For three quarters of a century a prosperous industry has grown up around repeatedly solving the problems of reported declines in church giving, attendance and membership (in that order).
The preferred solution in each cycle is as old as the first heresy – Reflect and mimic the culture to give people what they want, and “meet them where they are”. Reheat and recycle with variants:
- Promises of prosperity.
- Epitomized by the likes of Benny Hinn, Joel Osteen, Creflo Dollar, T.D. Jakes, Kenneth Hagin, Kenneth Copeland and the High Priestess of much of the modern genre, Kathryn Kuhlman.
- Promises of group therapy.
- Championed by the likes of Leadership Network, Rick Warren, Bill Hybels, Ed Stetzer, Reggie McNeal, Greg Laurie, Ken Blanchard, and Bob Buford.
- Promises of deification.
- Pimped by the likes of Doug Pagitt, Brian McLaren, Rob Bell, and Tony Jones.
- Promises of God’s Kingdom here and now.
- Marketed by Neo Social Gospel types like Mike Breen, Greg Finke, Alan Hirsch, Bill Woolsey, Dave Ferguson, Jim Putman, Michael Frost, Francis Chan, and many cross-over artists from the group therapy movement.
- Promises of all the above and more.
- Foghorned by the likes of Mark Driscoll, Steven Furtick, James MacDonald, Brian Houston, Perry Noble, Andy Stanley, and Pete Wilson.
The collective efforts have produced a remarkable boom in church giving and attendance, contrary to all the hand-wringing about decline.
In America Big Box churches entertain an estimated six million souls every weekend. They pack into vast arenas or mini-me “multi-site” networks. Hyper-segmentation has followed with products for Latinos, bikers, hipsters, over 55s, SWFs, tweens, addicts, ad naseum.
Throughout Africa cities are inundated with Benny Hinn clones luring the gullible and the broken to purchase God’s favor. Nigeria’s “Bishop” TB Joshua reigns supreme with remarkable charisma and stage craft to attract multicultural masses from all over the continent.
In Australasia the likes of Hillsong have flourished and exported themselves worldwide – the apotheosis of multi-site models where you can rock for Jesus via Cape Town, Amsterdam or Moscow, and the money flows to Sydney. Cha-ching!
Asia has hyperchurch manifestations like the Yoido Full Gospel church in Seoul, or the City Harvest Church in Singapore. The former has leaders guilty of fraud, the latter is under criminal investigation.
Skeptical Europe has not escaped the new methods with Anglo-American clones popping up all over the UK.Eastern Europe lies in the shadow of the bizarre and cultic Embassy of the Blessed Kingdom of God for all Nations based in Kiev.
These enterprises have generated avalanches of profits thanks to high pressure selling and a mecca of merchandizing. The organizations are lavishly equipped with infrastructure and resources, and the multi-layered leaderships are wealthy beyond a Pope’s imagination. Individual brands may wax and wane, but the movement prospers endlessly.
Unfortunately, it seems to be a zero sum game. The growth and wealth has come at the expense of bleeding out established churches. If fact, the “solution” churches are factories for minting generations of new unbelievers who have not one clue why it was necessary for Jesus the Christ to be born, live a perfect live, die on a cross, be resurrected, and ascend to Heaven.
The problem with church is not a lack of innovation and cultural alignment. The problem is too many fools in the pulpit and a multitude of pagans in the pews.
There is a famine of the Word such as the shepherd-prophet Amos reported in his terrifying book. We are fond of thinking about God’s judgements in terms of natural disasters like earthquakes and tsunamis, but what could be worse than an absence of His Word?
Analogous to the Ancient Mariner crying out, “Water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink”, we have tens of thousands of churches, but fewer and fewer of them offer salvation by grace alone through faith alone. We’ve never had so many Bibles in so many languages in circulation, and yet the men equipped to rightly divide the Word in them is inversely proportional.
This is what innovation in the name of God has brought about. We are witnessing Christianity in exile from the Word.
Martin Luther has a timely reminder for us that “gospel entrepreneurship” is both alien and dangerous: “The church is the work of God’s hands, and His children are His cultivation. “Therefore [God says] command Me. You cannot bring the matter to a successful issue. I will do it. Believe Me.” Ezra and Nehemiah carefully read these words of comfort and consoled the people and the king by means of the Word. Let God handle the matter, He will do it properly. (Luther’s Works, AE 17:129–30)
Not very innovative, that Martin Luther, that Ezra, that Nehemiah.