Voices

Packed, but still empty

"Contemporary" churches aren't attracting many contemporaries

Issue: "Beyond hate speech," Aug. 20, 2005

Clint Rainey, a journalism student interning at The Dallas Morning News, is put off by the "seeker-friendly" approach to church that-he contends-does a good job filling up massive church buildings but leaves many feeling spiritually empty.

In his opinion piece for the paper-"The younger crowd has had its fill of big, flashy churches" (July 25, 2005)-Mr. Rainey recalls how the church he grew up in transformed from a small congregation of a few hundred members into a megachurch of nearly 10,000. He says that the contemporary touches are designed to appeal to baby boomers, not to today's young people. "These churches attract middle-age adults like iron filings," he says. "But my generation isn't in such awe."

Mr. Rainey finds the new churches too materialistic and "impersonal in every way." He says that young people today are not impressed with technology, big buildings, and commercialism. He decries the overall emphasis on "stuff" that plagues our culture and now our churches. He says that today's young adults crave real religion.

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Mr. Rainey closes his column with these haunting words: "In Europe, mass religious apostasy left its churches people-free, but the American megachurch could bring this irony: We, unlike the Europeans, have people in our big, empty churches."

Set aside the debates over the church-growth movement. Also set aside for a moment the irony that changes implemented to make Christianity more attractive to young people are actually turning them off. The challenge of "empty churches"-even those that are packed with people-deserves attention.

Part of the problem is what sociologist and megachurch pastor Leith Anderson calls "generic Christianity." He points out that today, one can go into a church (especially a megachurch) of nearly any denomination-Baptist, Presbyterian, Pentecostal, Wesleyan, Lutheran-and be unable to notice any difference among them. They all are likely to use the same praise songs and contemporary worship style. The sermons will tend to be about practical biblical tips for successful living, and go light on doctrine and sin. Also, all of these different denominations tend to use Sunday-school curriculum and other material from the same nondenominational publishers. These companies purposefully avoid all controversial issues and doctrinal distinctives, which would limit their market share.

As a result, "generic Christianity" is erasing denominational differences and giving churches a brand-new theological framework. Mr. Anderson thinks this is a good thing. Whereas the ecumenical movement among liberal mainline churches tried but largely failed to unify churches from the top down, the church-growth movement has succeeded, unifying the different denominations on a grassroots level.

And yet, this unity comes at a cost. Both liberal theologians and church-growth theologians downplay historic doctrines, seeing them as divisive and irrelevant. Both value what is new over what is old. And so both cut themselves off from the spiritual heritage of historic Christianity. Since some Christians today make up their own theology and practices as they go along, oblivious to the time-tested, battle-tested experiences of the church through the ages, their spirituality can seem shallow or "empty."

Generic Christianity is not found in megachurches alone, of course, and many very large, "mega" congregations are still faithful to Scripture and to their own spiritual heritage. "Nondenominational" churches can draw on all of the strains of historic Christianity, instead of rejecting them all. And in a cultural climate that values "diversity," the rich diversity of Christian churches should thrive.

As should small churches. Many megachurches have grown not by making new converts to Christianity but at the expense of small congregations, doing to small churches what Wal-Mart does to small businesses. But in congregations that are so big the pastor does not know his own members and the members do not know each other, it is difficult to give people the pastoral care-and the discipline-that they often need to be spiritually "full."

But this has been neglected by churches of every size. Both large and small congregations must find ways not only to fill their pews but to fill their members.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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