Los Angeles Superior Court: John MacArthur’s Grace Community Church can’t hold indoor worship services

Here is Religion News Service:

A Los Angeles Superior Court judge granted a preliminary injunction against Grace Community Church, prohibiting Pastor John MacArthur from holding indoor worship services.

The County of Los Angeles has sought to stop the megachurch from hosting indoor services that have filled the sanctuary with many unmasked congregants sitting next to each other in recent weeks. 

Los Angeles County attorneys recently sent a cease and desist letter to the megachurch, threatening arrest or a daily fine of $1,000.

County officials sent a statement to Religion News Service, saying they were grateful for the court’s decision to uphold the county’s COVID-19 public health orders that temporarily ban indoor religious services.

Read the rest here.

Warren Throckmorton has more details at his blog.

Here is a statement from the Thomas More Society, the public interest law firm that is representing Grace Community Church:

The Los Angeles Superior Court issued a preliminary injunction on September 10, 2020, against Grace Community Church and Pastor John MacArthur, refusing to follow the U.S. and California State constitutional protections for churches. The ruling fails to apply the appropriate constitutional standard of review. The order prohibits the church from “conducting, participating in, or attending any indoor worship services” and also bans outdoor worship unless onerous restrictions are followed in a heavy-handed move against the internationally known preacher and his congregation. MacArthur and Grace Community Church’s attorneys from the Thomas More Society said the judge refused to consider their important separation of powers arguments “in any meaningful fashion” and essentially “ducked the issue.”

Thomas More Society Special Counsel Charles LiMandri said, “We are disappointed in the ruling on the preliminary injunction as the court did not apply the strict scrutiny analysis to the government order that we believe is required by the California Constitution and legal precedent. The court also did not properly consider the medical and scientific evidence that the current number of people with serious COVID-19 symptoms no longer justifies a shuttering of the churches. Nor do we believe that the court gave adequate consideration to the fact that churches have been treated as second-class citizens compared to the tens of thousands of protestors. More than ever, California’s churches are essential. Therefore, we plan to appeal this ruling to ultimately vindicate our clients’ constitutionally protected right to free exercise of religion.”

Thomas More Society Special Counsel Special Counsel Jenna Ellis said, “Although this is a temporary setback, we will continue to fight for Pastor MacArthur and Grace Community Church’s constitutionally protected right to hold church. While the judge did go out of his way to repeatedly state that he is not ruling on the merits, only a ruling at this very preliminary stage, Pastor MacArthur is still harmed because he has every right to hold church. Church is essential, and no government agent has the runaway, unlimited power to force churches to close indefinitely. The County’s argument was basically ‘because we can,’ which is the very definition of tyranny. Without limiting government’s power in favor of freedom and protected rights, we have no liberty. We will fight for religious freedom, as our founders did when they wrote the First Amendment.”

Pastor John MacArthur said, “In an inexplicable ruling, the judge said the ‘scale tipped in favor of the county.’ 1/100th of 1% of Californians with a virus apparently wins over the U.S. Constitution and religious freedom for all? That is not what our founders said. Nor is that what God says, who gave us our rights that our government—including the judicial branch—is supposed to protect. The scale should always tip in favor of liberty, especially for churches.”

Read the Ruling explaining the Order Granting Preliminary Injunction, issued September 10, 2020, by Judge Mitchell L. Beckloff in the Superior Court of California – County of Los Angeles – Central District in County of Los Angeles et al. v. Grace Community Church et alhere.

Will MacArthur pay the daily fine or go to prison? Or perhaps he will adjust his interpretation of Romans 13 and obey the order. No word on whether or not he will hold indoor services on Sunday in defiance of the preliminary injunctions.

Evangelical pastor John MacArthur suggests churches that remain closed during COVID-19 are not “true” churches

MacArthur

Who is John MacArthur and what is this all about? Get up to speed here.

Kate Shellnut and Nicole Sparks report on MacArthur’s sermon Sunday at Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California.

Here is a taste of their piece at Christianity Today:

During Sunday’s sermon, MacArthur suggested that churches that close are not true churches. “There has never been a time when the world didn’t need the message of the true church,” he said. “I have to say, ‘true church.’ I hate to think of that, but there’s so many false forms of the church. Let them shut down.”

The congregation laughed then cheered.

Some critics have questioned why Grace Church didn’t meet outside or adjust its indoor gatherings to meet health department guidelines rather than resort to a form of civil disobedience. Others brought up the risk of infection, since experts suggest church contexts, particularly with large crowds not practicing social distancing, are particularly susceptible to and responsible for several recent outbreaks.

Read the entire piece here.

Another evangelical pastor, Gavin Ortlund, has a different take.

Tuesday night court evangelical roundup

COurt Evangelicals

What have Trump’s evangelicals been saying since our last update?

Court evangelicals are getting massive checks from the federal government. The money comes from the Payback Protection Program, a program to help small business during the pandemic.  Peter Montgomery reports. Elana Schor is also on the case.

Robert Jeffress is on the Jim Bakker Show today. He is talking about how God “orchestrated every detail” related to the pandemic and the country’s racial unrest so that his book on prayer could come out precisely at this moment.

Each chapter of Jeffress’s book offers an “inspiring story demonstrating the power of faith in the life of our nation, a prayer, and a relevant passage of Scripture to inspire and encourage” people to pray for the United States. This all sounds well and good until Jeffress starts his “America is a Christian nation” rant. In other words, this book is just an extended version of his “America Was Founded as a Christian Nation” sermon–a devotion in Christian nationalism. The interview with Bakker’s wife includes some of Jeffress’s greatest hits, including the one about George Washington kneeling in the snow for a photo-op.

Johnnie Moore, who describes himself as a “modern-day Dietrich Bonhoeffer,” wants to stand for truth.

I am still waiting for Moore to explain how he supports this.

Franklin Graham is retweeting the recently-deceased country singer Charlie Daniels:

Eric Metaxas is still hawking his book If You Can Keep It. He writes on Facebook: “It’s my mission to get this book and its message to every American. I felt that way when I wrote it and I feel that way much more urgently right now. Losing the republic cannot be an option. It is too precious. Future generations depend on what we do…” Before you buy a copy of this book, I encourage you to read some reviews. It is a deeply flawed book. Start here.

If you want to know how I differ with Metaxas on a lot of things related to Christianity, history, and American culture, check-out Emily McFarland Miller’s piece about our visits to Chicago in September 2018.

And now for some Liberty University Falkirk Center news:

In other words, slavery is wrong and it was always wrong regardless of whether people who indulged in it were just products of their age.

And here is Trump wonder-boy Charlie Kirk:

So if Nike is operating in slave labor camps in China, and they stopped, would you, Charlie Kirk, then support their efforts to change the name of Washington’s NFL team? Just checking.

Until next time.

As November approaches, Trump releases his “greatest” hits album

Trump Tulsa

The coronavirus is spiking again. The country is in the midst of what might be an unprecedented conversation about race. And polls show that Donald Trump is trailing Joe Biden by a considerable margin.

Trump is desperate. If he loses in November, he will limp back to New York as arguably the worst president in United States history.  His growing sense of hopelessness and despair is leading him to double-down on the issues that got him elected in 2016. It’s like a Trump greatest hits album.

It’s going to be a really bad album, but a lot of people will buy it between now and November.

Wednesday Night Court Evangelical Roundup

Court Evangelicals at Table

Since my last update, a few things have changed in court evangelical land. Neil Gorsuch, one of two Donald Trump Supreme Court nominees, has defended LGBTQ rights and has proven he may not be the best court evangelical ally when it comes to questions of religious liberty. I imagine some evangelicals who are looking for a reason to reject Trump at the ballot box in November may have just found one.

Police reform and debates over systemic racism continue to dominate the headlines. On the COVID-19 front, more and more churches are opening this weekend and Donald Trump is preparing for a rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

What do the court evangelicals have to say?

In an interview with Charisma magazine, James Dobson writes:

In an outrageous ruling that should shake America’s collective conscience to its core, the U.S. Supreme Court has redefined the meaning of “sex” under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act to include “gender identity” and “sexual orientation.” Not only was this decision an affront against God, but it was also a historical attack against the founding framework that governs our nation.

Dobson says nothing about Trump or how Gorsuch burned white evangelicals on this decision.

I don’t know if Louie Giglio supports Trump, but he is now apologizing for his use of the phrase “White Blessing”:

The apology seems honest and sincere.

Jenetzen Franklin praises Trump as a great listener and defender of law and order.  But Trump’s police reform speech failed to address the systemic problem of racism in America. It attacked Obama and Biden and it defended Confederate monuments. Is this big action?

Johnnie Moore, the guy who describes himself as a “modern day Dietrich Bonhoeffer,” is doing the same thing as Jenetzen:

Greg Laurie interviewed South Carolina Senator Tim Scott on police reform. Scott talks about the “character” of police officers and shows a solid understanding of the Bible, but the issues of racism in America go much deeper than this. I encourage you to listen to Gettysburg College professor’s Scott Hancock upcoming interview at The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.

The Laurie-Scott conversation is a step in the right direction, but it focuses on striking a balance between law and order (Scott quotes Romans 13) and individual acts of racism.  The real conversation should be over to have an ordered society and address systemic racism. Today, for example, Scott said that the United States is not a racist country.

Robert Jeffress is “thrilled” to have Mike Pence speak at his church for “Freedom Sunday.” Expect fireworks. Literal fireworks! Once again, it will be God and country on display.

Here is another view of Pence.

Last Sunday, Jeffress addressed the Floyd murder and its aftermath with his congregation at First Baptist-Dallas. He summarized his response to our current moment in three statements:

1. God hates racism. Jeffress FINALLY admits that First Baptist Church was on “the wrong side of history” on matters relating to race. This is a huge step! It would have been nice to have this history included in the church’s 150th anniversary celebration, but I don’t think I have ever heard Jeffress say this publicly.  Let’s see where this goes. First Baptist-Dallas has some reckoning with the past to do.

2. God hates lawlessness. Jeffress says that there is “nothing wrong” with peaceful protests, but he condemns the looting and riots. He does not say anything about the root cause of the riots. One more question: Does God hate Christians who disobey unjust laws? I think Martin Luther King Jr. had something to say about that. So did most of the patriotic pastors during the Revolution. You know, the guys who created America as a “Christian nation.”

3. Racism and lawlessness is not the problem, the problem is sin. Agreed. The sin of racism pervades every institution in America. In order to address the problem of racism we need to go beyond mere calls for personal salvation. American history teaches us that some of the great evangelical revivals led to abolitionism and other forms of social justice. At the same time, some of the great evangelical revivals led to a deeper entrenchment of racism in society. Jeffress’s church, which celebrates its history of soul-winning, is one example. Also, let’s remember that when Frederick Douglass’s master got saved during an evangelical revival, he became more, not less, ruthless in his treatment of his slaves. We will see what happens this time around, but individual spiritual regeneration does not always solve the deeply embedded problems of race in America.

Now I want to hear how this generally good, but also insufficient, message applies to Jeffress’s support of Donald Trump.

James Robison is right. But so is Jurgen Moltmann when he said that Christians must “awaken the dead and piece together what has been broken“:

Tony Perkins is talking with David Brat, the dean of the Liberty University School of Business, about law and order and the breakdown of K-12 and higher education. Perkins thinks the real problem in America is a “lack of courage.” I did a post about courage a few weeks ago.

Brat wants Christians to be “prophets, priests, and kings.” Yes. Here is something I wrote last month about such royal language:

What does it mean, as Scot McKnightN.T. Wright, and Matthew Bates, among others, have argued, that Jesus is King? What role do Christians play as a royal priesthood, proclaiming the truth of God to the darkness and, as Wright puts it, “reflecting God’s wisdom and justice into the world.”And there’s the rub. Reed’s Kingdom of God, and the Kingdom of God as understood by many conservative evangelicals, looks the other way when a ruler from another kingdom (so to speak) practices immorality. They do not seem to take their citizenship in this Kingdom as seriously as they take their American citizenship or, at the very least, they seem unwilling to say more about the tensions between the two. (There is, of course, a deep history behind the conflation of these two kingdoms).

Gary Bauer just retweeted this:

Perhaps he should have made a caveat for Christians in prayer. But let’s face it, the court evangelicals don’t do nuance very well.

Ralph Reed is fully aware of the fact that Gorsuch and Roberts have betrayed him and his followers. Yet don’t expect him to throw out the Christian Right playbook anytime soon. Ruth Bader Ginsburg is ready to retire and Reed will no doubt try to make the 2020 election about the Supreme Court:

Rob McCoy, the pastor of Calvary Chapel of Thousands Oaks in Newbury Park, California, invited Charlie Kirk, the Trump wonderboy, to preach at his church last Sunday. McCoy introduced him by quoting Philippians 4:8: “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever it admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things.” Kirk then got up and gave a fear-mongering political speech that ripped evangelical pastors who have participated in anti-racist protests. At one point, Kirk told the Christians gathered on this Sunday morning that if the Left “takes him down” he “will be on his feet” not “on his knees.” This was an applause line. If you want to see hate preached from an evangelical pulpit, watch this:

And let’s not forget Charles Marsh’s twitter thread exposing Eric Metaxas’s use of Dietrich Bonhoeffer to attack Black Lives Matter.

Until next time.

Most of California’s Evangelical Megachurches are Still Online

Saddleback

Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, CA is online this weekend

1200 California churches will open this weekend in defiance of the governor’s orders. We posted about this here.

But before the press paints California evangelicals with one broad brush, as they are prone to do, it is worth noting that nearly all of California’s largest and most influential megachurches will continue to conduct services online this weekend. Most of them are not listening to Donald Trump. They are making their own decisions in conversation with local government and health officials. This is also the case with evangelical churches across the country.

These churches are online only (though dated (10 years old), we are using the Hartford Institute for Religion Research megachurch list for attendance numbers):

Saddleback Church in Lake Forest (Rick Warren): 22,055

Bayside Church in Roseville (Ray Johnston): 22,286

The Rock Church and World Outreach Center in San Bernardino (Dan Roth): 14,550

Mariners Church in Irvine (Eric Geiger): 13,567

West Angeles Church of God in Christ in Los Angeles (Charles E. Blake):13,000

Harvest Christian Fellowship in Riverside (Greg Laurie): 13,000

The Rock Church in San Diego (Miles McPherson): 12,864

North Coast Church in Vista (Larry Osborne): 12,521

Calvary Chapel Golden Springs (Paul Ries): 12,000

Templo Calvario Assembly of God in Santa Ana (Daniel de Leon): 11,000

Shepherd Church in Porter Ranch (Dudley Rutherford): 8675

Valley Bible Fellowship in Bakersfield (Ron Vietti): 10,300

Faith Community Church in West Covina (Dan Reeve): 10,000

Sandals Church in Riverside (Matt Brown): 9559

Calvary Church in Costa Mesa (Brian Broderson): 9500

Calvary Chapel South Bay in Gardena (Jeff Gill): 9200

The Church on the Way in Van Nuys (Tim Clark): 9032

Calvary Chapel in Downey (Jeff Johnson): 9000

Angelus Temple in Los Angeles (Matthew Barnett): 8975

Eastside Christian Church in Anaheim (Gene Appel): 8960

Cathedral of Faith in San Jose (Ken Foreman): 8000

Faithful Central Bible Church in Inglewood (Kenneth Ulmer): 8000

Grace Community Church in Sun Valley (John McArthur): 8000

Shadow Mountain Community Church in San Diego (David Jeremiah): 7513

Cottonwood Christian Center in Los Alamitos (Bayless and Janet Conley): 7000

Horizon Christian Fellowship in San Diego (Philip Macintosh): 7000

Emmanuel Faith Community Church in Escondido (Ryan Paulson): 6500

High Desert Church in Victorville (Tom Mercer): 6313

Lancaster Baptist Church in Lancaster (Paul Chappell): 6000

Bethany Slavic Missionary Church in Sacramento (Adam Bodnaruk): 5700

Crossroads Christian Church in Corona (Chuck Booher): 5221

Sunrise Church in Rialto (Steve Garcia): 5000

Rock Harbor Church in Costa Mesa (Bart Scharrer): 5000

Lake Avenue Church in Pasadena (Jeff Mattesich): 5000

 

ADDENDUM: When I posted this on Facebook I wrote: “Most California evangelicals will worship online this Sunday, but the media is obsessed with those that want to open-up.”

A reader responded:

The media is obsessed.” If I’m a journalist, it’s my responsibility to cover things like the Liberty Counsel’s “ReOpen Church Sunday” announcement which was made over a month ago. That’s not obsession, it’s simple reporting.

My response:

No argument here…You have to cover it. You are doing your job. But part of my job is to remind people that the reporting of individual cases–like the Liberty Counsel “ReOpen Church Sunday”– is used to create a larger narrative that informs programming and a given outlet’s approach to the news. You are covering facts. 24-hour news outlets are taking those facts and telling a story over the course of a given news cycle. CNN and MSNBC want to paint evangelicals as rights-obsessed, anti-science crazy people. FOX wants to portray them as patriots. Neither represents the everyday lives of most conservative evangelical Christians. A historian would tell this story very differently. 50 years from now, the story of Pentecost Sunday 2020 in California will be that the attendees of the largest megachurches in the state stayed home.

ADDENDUM #2 (Saturday, May 22, 2020 at 11:00am): John MacArthur of Grace Community Church is opening.

 

Kate Bowler on Evangelical Women Celebrities

Preachers WifeDuke Divinity School’s Kate Bowler keeps churning out books.  Her latest is The Preacher’s Wife: The Precarious Power of Evangelical Women Celebrities.

Over at Christianity Today, Liberty University’s Karen Swallow Prior interviews Bowler about her new book. Here is a taste:

Despite the title of your book, The Preacher’s Wife, your work is not solely about pastors’ wives. In a larger sense, it’s a metaphor that gestures toward the way in which the influence of evangelical women is almost entirely dependent upon men, whether those men are husbands, pastors, or the gatekeepers of the marketplace. Can you explain your thinking behind the title?

The title is a shorthand for my thesis: Modern megachurch ministry does not authorize women to be spiritual leaders based on their education, credentials, or experience. Instead, they are billed as wives and mothers, famous for spiritual gifts that do not directly interfere with pulpit preaching (like singing and leading other women or children). As such, the easiest path to fame is to be the wife, mother, or daughter of a famous godly man—someone, in other words, who offers complementary spiritual sustenance to audiences that he is not directly targeting. For instance, megachurches frequently need a woman to run their women’s ministry, and the pastor’s wife is one of the most obvious choices.

Just look at the small gestures, like her Twitter bio or the way she is announced as she goes on stage: Taffi is Creflo Dollar’s wife. Dodie is Joel Osteen’s mom. Priscilla is Tony Evans’s daughter. There are many scrappy women who built ministries from scratch, but it is a far smoother road to be married to the ministry.

Speaking of the marketplace, your analysis sheds light on what you describe as “the dark logic of the marketplace,” one based on a “limited spiritual economy” that encourages women to create platforms built on competition, resentment, and comparison. Can you talk about how the sexism and entrepreneurism present in both evangelicalism and the broader American culture have turned insecurity into a source of power for evangelical women?

When conservative women are barred from the pulpit—or any situation in which they appear to be teaching men—they must find other ways of reaching an audience, ways that center on stereotypically gendered tropes. For this reason, women in ministry might build their platform on their expertise in parenting, cooking, nutrition, weight loss, or beauty. Those who directly take on the work of preaching and teaching will call themselves “Bible teachers” instead. No matter how closely their work resembles that of a senior pastor, women in megaministry will be introduced as authors or speakers, television hosts or parachurch founders. It is a delicate balance of professed submission to authority and implied independence from it.

One might think that the power and influence of women within mainline denominations is less precarious simply because those traditions tend to embrace more egalitarian views. Yet you point out that the absence of “celebrity culture” within these denominations is also a factor. Can you elaborate on the difference that celebrity culture makes for women’s power and influence within evangelicalism?

The role of celebrity culture in the mainline is muted for a few reasons. First, mainline seminaries care very little about charisma and are far more focused on a procedural form of vetting for theology and prose. (I say this with ambivalence as a mainline seminary professor myself. Surely we want more engaging people in the pulpit?) Second, while there are numerous mainline megachurches, they are typically smaller and more denominationally focused, so they are not leaders in engaging the broader culture. And lastly, their cosmopolitanism makes them reluctant evangelists for their own “brand,” unwilling to engage in the marketing and promotion that the market requires.

If we take seriously Daniel Vaca’s argument in his forthcoming book, Evangelicals Incorporated: Books and the Business of Religion in America—and we should!—much of evangelicalism’s self-understanding is internally shaped by its consumer practices. Evangelicals are what they buy. And conservative Christian women have created a coherent set of consumer products—books, music, conference tickets, podcast ad buys, and so on—that give the culture its worldview. The mainline utterly lacks this consumer identity that animates the conservative subculture. By contrast, conservative Christian women are stepping into a capitalist wonderland when they decide to set up shop there.

Read the entire interview here.

Does Your Church Have a Trendy Name?

journeyprojectslider9-1030x362

Over at The Federalist, G. Shane Morris has categorized trendy evangelical church names.  Here are his categories:

  1. “Just Random Words” (“The Journey,” “The River“)
  2. “The Grocery Store Romance Novel” (“Burning Hearts,” “Word Aflame“)
  3. “The Gated Community” (“Centerpoint,” “Grace Pointe,” “Crossroads“)
  4. “The Night Club” (“180 Church,” “Ignite,” “The Alley“)
  5. “The Gym” (“Action Church,” “Champion Life Church,” “No Limits Fellowship“)
  6. “The Internet Startup” (“Catalyst Church,” “Engage,” “Netcast“)
  7. “The Spa” (“Renovate,” “The Healing Place,” “Wellspring”)
  8. “The Jeb Bush” (“Relevant Life,” “Dream Church,” “Compassion Church“)
  9. “Huh?” (“Caleb’s Foot,” “Scum of the Earth Church,” “Cowboy Church“)

Read the entire piece here.

An Evangelical Megachurch in Ohio Is Trying To Do It Right

Crossroads

Crossroads Church is a massive evangelical megachurch with nearly a dozen campuses in the greater Cincinnati area. It has an average Sunday attendance of 38,000.  According to Harhie Han, a professor of political science at the University of California at Santa Barbara, the church is pro-life and largely white.

But Crossroads appears to be a different kind of megachurch.  Han explains in this piece at The New Republic.  A taste:

Just as it charts a new path for a church, Crossroads charts a new path for politics. Today, many grassroots organizations on the left define themselves by difference, relying on implicit ideological purity tests to determine who belongs in these groups. Imagine the suspicious looks someone would get if they arrived at a Greenpeace meeting in hunting gear and a gas-guzzling pickup truck. Crossroads, in contrast, accepts all people, no matter what they wear, eat, drive, or say. It is more interested in forging a shared identity that transcends the differences that normally divide Americans—race, partisanship, and even faith. Although Crossroads adheres to the teachings of the Christian Bible, it welcomes people who do not. With this philosophy, it has built up a base of political activists that is far more durable than anything Democratic campaigns can create through blast emails and algorithmic wizardry. In a moment when the left is riven with debates over how to hold together contentious coalitions of women, millennials, environmentalists, constituencies of color, and many more, Crossroads offers powerful lessons about the way commitments to a community translate into commitments to a political agenda.

In April 2015, when cases of police brutality against black men dominated headlines around the country, a black pastor at Crossroads, Chuck Mingo, delivered a sermon about race. “He stood up onstage and said, ‘I feel like God is calling me to be a voice of racial reconciliation in Cincinnati,’ ” Elizabeth Hopkins, a biracial Crossroads congregant, recalled. “And I swear, my heart exploded inside of my chest. I wanted to stand up and be like, ‘Me too, Chuck, me too!’ I emailed him right afterwards. He probably got 4,000 emails.”

Soon after, Crossroads launched Undivided, a “racial reconciliation” program that drew 1,200 participants to its first session. Over the course of six weeks, members took part in racially mixed groups of eight to ten people with two facilitators, one white person and one person of color. Each group explored Cincinnati’s history on race, research on implicit racism and empathy, and their own experiences of race. “When I walked into that first meeting about Undivided, I was as cynical as you could be that this would be a watered down, me-and-my-friend-of-color experience that tries to keep everything as noncontroversial as possible,” said Troy Jackson, then the executive director of the AMOS Project, a faith-based organizing network in Cincinnati that partnered with Crossroads on the Issue 44 campaign. “But it’s been the most interesting, challenging, exciting, perplexing organizing work I’ve done.”

Read the entire piece here.

What is Going On With Bill Hybels and Willow Creek?

Hybels

While I lived in Chicagoland in the early 1990s I occasionally drove out to Barrington to worship at Willow Creek Community Church.  I was always edified by the sermons of pastor and Willow Creek founder Bill Hybels.

I was thus shocked to see this long Chicago Tribune article on alleged sexual harassment.  Hybels denies everything, but it does seem like there is some credible evidence from his accusers.  Read the piece here.  Christianity Today also has it covered here.  We will see how this unfolds.

Evangelicalism as a Mission Field for Evangelical Scholars

Gateway
Calvin College philosopher James K.A. Smith delivered the final plenary lecture at “The State of the Evangelical Mind” conference last week.  Very early in his talk Smith announced that “everything going on in this conference has no connection whatsoever to evangelical churches.”  He was right.

Smith began by addressing the “elephant in room.”  Up until this point all of the speakers danced around the links between the the so-called “scandal of the evangelical mind” and Donald J. Trump.  Smith called out the 81% of American evangelicals who voted for the current POTUS and even gave a shout-out to my work on the “court evangelicals.”

Smith was not optimistic about the state of the evangelical mind.  The “evangelical mind,” he lamented, is a “minority report at best.”  If such an evangelical mind does exist, it is found almost entirely in “confessional groups.”  In other words, it is not thriving, or perhaps even existing, in non-denominational churches. These congregations have grown from 194,000 in 1990 to eight million today.  According to Smith, those concerned about the evangelical mind should be devoted to closing the gap between the scholarly world and these churches.  Evangelicalism, he argued, is a “mission field for evangelical scholars.”

Following Smith’s call will require boldness on the part of Christian scholars.  Smith urged us to consider a “scholarship for the masses,” a “scholarship without condescension,” an “outreach scholarship, and a “translation scholarship.”  Our work with the church should be something akin to the work we do in undergraduate classroom teaching.  Smith imagined bringing our general education programs into the churches

Smith calls Christian scholars to critique American evangelicalism while at the same time working for reform.  The Christian Right, he said, is “invested in the anti-intellectualism of evangelical churches.”  They rely on non-thinking Christians in order to advance their political agendas.  The fulfillment of Smith’s vision will require evangelical scholars to stay in their churches and engage in a “come alongside scholarship.”  He reminded us that “you can’t be a prophet on your way out the door.” Such work will require scholars dedicated to the church, Christian colleges and universities willing to provide time to faculty who want to pursue this work, and patrons willing to fund such an effort.  Where is the Christian scholar MacArthur grants?  Why isn’t the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities developing a program to promote Christian scholarship along the lines of the National Endowment for the Humanities?

There were times during Smith’s talk when I wanted to stand up and cheer.  As many of you know, I have been trying to live out Smith’s vision for over a decade and it has been a somewhat lonely experience.  To hear a leading evangelical intellectual like Smith affirm the kind of things I have been doing through my speaking, my writing, and my work at The Way of Improvement Leads Home gave me hope.

Have Conservative Protestants Abandoned the Label “Evangelical”

Saddleback

Saddleback Church

On Saturday, we directed your attention to Thomas Kidd’s post calling for the end of the term “evangelical” to describe Protestants who believe in the inspiration of the Bible, the centrality of conversion, and the need to share their faith with others.  Kidd thinks that the word “evangelical” in America “has become inextricably tied to Republican politics,” making it more of a political term than a religious one.

When my post went to Facebook, an evangelical pastor responded this way:

For most east coast pastors who have adopted a seeker approach the term has been avoided for two decades or more. It’s turned into a political term that works against our efforts to reach the unchurched.

This is one pastor’s opinion, but I think it may be correct.  Fifteen years ago, when I started attending an Evangelical Free church in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, it was called “West Shore Evangelical Free Church.”  But today, if you go to the church website, you will notice that the church is now called “West Shore Free Church.”  What happened to the term “evangelical?”  Perhaps I missed the meeting when this was changed.  The church remains part of the Evangelical Free Church denomination, but it no longer uses the term “evangelical” to describe itself.

I got really curious about this, so we checked out the websites of some of the largest evangelical churches in the country using a list from Sermon Central.  The list includes Lakewood Church (Joel Osteen), Willow Creek Community Church (Bill Hybels), Saddleback Church (Rick Warren), The Potter’s House (T.D. Jakes), and Thomas Road Baptist Church (Jonathan Falwell).

After an extensive examination of the websites of the 40 largest churches on the Sermon Central list, we found two churches that used the term “evangelical” as a descriptive term.  Harvest Bible Chapel in Rolling Meadows, Illinois describes itself as an “evangelical fellowship.”  Saint Matthews Baptist Church, a predominantly African-American congregation in Williamstown, New Jersey, describes its doctrinal position as “historically that of conservative, evangelical Christianity.”  (It also describes itself as at the “forefront of the non-charismatic, dispensational, pre-millennial movement.”

This little study is far from perfect, but perhaps my pastor friend is correct.  It seems that most of the largest churches in the country, churches that scholars and the media would describe as “evangelical,” don’t use the term to identity themselves.

Why Aren’t Mainline Protestant Religious Leaders More Famous?

Church for Sale

Duke Divinity School historian Kate Bowler asks this question at Faith and Leadership blog.

Here is a taste of her piece:

No one seems to call anyone famous in the mainline church.

As a historian of the largest churches and ministries, I have been grappling with this conundrum: why are there so few mainline celebrities? And when I find them, why don’t they want to be called celebrities?

I have spreadsheets of the largest mainline churches in every denomination — Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopal and so on. Even with plenty of mainline megachurches, there are few familiar names among them. Today’s era of increased concentration of people in big churches is not necessarily creating the same model of self-promotional leadership that has made Joel Osteen or Steven Furtick into recognizable faces.

I recently spoke to a young pastor of a Presbyterian megachurch about the advantages of becoming a star.

“I am not interested in becoming a celebrity,” he said. “Even that word makes my skin crawl.”

Mainliners did not always feel that way, especially about one of the most important vehicles for fame: television. Mainline preachers had been staples of religious television in the postwar period until the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) changed the rules that subsidized their airtime in the 1960s and 1970s.

It was religious conservatives who outbid them in the years that followed, willing to pay higher and higher prices for the exposure that television would bring. Gradually, televangelism became equated with a certain kind of theology — a form of Pentecostalism known as the “prosperity gospel” for its assurances that health and wealth would come to any righteous believer.

All the largest Christian television networks were owned by prosperity preachers (except, of course, the Catholic network owned by an unforgettable entrepreneurial nun in Alabama named Mother Angelica). Televangelism was thought to be slick, credulous and fun, while mainline culture still sought to be unvarnished, respectable and serious. Not to mention that no mainline pastor would dare to imitate Jim Bakker’s powder-blue suits — not even to jazz up the Easter morning breakfast.

Anyone who has ever seen a Catholic priest break out his guitar to sing “On Eagle’s Wings” knows that every American religious tradition has cultural episodes of trying to appear more relevant. But the chilly relationship between mainline Protestantism and the popular marketplace has become a stable feature of the mainline’s self-understanding. The more that evangelicals and Pentecostals dominate megachurches, television, publishing and almost any other means of gaining fame, the more that mainline pastors seem disinclined to enter the fray.

Read the entire piece here.

Perhaps this is yet another reason why mainline churches are in decline and evangelical churches are growing.

The Author’s Corner with Phillip Luke Sinitiere

salvationwithasmilePhillip Luke Sinitiere is Professor of History at the College of Biblical Studies, a multiethnic school located in Houston’s Mahatma Gandhi District. This interview is based on his book Salvation with a Smile: Joel Osteen, Lakewood Church, and American Christianity (NYU Press, 2015).

JF: What led you to write Salvation with a Smile?

PLS: I wrote Salvation with a Smile out of a long-standing interest in the history of American evangelicalism. After completing a chapter on Joel Osteen in my first book Holy Mavericks (NYU Press, 2009), I wanted to write a larger story on the smiling preacher that considered his place in American religious history. As a life-long Houston resident, I also wanted to explore Osteen and Lakewood Church in relationship to Texas, and to the Sunbelt.

In my research, I found that everyone I spoke with had an opinion about the smiling preacher; folks either loved him or hated him. I wanted to investigate Osteen and Lakewood Church beyond the binary responses I was hearing. After all, there’s a reason why 40,000 people attend Lakewood weekly, millions of people read his New York Times best-selling books, and millions of people tune into his television broadcast. I wrote Salvation with a Smile to figure out why.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Salvation with a Smile?

PLS: Salvation with a Smile argues that Joel Osteen, and by extension Lakewood Church, is America’s most powerful twenty-first century evangelical minister; it explains how Lakewood became America’s largest megachurch and Joel Osteen became Joel Osteen. While neither represents the sum total of American evangelicalism, the history of Lakewood Church and Joel Osteen explains significant developments that illuminate connections between neopentecostalism, the prosperity gospel, televangelism, and religion in the American South.

JF: Why do we need to read Salvation with a Smile?

PLS: Salvation with a Smile shows that Joel Osteen’s father, John Osteen, along with post-World War II neopentecostalism and the prosperity gospel movement helped to make the smiling preacher. In this regard, I hope the book adds another chapter to the broader history of the prosperity gospel that scholars such as Kate Bowler, Gerardo Marti, and Arlene Sánchez-Walsh, among others, have brilliantly documented. Furthermore, Osteen’s nearly two decades of religious television production and broadcasting experience before he became Lakewood’s full-time pastor in 1999 helps to contextualize how in the early 2000s Joel harnessed emerging social media platforms in the service of propagating his prosperity message. In this sense, Osteen and Lakewood’s story connects to the history of American televangelism. Finally, Osteen’s ascendance in American evangelicalism during the Internet Age—and his presence on television and social media—has generated a flurry of criticism, much of it from American evangelicals. Thus, Salvation with a Smile historicizes New Calvinist critiques of the smiling preacher as both an index of his notoriety and as a way to understand the fractures and fissures within contemporary U. S. evangelicalism; in other words, the account of Osteen and his detractors reflects the “crisis of authority” about which historian Molly Worthen has beautifully written.

 

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

PLS: While I had designs on pursuing a career in professional golf—I was a student-athlete on the golf team at the University of Houston, and later at Sam Houston State University—in college several professors brought history to life and I found that my passions shifted. The late Terry Bilhartz, one of my mentors at Sam Houston State, was one of the most engaging lecturers I’ve ever seen. At the University of Houston, James Kirby Martin always emphasized the importance of writing clearly and accessibly, Kairn Klieman helped me to understand the power of history beyond the classroom, and Gerald Horne modeled the centrality of archival research for academic scholarship. Reconstructing the past at its best tells a story and the ways that my professors and mentors conveyed history in lively, compelling, and comprehensible ways drew me in. Additionally, I found, and still find, archival research both enjoyable and exciting. Sure, the work at times gets tedious, but the detective sleuthing so vital to the art of reconstructing history is great fun. Connecting the dots between past and present is both challenging and exhilarating whether it is in the classroom with students or in moments of solitude when I’m writing. While I may be a professional historian according to industry standards, I remain very much a student of history with many questions for which I continuously seek answers.

JF: What is your next project?

PLS: For Rowman and Littlefield, I’m completing a short biography of 20th century writer and civil rights activist James Baldwin. I am also editor of and contributor to two essay collections on the twilight years of W. E. B. Du Bois between the 1930s and 1960s. One volume, under contract with Northwestern University Press, examines Du Bois’s career in global perspective; the second volume, which the University Press of Mississippi will publish, explores concepts of American freedom in Du Bois’s intellectual and political work.

JF: Thanks, Phil!

The Author’s Corner with Chas Barfoot

Chas Barfoot teaches philosophy and religious studies at Arizona State University. This interview is based on his new book Aimee Semple McPherson and the Making of Modern Pentecostalism, 1890—1926 (Routledge, 2014).

JF: What led you to write Aimee Semple McPherson and the Making of Modern Pentecostalism, 1890—1926.

CB: It began as a thesis on Women in Pentecostalism for a ThM degree under Harvey Cox. When I arrived in Berkeley in the spring of 1978 I submitted an outline to Harper San Francisco. I didn’t type back then so Richard Quebedeaux, a dear friend and a Harper author typed the outline for me dispensing tips as he typed. One of the editors, the only woman, liked the chapter title and summary on Aimee Semple McPherson. Roy Carlisle from Fuller Seminary had also just come on board to be in charge of Evangelical books and authors. I was all of a 20 something ex-Pentecostal preacher boy who hadn’t published a thing. Clayton Carlson, the founder and publisher was aware of the sensational books on Aimee by Lately Thomas and was very supportive of the project. When I discovered that Aimee’s third husband was alive, and that I had access to his memoirs, Clayton made the decision to go with two volumes, since the research indicated there really were two Aimee’s.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Aimee Semple McPherson and the Making of Modern Pentecostalism, 1890—1926.

CB: My new publisher and editor at Equinox, Janet Joyce, came up with the sub-title after reading the manuscript and was spot on. Aimee Semple McPherson set the tone for modern Pentecostalism with her secular-spirituality and megachurch empire in Los Angeles which also included the founding of an international denomination that is still growing.

JF: Why do we need to read Aimee Semple McPherson and the Making of Modern Pentecostalism, 1890—1926.

CB: Today we recognize that there are Pentecostalisms. Thankfully, Aimee wasn’t written as a dissertation. I let the events unfold and the secrets reveal themselves. The research demanded that I discard the deprivation model I had so prized in my Princeton thesis. It didn’t fit Aimee’s particular brand of Pentecostalism nor the one I grew up in. Eldon Ernst helped me uncover some Baptist clergy correspondence and immediately you could see from the letters that fundamentalism and Pentecostalism were viewed as two separate, competing movements. Both books contain valuable oral histories from people who knew and worked with Aimee. Finally, it is a work on healing, women in religion, religion in the west, and the differences between what Albanese calls extraordinary vs. ordinary religion or mainline vs. marginal religion.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

CB: When I was under contract with Harper’s Clayton Carlson asked, “What will we call you, a historian?” I said, “That sounds right.” Author, writer would have worked, but In the Biblical tradition one becomes what they are called! I had specialized in the sociology of religion, and now I was working in history and biography and attempting to combine the two disciplines. My affair with history began with a course with Oscar Handlin and I later met his protege William McLoughlin who had written the biography of Billy Sunday. Bill was a wonderful nurturing person who after a lunch with several Heinekens encouraged me to apply to the PhD program in American Civilization at Brown. I could continue to work with Harvey Cox at Harvard he said and with him in History at Brown. I never applied since I had settled back in California but Bill opened the door for me to meet with Roberta Semple Salter, Aimee’s daughter. I’ve often regretted not working with Bill. He, also, viewed my “ministerial training,” as he called it, as a virtue and not a hindrance for a historian of religion. Jim Washington was also very supportive when I was accepted for doctoral work at Union Seminary. “You have,” he said, “a flair for narrative history.” That meant a lot since I was going through a divorce at the time and Jim later published a book on Martin Luther King, Jr. with my editor at Harper’s.

Along with Harvey Cox, whose PhD degree was in the history and philosophy of religion, it was the historians who inspired me the most and opened doors along the way. I sat in on Samuel Haber’s history class at Cal and read the new (at the time) California historians, Al Raboteau and Catherine Albanese. Henry F. May, recently retired, loomed large in Berkeley lore. Kathryn Kish Sklar at UCLA gave me several student papers that turned up a forgotten PR man of Aimee’s.

When I returned to academic life after a twenty year stint as a mainline minister, a vanishing occupation if ever there was, two historians working in the southwest became new mentors: the late Ferenc Szasz at the University of New Mexico and Bob Trennert former head of the History department at Arizona State University. I quickly realized that the history of religions in the southwest was virgin territory.

JF: What is your next project?

CB: I have two projects going on simultaneously: Aimee Semple McPherson, Among the Savage Branches, 1926-1944 (Equinox, 2016) and A.A. Allen’s Miracle Valley and the Search for the Fabulous in the Southwest.

JF: Sounds exciting! Thanks Charles.

Thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of the Author’s Corner

Peter Berger on Denominations and Atheists

Worship at an atheist mega-church

According to Peter Berger, denominations are not dead.  In fact, Roman Catholics, Buddhists, Jews, Muslims, and Hindus are all embracing various forms of denominationalism.  So are atheists. This is how Berger explains the development of so-called “atheist mega-churches.”

A taste:

The AP story links this development to the growth of the “nones” in the US—that is, people who say “none” when asked for their religious affiliation in a survey. A recent study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life (a major center for religious demography) found that 20% of Americans fall under that category. But, as the story makes clear, it would be a mistake to understand all these people to be atheists. A majority of them believes in God and says that they are “spiritual but not religious”. All one can say with confidence is that these are individuals who have not found a religious community that they like. Decided atheists are a very small minority in this country, and a shrinking one worldwide. And I would think that most in this group are better described as agnostics (they don’t know whether God exists) rather than atheists (those who claim to know that he doesn’t). I further think that the recent flurry of avowed atheists writing bestselling books or suing government agencies on First Amendment grounds should not be seen as a great cultural wave, in America or anywhere else (let them just dream of competing with the mighty tsunami of Pentecostal Christianity sweeping over much of our planet).
How then is one to understand the phenomenon described in the story? I think there are two ways of understanding it. First, there is the lingering notion of Sunday morning as a festive ceremony of the entire family.  This notion has deep cultural roots in Christian-majority countries (even if, especially in Europe, this notion is rooted in nostalgia rather than piety).  Many people who would not be comfortable participating in an overtly Christian worship service still feel that something vaguely resembling it would be a good program to attend once a week, preferably en famille. Thus a Unitarian was once described as someone who doesn’t play golf and must find something else to do on Sunday morning. This atheist gathering in Los Angeles is following a classic American pattern originally inspired by Protestant piety—lay people being sociable in a church (or in this case quasi-church) setting. They are on their best behavior, exhibiting the prototypical “Protestant smile”.  This smile has long ago migrated from its original religious location to grace the faces of Catholics, Jews and adherents of more exotic faiths. It has become a sacrament of American civility. It would be a grave error to call it “superficial” or “false”. Far be it from me to begrudge atheists their replication of it.
However, there is a more important aspect to the aforementioned phenomenon: Every community of value, religious or otherwise, becomes a denomination in America. Atheists, as they want public recognition, begin to exhibit the characteristics of a religious denomination: They form national organizations, they hold conferences, they establish local branches (“churches”, in common parlance) which hold Sunday morning services—and they want to have atheist chaplains in universities and the military. As good Americans, they litigate to protect their constitutional rights. And they smile while they are doing all these things.

How Far Should We Go With the Separation of Church and State?

Elmwood Church

A few weeks ago I did a post and an episode of the Virtual Office Hours on the controversy over whether or not the Ground Zero Cross should be displayed at a publicly funded museum devoted to the tragic events of 9-11.  In those pieces I argued that this was not a church-state issue, but a public history issue.  If the cross gave meaning to the people of New York and the nation in the wake of the attacks, then it had historical significance and thus belonged in the museum.  A federal court agreed.

In yesterday’s Washington Times, Robert George, a law and politics professor at Princeton (currently in residence at Harvard), told the story of another church-state case that has found its way to the federal courts.  Today the Supreme Court will decide whether to a hear a case on the “constitutionality of holding a high school graduation in a church auditorium.”  Secular groups do not want the Elmbrook, Wisconsin  School District to hold its graduation ceremony in a local megachurch because to do so would “cause students to believe that the district was endorsing Christianity.” The 7th U.S. District Court of Appeals agreed with them.

As George informs us, the Elmbrook School District chose the church auditorium because it was the best, most affordable place in town to hold a graduation ceremony.  It has a bigger space than the school gym, has more parking, has more seating, and has air conditioning. As far as I can tell, the religious character of the building had nothing to do with the decision.

The church in question is Elmbrook Church, a non-denominational evangelical megachurch located in the Milwaukee suburbs.  Some of my older evangelical readers will recall that the long-time pastor of this church was popular Christian writer and speaker Stuart Briscoe.  (Others may be familiar with his wife, Jill Briscoe). I think I am safe in saying that Elmbrook Church was a megachurch before megachurches were popular.  It has been a flagship congregation on the American evangelical landscape.

Megachurches like Elmbrook Church are known for massive auditoriums, gymnasiums, spaces for post-service sociability and fellowship, audio-visual technology, and excellent sound systems.  In many communities the megachurch has better facilities than any other building in town.  Some megachurches do not even contain religious imagery because their leaders want to be sensitive to newcomers and those who are uncomfortable at more traditional churches filled with crosses, icons, altars, and stained glass windows. Many megachurches rent their facilities for weddings, basketball practices, and conferences.  (My daughter’s 6th grade public school basketball team occasionally practices in one).

Here are two of the spaces in the Elmbrook Church:

Why can’t the evangelical propensity for building large spaces make a contribution to the common good in towns like Elmbrook, Wisconsin?  When does a multipurpose space become a religious space?  When does a religious space become a multipurpose space?

Robert George gets the last word:

…Faced with expensive lawsuits over their graduation venues, most school districts simply will capitulate moving graduation to worse or more expensive venues and harming students and school budgets. One school district in Wisconsin already has been forced to do just that: It moved its graduation ceremony from the Elmbrook church auditorium to a cavernous, 42,000-seat baseball stadium at triple the price of the church.

All of this calls for a deep breath and a dose of common sense. The Supreme Court has long held that the Constitution permits the government to be neutral toward religion meaning that the government can treat religious entities on the same terms as nonreligious entities. That was just what the school district did here: It examined all available venues and chose the best facility for the price. The fact that the best facility happened to be a church did not make a neutral, common-sense decision unconstitutional.

Any other result would require the government to be overtly hostile to religion. No longer could school districts compare religious and nonreligious venues on equal terms and choose the best venue for the price. Instead, they would have to avoid religious venues, even when doing so harms students and school budgets. The Constitution does not require such a counterintuitive result.

…Let’s hope the Supreme Court takes the Elmbrook case and spares us and our school districts and students unnecessary expenses.

Super-Sizing Church

Live Science is running an interesting piece about megachurches based on the research of a University of Washington graduate student in sociology.  Katie Corcoran, who presented some of her research on Sunday at the meeting of the American Sociological Association, is working on a book with religion professor James Wellman called High on God: How the Megachurch Conquered America.

Here is a taste of the article:

…a new study of 12 representative megachurches spread across the country finds that the size of these churches is a major part of their appeal. Members report that the experience of worshiping with thousands is intoxicating, the researchers find.

“It’s an addicting experience, it’s so large, it’s so huge,” said study researcher Katie Corcoran, a graduate student in sociology at the University of Washington. “One respondent said you can look up to the balcony and see the Holy Spirit go over the crowd like a wave in a football game…” 

Corcoran attributes the rise in megachurches to charismatic pastors, optimistic messages and activities for every interest. Small groups, often based around non-religious hobbies like knitting or fishing, give members a sense of belonging, she said.

“The main reason that people are gravitating towards these churches is because they do offer a wide variety of programs, and they have very enjoyable and entertaining services with messages that a lot of people feel comfortable with,” Corcoran said.

The researchers also found a new trend of people reporting that they regularly attend not only a megachurch, but another church as well. It’s not yet clear why people double up on their churches, but it’s likely that they’re getting something different from each church, Corcoran said.

I have a hard time reconciling the megachurch with the message my family heard in church this past Sunday. (I was sick).  The sermon came from the Matthew 7: 13-14: “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the
road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it.  But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.

Just thinking…

Drive-in Theaters and Megachuches

Over at The Atlantic, Megan Garber has a fascinating piece about how Robert Schuller used to preach at a drive-in movie theater in Orange County, California.  Those who came to hear him would stay in their cars and Schuller would climb to the top of the theater snack bar and deliver his weekly message.  Later he would move to a new venue where he was able to preach to people sitting in traditional pews and cars (see photo).

Here is a taste:

In 1955, the Reformed Church in America gave a grant of $500 to Reverend Schuller and his wife Arvella. The young couple were to start a ministry in California; for that, they needed to find a venue that would host their notional congregation. While making the trip from Illinois, driving on Route 66, the reverend took to a napkin and listed 10 sites that could host his budding ministry. Researching the matter further, however, Schuller discovered that the first nine of those options were already in use for other purposes. So he set his sights on the tenth: the Orange Drive-In Theatre.

The efficiencies of the venue were obvious: For cinematic purposes, the drive-in was useful only in the darkness, which meant that it could play an effortlessly dual role, theater by night and church by day. The architecture and technological system built for entertainment could be repurposed, hacked even, to deliver a religious ceremony for the golden age of the car. An early advertisement announced the new ministry’s appeal: “The Orange Church meets in the Orange Drive-In Theater where even the handicapped, hard of hearing, aged and infirm can see and hear the entire service without leaving their family car.”

Jerry Falwell: Founder of the Megachurch

First off, let me say that I have become slightly addicted to Religion & Politics, the new online journal from the John C. Danforth Center on Religion & Politics at Washington University in St. Louis.  They are publishing some really good stuff by some excellent authors.  (One note:  it might be helpful to have a link to the Center somewhere on the Religion & Politics homepage).  I am really eager to see how the Danforth Center grows, especially after they did a national search last  season for scholars who study religion and politics. (Have the new hires been announced?).

I think the readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home will find today’s piece by Michael Sean Winters to be particularly interesting.   Winters argues that Jerry Falwell is the founder, among other things, of the present-day megachurch movement.

Here is a taste:

But for all his political influence, Falwell should also be remembered for his role in shaping another major development in the life of American evangelical religion: the megachurch. Before he created a political dynasty, before he founded a university, before he molded the Republicans’ base of social conservatives, Falwell built a church. Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia, was his base, one that now boasts 20,000 members. It was from there that Falwell’s influential political and educational dynasty would grow. And it was from there that he learned the models of fundamentalist insularity and evangelical outreach that would mark his later endeavors.

Evangelicals have long liked crowds, and Falwell was not the first evangelical preacher to lead a church that held thousands. The Cane Ridge revival in 1801, which ignited the Second Great Awakening, reportedly attracted more than 20,000 people, but that was for a revival, not for establishing a permanent church. In the 1920s, Aimee Semple McPherson built the Angelus Temple in Los Angeles, seating 5,300 people, filled three times a day with members of her Foursquare Gospel Church. But she did not host a variety of ministries attached to her worship services. In 1956, when Falwell founded Thomas Road Baptist with only 35 members, he would, over the next fifteen years, build it into what would become one of the first modern-day megachurches in the country.

A megachurch is not simply a large church. If it were, St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome might qualify. Rather, megachurches are large Protestant enclaves—averaging 2,000 or more on a Sunday—and are usually located in the suburbs or exurbs of cities, where they cater to congregants through a host of ministries and services, schools, and day care centers. True to this mold, over the years Thomas Road Baptist had to build four different sanctuaries to accommodate its growth. More importantly, Falwell continually added new ministries to his church, creating a sub-culture for his parishioners.

This is a nice piece of religious journalism, but is it true?  Can anyone point to other evangelical churches that predate Thomas Road Baptist Church and can be defined, by Winters’s standards, as a megachurch?