Sunday, November 12, 2006

Transcendence Lite

Megachurch flocks have learned to transcend their earthly concerns for something beyond themselves: a superstar pastor. What happens when their superstar falls in discrace, and they are left only with the Word of God fill that hole in their soul? It can be tough going:

Pastor Ted's influence was felt everywhere in New Life Church: in the videos shown at worship; in the New Life bookstore, which stocked books he recommended; and in the story of the church itself. He started New Life in his basement, building it into a 14,000-member nationally known megachurch. As the Rev. Ted Haggard's fortunes rose, so did the church's.

So when Haggard fell spectacularly from grace in a scandal involving drugs and allegations of gay sex, many wondered if New Life, so tied to his public persona, would crash with him.

The answer has significance far beyond the Haggard tragedy. As evangelical megachurches have sprung up around the country, concerns have grown over whether superstar pastors help or hurt faith communities.

"When you get to these top 25 or 50 of the largest or most influential churches, these pastors are clearly celebrities. They were the founders, they created much of the growth and they are, in some sense, a brand in and of themselves," said Scott Thumma, a professor at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut, who specializes in studying megachurches. "It's just like a business where the name of the founder is, in fact, a trademark."

America has always had big-name preachers — from Billy Sunday, the pro baseball player-turned-evangelist, to Billy Graham. But the two were not closely tied to a single church. Among today's best-known pastors, Rick Warren has Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., Joel Osteen has Lakewood Church in Houston and Bishop T.D. Jakes has The Potter's House in Dallas.

Graham and Sunday also worked in a vastly different media environment. Modern-day celebrity pastors have Web sites, where they promote their books, along with the DVDs, TV shows and films they produce, while preaching internationally. With such high profiles, word of any wrongdoing will spread quickly, intensifying the damage to them and their congregations.


With Haggard gone and the crisis he created easing, New Life members face a different challenge: They must decide whether they wish to belong to a church without the charismatic leader.

Nancy Ammerman, a Boston University sociologist who researches congregational life, said the megachurch might be saved by its extensive programs that create social groups within the church. New Life uses the small group model, where churchgoers meet regularly with just a few others, sometimes based on common interests outside of worship.

"That also gives them a forum within which to deal with what happened," Ammerman said.

But Randall Balmer, a Barnard College historian of American religion, said megachurches are so wrapped up with their pastor that New Life inevitably has hard times ahead. Without any creed or denominational identity for the church to cling to, attendance will eventually drop by half or more, he predicted.

"You have a kind of cult of personality that confuses the faith with a particular individual," said Balmer, author of "Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America." "I just think it's very difficult to recover from this sort of thing."

What these churches need is an "American Idol" style talent search to find the next big superstar pastor. Each megachurch would get to pick a contestant based on an NFL style draft, where the megachurch with the losingest record (net attendance loss from previous year) getting the highest draft pick.

Once you conclude that religion is just another form of show business, the world becomes easier to understand.


Blogger Bret said...

Duck wrote: "Once you conclude that religion is just another form of show business, the world becomes easier to understand."

Call me stupid then, because it makes less sense to me from that perspective. For example, if it's just show business, then why shouldn't pastor Ted keep putting on a show? He's still as charismatic as ever, isn't he?

November 12, 2006 10:05 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Once you conclude that religion is just another form of show business, the world becomes easier to understand.

True, Duck. Very true.

November 12, 2006 10:20 AM  
Blogger Duck said...


Because he jumped the shark. The brand is ruined, the character fatally compromised. It's as if James Bond broke down and cried, or chickened out of a fistfight, or got erectile dysfunction.

Actually I think Bond jumped the shark in Die Another Day when we learn that he was imprisoned and tortured by the North Koreans for over a year. Bond never lets himself be held prisoner for more than a day or two, he always finds a way to escape before anything really bad happens to him.

November 12, 2006 10:52 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Nothing new here. This is exactly the model used by the Wesleys and, especially, George Whitefield more than 200 years ago.

In his study of how Americans learned news in the pre-1860 era, Richard D. Brown writes that when word that Whitefield would preach in the outback of Connecticut arrived, everything for miles around shut down. People who had little interest in religion went to the sermons, evidently for entertainment.

See Chapter 6 of 'Knowledge Is Power: The Diffusion of Information in Early America'

November 12, 2006 11:23 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

I feel a new word coming on:

Pastar. n. Like pastor, only more so.

November 13, 2006 12:20 PM  

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