The Megachurch Century
On Jan. 1st, 1923, the first modern megachurch opened its doors, complete with skits, and toe-tapping tunes. But what have been the effects of this century-long confusion between church and theatre?
100 years ago to this very day, something important happened that dramatically changed what people have come to expect from church here in America and around the world. On January 1st, 1923, Aimee Semple McPherson opened the doors of Angelus Temple in Los Angeles. With a large auditorium containing over 5,000 seats, this new facility instantly became the largest church in America of its day. Over the next few years, “Sister Aimee” would end up drawing impressive crowds through the use of what she called “illustrated sermons,” which included stage props, toe-tapping music and her own charismatic personality. But what has been the result of this century-long confusion of church and theater? How have “celebrity pastors” changed what we expect of ministers and clergy, and how have concepts such as “seeker-sensitivity” affected the way we worship, evangelize and make disciples? These are some of the questions I’ll be exploring over the course of this new year as I reflect upon the the impact of the modern megachurch movement.
Some years ago I produced a White Horse Inn episode that focused on Aimee Semple McPherson’s unique approach to ministry titled, “That’s Entertainment” which included a thoughtful commentary by W. Robert Godfrey mixed with a variety of soundbites from McPherson herself (you can find a link to that episode at the end of this article). It’s fascinating to listen to audio clips from that era, since what seemed so fresh and relevant a century ago, now seems so quaint, outdated and irrelevant to modern ears. One is left with the question, was that a church service or a vaudeville act? Sure it ended up attracting large crowds, but what was it in fact that the crowds came to see? Did they come to be equipped and discipled, or to be entertained as they watched the show?
Speaking of shows, in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman wisely observed that “In television, perplexity is a superhighway to low ratings. This means that there must be nothing that has to be remembered, studied, applied, or worst of all, endured. It is assumed that any information, story or idea can be made immediately accessible, since the contentment, not the growth of the learner is paramount.” That is a keen observation, particularly in light of the fact that many of our churches have exchanged the historic Christian liturgy for some new updated version of The Jesus Show.
What few of us seem to realize is that what has happened to many churches over the past century is actually an aspect of the process of secularization. Harry Blamires addresses this issue thoughtfully in his book, The Secularist Heresy. In the preface to the American edition, he reflects on some of the things that took place since he wrote the first draft and writes, “I could never have anticipated the virulent form which the epidemic of secularization would assume in attacking Christianity, nor the spiritual, intellectual and moral nervelessness that would paralyze many supposed leaders of Christian thought.” The end result, he says, is that today’s churchgoer “is nowadays unlikely to come away from church wondering: Has that sermon got any connection with the secular world outside the church? He is more likely to come away asking: Has that sermon got any connection with anything other than the secular world? Has it led my thoughts where picking up a newspaper or turning on the television could not have led.” Blamires wrote that updated preface back in 1980. Imagine what he might have said about a typical Joel Osteen message.
In this profound and in some ways, prescient, volume, Blamires looks off into the not too distant future and sees a day in which,
the dominating controversy within Christendom will be between those who give full weight to the supernatural reality at the heart of all Christian dogma, practice, and thought, and those who try to convert Christianity into a naturalistic religion by whittling away the reality and comprehensiveness of its supernatural basis. This conflict is already upon is and is pushing into the background controversies which caused deep and bitter strife in previous ages.
Unfortunately, what Blamires foresaw has actually come to pass, and it’s not merely happening in lecture halls led by secular college professors. It’s also happening in both liberal and conservative churches alike. Conservatives like to focus on what God is doing in your life, right now. The focus is on one’s own personal experience, along with a host of practical issues that result from living out a life of faith. Liberals, on the other hand, prefer to focus on what God (however they define what that means) is doing in the larger community. We need to band together in order to be a part of God’s ongoing plan of redemption for the world through the pursuit of things like social justice, equity and environmental responsibility. Whereas in conservative churches, one is more likely to encounter The Jesus Show (complete with a mini rock concert, skits, and inspirational pep talks), liberal churches feel a little more like a Bernie Sanders rally. With the insight Blamires provides, it becomes easier to see that both liberal and conservative churches have been secularized because they are both focused on this world. They’re primarily focused on the body, not the soul, and the practical benefits of Christianity, rather than on Christianity itself.
Blamires went on to observe that,
The outrage is being committed daily in our midst, wherever the supposed Christian message is presented without reference to baptism, grace, and regeneration; without reference to incarnation, atonement and redemption ...without reference to the Church, the sacraments and the Holy Spirit. That such an emasculation of the Christian message is possible is a shocking fact. That a ‘Christianity’ can be popularized in which the fundamentals of the Christian faith, practice and worship are annihilated, is an appalling testimony to our spiritual apathy and our theological illiteracy. How has this corruption of the Christian message come about? All we can say in answer is that the prevailing materialism of popular thought, so diversely represented in the attitudes and evaluations of the man in the streets and his newspapers, has spread its infection so as to contaminate the only authority which brings a cure. The physician is himself infected with the disease.
Those who are involved in producing The Jesus Show at your local big-box church, complete with motivational messages and toe-tapping tunes, often fail to mention many of the themes that Blamires highlights above. There are obviously some exceptions to this rule. I’ve been to large churches that did end up focusing on foundational New Testament themes such as baptism, grace, regeneration, incarnation, atonement and redemption. But for most of the megachurches I’ve visited over the past few decades, Blamires’ critique appears to be spot on.
A view of Angelus Temple from the inside. According to writer Clara Bank (see her article below), “Its interior looked more like a movie palace…than a church.”
For Further Reflection:
“That’s Entertainment,” White Horse Inn episode 878 (February 3, 2008).
“The Resurrection of Sister Aimee,” by Clara Bank (March, 2021).
“Magic & Noise: Reformed Christianity in Sister’s America,” in Always Reformed: Essays in Honor of W. Robert Godfrey, edited by R. Scott Clark and Joel E. Kim.
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