres.)

Garet Robinson said...

I serve on staff of a megachurch. It is a wonderful place to be in my opinion. (Just as a caveat it would be considered a theologically conservative, evangelical, contemporary worship church.)

I agree there is a dramatic tension with the worship and technology. Being presented with the high-end, polished worship services that happen at such campuses like this is a daunting thing for many coming out of more traditional backgrounds. Finding balance with spirituality, liturgy, and modern worship is hard. Coming from a non-liturgical background these kinds of environments are natural for me, and I enjoy them greatly. I can't imagine the difficulty for more liturgical backgrounds and mainline denominations.

Though I can appreciate the posts above there are other points to glean from these churches and we might be able to celebrate much of what goes on for Christ in them. For instance in our church we have sent over 500 people on international mission trips in the past year. We have begun local missions organizations that have grown to become independent entities reaching our city with the Gospel. On any given Sunday we can find thousands of adults, youth, and children engaged in Bible study groups that are immersing themselves in the Scriptures to discover God's rich truths. We have resources to get out and connect with those outside of Christianity in our community in many diverse ways. Some of the greatest moments of Holy Spirit led worship that I have experienced have
been in gatherings like the one you mentioned.

When I worship I don't worship the screen. Rather I know most of the songs and can enjoy expressing myself with others corporately in a way that, imho, exalts Christ and glorifies God. Being able to follow along with the pastor and his notes is also of great help.

That said there are challenges which I imagine are shared across continents. There is that tension. We can get overblown in our attempts to create a perfect worship environment but miss the point of the celebration all together. Often we push polish over substance, glamor over authenticity. We miss some of the simple things that more traditional churches enjoy. One big issue is the lack of multi-generational appeal for one service that pushes us towards multiple venues, thus splitting the church body.

For all the negatives I got to say that the upside of these large/mega churches can be great when used for the Kingdom of God. Maybe the real big point here is a difference in theology of methodology. I don't come from a liturgical background. My evangelical roots are, honestly, a bit experiential and expressive when it comes to worship.

I hope this communicates well. Thanks! I love the blog btw!

insidium said...

Great post Garet. I feel similarly and I really appreciate Ben bringing out the tensions in the body of Christ interdenominationally. The thing that I hold onto is that I am justified by faith, not by what church I plant myself in, and that I am being led by the Spirit into life and freedom. I look to Christ as my savior and King, and the Father as the source of Love, beyond comprehension, living in the heart beyond self. That is generally all we want for each other - nthe faith to walk with God, and the power of love to subsume all division. As Pastor Phil said on the first day I went to CCC "God's love conquers the ratio of difference."

The one thing I find difficult however, is when people think pentecostalism is strange and reject it, and in some way I feel like they cut the trinity into parts maintaining the Holy Spirit as some form of abstract philosophy, not something that dwells, and fills you each day. One thing I often worry is that people use their minds as their lampstand, instead of opening their hearts to God's Spirit so Jesus can lead them, and the Father can bless and love them and bring redemption.

insidium said...

This is what I appreciate:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wywHBmapeF4

Samuel Garcia said...

The tbeology of screen seems to be astoundingly critically correct. Perhaps instead of using cameras refracting the images from the altar, maybe the worship service organizers could better settle for high grade spectacle or high end binoculars and telescopes to get a clearer and life size view of the miniatured participants - vis a vis - performers. And still much better if these magnifying products would be equipped with auto censors switch so that anything that might be mind stimulating into the physique would blur the subject. At least with a button in case the spectator so decides anyway. Or maybe to be simple is enough - never mind seeing the altar with crawling ants. Pathetic are those who cannot appreciate good things in life.

Scott Haile said...

Building on Samuel's comment: if you could have basically the equivalent experience through virtual reality goggles, that's not church. You might learn something, you might worship God in your heart, but it's not church.

Scott Haile said...

I'm Beth's husband (a comment a little above), so I'd also like to build on what she said. Successful, talented families get that way by planning ahead and always giving their children every advantage––teaching their kids to read at age 3 or 4, paying for SAT prep courses, etc. These kinds of families often have a lot of talents to offer, especially at a small church. They also are the kinds of families that will insist on a great Sunday school program so that their kids can have every advantage.

The irony: when they leave small churches to go somewhere that has more to offer their kids, they typically leave a church that needs their family to go to a church that doesn't.

Anonymous said...

Years ago a professor at University of Toronto, Marshall McLuhan said that "the media is the message!"

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