Because I'm a new subscriber to the London-based magazine The Economist, you'll likely hear more from me about this excellent source of news and commentary. Appropriately for the day of the week, I sat down to read an article titled "Jesus, CEO," and was alerted to a term that I hadn't seen in the American press, and I believe it accurately sums up the megachurch movement: the pastorpreneur. Apparently the man behind the website has written a book on the subject, and the unnamed author of the Economist piece (removing bylines is something American magazines should consider!) uses the term throughout to describe the growing movement of CEO-led, business strategy considering churches in America:
Yet three things can be said in the mega-churches' defence. The first is that they are simply responding to demand. Their target audience consists of baby-boomers who left the church in adolescence, who do not feel comfortable with overt displays of religiosity, who dread turning into their parents, and who apply the same consumerist mentality to spiritual life as they do to everything else. The mega-churches are using the tools of American society to spread religion where it would not otherwise exist.
The second line of defence is that they are simply adding to a menu of choices. There is no shortage of churches that offer more traditional fare -- from Greek Orthodox to conservative Catholic. The third defence is more subtle: these churches are much less Disneyfied than they appear. They may be soft on the surface, but they are hard on the inside. The people at Lakewood believe that "the entire Bible is inspired by God, without error". Cuddly old Rick Warren believes that "heaven and hell are real places" and that "Jesus is coming again". You may start out in the figurative hell of a Disney theme-park, but you end up with the real thing.
The other common criticisms of the mega-churches -- and the marriage of religion and business that they embody -- are practical. One is that the mega-churches are a passing fad, doomed to be destroyed by a combination of elephantiasis and scandal. Another is that they are an idiosyncratic product of red-state America: amusing to look at, but irrelevant to the rest of the world. Again, neither argument is entirely convincing.
The article is an excellent roundup of the mega-church movement (sorry for those who cannot link, the magazine limits a good amount of their content) uses a balanced approach and addresses the subject of personal religion -- as it should be -- seriously:
Another problem is subtler: how do you speak directly to individual parishioners when you have a church the size of a stadium? Some mega-churches have begun to see members drift away in search of more intimate organisations. And many mega-preachers worry that they are producing a flock who regard religion as nothing more than spectacle. So they have begun to adopt techniques that allow churches to be both big and small at once.
One ruse is to break the congregation into small groups. Most big churches ask members of their congregation to join clutches of eight-to-ten people with something in common (age or marital status, for example). A second is to segment the religious market. Willow Creek has two very different services. The Sunday one for new "seekers" is designed to exhibit the Christian faith in a "relevant and non-threatening way". Willow Creek estimates that over half of the people who come to its Sunday services would otherwise be "unchurched". The Wednesday service for people who are committed to Christianity is designed to deepen their faith.
As an attendee of a church that employs the small-group strategy, I can say that it's great for getting new people involved in a larger organization. That said, my church cannot boast megachurch numbers.
From my limited readings of The Economist, I have found that it takes a fresh approach to stories on American trends, often highlighting aspects that journalists in the United States overlook or simply don't see as significant. My favorite from this piece is the reversal trend:
Indeed, in a nice reversal businesses have also started to learn from the churches. The late Peter Drucker pointed out that these churches have several lessons to teach mainline businesses. They are excellent at motivating their employees and volunteers, and at transforming volunteers from well-meaning amateurs into disciplined professionals. The best churches (like some of the most notorious cults) have discovered the secret of low-cost and self-sustaining growth: transforming seekers into evangelicals who will then go out and recruit more seekers.
The author of this piece clearly gets religion. I wonder if he/she gets it more than some of these people pushing the pastorpreneur/CEO church trend.