When 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.