Wednesday, 19 August 2009

On Pentecostal worship: a response to Ben Myers

I invited Shane Clifton to write a response to yesterday’s post. Shane is a Pentecostal theologian in Sydney, doing some impressive new work in the fields of Pentecostal theology and ecclesiology. He’s author of two new books, Pentecostal Churches in Transition (Brill) and Globalization and the Mission of the Church (T&T Clark).

Ben has been gracious enough to allow me to respond to his post on megachurch worship. What follows is not a defence of the megachurch and, indeed, I would not presume to speak for the leaders and members of these assemblies. But I do have a different perspective to Ben, one that is informed not only by my study of the movement, but by my conversion at the age of 16, and 22 years in Pentecostalism thereafter. I am, therefore, a critic of the movement, but a sympathetic one – someone who, as both participant and observer, is familiar with its blind-spots and inadequacies, but who has chosen to remain connected nevertheless. Perhaps the best way for me to explain why this is so is to share some recent experiences that I have had as a curious observer of the worship of some church traditions that are not my own.

The story begins with an issue my family had in my local church which left me, for a period, homeless, and free to explore some other traditions. Having spent all our time in the one movement, this freedom sounded fun.

We visited, firstly, an evangelical congregation with a reputation for emphasising the bible and ‘meaty’ preaching (whatever that might be). The first thing we noticed in walking through the doors was the beautiful stain glass windows, an inspiring sight for a Pente used to ‘functional’ worship spaces. It was something of a surprise, when the singing started, to discover that the glorious organ went unused, to be replaced by a piano, a guitar and bunch of singers with microphones. This seemed odd in that old building and, while I really don’t want to be critical, it was very hard to concentrate on worship. I have to say it – the music was ordinary. No doubt, participants sincerely loved Jesus, the church was full, and they sang with gusto but, while they were not singing hymns, the choruses were 10 years old (some even older), and the musicians and singers disorganised and a little out of tune.

I was glad to crumple the dingy photocopied lyric sheet into my pocket and take my seat, until, that is, I discovered what it’s like to sit on one of those horrible pews. Clearly, the pew functioned as a symbol of a believer’s penitence, especially when added to a 30 minute biblical sermon by a male preacher which, while ‘meaty’, did not hold my attention. The plea of my 14-year-old son as we got into the car after the service (no one spoke to us, so we got away easily) summed up the situation, ‘Dad, please don’t make us go back to that church.’

A few weeks later we took a trip into the city to visit St Mary’s Cathedral. We decided to leave the kids with their friends this time, anticipating the likely response. Maybe we should have brought them, because the event was transcendent. The building itself was spectacular, so much so that it felt sacrilegious to speak in more than a whisper (as an aside, Pentes are often accused of a focus on money, but we having nothing like this building in this prime location in the city). The procession, the smoke, the costumes, the formalities, although unfamiliar, had us enraptured and reminded us of the ancient lineage of our faith. Surprisingly, at least for me as a Protestant, the service was full of the Scriptures. Indeed, I heard more Scripture in that Catholic Church than I had heard in a Pentecostal assembly in years. The male preacher, who stood in his dress in a pulpit at the back right of the stage, gave a brilliant sermon. Grounded in scripture, connected to contemporary local issues, and blessedly short (again, there is only so long you can sit on a pew).

I have only one complaint, and that concerns the Eucharist. It is a really alienating experience to watch people participate in communion that you know is not for you. As we left the building I said to my wife, maybe Catholicism is for us? She laughed. ‘The kids would be bored stiff,’ she noted, ‘it would be like taking them to a museum every week.’ And as I looked around the congregation, very few young people in sight, I knew, at least for our family, that she was right.

We went to other churches, enjoyed the experiences, but none felt like home to us. Finally, we went to Hillsong Macarthur, one of the three main hubs of the famous church. We were welcomed at the door, and taken by an usher to a comfortable padded seat in a theatre-like auditorium. The musicians were playing in the background, and there was a sense of excitement in the room. The service started, and even for a seasoned Pentecostal my senses were assaulted – house lights off, stage lights on, loud music, television cameras and giant screens, and more than 100 young people running to the front area of the stage dancing and jumping. The atmosphere was relentlessly positive and, as the music slowed and the hands were raised for ‘worship’, the cynic in me was reminded of the enthusiasm of a Hitler youth rally.

I soon realised, however, that the problem was mine: indeed, what right did I have to be cynical about the sincere spirituality of hundreds of passionate young people? When the worship (and the offering talk) ended, the local ‘house’ pastor introduced the preacher, Chris Hill, an African American Pentecostal who was sharing with us via a live video feed from the Baulkham Hills auditorium on the other side of the city. It seemed strange at first – this disembodied preacher – but then I decided that this was the 21st century and went along for the ride.

The sermon was spectacular. It was funny, challenging and entertaining (if not necessarily ‘meaty’), and before long I forgot that the speaker was not in the room. The video feed ended and blended seamlessly into contemporary live music. It was followed by an alter call that saw groups of people giving their heart to Jesus. The place was alive. Eventually, when after liberal doses of quality Gloria Jeans coffee we headed back to our car, my teenage boy gave me the reason why I remain in Pentecostalism. ‘Dad, that was fun. Can we go back to this church?’


Bill Kinnon said...

But seriously...

Kevin Davis said...

my teenage boy gave me the reason why I remain in Pentecostalism. ‘Dad, that was fun. Can we go back to this church?’

I'll point out the obvious: when these kids experience profound suffering and spiritual desertion, they're going to wonder where their fun God went.

Chris said...

But from a pastoral perspective, most of these kids won't even step into a church if not for the dynamic style of worship. Would you rather they spend their time elsewhere, God far away from their mind, and indulging only their own petty desires?

Besides, when profound suffering and spiritual desertion occur to these kids, that would be the ideal time to remind them: their 'fun' God is where He always was - right beside them.

And I say this as someone who hates Hillsongs music.

roger flyer said...

Give it six months and then leave...OR you will give it TEN years and then your young adult children will probably spend a few aimless years de-toxifying ...

(Note-See American singer-songwriter David Bazan.)

Brian Lugioyo said...

Oh, now I got it - Church is about what pleases me......... Huh?

Anonymous said...

I am by no means a Pente, though I am a minister in a tradition that has its own idiosyncracies and I am also based in Sydney, so I know what it is to live and work in a city where Hillsong's influence looms large. Just 2 suburbs away is a vibrant Pente church fashioned after its big brother.

Some of the responses are typical of what is said about these big churches. However, I am convinced that they are born of ignorance. So what if someone chooses a church that 'pleases them'? Surely that is in some ways a positive step, in that someone is more likely to engage in mission and ministry in a context where they are comfortable. Hillsong and their affiliates do this well. And wouldn't a desert experience be better endured in a community characterized by joy, where people actually believe that God might do something, rather than in a turgid, dry and cold environment where joy has long been gone?

A larger congregation in my 'tribe' is worried that their teenage kids can't sit through a sermon because of a move which saw Sunday School moved to run concurrently with the main service. I replied, 'it is true; it takes years of experience to learn how to sit through something that boring without falling asleep.'

The Pentes are a part of the body of christ with something unique to contribute. The repeated trashing of them from other parts does more damage than good and undermines the One-ness of the church which we claim to hold dear.

Thank you Shane for your comments. And Ben, thanks for sharing something which departs some way from your own tradition of choice.

Joanna Cruickshank said...

Thanks, Shane, for your response. (Btw, I believe we met at Duke last year, during the WTS meeting - the only two Australian accents!) Like Anthony, I'm sorry for the dismissive one-liners you are likely to receive from F&T readers. I appreciate your point, that there is no virtue in unnecessary obscurity, irrelevance and discomfort in the church service. Poor music, uncomfortable seats and lengthy sermons are not an expression of theological sophistication and the cross-shaped life, as some appear to think.
My own concerns with mega-churches have more to do with how the body of Christ is lived out in this context. It seems to me extremely difficult to form meaningful relationships, welcome the poor and marginalised and confront our shared brokenness in a context where so much emphasis is on looking good. The sermons/songs might say that Jesus loves you if you are poor or ugly or weak.. but what it seems to me that what is celebrated is youth and beauty and power. I'd appreciate any thoughts you have on this.

Dale Campbell said...

"It seems to me extremely difficult to form meaningful relationships, welcome the poor and marginalised and confront our shared brokenness in a context where so much emphasis is on looking good. The sermons/songs might say that Jesus loves you if you are poor or ugly or weak.. but what it seems to me that what is celebrated is youth and beauty and power. I'd appreciate any thoughts you have on this."
Best comment/question.
That is all :)

Steve Wright said...

Shane, I hadn't realised that your dissertation had been published. Congrats.

I was pleased to find that you were doing a response to Ben on this, however what you have written is not quite what I was expecting. I suppose that there is sense in responding to one experience with another and leaving the judgement in the hands of the readers. I suspect that you are slightly more defensive of the mega-church experience in this forum than you would be in person. However, what I was expecting from you was something a bit more reflective on justifying some of these practices as liturgically appropriate rather than suggesting that if we 'go along with it' these services aren't that bad.

I think that Joanna's question is excellent and deserves consideration. I would love to hear your response to it considering your observation that the atmosphere was 'relentlessly positive.'


Pete said...

To the extent that we do hold dear the One-ness of Christ, debates like these are heart breaking. The terms have been set by the very logic of division that keeps us apart—a binary (and thus bifurcating) mode of reasoning, slave to the law of excluded middle. Under such rule, we cannot help but continue to talk past each other, which means the tendency toward fragmentation will continue. It is easy to see “comfort,” “entertainment,” and “fun” being used as standards of judgment and then launch a critique of the highly problematic (though no less popular) rise of “christotainment” in modernity. The misguided nature of this caricature is plain enough. (One only need imagine what sense these standards would make in relation to the dialogue between Jesus and Peter at the end of John to see their vacuity). Yet the response is, of course, the critique misses the point—“we’ve got joy, the newness of life, and sincere belief. That’s what Christianity is really about, not the dry strictures of an outdated tradition that no longer speaks to the world.” Tradition is thus represented as a foil—it lacks joy, newness of life, and sincere belief (e.g. it is “boring,” “stuffy,” and about “going through the motions”). The response is, of course, analogous—the critique doesn’t understand tradition. We’ve got depth, substance, and a sense of history. If you actually want to know what Christianity is about, doesn’t it make sense to rely on 2000 years of collected reflection and refinement?

And thus, two ships pass in the night (fog horns blaring in the wrong direction). My fear is that both have lost sight of the skopos and are headed in the wrong direction…

Emphasizing affections like sincerity quickly leads to the position in which it no longer matters what you believe so long as you do it with all your heart, (which ironically makes faith into a kind of work). We can observe this most clearly in the peculiar modern phenomenon of “church shopping” or “exploring other traditions”(go ahead, look around, find one that “fits” you). The expectation seems to be that Christ should come packaged to fit our shape and size (everybody gets their own personal savior!) instead of allowing ourselves to be shaped and measured by Christ.

Even if this slope to consumerism is not so slippery as I've made it out to be, "sincerity" is still a dangerous footing. The fact is, I’m not sincere. Indeed, I can’t be, which is precisely why I go to church—I have not loved God with my whole heart, I will the thing I do not want, and so I ask “help me with my unbelief” only to find that I do not know how to pray as I ought. I go because I’m ever reminded of how much I need Christ, who came down from heaven and took the form of a servant—not in order to fit me, but to fix me. I go to give thanks (eucharistia).

Don’t get me wrong, tradition is no less problematic when it becomes an end instead of a means. We “defenders of tradition” oftentimes think of tradition as if it were a thing we could defend—i.e. as an object set apart from us. Thus we forget that tradition is something we are in—it is a lens through which we view things, not a thing at which to look. We who are tempted to reactionary conservativism should remember Peter, whose own temptation to such “pharisaism” had to be corrected by Paul—(who, unlike Peter, was actually a Pharisee).

What does it even mean to defend tradition when the question “which tradition?” is not nonsensical. The life giving stream which flows from the rock of Christ has now broken into so many separate channels that all seem shallow when traced back to the source.

Should we not then join in Lindbeck's lament that the eucharist tastes bitter in a divided church?

I go to church now and find a broken body.

The mystery: I’m told to take it. It is for me. I “do this” and then “go forth.” And in the saying of amen, I remember, the broken body is also me.

Chris Tilling said...

Good for you, Shane.

It is sometimes trendy for 'academically' orientated Christians to pick on Pentecostal worship, but it remains a legitimate expression of Christian faith, a vibrant, lively and, dare I say, an important one with many positives, such as a real place for Spirit inspired passion and freedom of expression (of course it is not without drawbacks, like any other tradition – sometimes specifically in the crucial realm of the sacraments). Yet critique of Pentecostal worship by some Christians often stinks of arrogance, immaturity, ignorance and snobbery. You, sir, are thus a good example to us all.

Chris Tilling said...

Hi Joanna, I know you are not looking for a response for me, just wanted to reflect on one of your points:

"My own concerns with mega-churches have more to do with how the body of Christ is lived out in this context. It seems to me extremely difficult to form meaningful relationships, welcome the poor and marginalised and confront our shared brokenness in a context where so much emphasis is on looking good. The sermons/songs might say that Jesus loves you if you are poor or ugly or weak.. but what it seems to me that what is celebrated is youth and beauty and power. I'd appreciate any thoughts you have on this."

This is a terrifically important matter, but I do not think that Pentecostal style or mega church worship is the cause. My own church, Holy Trinity Brompton, manages foster good a community sense, and to do amazing social transformation work, walking with the poor, the homeless, the drug addicted, sex abused etc., more than anywhere I have seen actually. Yet most of its services are similar, if not identical, to the sort of Mega church worship many of us know.

The answer, in other words, is my experience that Pent. worship often encourages commitment to foster community and a healing presence in a community.

Of course, planty of Pent. type Mega churches do not, but then neither do many churches from other traditions.

Your point gets to the heart of a crucial matter.

Anonymous said...

Carrying on from Pete: the body is broken and I participate in this.

One of the means of living with this brokenness is the opportunity to live in a church community where meaningful relationships develop and we have the opportunity to contribute our gifts to others and receive likewise, in both cases making good our lack.

It does seem odd that a mega-church should be termed Pentecostal, given the - perhaps old school - emphasis of that movement on the gifts of the Spirit.

Don't we all need to be in church where we can have meaningful relationships as the body of Christ? Is this even possible in a mega-church? Perhaps it is with the mega-organization of small groups, but this doesn't seem to be what we're talking about.

chris e said...

My first reaction was that of Bill's - I assumed this was a parody along the lines of 'pragmatic' reasoning for why this sort of church was best.

Shane Clifton said...

Well, i guess i should respond, although it is hard to know where to begin. Let me, however, make a few comments:

1. I decided to post an experiential rather than theological response because that was the nature of Ben's original post. So, this was not "pragmatic" reasoning so much as the simple telling of my story - do with it what you will.

2. There is often a presumption that large numbers prevent community (a few comments above suggest this). Such assertions, however, are simply not backed up by research into large churches. Indeed, the National Church Life Survey conducted accross denominations in Australia found that "feelings of belong" were stronger in Pentecostal churches (including mega-churches) then in many other movements. These feelings are communal - and arise because mega-churches are more than just the sunday show. They are also constituted by small groups, youth groups, volunteer ministry - the list is endless; and all these things facilitate real community. Of course, it is very easy to turn up on Sunday and disapear in a crowd. But my experience of visiting small churches found that this was easy anywhere.

3. I agree with the speakers who are concerned that we are critiquing each other and thereby working against the unifying power of the Spirit. Before sending Ben this post - i actually said i was worried i was being mean spirited to other churches. For this, i wholeheartedly repent. My point was to describe my experience, but i should have done so without any implied attack on movements of which i am not apart.

4. It may be that I sound overly defensive of the mega-church. That may be so - and in my formal engagement with the movement I am not uncritical. But i have to confess to a certain tiredness at the relentless attacks on Hillsong and similar chuches - most of which do the faithful leaders and congregations an injustice. This is not a criticism of Ben (who himself has long experience with PC communities), but simply to note that i don't want to continue the practice.

Enough said - and bring on the criticism (of me - not Hillsong!)

Joanna Cruickshank said...

Thanks, Chris (Tilling) - that's really interesting to hear. Shane, my point was a genuine question, not a criticism in disguise - I am interested in a conversation about this! My point is not about a sense of belonging per se, but about the specific issues of forming a community in which the excluded and 'uncool' are welcomed and valued. How is this done in a church which on face value places such a high value on appearance and 'cool'? My own struggle with such churches as an adolescent was that I felt really uncool - because I was!

Chris, I would be keen to hear about your (quite famous!) church - are those homeless, drug addicted etc people seen among those at the front - are they recognised as those who minister? Ie. are they 'us'? Or are they the people that 'we' (ie. the hip, well-dressed people at the front) minister to? How is the 'walking with' the poor seen in the services and structures of the church?

Shane Clifton said...

Joanna - The issue of cool and uncool is a really important one. I think many people who originally felt uncool would say that they were welcomed into communities such as Hillsong and made to feel cool. Indeed, I don't think that such churches are actually made of people whom society would normally describe as cool (in fact - to belong to Hillsong in Sydney is becoming decidely uncool - at least on popular radio). So, when i look around the Hillsong church, I see people that are overweight, bald, weird (especially when i am present) - and who for in that place experience a real sense of being valued and included.

Of course, this will not be everyone's experience. And I am sure that "image" may be given too much attention at times. But i don't think that is primary story.

Let me know if that starts to answer your question!

Ben Myers said...

Shane, many thanks for your additional comments.

And I was very glad that one commenter made this observation: "It does seem odd that a mega-church should be termed Pentecostal, given — perhaps old school — emphasis of that movement on the gifts of the Spirit." That's an important point. My own criticism of mega-church worship could really be summed up by saying that these churches have perhaps ceased to be Pentecostal.

I was raised Pentecostal myself, and over the years I was able to witness a similar trajectory within a number of congregations: from revivalist piety, gifts of the Spirit, and proclamation of the "fourfold gospel" (with a strong emphasis on the poor and marginalised) — to happiness, professionalism, and the absolute dominance of the worship team (with a strong emphasis on successful middle-class values).

I personally think the Pentecostal movement is vital and indispensable. I'm just not sure whether Hillsong (for example) represents a legitimate development within Pentecostalism, or rather the complete effacement of everything that made Pentecostal faith and practice so important.

I've actually asked another friend to write a post on this topic: considered both historically and theologically, I think it's worth raising the question whether megachurches like Hillsong can still meaningfully be described as "Pentecostal".

(This isn't meant as an attack on Shane's post, just as a general observation about a major theological "drift" within recent Pentecostalism.)

Wayne Cox said...

I'm interested in the conversation Joanna is initiating. Key questions and issues there ...

My friend JD Walt recently wrote: "worship requires a move from patron-client relationships with the poor to mutuality and friendship." And my experience in the mega-church atmosphere (Pente or not) is this: at it best, when the marginalized are mentioned, it is within a "patron-client" mindset.

How can we move, in such a church context, to mutuality among the poor/uncool/marginalized and the superstars on screen?

Matt Wilson said...

Its interesting really that this once really a responce to the previous post but simply a justification of the choice to attend the pre-amentioned church.
Storys are import but so are idea's there are plenty if not as many story's as to why people don't attend hillsong or have left as to why people are there.
So many of the idea's behind the mega church structure and particular megachurch practice and teaching that are not just non-biblical but anti-biblical, unhealthy and dangerous. This post answers or responds to none of them.
This responce really just proves the point - if entertainment is more important than content or even a genuine representation of christian teaching/devotion/worship/faith/discipleship then why not just go the whole Hog and take the family to Disney Land, the Big day out or just buy a huge home entertainment system lot's of DVDs and a PS3 and have "church" at home - At least then your not gonna sound like an idiot if your talking about "the HOUSE" all the time

Anonymous said...

This response to Ben's post seems misguided to me. The original post focused on a peculiar form of disembodied phenomenal consciousness, in which the digitized image of worship takes precedence over awareness of the embodied person with whom one is gathered for worship.

This disembodied phenomenal consciousness is present in many parts of the digital culture. One obvious question is what the people whose savior is the incarnate divinity either should respond to the digital culture, or whether they are able to respond to the digital culture anyway but adopting it.

The response distracts from the central point of the original post, which points out a central problem for 21st century christianity, what to make of a faith based in an incarnate savior in a culture that presses us to avoid our bodiliness.


Shane Clifton said...

Ben, the question of defining pentecostalism is a fascinating one - and as a pentecostal scholar, i can only say it is inordinately complex. The very nature of a spiritual grass roots yet global movement such as it is is radically diverse. It can't really be limited by ecclesiology (pentecostal churches come in all sorts of forms), by theology (what theology!!! from fundamentalist to quite liberal), by music (not all pentecostal churches play Hillsongs!!!), or even by a style of Spirituality or liturgy that an obvserver can easily pin down.

Some try to define the movement by a set of ideals located in the original revival - but such definitions lock the movement to a previous century (and the pentecostalism of 100 years ago might look romantic - but was not without substantial problems).

One might be able to take a historical definition (which would include the mega-churches that have arisen from traditional pente denominations) - but that seems inadequate. I think, however, that pentecostal communities recognise one another - there is something of a shared experience of the Spirit (including tongues) - even if that is not obvious to the external observer. And most pentecostal churches themselves recognise Hillsong amongst their number. If the global movement is given the right to define itself - then it has generally embraced Hillsong as part of the fold. Whether this means that Pentecostalism globally is becoming less pentecostal may be another question. But since one element of pentecostalism is openess to change - i think the argument is difficult to sustain.

Maybe the label itself will become less meaningful in the twenty first century - and in the long run i suspect that will be so (in the same way that denominational labels are becoming less and less important). Anyway - it is late in Aus and I am not sure i am making sense - and i look forward to reading your friends post.

chris e said...

The problem - both in your original post, and the reply to Ben above - is the underlying assumption is that the subjective experience is king.

This is implicit throughout your posts, but most obviously in:

"but that seems inadequate. I think, however, that pentecostal communities recognise one another - there is something of a shared experience of the Spirit (including tongues) - even if that is not obvious to the external observer."

The problem is that someone who grows to appreciate church because of the entertainment it provides can very quickly get disenchanted with in in a variety of ways. The most common is the realisation that the entertainment provided by the church is a shallow and rather twee copy of that available in the world. Alternatively, one goes through a time of hardship and the necessarily abbreviated and rather slick messages of 'fare thee well' don't actually scratch the itch any longer. Observe the top end of the youth group in this sort of church and you'll see exactly these sorts of processes kicking in.

The answer to dead orthodoxy is never mass produced emotionalism.

kim fabricius said...

Commenting on a person's worship preferences and practices is rather like commenting on their sex lives - it feels impertinent, solecistic, embarrassing. Nevertheless, with apologies, and blushing slightly, I will (a) make an observation about Shane's story, and then (b) add an observation about the observation by citing Douglas Knight.

(a) After an "issue" in his local church - and what that issue was might actually be extremely relevant to the discussion - Shane went church-shopping, and the bottom line of the final product-choice was what the kids thought about it - they clearly had a veto as to where the family would worship (they couldn't be bored or uncomfortable, the experience had to be fun, instantaneously fun (so no concessions to learning the grammar of worship).

(b) And here is Doug Knight: "It is one of the most deeply rooted superstitions of our age that the purpose of education is to benefit those who receive it. What we teach in school, what subjects we encourage in universities and the methods of instruction are all subject to one overarching test: what do the kids get out of it. And this test soon gives way to another, yet more pernicious in its effect, but no less persuasive in the thinking of educationists: is it relevant? And by 'relevant' is invariably meant 'relevant to the interests of the kids themselves'."

Substitute "worship" for "education" and you have one of my major concerns here: it's not just the turn to the subject, it's the turn to the adolescent as the arbiter of all and everything.

Chris Tilling said...

Hi Joanna,
I think there are two great questions here:

"are those homeless, drug addicted etc people seen among those at the front - are they recognised as those who minister? Ie. are they 'us'? Or are they the people that 'we' (ie. the hip, well-dressed people at the front) minister to?"

Some are ministers, some quite prominent. Though there is a trend amongst others which holds to a classical "one-anointed-man-of-God-who-ministers-to-the-rest" approach, though this is not found amongst the main leaders.

The second:

"How is the 'walking with' the poor seen in the services and structures of the church?"

Well, there are different ministries, and I have not plumbed them all yet. It is taken as a major emphasis in teaching, prayer and the mid week open church. That all happens, though, mostly within a more classical "lively worship - contemporary teaching - ministry with laying on of hands waiting on Spirit" model. Has my description made sense? I ought to add, I am not trying to defend all that goes on!

Warmest blessings,

Erin said...

A sincere post and a great discussion, thanks.
A quick question - Hillsong is identified as Pentecostal, but the post series was about megachurches- are all the big churches in Oz pentecostal or have I missed something? Out here in California, all the biggest churches are "evangelical" in a generic sense (many if not most are now independent?).

roger flyer said...

Ha Ha Erin. Oz. Australia is Oz. Good one.
In the Midwest US, most of the megachurches (over 10,000 people) are 'evangelical' after Willow Creek, but there are a few mega-Lutheran (Charismatic) churches.

chris e said...

"Substitute "worship" for "education" and you have one of my major concerns here: it's not just the turn to the subject, it's the turn to the adolescent as the arbiter of all and everything."

As a followup - a Mike Horton quote, "Some of the most important things in your life, are developed over long periods of time, during most of which you are bored".

Brad East said...

Kim and Chris, I think, have hit the nail on the head. Granting that the story is a sharing of an experience, it seems like an honest example of a significantly wider phenomenon -- "family" is to "church" as "student" is to "school": what it is about, what it exists for, its primary audience, its central subject. And "family" usually entails or implies "the children veto," and thus values like "uplifting," "engaging," "fun," etc.

Again, this is an enormous phenomenon all over the West, and possibly the world (or just "Oz"?); no knock on Shane. The point being, as members of Christian families and leaders in the church, is this the right formula? If not, what are alternative criteria for belonging to a local church body?

All the same, thanks to Shane for opening up in a truly vulnerable environment. There's nothing quite like academics freed for the frenzy by the anonymity granted by the internet, and it can be a frightful dive into these waters (however theological!). I know I appreciate it.

Ben Johnson said...


The question of how to define things is especially of interest to me. You've mentioned many of the problems of definition that I dealt with in a class where we spent several hours trying to define what 'evangelicalism' is, particularly in America.

The only kind of answer I've come up with that helps towards definition is related to self-recognition. For instance, I could go to a church and determine by the end or not if it's truly evangelical (or, in my experience, Pentecostal, because I've had a lot of experience in those churches as well).

As for how this happens, what seems to me to be the primary connection is linguistic. Language above all is what defines people, because it forms and is informed constantly by the lived community. So there will be words and phrases shared by all within that community that are understood fully and in the same way only because there are shared experiences with the same people.

For example, at least in America, when I go to a service that has extemporaneous prayer, I would begin to feel a little more like I was at an evangelical church. Then if the prayer began with, "heavenly Father," I would feel more secure about that judgment, then if they often used the word, "just," a lot (Lord, we just ask you to do this or that...), if it included self-recognition of the one praying's personal sins I would feel even stronger, and so on.

Anyhow, these have just been my thoughts when trying mostly unsuccessfully to define one of many groups that I've been a part of (another issue there: can an outsider define a group when he or she has not lived with them enough to know their language).

As to the end of labels, I highly doubt that will happen. I really know hardly anything about linguistics, but the need for generalized terms for defining and grouping people seems part of the nature of human language.

I'm interested in you or anyone's responses about this issue.

Mike L. said...

I was in a pentecostal/charismatic church for nearly 10 years. I did it for some of the same aesthetic cultural reasons even though I had reservations. But now that I have a small child, I would not want them near one of those places.

It may be a reasonable "sacrifice" to keep your kids happy now, but wait until they are taught to feel guilty if they don't pretend to speak in tongues or faint. Wait until they are given psychological damage by relating their normal adolescent sexual desires with demonic possession. Wait until they are taught that the holy spirit is what you call that motivating feeling that most sane people call "peer pressure".

Anonymous said...

Well, I also agree with Kim, Chris, and also with this last rather radical post by Mike L.
There are a plethora of articles discussing the shift to a child-centric culture that is not a good thing. We have shifted from parents knowing what is good for a child and following through on that to parents giving in to the demands of their children in every aspect of their lives.
I think marketing is a silent evil in all of this, from marketing of products and services on TV and everywhere else which leads to the demanding children, to marketing of worship forms.
Honestly, if a 9-year-old is asked if they want to go to a fun church or one where they will find God (No, I'm not saying they won't also find God at a "fun" church), the child will probably say the fun church, because of the image of God they probably have gotten from culture overall. Too bad the child didn't get to go to the second church.
And I have to say I have also seen first hand what Mike L. talks about. There's a great deal of cult behaviour going on in those services that the people are not aware of. Many people can deal with it and not be damaged, but others cannot. And I don't see much theology that supports God is manipulative.

Joanna Cruickshank said...

Thanks, Shane and Chris T, for your responses - which I do think are very helpful in evaluating the actual (as opposed to theoretical!) consequences of 'doing' church in this way. And overall, I find your experiences encouraging!

On a broader note, it seems to me that this discussion has struggled to distinguish very clearly between a number of issues related to the mega-church phenomenon. One is Pentecostal theology in general, a second is the theology of Hillsong, a third is the simple issue of size in churches, a fourth is the specific 'style' associated with Hillsong - a particular emphasis on slick production and appearance.

Luke said...

The church in the West is in massive decline, and one of the reasons is because churches have failed to connect to the young (the average age of congregations in many movements in Australia is well over 50 - while the average age of the population is 25).

So, to critique shane for taking seriously what his kids thought of the church seems not only unreasonable (i think most parents would include their kids in these sort of decision), but is perhaps evidence of one of the issues facing churches. We just merily go along doing what we have always done (hoping against hope our kids will learn the grammar of our worship)- celebrating our increasing insignificance - maybe even justifying ourselves precisely because we are ignored and isolated.

dyl said...

Oh to read Saint Paul's Letter to the Hillsongians.

Anonymous said...

Children need their parent's guidance and wisdon, which they don't yet have. It's fine to take into consideration what a child thinks, but not to be controlled by it. I see ads on TV where parents are portrayed as choosing what car to pick based upon a child's experience of the car. A bad plan for cars or for worship services.
Yet, this does not sufficiently address the issue of church being boring to teens and what to do about it. My reaction is rather pentecostal in the most true sense, in that the church needs to teach how to connect with God, not how to appear holy, or favored, or gifted, or special, or whatever, but how to connect with God. I'm not sure any denomination teaches that very well.

Ben Myers said...

In response to some comments by Kim and others, I feel I should add a quick word here in Shane's defence. I know a little bit about the reasons why he was looking for a new church, and I honestly think it's completely inadequate to describe these circumstances as mere "church shopping". There are various reasons why people might need to leave a congregation — some of them quite painful and difficult.

If anything, perhaps Shane's post describes a temptation to "church shop" — but the notable thing is that he didn't do this, he didn't abandon his church tradition for something better. That's one thing I appreciated about his narrative: the brief encounter with other traditions simply reminds him that he is, after all, "stuck" with his own tradition, for better or worse.

And this isn't because Shane is naive about the problems with megachurches: in fact, he probably understands these problems better than any of us (and there's a whole section on this in his new book).

Brad East said...

This may be a helpful time -- though not necessarily the right one -- to ask what exactly constitutes a "megachurch." I've attended a church whose membership was between one and two thousand persons, but little to nothing about it fit the sort of descriptions people use generally to describe a megachurch. So what, exactly, are we talking about to begin with?

roger flyer said...

In the Midwest US, 8-10,000 is the figure generally bandied about...

In Minnesota where I live, we have at least a half dozen of these...most of them Baptist or Lutheran.

Here are some things that seem to be common in these churches...

1/The powerful ideology, personality and 'charisma' of the 'senior' leader; often so revered that his (rarely her) sermons are recorded and sold...books marketed in the bookstore.
2/ A uniting ideology, usually evangelical (we'd like to get you in here because we are awesome!...)
3/ Practical applications of 'spiritual' life to 'real life' problems through sermonic soundbites
4/ Professional audio and video.
5/ Professional 'worship' teams with various forms of contemporary pop-rock ensembles.

Anonymous said...

‘Spectacle is capital accumulated until it forms an image.’ Debord

May I offer something from an old ‘Out of step Jew?’ A reference from Rabbi R. Singer quoting Meir Twersky who interprets his grandfather R. Soloveitchik's interpretation of the words of Psalm 130: "Out of the depths I call you O Lord" – words that are said before the Shacharit (morning) service until Yom Kippur. He writes: "Desiring and emphasizing active participation and leadership (in prayer services) are antithetical to authentic service of the heart, which expresses the sentiment of 'from the depths.' " True enough – go to any Orthodox synagogue today in Israel and in the diaspora and we see a lot of 'showboat davening', shuckling and screaming of Amen but very little modesty. We see insulted congregants who were not asked to be Shaliach Tzibbur (cantor) on Rosh Hashanah. But – lets measure the skirts and the sleeves, let's bow during the Amidah in the exact method that God will truly appreciate (and let's make sure everyone sees us do it), Does the worship of technique hinder the attainment of Torah or Halakhic values? Does it hinder our quest for a living a life of kedusha? There is no doubt in my mind that it does. That is not to say that we are not to perform mitzvot "k'hichata" (according to their strictures) but there is a qualitative difference between the learning of the halacha and its performance. The example of the obsession with the tzniut of women's clothing shows how we have bastardized a supreme value of how to live our lives by measuring and moralizing in the wrong places. We have, in the words of Jacques Ellul transferred "the sense of the sacred … to technique itself.” Let me just add some of the chapter titles from Debord’s “Society and Spectacle” they seem to caption some of the great posts so far: 1. Separation perfected. 2. Commodity v.s. spectacle. 3. Unity and division within appearance. 5. Time and history. 6. Spectacular Time. 7. The organization of territory. 8. Negation and consumption within Culture. 9. Ideology Materialized. Anyway, on Fridays some of us had taken again to praying the ‘Stations of the Cross’ at Saint Huberts. The last time I participated since childhood was 10 yrs ago in Palermo with a dozen very old women, all in black, whose incantations in the Sicilian dialect could scare the bejesus out of you if you weren’t raised in the tradition. Station #6, you may recall, is Veronica (true icon) wiping the face of Jesus and Christ’s image miraculously transfers to the cloth. Veronica is one of two patron saints of television (the other is Saint Claire, who miraculously appeared in two places at once). Blessings, Daniel Imburgia.

joel hunter said...

As an Underground Man in this City, my reaction is curmudgeonly and, well, reactionary, like the French toward McDonalds and Michael Bay movies. But first let me say if this is what Shane wants, bless ‘em and may he and his prosper. Others here have found lines of criticism, substantive objections, and asked insightful questions. I’d add to that lot (that is where my sympathies lie) but instead I’ll just make my little case for flat refusal. Oh, a stylish French refusal would be really entre nous and delivered nonchalantly with grace and charm. But in my heart, I’m with ol’ Fyodor’s U.M., and so will reserve the right to stick my tongue out at this here Crystal Palace. I will do penance by purchasing the boxed set of “Winds of Worship” © CTRVHM.

Anyone here read the article by Catherine Deveny about her experience visiting the megachurch Planetshakers? I’m with the atheist here: I think contemporary evangelicals (generalizing for the sake of space, so not just Pentecostals) enjoy applying and undergoing emotional manipulation, and especially when it is professionally mediated by technology. This is called “spiritual experience.” It tramples any simple, reflective, contemplative version of Christian worship and spirituality. What can this technological addiction be other than the death throes of evangelical Christianity?

Back to the French. Do they have a point in telling McD’s to piss off? I think so. They are (or at least were) trying to resist the overpowering force of the American monoculture upon the sacrament of their food. Conveniently packaged and keenly propagandized tasteless cell fuel—who would want that? Just about everybody it turns out. And so I futilely resist the steady advance of Hillsong and all her bright company, armed with the power of capital and technical networks of mass media producers, marketers, publishers, promoters, corporatized, professional clergy and staff—the whole ruddy array of ‘em—upon our little dingy church (with big dreams, BIG dreams, I tell ya).

No, we can't go quietly about our business in our backward little ways. Aggressive promises, aggressive methodology, oh! the urgency! A cry here, a clamor there, and slowly, slowly we succumb to the incessant press of utility and success. But oh, oh, the guilt; our effort is bush league and embarrassing. We’re embarrassing to Corporate (they’ve commodified the whole process for Christ’s sake, what more could we need? "Jones, get the Boofhead financial officer of those amateurs to subscribe for some technical support!"). The forces of Nature will not stand for it. The defenses will crumble, our particularities will be absorbed into the collective. And I will stare slackjawed in marvel at the phantasmagoria and be happy to forget that I am its fascinated victim.

Ben Myers said...

Joel Hunter, you are a great person. I thank you and bless you for that momentous comment.

roger flyer said...

Joel, the French stick their tongues out at everybody....

Anonymous said...

As a former Pentecostal (10 years) and evangelical (30 years), God led me to the place that (in my ignorance) I least expected to find Him, the Orthodox Church! What a difference in perspective to that of our western consumerist, entertainment-centered culture! I know enough not to equate loud, upbeat music and lots of movement, entertainment, and noise with "joy." That is something our forefathers in the faith would have recognized as a deadly distraction from the true joy found in Christ. There is more joy in the Desert Fathers and the other Fathers, Saints and Holy Elders of the Orthodox tradition than my poor shriveled, self-centered heart can contain! May God enlarge all our hearts (and those of our teenagers and children) to value something more than hype and noise, which can never fill the spiritual void in our souls. There is a rich heritage in the Orthodox Church that belongs to all who love the Lord Jesus and long to be conformed to His image--both in His suffering and in His victorious Resurrection (and you can't have one without the other). I invite all to explore it.

Sincerely, Karen

roger flyer said...

Mmmmmm Anon you spend more time in the Orthodox church you will find out how 'sacred' and unyielding the 'orthodoxy' (tradition) is. And I would be surprised if this wouldn't be a problem for a person well dipped in pentevangelicalism.

Anonymous said...

'Fun' as the reason for choosing worship? I must ask...what is the end of worship? Getting kids to school by teaching them how to bong a beer might get them to go to school, but it won't actually give them an education. When you change the end of the activity, the task of that community changes.

Anonymous said...

Fascinating conversation. Thank you, Ben for both posts. And thank you, Shane.

It seems true that all forms of worship can become shallow - whether it is dead routine or vapid entertainment.

It also seems true that all these various forms can be full of true life and spirit. The flesh means nothing, Jesus says in the lectionary this week. The spirit is life.

M.L. said...

I suppose if at any point in time a person feels their church is no longer their home, has become abducted by aliens, or is just plain full of lunatics, there's always a place to run to.

Marvin said...

I think that Shane has done us all a favor in reminding us how normal people decide to worship here as opposed to there--normal meaning, Not ministers and Not academics. He didn't select a church because of the leadership's doctrinal orthodoxy or its beautifully enacted sacramental theology or its robust yet irenic catholicity. He was made to feel at home, and he wouldn't have to drag the kids back next week kicking and screaming. Which is the way normal people often do it. It comes down to, They have a good youth adviser for my kids; or I liked the minister (whatever "liked" means), or They have a great catered fellowship dinner on Wednesdays.

Further, I can't help but think that the snarky responses or the quick move to handwringing about the pitfalls of a child centered culture mask the resentment and frustration that ministers and academics often feel when they are reminded yet again of how irrelevant their most serious thinking on important topics is to everybody else. Shane, you've betrayed the guild!

One further point: as has been mentioned earlier, Megachurch doesn't necessarily equal Pentecostal. Megachurches are increasing in all denominations. It's worth reading this Christian Century article which argues that the trend is due to something called Baumol's Cost Disease:;col1

In short, businesses cope with inflationary pressures by becoming more efficient (making widgets with robots rather than people; outsourcing, etc.) But congregations, like colleges or symphony orchestras, don't have technological solutions at hand. The only way to cope is get bigger. Which opens up a whole other can of worms, namely, that economic pressures largely determine our ecclesiology.

(ex-minister, current academic)

roger flyer said...

Good points, though we have moved to some robotics in mega-church music. (I have a friend whose primary job/ministry is programming background string and synth parts for Sunday morning worship sets at a local megchurch (attendance 20,000 every Sunday)

Anonymous said...

Maybe this boils down to whether Christianity is for children, and I think it's not, at least in the sense of what is nurturing for a child is not what adults may need to hear. "Pick up your cross and follow me" is a challenge for adults, and not for 8-year olds. Children do need a church where God is presented the father who loves you no matter what, and even then, the similarity to parents may not make a great impression.
I posit that we should FORBID children under 17 in adult worship services. Then we can have adult sermons, rather than ones which skirt around issues in terms so obscure I'm not sure whether adults miss the point as well.
And, if we forbid children to attend, telling them they are not old enough, making church the equivalent of restricted films, then maybe they'll stay curious and want to attend.
Have children's church, and teen church, which can deal with issues of peer pressure, sex, drugs, and which video games are best.
Meanwhile, in the adult services, the minister can talk about total surrender to Christ, subtle sins of egoism and willfullness, bad parenting and the desire for infantile forms of Christianity so one doesn't have to grow up.

Kutz - (Peter Kutuzov) said...

@ Joel Hunter: Why is your blog empty? :(

Anonymous said...

Having just decided to switch churches because the new one (a) makes better provision for my children and (b) is rather less chaotic than the one we were attending, I am in no position to judge. And there is nagging thought that Jesus did say something about children being a criteria against which values of the Kingdom of God might be discerned.
Above all though, having worked through all the comments, I think that everyone here should promise to buy Shane a drink should they ever meet him (let me know when you are in Melbourne, Shane).

Scott Haile said...

Thumbs up especially to Joanna Cruickshank, chris e, and kim fabricius.

There are lots of great goals here. Clearly God wants our worship to be understandable to people, and to help people worship passionately. But let's look not just at who our worship services attract, but also at how they form them/us. There are always unintended consequences, which is why I would beg every minister to consider the degree to which:

(1) sermons are made interesting and relevant at the cost of avoiding teaching people anything difficult or boring; (2) music makes people "feel" like they're worshipping by using huge amplifiers and bright lights; (3) people feel happy when they stare at huge screens of beautiful happy people, with no need to notice the ordinary Christians they're sitting next to.

And as I said, it's a matter of degrees––you could be concerned about #2 without completely unplugging the PA system. Nevertheless, the *forms* of worship services *shape people's faith* over time. It seems to me that the worship service Ben described tends to form worshippers into people who think (maybe only subconsciously, but that can be the worst way) that the Christian faith is simple, that worship is about how you feel, and that good Christians are attractive and happy.

You can try to nuance that understanding with Bible studies, etc., the rest of the week, but I think it's a losing battle. The Sunday worship experience as described in Ben's post is so overwhelming, so emotional, and employs so many different senses, that its message will be the one that sticks with people. And when the room is buzzing with energy, that energy itself can become a more memorable message than whatever the preacher says about Jesus.

Leslie M. said...

I just came upon this post, and the discussion seems long over, but I'm dealing with this issue as well. For one, I moved to Sydney from Texas three years ago. I attended a 20000 member church in Texas. It was Baptist, not pente.

We have been involved in very small churches here, and I have to say, every time I visit Texas, I'm impressed by the kids that are coming out of Mega Church environments. There is a tremendous emphasis upon discipleship, and for equipping parents to disciple their own children. These kids are excited about their faith, they love God, they love others. They have a lot more biblical knowledge than I've encountered among church attending kids here in Australia (I teach scripture in my son's primary school). These churches really began teaching kids at one or two years of age. Because the emphasis in mega churches is on the practical (what can you take from Sunday to use outside of the church on Monday) the kids practice what they learn during the week. I would check out some of the kids resources that are put out by Mega churches, on the surface they may seem "light" but when you take into account the teaching at church, the small discipleship/mentoring groups, and the "homework" that the kids take home, it is pretty good stuff.

One of our greatest needs as Christian parents who are serious about disciplining our children, is a community where we can find other like minded adults to help us disciple our children. We admit, the job is too big for the two of us. This should be viewed as a sign of a recognition of our poverty. We need a community in this endeavor.

We have been part of a couple of small churches in our area and we have found that both of them had an adequate discipleship community for the minister's kids and their friends, but a lot other kids were left to flounder. I don't mean for this to sound bitter, I think it is just the natural way a church develops if churches are not thoughtful and systematic about how they disciple children. Mega churches have devoted time and resources to figuring out how to partner with parents to disciple all children, and I think that is one reason why they grow.

One other note. Become a student before being a critic. Andy Stanley, who pastors one of the largest churches in North America has his messages here: Some of his messages give a rationale for their methods. At least understand why they do what they do.

Ben Myers said...

Thanks, Leslie, for your very interesting contribution to this discussion.

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