Redux on Walmartization of the ChurchAugust 18, 2010
Recently, David Wells published a book called “The Courage to Be Protestant”. In that book, he makes several comparisons of today’s megachurch with Wal-Mart. Some readers of this blog may not have been reading back when I published a series of articles on this subject; so I thought I would repost for new readers. These three articles encompass what I believe is a warning to the church at large and the megachurch in particular.
Part of my concern recently is the pattern identified where megachurch pastors are resigning in record numbers. This does not surprise me, but I don’t think it bodes well for the North American church. I think these leaders are needed for their abilities and callings. We may be losing them all in an avalanche of backlash to this Walmartization of the Megachurch. Here then is what I wrote back in 2006:
Wal-Mart has almost unilaterally contributed to the downfall of several cutural faceplates: mom-and-pop stores, small hardware stores, toy stores, and in some places, shoe stores.
You understand, of course, that this applies more to smaller and medium-sized towns than it does to large cities. Almost any economic venture can make it in a city, provided they have a good location and knowledge of their niche market. But as the size of a center’s population gets smaller, the impact of Wal-Mart’s presence increases. I don’t have hard data to back that up, but I’m sure that Wal-Mart Watch does somewhere. But these conclusions feel intuitively correct and unless we go against “the gut” on this one, let’s just assume this is true.
I begin by stating I have a philosophical and moral abhorrence of what Wal-Mart is and does. That said, I see parallels with what is happening with today’s Megachurches. Except in this case, the impact that the Megachurch has may be more dramatic in the larger cities than in the smaller towns. I see many parallels between today’s Wal-Mart and today’s megachurch. I only want to comment on three of them. These do not apply to the Wal-Marts of Sam Walton’s day and the Megachurch of the past. These comments also do not apply to megachurches outside of North America, because these are primarily cell-based churches and do not display the features of America’s megachurch.
Without further background then, let me present my parallels between Wal-Mart and the American brand of Megachurch.
1. Lower Cost is the Key Draw: WM’s bouncing happy face tells the whole story: Wal-Mart is all about lowering prices. On the surface of things, I really don’t have an argument against lower prices. I am a grandfather and see my children struggling to stretch their spending dollar further and further. I don’t envy them having to pay the monthly bills now and a year from now. WM seems to be the answer to their limited income. But is the price really the only thing we need to be concerned about? First, lower price often (though not always, I admit) means a lower quality of product. A friend of mine bought a bicycle at WM a few years ago. It broke down about 10 times in the subsequent year. It had to be replaced, fixed, replaced, fixed, fixed and fixed again. By the time he was done with this debacle, the bicycle cost him more than he would have paid for a wonderful bike at a sporting goods store. In addition, WM’s strategy for obtaining those lower prices is heinous and cost other people in the long run (see Wal-Mart Watchh for more information). They approach a supplier with a short-term deal to produce a product. After taking over their operation, they then announce if the company wants to keep Wal-Mart’s business, they must lower their prices next year…and the year after. This results in lay-offs, lower quality and a lower standard of living for the community affected by this “deal”.The cost of these lower prices is too much for society to pay. The same thing happens with the Megachurch of today. Though there are several ‘draws’ that bring people to a Megachurch, the one that stands out above the rest is the small amount of responsibility expected of the average attender. I don’t say “member” because membership is not emphasized in Megachurches. People attend a Megachurch because they don’t want to go to five meetings a week, be on four committees, and have to listen to critical appeals for finances which doom the church’s demise. They want to go in quickly, have a church service, see the live Camels at the Christmas production (notice there are no “pageants” in megachurches…those are too pedestrian), hear a good worship band and go home to a frantic life. The Megachurch offers a small price to be part of a large happening. It shouldn’t surprise us that a generation that liked its music with 20,000 other people would want the same thing for church.
But, someone will remark, what is wrong with all of this? Our lives are already too frantic. We don’t have time for five church events a week. We don’t want to join an organization, we just want some religious flavor to our lives. We don’t want all the politics of a small or medium-sized church. We want to be left alone. Granted, we are busy. And granted, there are weaknesses in the smaller sized church. But, what the smaller church offers is community and commitment, two words that have been outsourced by the Wal-Mart philosophy. The Megachurch of yesteryear grew gradually, and thus maintained community at smaller levels. The small groups in the average Megachurch encompass less than 10% of their church population. I visited several Megachurches here in California this summer and added up the number of small groups they offered and divided it by the number of members. Unless there are 150 people in each small group, somewhere around 10% of the Megachurch population is involved in anything but Sunday morning show.
Low cost, low commitment.
That also applies to the sermon. I spent a greater part of the last two years listening to sermons preached by the pastors of Megachurches. With the exception of men like Francis Frangipane and Jack Hayford, whose Megachurches grew to those size over a long period of time, the rest of the Megachurch pastors preach the spiritual version of cotton candy: Tasty and full of nothing. Prosperity this, and feel better about that, and read your culture this way and enjoy your MTV that way. There is no prophetic nature to their ministries. There is hardly a pastoral element. It reads like Dr. Phil channeling Mary Tyler Moore. I can see you reading this and wondering if all I am saying is hyperbole. I am not going to back up my statements with statistics. This rant is all mine and it is meant to be prophetic. I will let others study this phenomenon after it produces its fruit. Then come back and read this and see if it isn’t true.
When you produce low-cost Christians, you can expect low-cost living. People going to churches based upon cost will not tolerate high cost from any part of their spiritual life. Prayer will become a nuisance, as will reading the Bible, worshiping and giving to the poor. I visited a church with about 10,000 members this summer. I was in the foyer area, enjoying the huge waterfall and the brilliant colors and textures of the building. I really did enjoy them. I wandered about the foyer looking at the approximately 2,000 people waiting for their chance to grab a good seat for the next showing. I attempted to start conversations with several people. One person just looked away from me, and talked to someone else. Another guy told me that he had to go pick up someone. Another guy told me that he didn’t like to talk to people. I tried with seven people and finally stopped. I talked to an usher about this and he said, “No one in this service likes to talk to people they don’t know. That’s what we have our home care groups for.” Well, for 10% of them anyways. I went over to the Internet Cafe on the second floor and noticed that people were watching the service on their laptops. I looked for several minutes and no one talked to each other. A pastor came out and greeted people and most of them did not look him in the eye. I stopped to chat and the entire time he was looking over his shoulder at someone else. I got 30 seconds.
I remember that happening to me last time I went to Wal-Mart.