Saturday, November 05, 2016

The Reformation Project: Outlining and Defending my Research Approach

As mentioned in my post from last week, this year long writing project will evaluate the state of the church before ultimately proposing theses designed to get us to think about meaningful church reform. The following outlines my research approach to evaluating the state of the church in the United States.

Over the course of the latter part of 2013 and the first quarter of 2014, I visited the ten largest churches in the Dallas/Fort Worth metropolitan area for the purpose of using them as case studies of the current status and likely future direction of American evangelical Christianity. I entered into the study with the theory that these churches provide clues as to where the church is headed and, having completed my research, I believe that to be the case more than before. Some may be heartened by this; others will despair.

 There is no doubt that the things I describe in the ten chapters devoted to those churches are prevalent in the American megachurch culture. However, I would anticipate criticism of the notion that these churches represent trends regarding the dominant direction of American Christianity. Would not the fact that they are extremely large churches – the 1%, one might say – suggest that they are outside the mainstream? It is a fair question, but one that is answerable in a compelling way.

First, it should be noted, for better or worse, that these are the churches that are numerically thriving during a period of decline in American church attendance. In fact, Thom Rainier of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Lifeway Christian Resources points out that 100,000 congregations will die out over the next quarter of a century. Most of those expected to die will be small or rural congregations that do not appeal to younger members because they either resist or are not capable of duplicating the methodologies and structures discussed in these chapters. In addition, churches in mainline denominations are dying out at an alarming, but unsurprising rate. Because the megachurches are thriving in a period of decline, they are regarded by many as the vibrant portion of American Christianity. These large churches claim to have answers to the question of how to appeal to the unchurched – and particularly to those who are young adults or youth. Thus, even laymen and pastors who have no wish themselves to attend a church with thousands of members will with increasing frequency look to those churches for solutions to what ails them. Pastors and church leaders who refuse to go along with the trends established by the visibly successful churches will be required to explain why, and many of their members will continue to abandon the churches where they grew up in favor of those on the cutting edge of change.

In addition, the pastors and staff of these churches are frequently held up as experts on how to build and grow churches. They speak at conferences and denominational meetings, write books about their accomplishments, and utilize social media tools to trumpet their methodologies and successes. Their stories of accomplishment and growth are presented to pastors and church leaders as the possible for their own situations. The pastors of these churches are seen as celebrities and role models in their mostly evangelical subcultures.

Social media amplifies the influence of these churches. While I was in the course of my research, I noticed that a friend of a friend, who I only know through Facebook, posted regarding his church’s upcoming series on the “family octagon.” Recognizing the title and accompanying art work as being the same as that used by Fellowship Church Grapevine during my visit there, and unsure whether the Grapevine church marketed its materials to other congregations, I emailed my acquaintance asking how they came to do the series.  His church, which is located in Missouri and is of a different denomination than the Grapevine megachurch, had come across the material online and decided to use it with some adaptations to meet their local situation.

My point is not to suggest that the Missouri church had done something improper – to the best of my knowledge there were no copyright issues at stake, and the church was quite open as to where they obtained the ideas.  My only point is to show the way that the programs and methodologies of these large churches are influencing the way that Christianity is proclaimed and practiced in other contexts.

To think about this another way, beginning in the 1970’s, the charismatic movement moved from the fringes of its Pentecostal origins into the mainstream of American evangelical Christianity. Along the way, the charismatics themselves were influenced by the wider evangelical culture and became more mainstream. However, they have had a remarkable influence on American Christianity, most notably in the areas of music and the way that people think about spirituality and the work of the Spirit. Of course, most American Christians are not part of churches that have healing services or speak in tongues, but the influence over the last 40 years of those who advance those practices cannot be denied. Similarly, the megachurch movement is having and will continue to have an influence that goes beyond those who actually participate in the movement.

One might similarly ask whether megachurches in the Dallas/Fort Worth area provide a reliable guide. Using these churches as my research platform was easy and inexpensive for me, as it kept my research local, but it is fair to ask if it provides anything of value from a research perspective. I believe that it does, and would suggest the following:

There are many cities across the southern United States that make a claim to be the buckle of the Bible belt – I have personally heard that phrase used with regard to Nashville and Atlanta, as well as Dallas. Certainly, the Dallas/Fort Worth area can make a significant argument for holding that designation.  Unlike other regions of the country, evangelical religion is a part of the social and cultural fabric of the region. While the area religious landscape includes both churches and institutions representing the mainline branches of Protestant Christianity, evangelical forms of belief and practice are dominant here, and those evangelical forms dominate the American religious landscape, including the megachurches, at a time when Protestant liberalism continues its steep decline. The area is home to an extraordinary number of megachurches, as well as to what has historically been the largest seminary in the world (Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary). Historic First Baptist Church of Dallas, located downtown, though no longer one of the largest churches in the region, was at one time the largest Southern Baptist Church in the United States – at a time before the numbers of these huge churches became a subject of national interest.

Geographically, Texas is near the southern center of the country, providing an intersection of southeastern and southwestern culture, and the fact that the Dallas area is a cosmopolitan region to which people come to live from all over the country allows it to in some degree transcend a merely regional culture. The area is also ethnically diverse, with the result that there was a significant amount of ethnic diversity in the congregations studied:  six were predominately (though not exclusively) white, three were mostly African-American, and one appeared to be evenly mixed between blacks and whites. All of the congregations visited additionally included Hispanic and Asian members. Notably, while most Hispanic families entering the United States are of Catholic background, a significant percentage seems drawn to the type of spiritual experiences associated with America’s evangelical culture.

In terms of method, I selected the ten largest churches in the Dallas/Fort Worth metropolitan area based on the information at the Hartford Institute for Religion Research’s website.  Other than accessing their list of megachurches in the United States, I began my church visits in October 2013, interrupting the visits during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays as I knew that the churches would likely be having special services associated with those days, and I hoped to experience their ordinary ways of worship.  I re-commenced my visits in January and completed them in March. With one exception to accommodate a family priority, I visited the churches in the order they appeared on the list, from largest to smallest, at the time I began my study. Because my order of visits was preset, I did not in any way try to visit churches based on what I knew would be a theme or occurrence in the service. My only advance preparation in that regard was to check the church’s website during the week prior to my visit to try to ascertain whether the senior pastor would be preaching that day.

Because I only visited each church one time, these are snapshots of how these churches conduct worship. I tried to be aware of this when performing analysis on individual congregations. Obviously, a pastor cannot say everything in one sermon, so it is important to approach emphases or areas of neglect with care.  While it would no doubt be of interest to do more long term analysis of these congregations, I believe that this snapshot approach has validity, particularly because the impressions gained from the individual congregations add up to a credible composite picture. While these churches present varied theological and cultural traditions, they share much in common, as well, and these commonalities will form the most interesting part of this study. In many ways, the megachurch culture supercedes the Baptist culture, the charismatic culture, etc., in these churches.

Many who care about the future of American Christianity have written jeremiads on the current state of things, with most of those based on either books by prominent pastors or individual experiences of the teaching of a pastor or church. With this project, I seek to go beyond the general expressions of concern by systematically outlining the experience of worshiping along with these individual congregations while thinking in an organized way about what their practices say about their beliefs of God, the Bible, prayer, worship, the Christian life, and so forth. The portrait that emerges is not pretty, and I invite all interested pastors and laity to grapple with where we are headed.

Sola deo Gloria.

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