I am not a great fan of megachurches or of the "church growth" movement. And I've raised various objections. Now I've run across a person (whom I presume to be a Presbyterian) who says in a precise and witty way some of what I feel.
The internet is a fascinating reality: A brief time cruising just the blogs easily gives one the vision of the sum of human wisdoms being available at the touch of a few keystrokes. (Yes, I spent much more time following threads and links than was reasonable, and Im trying to justify my expenditure of time!)
Michael Spencer (who is the Internet Monk) reprinted an essay (here, scroll down to the entry for July 21, 2004) by R. C. Sproul, Jr., Sophisticated Lady, (from Tabletalk, June 2004, Ligonier Ministries, pp. 60-61) in which this preacher-teacher raises the question of whether the modern (or post-modern) growth church is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic and answers with a grieved no. The essay is short and worth reading, and I heartily recommend the few minutes it will take to read. (Thanks to Michael Spencer, whom I dont know, for posting it.) But because there are some simply wonderful formulations, and because I enjoy nothing better than careful rhetoric, and because I think his critique is so marvelously evangelical-catholic, Ill outline and quote here.
Sproul points out that the Church is in danger of losing her soul by adapting itself to the ways of the world in selling herself and judging her success by worldly measures of success. He illustrates by reference to Oakmont Family Worship Center. While there are no oaks, no mountains, few families (that is, the families all split and go their separate ways as soon as they enter [in order to participate in various programs]), no worship, and precious little center, there is a wide array of offerings that fit the demographics of the population Oakmont seeks to attract: a gym, twelve-step programs, youth/women/men/single groups, and a coffee bar right in the narthex, I mean, the greeting center.
Sproul then goes on to decry such church-growth plants: Oakmont is not one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. Test what he says against your experience and your home congregations lifestyle. If they resonate, you may want to buy some sackcloth and practice prophecy.
I'll let Rev. Sproul speak for himself, except for the boldface, which I've added.
It is not one because unlike the true church, its being isnt centered on the work of Christ.
It is the first church of whats happening now, and thus is untethered from the church in history.
Neither, of course is the church holy. It not only is not set apart, but labors diligently to mimic the world. It is unholy on purpose, because its reason for being is pleasing the lost, rather than the One who finds the lost.
The church begins with the assumption that I can be whatever it wishes and concludes by wishing to be just like the world.
"The prototypical Oakmont is not catholic either. Not only does it begin with a marketing strategy, but that marketing strategy is to reach a particular niche (virtually always yuppies, not coincidentally).
Its vision of the church extends only as broadly as the demographic it is seeking.
"Worst of all, Oakmont is not apostolic. It rejects not only the faith once delivered unto the saints, but likewise it rejects the messengers who delivered that faith. It takes its cues from modern-day church growth gurus, who, in turn, take their cues from the madmen of Madison Avenue. Oakmont isnt concerned with what the apostles said because they make their decisions based on what the market says. And one thing the market cannot bear is sound, old, demanding doctrine. When demographics divide, thats good marketing. But when doctrine divides, that bad marketing.
[This worldview] in the church, then, not only guts the church of her defining marks but givers her a new identity. Now she is no longer the bride of Christ, but a painted lady. When the church hustles the world, it becomes a worldly hustler.
He goes on to warn the church: When the church plays to consumers, she will find herself consumed by the One who is a consuming fire.
Thus R. C. Sproul.
I am eager to compare this criticism of the Church with Bonhoeffers religionless Christianity. It has been decades since I read Letters and Papers from Prison, and so I want to see the new translation and think it through again. But it seems to me that Bonhoeffer, like Sproul, was (re)calling the Church to her distinctive identity. Religion comprises all those trappings that we acquire and don when we try to be our own gods or define god or make our own godlike way. It is an attempt to manipulate both God and humanity. To be religionless, for Bonhoeffer, could not have meant leaving behind the oneness, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity but rather to identify those in the journey of following Jesus.
On the basis of my very limited contact with both the writers, I think they work toward the same point to make known to the Church how she is falling prey to false gods, gods that have been created and revealed by the world on the worlds terms. While the world is the Lords, until the final consummation, it remains world over against the Church (the Body of Christ). It must be called to account, to repentance, to faith and not mistakenly (i.e., sinfully) allowed to shape that account, that repentance, that purported faith on its own terms. Oakmont is religion, regardless of the good intentions of her founders and movers and shakers. And Sproul is right to name it.
Incidentally, I think Hauerwas might appreciate this description, too. In fact, it sounds a little like him. (See why I was taken with this read?)
The Lords peace, not as the world gives peace, sustain you.