Sunday, 2 July 2017

The issue with megachurches.

I am following the cult of personality. I am guilty of it. Pardon me.

Never thought I would ever fall into one after leaving my megachurch for 6 years now.

Before that, about more than 20 years ago, I treated my senior pastor's word as gospel truth. He made sense to me then as a pew warmer awestruck in his impressive church of thousands with heart stopping programs, and I was sold body, soul and spirit to his pulpit messages.

That was then, and now, comes Francis Chan, who is one of the pastors of the current house church movement, which is organized around the simple concept of a "family gathering" of no more a few hundred people, from all walks of life, even from the streets.

Francis left his 5000-strong church called Cornerstone in Simi Valley, California, in 2010.

The reasons he gave resonated deeply with me. He made so much sense that I think he should be held "guilty for converting" me into a fan.

I know, I have to seek forgiveness for harboring such sentiment. That's my communion Sunday confession this morning I guess.

But levity aside, Francis pushed all the right buttons for me when it comes to dealing with the ills of today's megachurches.

And the irony is, we the congregation are just as guilty for creating this modern status quo (or modus operandi) as the megachuch preacher who stands behind his velvety pulpit every week dishing out one revelation after another to the awestruck crowd.

Britney Spears recently conducted her electrifying concert and the fans went wild for her. This is the same self-defining "weird celebrity thing" that Francis escaped from when he left his megachurch 7 years ago. He admitted that its hold over him made him "uncomfortable".

Now, let's be clear. Many will argue that they come not for the preacher. It is the word of God that they came to drink from. Whether it is Joseph Prince, Joel Osteen or Sun Ho, their hearts have always been in the right place, God's.

Let me just say that I do not doubt that. I myself told myself exactly that when I was in a megachurch. I repeatedly reminded myself that I follow Jesus, not man. I am his "disciple", not of man. I walk in his footsteps, not man's. I sit like Mary by Jesus' side, not man's.

The division was clear to me, the line was drawn black and white for me. I am sure I am not conflicted between the two, that is, God and man. I told myself with foolhardy assurance that my allegiance to the original source was rock steady. I was never swayed by a copy of the original.

Then came a realization: Am I deceiving myself? I asked myself, "Who is within my line of physical sight every other Sunday? Who stands before the thousands and preaches essentially about one thing, "Thus saith the Lord, and He saith it only to me?"

And "who tells the congregation of tens of thousands what subject/topic the Lord is apparently interested in this Sabbath morning, and then, tells us to trust him on this?"

Alas, is the water the last thing the fish will ever be aware of?

You see, it's like the Facebook or Google algorithm, which surreptitiously sieves through your browsing history and decides for you what is in your most aligned interests and what is not, and then shows you only what it thinks you want to see, read, buy.

It preconditions you by conditioning your thoughts, likes, preferences and interests - much of it happening on a sub-conscious level. In other words, it makes you the center of the orbiting universe by serving all that you want to hear or see.

By largely the same token, there is in my view an algorithmic equivalent in megachurches today. And this megachurch-algorithmic effect plays on our mind on a sub-conscious level in similar fashion.

The preacher - in his bedazzling outfit and impeccable hairdo - struts out and proceeds to dictate what the so-called Lord wants his congregation to focus on. And not a moment goes by without him or her telling you that it is God's will for you to run with what he had offered you over the pulpit.

Your spiritual template is therefore set in the desired prosperity-mold by these megachurch preachers and your days ahead after Sunday is also set until the next Sunday comes with a new revelatory dish readied for mass consumption in the preacher's exclusive spiritual kitchen.

The only minor difference between the social media's algorithm and that of the megachurch preacher is that the latter's sieving of what is appropriate for that Sunday service is not based on past browsing history of his congregant, but it is based on self-directed spiritual preferences of the famed preacher. In other words, he or she calls the spiritual shots. His congregation just sits there and waits to be bedazzled. After he plants it, he leaves with his entourage to his plush mansion, and congregate again the next Sunday to keep them on the edge of their seat.

Now, you may ask, "What's the difference here with Francis Chan's house movement church and the megachurch preachers then, apart from the numbers? Isn't Francis Chan leading and preaching to his downsized family-like congregation too? How do you then avoid the cult of personality?"

Well, according to Francis, he said, "I don't even preach...They just meet in their houses, they study (the Word), they pray, they care for one another."

So, I guess that would be his reply to those questions above if he were ever asked. 

But more importantly, my point is about competing visibility. In a typical Sunday service, people like Joel Osteen, Benny Hinn, Joseph Prince and Sun Ho draw the attention of tens of thousands; for some, its nothing less than utter fixation. They may raise the name of Jesus in their sermons, but they are elevated in the process too. (Mind you, I believe this process is not inevitable. It always takes two hands to clap - the congregation and the preacher).

Competing visibility is not so much about the good intention of the preacher, it is more about the perception of the congregant. And perception is seldom objective, it is contextualised, that is, the grander the atmosphere, the bigger the crowd, the louder the noise, the higher the visibility of the megachurch preacher. From there, the preacher plays his part by encouraging it in his own signature style and pulpit sermon, which never fails to claim to be exclusive, unerring and godsend.

That's the problem of celebrity status. That's what Francis warns about when he admitted to this: "The pride he began to feel. The pride (going to) conferences and seeing my face on a magazine...and hearing whispers and...walking in the room and actually liking it."

If you browse through the religion section of any bookshop and pick up a book authored by megachurch preachers like Joseph Prince or Joel Osteen, for example, you are first greeted by their Colgate-fortified faces - front and back.

Somehow, they wouldn't want you to forget who wrote the book you are going to buy for $34.59 or $29.95. The book's contents come later, that is, before their faces get flashed straight in your face.

This is what Francis meant by the "weird celebrity thing." This is what makes competitive visibility an unwitting trap for the megachurch preacher and his congregation.

They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder. They are forgetting that when many beholders come together to direct their attention on "the One" on stage, their first impression not only lasts, it is also amplified, purified, fortified and reinforced.

The danger of such regular attentional mass convergence on one personality risks turning the object of their adoration into an idol. And the church member's open denial of it doesn't make it less so.

Francis warns, “5000 people show up every week to hear my gift, see my gift. That’s a lot of waste. They just sit there and listen to me.” And imagine a congregation of 30,000 or 45,000, just sitting there week in and week out, listening to just one, and waiting to be awestruck by the sermon.

While I do not deny that many are touched and changed according to their own admission, that doesn’t make the church less of a performance church, that is, trying to keep up with sermons to create a multisensory feel to meet the expectations of the congregation.

Sadly, the fluff of support and devotion this particular mass focus engenders makes the congregation putty in the hands of their pastor. Now, they may say that they only have eyes for Christ, and their pastor is just an instrument of God. But when you challenge their pastor's teaching, or even suggest that it may be unbiblical, they go feral or ballistic on you. Their allegiance is largely unquestionable.

Admittedly, this celebrity status thingy works swimmingly for undisputed stars like Britney Spears, Taylor Swift and Harry Stiles, because that is the exact result they are going for with their heavily invested marketing blitz.

However, in my view, the world of faith ought to operate differently, and most importantly, be set apart from the methods and metrics of the world where fame, wealth and power are benchmarks of success.

The biblical verse in John 3:30 that Christ must increase and I must decrease works in reverse when megachurch preachers make themselves indispensable (mostly be personal design) by putting their brand name to their church, planting their teachings into her foundational roots, and ensuring full control of church funds and the daily running of the church while they themselves live lavished and opulent lifestyle.

Alas, the last time I checked, Jesus never taught that this is the way of church building. His blueprint was to make disciples all over the world, and not to set up an impressive building (or buildings) to house the faith, draw in the crowd to congregate at one definitive location every week, titillate their senses and warm their seats, dish out comfortable sermons that promise prosperity at every turn, and accumulate massive wealth mostly for keepsake.

Let me end with Francis’ sobering words. While in his 5000-strong church, he said he was wary of being “comfortable”. He said that he was being transformed into a celebrity pastor by the sheer force of unmitigated growth, and the pride of misattribution was creeping in. 

However, he resisted the temptation and walked away from it all. Before he left, he said, “Everything you (God) said you hate, that’s me right now. Wow, I gotta get out of here. I’m losing my soul.”

Now, how many megachurch preachers of today would even consider or reflect on that? How many of them would start to take stock and ask, “Are they coming for me every week? Take me out of the equation, and what becomes of their faith, their attendance, the church? Is it always about me coming up with attractive programs and sermons to keep up with their emotional expectation? Up to point, when the seed is sown, should I just step aside and let God water the plant? Have I made myself indispensable?” Cheerz.

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