The latest issue of Business Week has a cover story titled “Evangelical America: Big Business. Explosive Politics.” The story delves into the rapid growth of mega-churches in America, specifically focusing on the incredible success of Rick Warren, his book “The Purpose Driven Life” and its achievement of garnering over 23 million copies in print, being the fastest-selling nonfiction book, and the popularity of Warren’s church, Saddleback, in Southern California.
Additionally, Business Week covered the success of churches like Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas, that rakes in over $55 million a year with attendance at around 30,000 weekly and its service broadcast to over 7 million people a week. This church growth phenomenon reaches far beyond just the few examples the magazine covered, including the multi-million dollar international ministry of Benny Hinn (which has already been covered in this column), the charismatic Pentecostal Bishop T.D. Jakes who is a best-selling author, pastor of a huge church in Texas and resides in a multi-million dollar mansion in Dallas, as well as the Trinity Broadcasting Network, viewed daily by millions internationally, and its founders, Paul and Jan Crouch.
Evangelicalism in America is a business – a big business. And it has exploded onto the scene in the past 10 years, with nearly 900 churches nationwide boasting attendances of at least 2,000, according to the article. Just as through the conduit of television, the influence of evangelicalism is not held within the walls of a church, but has become incredibly popular with the rising stardom of the Contemporary Christian Music genre and the fiction and nonfiction Christian books that are flying off the shelf, making a name for themselves on the best-seller lists. Indeed, according to statistical data published by Business Week, the white evangelical group has become the most powerful religious force in America – 27 percent of the population – with Catholics in second place at 22 percent.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Numbers, cash and buildings are not the enemy – irrelevance, I don’t believe, is the goal of “pure” Christianity. A great theologian who I admire very much, Charles Spurgeon, pastored a church in the 19th century that could have been defined as a “mega-church.” However, it becomes somewhat of a concern when Business Week is covering evangelical churches and proclaiming them to be one of the most powerful financial forces in the nation. Perhaps the hallmark of the story was the photo of a mega-church congregation in Georgia with the headline below: “Earthly Empires.”
Jesus, as a man, was humble. Paul wrote that Christ humbled himself and so the Father exalted him, and he wrote that we should have this attitude ourselves. The prophets gave themselves completely to service, and Christ was the ultimate example of this bondservant mentality. Most all the early Apostles died as martyrs to the cause of Christ. Paul wrote to Timothy that his life was a drink offering being poured out.
I don’t mean to say we should all move into third-world countries and get killed. Neither do I mean to paint with a broad brush. It’s easy to get the wrong idea. A reader of my column accused me last week of being against American evangelicals. That couldn’t be further from the truth. However, the church in America is in trouble: from self-help gurus, to Robert Schuller feel-good teaching, to health and wealth dogma, and word of faith doctrine, to churches that view pleasing people as the end goal of ministry.
Last night, I saw Joyce Meyer on Larry King’s show. I’ve never read any of her books, but I have seen her programs on television and I see her products all the time in Christian bookstores. It’s not her theology that bothers me as much as it is the financial end of things. According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Joyce Meyer Ministries brings in over $90 million in annual revenues that have gone toward building a 52-acre, $20 million headquarters Missouri, annual salaries of $900,000 to Ms. Meyer and $450,000 to her husband, in addition to the $2 million home where “all the bills are paid by the ministry.” Meyer’s ministry has also paid $1.475 million for three houses for her children. The example given to a new generation of Christians is not so much humble servant hood as it is evangelical celebrity.
The question is: Is there any reason for me to be concerned about this? The people covered in this column come from wide-ranging circumstances and theological bents and can by no means be lumped into some sort of identical group. The concern is that numbers can become idols. When prayer meetings have turned into marketing strategy sessions, there’s a reason to be worried. The reality is that marketing teaches us to put the customer first. That is not Christianity. So, when churches are gaining popularity as self-help seminars and havens for the “health and wealth Gospel,” then maybe it should be OK for some people to step back and question the Christ-centeredness of contemporary evangelicalism.