Megachurches and Consumerism
Nothing is more suggestive of the immense institutional transformations that may lie ahead for American Christianity than the growth of the so-called “megachurches” enormous urban “parishes” built more or less on the model of suburban shopping malls, accommodating sometimes more than 20,000 congregants, and often featuring such amenities as bookstores, weight rooms, food courts, playing fields, coffee houses, even hostelries and credit unions. Worship in such churches often takes the form of mass entertainments—popular music, video spectaculars, sermons of a distinctly theatrical nature—and constitutes only one among a host of available services. Obviously, the scale of such enterprises is possible only because the spiritual life to which they give refuge is essentially private: each worshipper alone amid a crowd of other worshippers, finding Christ in the emotional release that only so generously shared a solitude permits. When Christ is one’s personal savior, sacramental mediation is unnecessary and pastoral authority nugatory; convenience, however, and social support remain vital.
I do not mean to ridicule these churches, incidentally: I am not competent to say whether they represent merely a final disintegration of American Christianity into an absurd variety of consumerism, or whether they might be taken as - within the constraints of contemporary culture - a kind of new medievalism, an attempt to gather small cities into the precincts of the church and to retreat into them from a world increasingly inimical to spiritual longing. For me they do, however, occasion three reflections: first, that no other developed nation could produce such churches, because no other developed nation suffers from so unrelenting a hunger for God; second, that the social medium, the “middle” that I have claimed American religion has always largely lacked is perhaps more profoundly absent now than it has ever been, so much so that many Christians find themselves forced to create alternative societies to shelter their faith; and, third, that evangelical individualism may in fact be becoming even more thoroughly the standard form of American Christianity.