The growth of the mega-church movement walked down the aisle hand-in-hand with the growth of the attractional church model. The two were wed together as a framework for understanding and applying church growth and expansion. Although many obvious flaws could be stated outright, it is worth noting that there was a pragmatic surface-level effectiveness found within this system in its heyday. It did create massive hubs that, at a minimum, had some association with Christianity.
One of the main reasons that this model’s effectiveness is in decline though, is also ironically pragmatic. The system married itself to the cultural trends, going far beyond merely adjusting to cultural styles, but rather directly making its appeals through the cultural’s content and conforming itself to the culture’s image. A system like this can only garner success in a culture that at least gives a head-nod of respect to Christianity. As Christianity losses its general appeal, then presenting of Christianity through the current cultural air becomes more and more strained, and less and less appealing.
But even at its height, one could notice some deep flaws with this system. Foremost of all, this model puts the church in a direct competition with the world, and not in the traditional sense. But when a church ties its identity to being perceived as hip, attractive, relevant, and trendy, it now must compete with the surrounding culture on those terms.
So we take our light shows and make them bigger, we bring in any celebrity that will have us, we add flare after flare, attraction after attraction. Our children’s ministry must become the local Disney. Our music team must race against every rapper and rocker. Our preaching must compare to TED, Peterson, and Robins. If the culture is what the people desire to consume, we will replicate it, and serve it with a side of Jesus. All for the glory of God, of course.
I’ve experienced this first-hand, as most of us probably have. And, without a doubt and to some degree, I’m guilty, we all are guilty. However, I’m not focused on the minors here, but the major ways in which churches embrace this perspective, the attraction as identity models out there. I’ve seen your celebrities high-fiving you on stage. I’ve heard your want-to-be professional rap songs with speakers vibrating with so much bass that my heart still skips a beat having experienced them. I’ve seen your flashy race cars on stage. I’ve been surrounded by the aroma of every food truck in the county sitting in your parking lot without the slightest whiff of the presence of the holy sacrament. I’ve seen your quasi-Starbucks coffee shops. I’ve even slid down your children’s ministry’s mega-slide.
Having experienced all that, may I simply say: I am not impressed. Rarely are such attempts to keep up seen as cool. Ironic, isn’t it? You are trying way too hard. Honestly, if I thought that was all there was to this whole thing called Christianity, I’d cut out the Jesus part. I’d go to a real concert. I’d keep sipping my coffee without the splash of religion. I’d go to Orlando for the rides, it’s really not that far away. I’d just watch TED and read Peterson.
But that’s just it, I don’t need all the pop culture. Even the best of it, the real stuff, not all these silly shadows and images of it. I need Jesus. And I don’t need Him to be cool. I don’t need Him to be trendy. I don’t need Him to keep up. I need Him to be holy. I need Him to be true. I need someone truly worth worshipping. Someone who stands over and above all these idols being paraded in front of me. I need Him to set the pace. I need Him to change me, challenge me, and call me to repent and believe in Him no matter the cost. I don’t need a fancy show or a circus, I need the Cross. More than that, I don’t want a trendy performance, at least not at church. This doesn’t mean I need an organ or a pew, the argument cuts both ways and it shapes out differently when looking at other aspects, but just give me Jesus at the center and the heart of it all. Let Him shape the flow of the arteries and veins that stand downstream. I need a Church that centers its identity around Him. His grace. His truth. His Cross. Let the walls, the stage, the parking lot, the people, let them all drip with that identity.
That will keep people like me around. It might just attract them too. Consider the words of former atheist Paul Kingsnorth in his wonderful article, “The Cross and the Machine,” as he reflects upon his own experience with this topic as an unbeliever:
The second flavor was the trendy vicar. Unlike his predecessor, the trendy vicar was plugged into the spirit of the age. He knew that instead of bicycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist, we were watching The Young Ones and playing Manic Miner, and he was on our side. The trendy vicar had a clipped beard and wore jeans and sang folk songs about how Jesus was our friend, and gave awkward, vernacular sermons in which biblical stories were interspersed with references to EastEnders or Dallas or Michael Jackson songs. Despite his good intentions, the trendy vicar was much worse than the stuffy vicar. At least the Victorian sermons were in some ways otherworldly, as religion should be. If it was pop culture we wanted, and we did, we were better off sticking with the real thing, which was to say the thing without any Jesus in it.
What is shaping your church’s identity? If you’re competing with the pop culture on their own terms, you’re going to lose. And even if it looks like you are winning right now, take a good look underneath the surface, dim those ridiculously bright lights for a bit, just what do the people look life? Just what do you look like? Jesus or pop-culture?