A few bad men

megachurchWhen the Ted Haggard sex scandal broke, Lexington Herald-Leader religion reporter Frank Lockwood posed an interesting question:

But why is it that many of the biggest names in the Pentecostal movement — over and over again — end up disgracing themselves and the church as a whole?

Now that the daily updates are less dramatic, it will be interesting to see how reporters step back and analyze some of the underlying stories. AP religion writer Rachel Zoll wrote an interesting analysis of whether New Life Church will survive the scandal. She notes that big-name preachers are nothing new. What is new is that so many are closely tied to a single church, such as Rick Warren at Saddleback and Joel Osteen at Lakewood Church.

Haggard’s removal as pastor of New Life was swift, but Zoll writes that most megachurches have boards stacked with relatives, friends, personal lawyers and others who are reticent to contradict the leader. (For an excellent analysis of how one megachurch handles its oversight, I commend Eric Gorski’s Denver Post piece on Heritage Christian Center.) Zoll delves into one difference between some megachurches and churches with denominational affiliations:

Nearly all megachurches are independent from a denomination — an asset for their flexibility, but a liability when it comes to checks on power. By contrast, mainline Protestant denominations vet clergy credentials and have elaborate systems of church tribunals, similar to civil courts, that discipline errant ministers.

This is an excellent point for discussion, although I’ll note that the vetting of clergy credentials and other checks are not unique to mainline Protestant denominations. One of the main benefits of forming a denomination of like-minded believers is for the training and vetting of clergy.

New Life members must decide whether they wish to belong to a church without the charismatic leader, Zoll writes. She quotes one expert saying the congregation’s emphasis on social groups might save it:

But Randall Balmer, a Barnard College historian of American religion, said megachurches are so wrapped up with their pastor that New Life inevitably has hard times ahead. Without any creed or denominational identity for the church to cling to, attendance will eventually drop by half or more, he predicted.

“You have a kind of cult of personality that confuses the faith with a particular individual,” said Balmer, author of “Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America.” “I just think it’s very difficult to recover from this sort of thing.”

What a meek subtitle! The thing is that this last point is the most provocative of the piece. And yet this is how her piece ends. It would be interesting to get some response from others. I’m also interested in how his prediction will pan out.

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  • Jeffrey Weiss

    In addition to Rachel’s good work I was also impressed with an online package on beliefnet.com of prior church scandals and what happened to the people afterward. I would have liked more detail, but the nature of the format is short stuff.

  • Steve

    Good insights on issues with “non-denomination” pastors.

    I have noticed about many “non-denomination” churches is that many pastors lack formal seminary education. I believe that this is part of the problem with many of these churches. I have noticed that many of the sermons are weak on the bible, but strong on social/moral/individual issues.

    BTW, could you image trying to serve Holy Communion to everyone at Lakewood Church :-)

  • YetAnotherRick

    “early all megachurches are independent from a denomination…”

    How did she get that wrong? She knows who Thumma is.

    Note to Journalists and anyone else who wants to pontificate or punditize (is that a word?) about Megachurches…

    Put this link in your browser’s bookmarks:

    http://hirr.hartsem.edu/org/faith_megachurches_research.html

  • Mark V.

    Isn’t Saddleback associated with one of the Baptist groups?

  • Larry Rasczak

    “But why is it that many of the biggest names in the Pentecostal movement — over and over again — end up disgracing themselves and the church as a whole?”

    I don’t know that they do. I think that the press attention to the disgraceful ones MAKES them “big names” but the ones that aren’t disgracing themselves don’t get as much press.

    I mean, yes Haggard was not small time in Christian circles; but be honest, did Haggard get more press for his decades of service and work and outreach and Church building, or for the fact a gay whore had a sensational, embarrisng, and politically timed scandal story about him?

    Joel Osteen is a big name in mega-church circles too, but all his (and Joyce Meyer, and Kerry Shook, and a dozen others) publicity for a year wouldn’t equal what Haggard got over the course of a couple of days that just happened to be prior to a particularly close election.

    (Gee… the media focusing only on the parts of the ministry that are embarrising to the preacher and make conservative Christianity look BAD… gee who’d a thunk THAT would happen?)

    “But Randall Balmer, a Barnard College historian of American religion, said megachurches are so wrapped up with their pastor that New Life inevitably has hard times ahead. Without any creed or denominational identity for the church to cling to, attendance will eventually drop by half or more, he predicted.”

    An interesting point… Most of the MegaChurches are young enough they haven’t had this sort of problem. I do know of a test case for his thesis though.

    Did Randall Balmer happen to mention that Joel Osteen took over Lakewood after his Dad died, and that despite many very similar predictions, Lakewood is now bigger than ever?

    I wonder what (if any) church a Barnard College historian of American religion and author of “Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America” goes to?

  • Alexander Scott

    I found this quotation from the article very interesting:

    By contrast, mainline Protestant denominations vet clergy credentials and have elaborate systems of church tribunals, similar to civil courts, that discipline errant ministers.

    It seems that there has been a lot of news in the past 3 years about mainline denominations tying themselves in knots over this issue. I particularly think of Episcopalians and their problems reconciling bishops and the doctrine of the Anglican communion, Methodists and church trials refusing to uphold church doctrine, and Presbyterians with their courts refusing to discipline some ministers for gay weddings while disciplining others for upholding their historic doctrine.

    Frankly, I’m amazed that any religion writer could write that quote with a straight face. At the very least, it should have a parenthetical note that there have been many cases in the past few years where the vetting and disciplining in mainline denominations has caused serious controversy.

  • Michael

    Disagreeing over doctrine and hiring male prostitutes/drug dealers seems to be very different things. Vetting doesn’t generally mean eliminating dissenters in the mainline churches. Dissent is healthy for (most) churches, buying meth, molesting kids and visiting hookers isn’t.

  • http://www.nutmeggersformitt.blogspot.com Lug Nutmegger

    Interesting topic.

    Megachurch leaders are charismatic and effective leaders; and gatherers. They bring excitement into a normally dull Sunday Service and pious lifestyle. They have just the right amount of push and pull (hellfire/brimstone & love/caring) They say all the tough things most people won’t/can’t and act as a guardian for their congregation’s moral convictions. Ted Haggard was no different except he was an exceptional leader and guardian of his flock. Did people attend New Life church to see the #2 man (I am not sure who that is)? The answer is of course, NO! They went to New Life to hear Ted Haggard and his straight talk, take no prisoners Christianity.

    It states pretty clearly in the study YetAnotherRick linked to above:

    There is no doubt that the senior pastor is a key component in the success of a megachurch. It would be an exaggeration to conclude from this statement that megachurches are personality cults, or are so tied to one person that they will collapse when that person is gone. Nevertheless, the leader is critical.

    Based on this statement it would suggest that New Life Church is indeed Ted Haggard’s church. Did Ted disgrace the church…you bet! Ted Haggard IS New Life Church and New Life Church is Ted Haggard. I recall something in the Bible about not building a house on sand if you know what I mean. To much focus on the messenger and not the message is a recipe for failure.

    Will half of the New Life congregation leave; I think so. Humans are…well human. We want to be associated with winners. Do you think New Life members will now state proudly they are New Life members knowing that their fellow man will think they were stupid for following a charlatan (this word used for effect, I do not believe that)? I think most will hang in there for a while but will eventually leave and find another outspoken, charismatic leader to follow.

    This statement from the Hartford Institute of Religious Research somewhat validates Mr. Balmer’s point:

    The rate of growth of these megachurches is also strongly correlated with the reported absence of conflict in the congregation. Those churches that grew by the greatest percentage also experienced the least amount of major conflict and conversely those that experienced on growth or an actual decline in attendance had the greatest rates of major conflict.

    As to the second point about having no balance of power and no vetting process for clergy; there are a couple of interesting statements in the HIRR study:

    The more recently a megachurch church was founded the greater the likelihood the pastor is younger and has less formal education.

    Interestingly, as the education levels of the pastors decrease, the rates of growth of these churches increase. This finding is similar to the findings from the Faith Community Today 2000 study. It raises interesting questions about the mentoring of young pastors and the role of seminaries in producing clergy to fill these very large congregations.

    These statements seem to prove the points in Steve’s comments above:

    I have noticed about many “non-denomination” churches is that many pastors lack formal seminary education. I believe that this is part of the problem with many of these churches. I have noticed that many of the sermons are weak on the bible, but strong on social/moral/individual issues.

    That said, I think these statements from the study prove that Steve is right AND wrong. The sermons ARE weak on Bible and strong on social/moral issues BUT apparently that is what people are looking for when they attend megachurches. Attendees are not looking for a Biblical scholar or theological discussions rather they want to feel good. Basically, having a decent understanding of the Bible, a flair for the extravagant, and a winning personality are all the qualifications you need to be pastor of a megachurch. I am not sure that vetting clergy credentials and having checks and balances would really matter.

    I already mention that I agree with Mr. Balmer that the New Life church will lose much of its membership however I find myself questioning why Rachel Zoll would choose the author of a book titled, “Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America.” to provide comments for her article.

    I personally do not believe that Ted Haggard disgraced himself or his church and write my commentsobjectively. No man lives a perfect life which is the reason Christ paid the ultimate sacrifice. He will be forgiven by God and he should be forgiven by his congregation and I hope above hope that they do not stray because of this incident.

    Lug…out

  • Steve

    If a pastor is unwilling or unable to preach Christ Crucified, then that pastor shouldn’t be in the pulpit (assuming there is one). If a church is unwilling to proclaim the gospel on a contining basis, is the church a Christian church?

    The Church is about savlation in Christ only, not more, nothing less.

  • Martha

    “But why is it that many of the biggest names in the Pentecostal movement — over and over again — end up disgracing themselves and the church as a whole?”

    Short answer? Original sin.

    Slightly longer musing: in some cases, it may be an attitude akin to “God has given Us the Papacy; now let Us enjoy it”. It seems (for this person looking in from the outside) that the megachurch phenomenon is driven very much by the engine of one particular charismatic preacher – that it all ultimately rests on his shoulders; his enthusiasm, belief, dedication and rolling the Sisyphusean rock uphill Sunday after Sunday, always bringing in bigger and bigger congregations, inspiring newer ministries, setting up more and more groups to outreach to the young, the old, the sick, the wealthy mid life seeker, the this one, the that one – eventually, something’s got to give. Either you finally succumb to your own PR and do genuinely believe that nothing you do is wrong because you’re so specially chosen and divinely graced, or you just burn out under the strain.

    The Pope has the whole mechanism of the Vatican civil service to help run the workings of the Church, never mind the helpful contributions of all the amateur secular commentators eager to tell him just exactly what dogmas he should infallibly define when and about what. Megachurch pastors have – who?

  • Martha

    By the by, it’s looking as though it’s not just conservative/right-wing/orthodox/however you choose to define them churches that are liable to sex scandals; our brethren in the Episcopal Church (sorry, that should be “The Episcopal Church”) seem to have a lovely little scandal brewing involving Bishop Charles Bennison and his brother and who knew what when and more importantly, covered up for them.

    Now, I think you’ll agree, the current version of the Episcopalian Church has not exactly been bogged down in fire and brimstone hell and damnation Bible thumping sermonising about wicked bold naughty people having sex outside marriage, yet that alone has not saved them. It’ll be interesting to see how much media coverage this particular little blip on the radar generates (and this is not schadenfreude on my part; with all the troubles they’re currently undergoing, our brethren in the Anglican church in America needed this icing on the cake like a hole in the head).

    Just saying, since it *isn’t* an old-tyme religion church, how much of a pass will the right-thinking media give to the right-thinking church of its choice?

  • http://hairouna.livejournal.com Discernment

    I’m not sure that many of the biggest names in the Pentecostal movement end up disgracing themselves and the church as a whole. I know that some have, but I’m not sure where the claim that “many” do came from.

    I also don’t think that it shows that Pentecostalism is false.

  • Tony D.

    If there is a sex scandal in The Episcopal Church, it’s automatically less of a story precisely *because* TEC is not known for moralizing and demonizing about these kinds of sins. The hypocrisy factor just isn’t there.

    IMO a situation that would be roughly analogous for them to the Haggard situation for New Life would be if, say, one of their more outspoken “Peace and Justice” advocates were to be found profiting from a gun-running scheme in West Africa. Such a story (unfortunately) would still get less press than Haggard, for two reasons: The story would be more complex, and…well…sex sells.


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