The pastorpreneur

megachurchBecause I’m a new subscriber to the London-based magazine The Economist, you’ll likely hear more from me about this excellent source of news and commentary. Appropriately for the day of the week, I sat down to read an article titled “Jesus, CEO,” and was alerted to a term that I hadn’t seen in the American press, and I believe it accurately sums up the megachurch movement: the pastorpreneur.

Apparently the man behind the website has written a book on the subject, and the unnamed author of the Economist piece (removing bylines is something American magazines should consider!) uses the term throughout to describe the growing movement of CEO-led, business strategy considering churches in America:

Yet three things can be said in the mega-churches’ defence. The first is that they are simply responding to demand. Their target audience consists of baby-boomers who left the church in adolescence, who do not feel comfortable with overt displays of religiosity, who dread turning into their parents, and who apply the same consumerist mentality to spiritual life as they do to everything else. The mega-churches are using the tools of American society to spread religion where it would not otherwise exist.

The second line of defence is that they are simply adding to a menu of choices. There is no shortage of churches that offer more traditional fare — from Greek Orthodox to conservative Catholic. The third defence is more subtle: these churches are much less Disneyfied than they appear. They may be soft on the surface, but they are hard on the inside. The people at Lakewood believe that “the entire Bible is inspired by God, without error”. Cuddly old Rick Warren believes that “heaven and hell are real places” and that “Jesus is coming again”. You may start out in the figurative hell of a Disney theme-park, but you end up with the real thing.

The other common criticisms of the mega-churches — and the marriage of religion and business that they embody — are practical. One is that the mega-churches are a passing fad, doomed to be destroyed by a combination of elephantiasis and scandal. Another is that they are an idiosyncratic product of red-state America: amusing to look at, but irrelevant to the rest of the world. Again, neither argument is entirely convincing.

The article is an excellent roundup of the mega-church movement (sorry for those who cannot link, the magazine limits a good amount of their content) uses a balanced approach and addresses the subject of personal religion — as it should be — seriously:

Another problem is subtler: how do you speak directly to individual parishioners when you have a church the size of a stadium? Some mega-churches have begun to see members drift away in search of more intimate organisations. And many mega-preachers worry that they are producing a flock who regard religion as nothing more than spectacle. So they have begun to adopt techniques that allow churches to be both big and small at once.

One ruse is to break the congregation into small groups. Most big churches ask members of their congregation to join clutches of eight-to-ten people with something in common (age or marital status, for example). A second is to segment the religious market. Willow Creek has two very different services. The Sunday one for new “seekers” is designed to exhibit the Christian faith in a “relevant and non-threatening way”. Willow Creek estimates that over half of the people who come to its Sunday services would otherwise be “unchurched”. The Wednesday service for people who are committed to Christianity is designed to deepen their faith.

As an attendee of a church that employs the small-group strategy, I can say that it’s great for getting new people involved in a larger organization. That said, my church cannot boast megachurch numbers.

From my limited readings of The Economist, I have found that it takes a fresh approach to stories on American trends, often highlighting aspects that journalists in the United States overlook or simply don’t see as significant. My favorite from this piece is the reversal trend:

Indeed, in a nice reversal businesses have also started to learn from the churches. The late Peter Drucker pointed out that these churches have several lessons to teach mainline businesses. They are excellent at motivating their employees and volunteers, and at transforming volunteers from well-meaning amateurs into disciplined professionals. The best churches (like some of the most notorious cults) have discovered the secret of low-cost and self-sustaining growth: transforming seekers into evangelicals who will then go out and recruit more seekers.

The author of this piece clearly gets religion. I wonder if he/she gets it more than some of these people pushing the pastorpreneur/CEO church trend.

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Jesus Christ on trial, again

thorns and gavelI wanted to make a note of a remarkably weird religion story playing out in Italy where a judge has ordered a priest to prove “that Jesus Christ existed,” reports The Times.

The evangelicals among us may react against the use of the past tense to describe Christ’s existence. Could the Catholic priest take on the challenge of proving that Christ still exists, or is that cutting to close to the realm of faith? Oh wait, the judge has already done that by letting this lawsuit go forward. Forget the separation of church and state in Italy, since they have such a great history understanding that concept.

So anyway, here are the details:

The case against Father Enrico Righi has been brought in the town of Viterbo, north of Rome, by Luigi Cascioli, a retired agronomist who once studied for the priesthood but later became a militant atheist.

Signor Cascioli, author of a book called The Fable of Christ (not available on, began legal proceedings against Father Righi three years ago after the priest denounced Signor Cascioli in the parish newsletter for questioning Christ’s historical existence.

Yesterday Gaetano Mautone, a judge in Viterbo, set a preliminary hearing for the end of this month and ordered Father Righi to appear. The judge had earlier refused to take up the case, but was overruled last month by the Court of Appeal, which agreed that Signor Cascioli had a reasonable case for his accusation that Father Righi was “abusing popular credulity”.

Signor Cascioli’s contention — echoed in numerous atheist books and internet sites — is that there was no reliable evidence that Jesus lived and died in 1st-century Palestine apart from the Gospel accounts, which Christians took on faith. There is therefore no basis for Christianity, he claims.

I also take issue with the author’s use of the word atheist to describe those who do not believe in the existence of Christ. Not believing in the existence of Christ does not make a person an atheist just as believing in the existence of Christ doesn’t make a person a Christian. Also, I’m sure there are people out there who do not believe Christ exist yet would not want to classify themselves as atheists. It’s a big world out there with many religions.

This one-man campaign is making quite a bit of news, but I had trouble finding much speculation as to what would happen if this lawsuit were successful. Amy Welborn gives us the link but appropriately did not choose to comment.

Ted Olsen over at Christianity Today‘s blog predicts that the lawsuit will be unsuccessful and gives us a link from the Guardian that has more background on the case. My take is that this is one of those “that’s weird, why are they doing that?” stories. But it will be interesting to see how it unfolds.

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Please talk to the coal miners’ pastors

STG HZ MinuteByMinute 4pI believe the woman’s name was Anna Casto. She appeared several times during the Wednesday NBC Nightly News coverage of the Sago Mine disaster. Her comments were blunt, agonizing and stunningly on target. I wish I could quote them to you, but I do not have Tivo and, for once, got caught without a notepad nearby.

For all I know, Casto and others are featured in some of the materials stored online at the broadcast’s cyberhome at MSNBC (photo). Here, for example, is a print story drawn from the coverage. And here is the link to the actual online version of the Brian Williams newscast. (However, since all of this material is based on Microsoft products, I cannot get the software to work on either of my computers — either my iMac G5 or an up-to-day Windows machine. Would someone please alert me when NBC offers a QuickTime or RealPlayer option?)

Anyway, back to Casto and the mourning mine families. I was struck by two of her comments. In one, she said that the whip-lash effect of hearing that their friends and loved ones were safe, then finding out they were actually dead, had left many of the believers huddled in the Sago Baptist Church doubting whether “the Lord is real.” I think that was the phrase she used. Later, with an obvious reference to the attitudes she has seen displayed about her region in national media, she said something like this: “We’re Christian people. … We’re West Virginians. … We may be dumb, but we love our families.” Again, I hesitate to put that in quotes, but that is very close to verbatim.

Meanwhile, the powerful, yet vague, aura of Bible Belt faith lingered over the evening newscasts like the smoke from the memorial candles held by the mourners on the church step as they sang old hymns, standing in an arc toward the television cameras. Those old, old songs were all chopped up by the video editors, many of whom obviously did not know the words or they would have selected the verses that applied directly to the emotions of the people singing. The people talked about God a lot and the journalists let them talk, sharing faith and doubt in the midst of their pain.

You can see this in the opening of the New York Daily News story entitled “Anguish, rage in church” by reporters Derek Rose (on the scene) and Corky Siemaszko (in New York):

One moment they were praising God, the next they were cursing His name. That’s how furious those in a church full of heartbroken West Virginians were early yesterday after reports of the miraculous rescue of 12 miners turned out to be false.

“I believe that everybody was stunned,” said John Casto, who was celebrating in the Sago Baptist Church with the miners’ relatives when they were hit by a tsunami of grief. “Just a few minutes before they were praising God and then they was cursing because they thought they lost a loved one.”

Casto, who lost a pal in the mine, said some of the angry men tried to slug the mine operator who delivered the devastating news. He said the church pastor tried to calm the furious crowd by saying, “Look toward God.”

“One of the men said, ‘What in the hell has God done for us?’” Casto said, his eyes welling up with tears.

Yes, note the last name — Casto.

group1I kept wanting the journalists to actually go inside the church or try to find a few minutes with one of the pastors. You see, my father was a Southern Baptist pastor and hospital chaplain. I have been around a few ministers in hard times. I also imagine that the pastors clustered with those suffering people have handled more than their share of mine tragedies and miracles. If they are anything like the pastors that I know, they have moved light years past the kind of one-level Bible commentary that appeared, in splinters and shards, on the national networks last night.

We did get to meet one pastor in a Washington Post piece entitled “After 44 Hours, Hope Showed Its Cruel Side.” But, once again, we get to read what I am convinced is only the first layer of what a veteran coal-country pastor would say in this circumstance.

The Rev. Jerry Murrell, pastor of the Way of the Holiness church in Buckhannon, was one of the local clergy members keeping vigil with the families at Sago Baptist. “There were times of intense prayer, and times of softly singing hymns,” he said. “Ministers would take turns reading Scripture. The one we seemed to keep turning back to was Romans 8:28 where the Apostle Paul promises that all things work together for good to those who love God.”

Memorial services almost always include sermons. The sermons almost always address the tough issues that face the people hit by the tragedy of the moment. In coal country, the sermons have to address the pain, terror, risk, guilt and fury involved in an entire way of life in a region that knows more than a little about faith and sorrow. You want Dante? These people live Dante, with some finding relief in bars, some in churches and many in both places.

Yes, these sermons will be packed with all of that Jesus language and the Bible verses that, to many journalists, sound like fingernails on a chalkboard or the unknown tongues of flyover country natives. But those pastors know more about coal mines, coal miners and death than most of the producers out in the television production trucks. Please. Go talk to them.

P.S. My dear friend (wife of our family’s parish priest) Frederica Mathewes-Green has a theological reflection on the Sago tragedy posted over at — click here to read it. Here is her version of another interview clip with John Casto:

John Casto tried to explain, in an accent broad as the hills, how this works, how faith can make it so you’re not alone. “You know, I’m not kin to none of these people under that hill over there, but each and every one of ‘ems a brother to me. Each and every one of them.” He then looked toward the reporter and said, “Because you’re my brother,” and then turning to the cameraman, “and you’re my brother. The way I look at it.”

There was something electrifying about that moment. In the midst of bitterness and turmoil, Casto broke through the wall.

“Because I love Christ,” he went on. This is not the sort of thing you usually hear on the news, and the camera was already pulling back. The reporter’s voice softly murmured “All right, John.” But Casto continued, “We’re gonna to pray for each and every one of these people.” At this point, the reporter patted him on the shoulder, with a “that’s enough, now” gesture.

P.S., number 2: Readers who are interested in the many, many journalistic issues raised by the coverage of this event will want to stay plugged in at — which currently has this round-up on its front page.

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Dang it, 10,000 people want to worship?

obj hands raised worship 150 tnTry to put yourself in the shoes of an assistant city editor down at the Washington Post.

It seems that you have about 10,000 people, per night, down at the District’s convention center, shouting and singing and carrying on and do who knows what all. That sounds like a story, perhaps with a photo essay on the side. The problem is that they are shouting and singing and praying and carrying on about, well, that Jesus guy. It’s called a “revival” and this is not something that shows up on the metro news budget all of the time.

The speakers and musicians appear to be world famous, but, dang it, they sure aren’t people you hear about all that often on National Public Radio, not even that T.D. Jakes man from the cover of Time. But it seems that thousands of people right here inside the Beltway seem to think that they’re important.

And it does seem that the people at this giant, multi-racial event were talking — at least some of the time — about a topic that appears on the news radar from time to time. That would be racial reconciliation.

Yet they seem to think that this should happen in church and not in a political convention. That’s a problem. What and editor supposed to do? If it was 10,000 people protesting the war, or watching basketball, or dancing to a hip-hop czar, the newspaper would know how to handle it. It it was 10,000 believers worried about the environment or mental health it would be on Page 1-A. You know it would.

Anyway, the Washington Post does have a highly skilled reporter who knows how to handle these tense situations and his name is Hamil Harris. He’s the kind of guy who knows as much about the economics of gospel music as he does about the crime statistics at the local morgue. He can chase 5-star pulpit superstars as easily as he can chase heavy-weight boxing champs who chomp on people’s ears. I must confess that Hamil is a friend of mine.

obj hands raised worship 150 tnThe man my students call “Hurricane Hamil” did manage to get a story about this gigantic urban revival into the Post this morning and this sounds like quite a scene. Here’s a sample and I am quite sure — although I haven’t talked to Harris about it — that the newspaper could have printed a whole lot more on this event. Who knows, maybe the people preached on other subjects that that are “newsworthy.”

After years of squeezing into the Upper Marlboro facility, the Rev. John K. Jenkins of First Baptist and Bishop Alfred A. Owens Jr. of Greater Mount Calvary, which is in the District, decided to move the revival to the Convention Center this year to accommodate the growth and draw even more people from across the region.

“There was so much tragedy and so much pain in 2005, not just in this community but the nation,” Jenkins said, referring to the war in Iraq and Hurricane Katrina. “Where else to start healing but in Washington, D.C.?”

Jakes, a popular television evangelist, unleashed a stormy sermon that challenged churches to go beyond the spiritual status quo in 2006.

“We are in the midst of a great war, and I am not talking about in Iraq,” Jakes boomed. “The church is intoxicated with its own wine . . . but sometimes we ought to get mad. The enemy is playing with us. . . . I’m tired of just going to church. I’m tired of just seeing folks. I want to see God. I want to see a movement of God.”

Dang it, there he went — dragging God into this. Don’t you hate it when preachers do that?

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Mark Steyn takes on the world

41633006 f90338f6e0There is something in this sprawling Mark Steyn essay to fire up just about anyone. I realize that this is off the normal GetReligion path, but there are the hooks of major news stories — many rarely covered — throughout the text.

I think you’ll make it all the way through if you manage to hang on to the roller coaster until the BBC interview and Steyn’s remark: “Hmm. Lady Kennedy was arguing that our tolerance of our own tolerance is making us intolerant of other people’s intolerance, which is intolerable.”

Of course, please note the role that religion plays in this epic, which ran in the Wall Street Journal under the headline “It’s the Demography, Stupid: The real reason the West is in danger of extinction.” It does appear that making more than 2.1 babies in a lifetime is linked, somehow, to traditional religious faith.

Enjoy! Or enjoy hating it.

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The lion wrestles the big ape

narnia aslan2In the movie King Kong, the giant ape takes out a slew of dinosaurs in dramatic fashion. Too bad he didn’t have a chance to tussle with the Lion!

The storyline in this box office battle is great fun when it comes to pitting the mighty death-defying lion with the seemingly invincible great ape, and it no doubt includes a bit of the culture wars. The Los Angeles Times‘ R. Kinsey Lowe pontificates:

The end of the year played out with a resurgent “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” taking in $32.8 million on its fourth weekend to conquer “King Kong,” which grossed an estimated $31.6 million over the four-day New Year’s weekend.

It does not come as news that Hollywood closed the year with box office down on the order of 5% and attendance off by about 7%, according to tracking service Exhibitor Relations Co. (See related story, E1). But the box office drop of nearly $400 million, to $8.8 billion, is one of the biggest decreases on record, according to rival tracking firm Nielsen EDI. Exhibitor Relations calculates the drop in revenue is even bigger, from $9.4 billion to $8.9 billion.

Disney’s bid to establish a bankable family movie franchise on the order of the “Harry Potter” series appears to have succeeded, as business for “The Chronicles of Narnia” increased enough to beat the newer “Kong,” which opened to much weaker numbers than anticipated.

“King Kong” surpassed “Narnia” over the four-day Christmas weekend with a Sunday-Monday boost, but the Disney movie directed by “Shrek” veteran Andrew Adamson outperformed Peter Jackson’s extravaganza on every day since then.

kongI’ve seen both films and enjoyed both immensely. I would say that a major reason people aren’t seeing Kong as much is due to its length. It’s arguably the better film cinematically, but Narnia appeals to a broader viewing audience and isn’t three hours long (no exaggeration).

Ross Douthat, a regular blogger at the American Scene blog, a reporter at the Atlantic magazine and a recent guest blogger for Andrew Sullivan, has an excellent roundup of the movie box office battles. Here are some of his thoughts on the future of the Narnia series on the big screen:

I’m a little surprised by this turn, in part because in spite of being smack in the middle of the target demographic for Philip Anschutz’s big project, I actually preferred Kong to Narnia (my complaints about the latter are here), though both were miles from perfect. (Steve Sailer has it right — there were two hours of a great movie in Kong, but unfortunately the film was three hours long.) But it’s still gratifying that Narnia’s doing well, if only because it means they’ll film the later books — and hopefully, as with the Harry Potter movies, the adaptations will get better as they go along.

Unfortunately, the one they’ve started on, Prince Caspian, is one of the weakest of the seven — and the one after that, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, is pretty dull as well. (If there’s any Narnia book where the religious allegory gets in the way of the story, it’s Dawn Treader.) And it would be a shame if audience interest dries up before they get around to The Horse and His Boy, or The Magician’s Nephew, or my personal favorite, The Silver Chair. (I’m hoping for Jeremy Irons as Puddleglum . . .)

Can the Chronicles of Narnia adapted by Hollywood match the hype and the popularity of the Harry Potter movies? I wouldn’t be able to judge Potter because I haven’t read or scene any of the movies, but I’ll be looking for articles making that type of comparison.

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The scandal of particular prayers

we the peopleI can’t believe that I haven’t written about this yet, but here goes. Sunday’s Washington Post ran with an A3 story on the fight between members of the Indiana state House and a federal judge who ruled awhile ago that the daily prayers in the lower lawmaking chamber invoked the name of Jesus Christ too often and were illegal.

The story has generated a good number of headlines, columns, editorials, talk radio jabber and plenty of letters to the editor and pits the power of a federal court against that of a state lawmaking body. And it doesn’t look like the judge appreciates Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma’s attitude towards the original decision which was recently upheld by the same judge on an appeal for the decision’s vagueness:

U.S. District Judge David Hamilton rejected arguments by House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, that Hamilton’s ruling was too vague to enforce.

And Hamilton issued a warning:

“If the speaker or those offering prayers seek to evade the injunction through indirect but well understood expressions of specifically Christian beliefs, the audience, the public, and the court will be able to see what is happening. In that unlikely event, the court will be able to take appropriate measures to enforce” the injunction.

Hamilton earlier this month found that the House practice of offering a prayer at the start of each day’s session breached the clause of the U.S. Constitution that bars the government establishment of religion. The House prayers, he ruled, were overwhelmingly Christian in content and amounted to the advancement of one religion over others. The ruling stemmed from a lawsuit brought by the Indiana Civil Liberties Union.

I am dying to know what Judge Hamilton thinks he can do to Bosma or any other member of the Indiana House who use Jesus’s name in a prayer. According to the Post‘s story, the original lawsuit from the Indiana Civil Liberties Union was a reaction against an incident that some members saw as a bit over the top:

It was Clarence Brown’s energetic rendition of “Just a Little Talk With Jesus” that prompted several legislators to decide enough was enough. The Indiana Civil Liberties Union soon filed suit in the name of four people — a Quaker, a Methodist and two Catholics — to stop what critics considered an increasingly sectarian prayer practice.

Brown, 51, is an evangelical Christian layman who works in an auto parts factory 70 miles south of Indianapolis. Invited to give a prayer to open the April 5 House session, Brown said he was thinking about the separation of church and state as he drove to the state Capitol.

He said he talked with God during the ride and decided to speak up for the man he considers his savior. “I wanted to share the word. That’s what I’m supposed to do,” Brown said. “I have to do what Jesus Christ says for me to do as a witness.”

Brown’s prayer included thanks to God “for our lord and savior Jesus Christ, who died that we might have the right to come together in love.” When the prayer was finished, Bosma announced that Brown would “bless us with a song.”

As Brown led the rollicking tune, some members and staffers clapped and sang along.

Several others left the chamber.

I say, welcome to Indiana, folks. We can be a bit strange I guess and a bit religious. I’m sure this event weirded out the reporters who have covered this story, but so far, most of the coverage seems to be fairly evenhanded.

The crux of this story is buried somewhere in the legal debate between the Establishment Clause and the First Amendment. I won’t go into it here, but I’m told that the Everson v. Board of Education decision by Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black provides a lengthy historical foundation for the creation of the First Amendment and the Establishment Clause.

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Define anti-Mormon

mitt romneyMassachusetts Governor Mitt Romney’s likely bid for the Republican presidential nomination means we get to read lots of profiles about him. Saying absolutely nothing about his political positions, the man has got charisma and charm for days and certainly adds a nice new face into the never-ending campaign cycle.

James Taranto has an excellent run-down of where Romney stands in his Wall Street Journal article today, the focus of which is whether conservative Christians could support the Mormon. As a Lutheran, I don’t vote for elected officials based on their religion. I vote for elected officials based on their policies and ability to do the job well. I judge church officials, on the other hand, based on their religious views. So I could vote for a Druid for the Municipal Water Authority — or President — in good conscience so long as he shared my political views. Apparently other people don’t feel the same way.

A crucial question will be whether Mr. Romney’s religion is a handicap. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is indigenous to America, but many Americans view it with suspicion. In a 1999 Gallup poll, 17% of those surveyed said they would not vote for a Mormon for president, far more than said the same of a Jew (6%) or a Catholic (4%). . . .

The trouble is that much of today’s anti-Mormon sentiment is found on the religious right, a constituency that looms much larger in the GOP now than it did in 1968, or than it ever has in Massachusetts. Ask a conservative Christian what he thinks of Mormonism, and there’s a good chance he’ll call it a “cult” or say Mormons “aren’t Christian.”

The only problem is that it is not necessarily anti-Mormon to say Mormons are not Christian. It is true that Mormons call themselves Christian and may take umbrage that other folks disagree. But if a Christian thinks that a non-Trinitarian conception of God, a belief that God has a wife, and the belief that men can become gods puts Mormons outside of the Christian faith, that’s not anti-Mormon. One can believe that Mormons are not Christian and still donate gobs of cash to Mitt Romney for President. Reporters need to understand this distinction.

Reporters should also realize that it’s not just those on the “religious right” who don’t consider Mormons to be Christian. Officially speaking, almost all Christian church bodies do not consider Mormons to be Christian or believe their baptisms to be valid — meaning converts are baptized. This includes the United Methodist Church and the Roman Catholic Church, which accept baptisms from other Christian church bodies. Would it kill reporters to study this or understand why?

Admittedly, learning about Mormonism can be challenging. Mormons believe in ongoing revelation, which is how substantial church doctrines change over the years (polygamy, blacks not having the right to hold the priesthood). There are also difficulties in understanding which statements from the church’s authorities are ex cathedra, so to speak, and which are just personal thoughts. But just because it’s difficult doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done. Especially since the country might have its first Mormon president pretty soon. I wonder what James A. Garfield would say?

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