The post-megachurch maze

labyrinth2I have vanished this week for a simple reason. My family is hiding up in the Smoky Mountains in a location so remote that we have no telephone and the nearest computer dial-up service is so slow that posting to the blog has been impossible. So I am sending this to the ever-patient Doug via email. It was interesting that I could post from Turkey and Greece easier than from this corner of North Carolina.

Still, I have a question from last week that I would like to ask GetReligion readers.

Last week, I was in Phoenix speaking at the annual North American Christian Convention. This is the kind of religious event that attracts thousands of people, yet almost always draws zero press coverage. Using the slow computer at the Burnsville, N.C., public library, I wasn’t able to find a single news story about this gathering. I didn’t see a story in the local newspapers while I was there. Google this yourself and see if you uncover something. Perhaps the organizers of this convention need to stage some kind of controversy about homosexuality. That almost always attracts coverage.

Meanwhile, the convention provided a kind of microcosm of trends in contemporary North American Protestantism. It is the largest event held each year by America’s independent Christian Churches, which is a loose network of congregational churches located — culturally speaking — in between the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) on the left and the non-instrumental Churches of Christ on the right. These independent churches insist that they are not a denomination, but this annual convention is where they get together to do most of the things that a denomination does.

So there was a large hall full of thousands of mostly middle-aged church leaders watching modern preachers deliver multimedia sermons with video clips and PowerPoint presentations, while youngish “worship teams” played the latest in the pop-rock worship music. The exhibit hall contained rows of booths for Bible colleges, seminaries and publishing companies, right next to booths for software companies and hip architectural firms that build media-friendly sanctuaries for modern seekers. In other words, business as usual in the post-megachurch age.

But I saw something else that made me wonder: Is this a column? Is this even a news story? If so, what is the story?

Here is what I saw. On one of the quieter halls of the convention center was a small room set aside for private prayer. Since this was a Protestant gathering, the room contained no traditional religious art. Yet there was an icon, of sorts. Over on a low table was a framed portrait of President George W. Bush, with a candle in front of it. The meaning was clear — pause here to pray specifically for our president.

So was this a Religious Right shrine?

Maybe not. A few steps away was another door leading into a larger candle-lit room. This one contained a large prayer maze called “The Desert.” It was based on Native American prayer traditions and, whether its creators intended it or not, is part of a larger movement with branches into all kinds of alternative forms of spirituality.

So was this a liberal, even New Age, shrine? Was it both? Is it OK for modern Protestants to draw on non-Christian artistic traditions while avoiding traditional Christian forms of spirituality? Meanwhile, back in the worship services, is it now more traditional to use rock music and Hollywood film clips than traditional forms of liturgy and hymns?

And is any of this a news story?

Just asking.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Lee

    Terry,

    The juxtaposition of an “icon” of President Bush in one room and a room for Native American spirituality in another makes it news …. a complex story, but news nonetheless.

    And if there was indeed a Labyrinth there, the story should write itself: New Age movement infiltrates non-denominational Protestantism.

    Lee

  • James Freeman

    Terry wrote:

    “Here is what I saw. On one of the quieter halls of the convention center was a small room set aside for private prayer. Since this was a Protestant gathering, the room contained no traditional religious art. Yet there was an icon, of sorts. Over on a low table was a framed portrait of President George W. Bush, with a candle in front of it. The meaning was clear — pause here to pray specifically for our president.”

    And they call Catholics idolaters. Oy veh.

    The damnable problem with the human condition is we’re always building golden calves and then expecting God to bless our blasphemy. I think I’m going to go listen to Dylan’s “With God on Our Side” now.

  • George Harper

    I teach Th.M.- and Ph.D.-level church history and theology in the Philippines. One of my Ph.D. students missed the first day of classes in order to attend this conference. I’m astonished at Terry’s description of some of the things that went on. Next week, when I see this student again, I’ll certainly ask for his reaction.

  • http://knapsack.blogspot.com Jeff

    Semi-similar (?) — every summer, in each major media market, 2,000 to 6,000 young people and adults who are giving up a week of vacation go out into the woods and share a week of Scout camp. . .boys 11 to 21 and a growing number of girls 14 to 21 in Venture Scout units, learning about nature, teamwork, citizenship, and leadership, competing against themselves to earn merit badges and ranks much more than against each other in winner take all: in theory, every Scout could earn Eagle if they fulfilled the requirements, and the system would hold together fine, but instead 1 in 200 does. And every couple years 30,000 to 50,000 of them get together in one place for a “National Scout Jamboree,” where all this happens and moreso.

    But unless there’s a freak death by tent stake or charges filed for molestation, none of it is news, says this 35+ year Scout/scouter who has wasted a great deal of time trying to talk media folk into seeing the visuals and the story angles i’m trying to offer. And as a Disciples of Christ pastor, our General Assembly (we gave in to being a denomination officially in the late 60′s, one reason the NACC is so resolute in not claiming that word) is every two years in a different place around the US with 6,000 to 8,000 inhabitants. Last October i was leading a work project team (something we do in every city we hold GA at) when a TV news van pulled up and a reporter asked what we were doing. I explained, and noted as an aside that the Disciples’ press office had sent a full press kit to her station last week. She nodded, interviewed me for a stand-up, shot some footage, and it aired that night with a delightfully mangled sense of why we Christians from around the country were there.

    It was the first time in eight years, i was told, that GA had gotten local TV coverage; since we last fought publically over. . .yeah, that issue. The reporter? She had her crew covering a murder down the street and just saw us all working and wondered what was up.

    In Grace & Peace,

    Jeff

  • Ken

    Most religious conventions seem to get some mention in the local press, although if they don’t, I suppose I wouldn’t know about it.

    Maybe 10 years ago or more, there was a local flap over the coverage of the first Promise Keepers event in this area. It got a small piece in the second (local news) section of the paper because a wind had blown over one of the speaker towers. And oh, yes, 60,000 men had gathered for bible study, prayers and mutual support. Around that time, the Living section carried a story of maybe 2 and a half columns about a PFLAG meeting of 5 parents of gays/lesbians.

  • http://www.tmatt.net Tmatt

    A brief update on this story.

    I received an email from a minister who attended the conference and the Arizona Republic apparently ran a photo essay on the North American Christian Convention when it opened. No copy. No coverage that would show up in Google News. Just photos.

    Did that include the labyrinth, I wonder?

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