"...we have many political opportunities to work for justice, peace, democratic process, and freedom. The fact that Jesus could not use radio and television does not mean that we should not. Similarly, the fact that his political options were fewer than ours does not mean we should not use the political process to work for structural change whenever that is possible."
Ron Sider - "One-Sided Christianity"
There's a pretty interesting recent study of American 'mega-churches' conducted jointly by the Hartford Institute and the Leadership Network in Dallas, Texas.
Together they researched a number of different areas regarding the character of churches whose attendance (not merely membership), numbered at or more than 2000 people. Included in the study were things as varied as the nature or character of their worship (traditional vs. contemporary, the role of small groups, probably one of the newest phenomenon - satellite campuses and the like.
What I found interesting was what the study revealed about mega-churches' how the respondents replied when asked about worship, social justice and politics.
For instance, when asked to describe their worship, in 2005 an equal number of respondents (90%), described the worship experience as 'joyful' and 'thought-provoking'. By 2008, 94% of the respondents described worship as 'joyful' while the number who described worship as 'thought-provoking' fell to 88%!
I don't know about you, but to me that's more than a little disturbing!
At the same time the number of mega-church attendees who described themselves as politically 'conservative' fell from 55% to 33%, those who described themselves as moderate or 'right in the middle' rose by 6% (11% - 17%).
Yet with all of this, only 30% took the initiative to get out the vote and only 21% provided announcements regarding opportunities for political engagement. However, 51% of the churches studied described themselves as 'working for social justice. Emphasis in these churches was placed on social service programs, while 90% declared themselves to be a 'force for good in the community'.
I don't mean to ridicule or criticize by citing this report. The mega-church is probably undergoing a sense of change and reformation with the rest of the country. Pastors with multiple services have a great deal of challenge in presenting 'thought provoking' messages hurrying to get one audience out and another in. And the socioeconomic make up of predominantly suburban mega-churches can make it very difficult to turn such audiences into an army.
All of this being understood, there is going to have to be a reckoning: a point at which maintaining numbers and technological dazzle will have to yield to a decision as to what must be done when social service becomes a poor substitute for social justice and there comes a demand for systemic change.
I heard that, going in to the presidential race that just concluded, there was a group that wanted Martin Sheen, who played President Jed Bartlett on 'The West Wing', to run for the nation's highest office. Sheen said of his would be supporters, "They've confused celebrity with significance."
Our world doesn't necessarily have to have big celebrated churches. It does need churches that are determined to be significant, whether they are big or not. That will require a great deal of prayer - and thoughtfulness...