The Megachurch Century

The Megachurch Century

“…the dominating controversy within Christendom will be between those who give full weight to the supernatural reality at the heart of all Christian dogma, practice, and thought, and those who try to convert Christianity into a naturalistic religion by whittling away the reality and comprehensiveness of its supernatural basis.”

100 years ago to this very day, something important happened that dramatically changed what people have come to expect from church here in America and around the world. On January 1st, 1923, Aimee Semple McPherson opened the doors of Angelus Temple in Los Angeles. With a large auditorium containing over 5,000 seats, this new facility instantly became the largest church in America of its day. Over the next few years, “Sister Aimee” would end up drawing impressive crowds through the use of what she called “illustrated sermons,” which included stage props, toe-tapping music and her own charismatic personality. But what has been the result of this century-long confusion of church and theater? How have “celebrity pastors” changed what we expect of ministers and clergy, and how have concepts such as “seeker-sensitivity” affected the way we worship, evangelize and make disciples? These are some of the questions I’ll be exploring over the course of this new year as I reflect upon the the impact of the modern megachurch movement.

Some years ago I produced a White Horse Inn episode that focused on Aimee Semple McPherson’s unique approach to ministry titled, “That’s Entertainment” which included a thoughtful commentary by W. Robert Godfrey mixed with a variety of soundbites from McPherson herself (you can find a link to that episode at the end of this article). It’s fascinating to listen to audio clips from that era, since what seemed so fresh and relevant a century ago, now seems so quaint, outdated and irrelevant to modern ears. One is left with the question, was that a church service or a vaudeville act? Sure it ended up attracting large crowds, but what was it in fact that the crowds came to see? Did they come to be equipped and discipled, or to be entertained as they watched the show?

Speaking of shows, in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman wisely observed that “In television, perplexity is a superhighway to low ratings. This means that there must be nothing that has to be remembered, studied, applied, or worst of all, endured. It is assumed that any information, story or idea can be made immediately accessible, since the contentment, not the growth of the learner is paramount.” That is a keen observation, particularly in light of the fact that many of our churches have exchanged the historic Christian liturgy for some new updated version of The Jesus Show.

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