May 17, 2005

I'm Going to JesusLand!

BusinessWeek reports on "Earthly Empires", How Churches are Taking Cues From Business
Flush with success, Osteen is laying out $90 million to transform the massive Compaq Center in downtown Houston -- former home of the NBA's Houston Rockets -- into a church that will seat 16,000, complete with a high-tech stage for his TV shows and Sunday School for 5,000 children. After it opens in July, he predicts weekend attendance will rocket to 100,000. Says Osteen: "Other churches have not kept up, and they lose people by not changing with the times."

Pastor Joel is one of a new generation of evangelical entrepreneurs transforming their branch of Protestantism into one of the fastest-growing and most influential religious groups in America. Their runaway success is modeled unabashedly on business. They borrow tools ranging from niche marketing to MBA hiring to lift their share of U.S. churchgoers. Like Osteen, many evangelical pastors focus intently on a huge potential market -- the millions of Americans who have drifted away from mainline Protestant denominations or simply never joined a church in the first place.

To reach these untapped masses, savvy leaders are creating Sunday Schools that look like Disney World and church cafés with the appeal of Starbucks . Although most hold strict religious views, they scrap staid hymns in favor of multimedia worship and tailor a panoply of services to meet all kinds of consumer needs, from divorce counseling to help for parents of autistic kids. Like Osteen, many offer an upbeat message intertwined with a religious one.

To make newcomers feel at home, some do away with standard religious symbolism -- even basics like crosses and pews -- and design churches to look more like modern entertainment halls than traditional places of worship.(Link)

I've never understood the appeal of these Mega-churches. I feel enough like an anonymous sheep in a massive herd when I commute to work or go shopping. How could I go to a church where I'm indistinguishable from the 9,999 other members? With 5000 kids in sunday school, would my son need to wear a barcode or an RFID Tag in order to keep tabs on him? Does it say anything when a former Lockheed Martin factory on Sugarloaf Parkway has been converted to a 5,000+ member mega-church parish?

Melissa and I even met a family who went to one, located off North Point Parkway in Alpharetta. I mentioned how I preferred smaller churches, because no one was friendly, or even welcomed us when we tried out the larger churches. Her response was well-rehearsed: "When I find fault with a church, you know what I do? I think about what *I* could have done to be friendlier myself." Oh, of course. So it's my own fault if not one in a parish of 800 could be bothered to say hello? The people themselves probably weren't impolite, my point was that the church was so huge, how could you really know your fellow parishioners?

The billboards alone scare me. Out of curiosity, I went to BigSkyChurch's web site, advertised on the GA 20 drive across the 985-to-400 corridor. A representative line is "To Schedule Your Baptism email joe@bigskychurch.com." Shouldn't churches be just a bit more personal than that?

Now that I drive down I-85, I see the "Victory World Church" billboard near Pleasant Hill, with it's "Church for people who don't DO church" slogan. The visuals of guitars and teens with headphones, along with an overdone web site for it's FUSION youth program smack of Stephen Baldwin's "Skate for Christ" lame tie-ins.

And I understand the need for the diversity of faiths (Baptist, Methodist, Episcopal, etc.), but branding faiths according to marketing demographics seems a bit low:
This year, the 16.4 million-member Southern Baptist Convention plans to "plant" 1,800 new churches using by-the-book niche-marketing tactics. "We have cowboy churches for people working on ranches, country music churches, even several motorcycle churches aimed at bikers," says Martin King, a spokesman for the Southern Baptists' North American Mission Board.

Sorry to say I can't wrap this up with a nice bow on top. I just wanted to say that this current trend of mega-churches is frightening.

(Note that I resisted to use the phrase "scares the bejezus out of me".)

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