Saturday, October 10, 2009

"The Latest" in "Seeker Friendly" Churches?

I found an email I sent to our assistant pastor four years ago:
Subject: "The Latest" in "Seeker Friendly" Churches?

Got this from one of the women on our forums:

FRESNO, CA, April 1 - On Sunday morning at the 18,000-member Calvary Church, tithers flash green Costco-like cards at greeters, who let them in early and usher them to special seating areas.

"The seats have more padding, and they recline," says tither Dan Phelps, kicking back before the sermon. "I feel a little guilty, but you can't knock the comfort."

Calvary is believed to be the first church in America to use membership cards to dole out privileges to certain members. First-time visitors are offered the best seats - plush recliners in the orchestra section - while non-tithing attendees carry orange membership cards and are forced to sit in hard, stadium-style seats on the mezzanine.

"We give honor to whom honor is due," says pastor Jerald Dennis. "If you tithe or volunteer in some way, you deserve a special thank you."

Churches like his are drawing wealthier "church consumers" by promoting luxury and social stratification inside the sanctuary. As rich people attend, the theory goes, tithe revenues increase and the church better promotes the gospel.

At Life Family Center in Abilene, Texas, members at all levels earn "reward points" similar to frequent flyer miles for tithing and attending. The points add up to free hotel stays, vacation packages and tickets to NASCAR events.

Ringing the church's cavernous sanctuary are private skyboxes where groups watch the service while enjoying hors d'oeuvres and deep leather chairs. Some pay only occasional attention to what takes place on the platform.

"We compete with professional sporting events, not other churches," says pastor Lovey Pederson. "I would rather people come here than a football stadium, so I offer bigger perks."

This year, at least a dozen more mega-churches will introduce some form of "club card."

"The credit card commercial said it best: 'Membership has its privileges,'" says Pederson.
Of course, this SEEMS to disagree with James 2:1ff, . . . although as I read James 2, it appears the admonition is against discriminating against the poor solely because of their poverty, or discriminating FOR the rich solely on the basis of their wealth and status. . . .

I find this particularly interesting because it reminds me of two books I'm reading right now (VERY slowly, TOO slowly): Branded Nation: The Marketing of Megachurch, College Inc., and Museumworld by James B. Twitchell, and England: Before and After Wesley by J. Wesley Bready (long out of print).

Twitchell describes Willow Creek and similar churches from a marketing perspective. Brilliant. And distressing.
First the obvious: this is not a church in any traditional visual or architectural sense. It resembles a nifty little junior college or a small business concern that manufactures something clean, like drugs or computer parts. . . . On one side of the campus-and that's what it's called in the church literature-is a greensward, on another side is a five-acre reflecting pond, and in between are the black slabs of endless parking. And I mean endless-3,100 spaces. Rule number one of modern retailing: you are only as big as your parking lot. . . . Getting parishioners off the Interstate and into the parking lot costs the church more than $100,000 a year for local police in their official cars. And it's worth every penny. Here is rock concert affiliation. This brand is so popular that the police can barely control the consumers! . . .

Once parked, you can take a shuttle bus to the various doors of the church, just as you do at Disney World. The parking lot has the cute cartoon signs necessary for mall shoppers or airport trippers so that the car can be located. Needless to say, the lot is spotless, as is the rest of the campus. . . .

There is no one portal done up like a passage into another world with a huge arch and fonts. Nothing that says, "Main Entrance: Abandon Hope All Who Do Not Enter Here." Instead, here is the easy entrance to the modern business-lots of doors. . . .

Straight ahead of you is a 4,540-seat auditorium. The seats are just like those down at the Cineplex 16. No drink holders, however. And no prayer pads or slats for kneeling. You pray sitting or standing, not on your knees. . . .

In the carpeted foyer, overhead video screens announce details of the day's activities. This could be a hotel lobby or an airport. On the video monitor is a digital clock counting down the time before the service begins. . . .

Over the weekend there are four exactly interchangeable services. These are the boomer "seeker services," the loss-leader entertainment. The church calls them, with deflective candor, Christianity 101 or Christianity Lite. Then midweek there are two "believer services." That's the grad school, the place for transcendence . . . and tithing.

The weekend seeker services are not worship services, to speak of. They are edutainment. They are aimed at a population that generally is skeptical. Hence the take-it-or-leave-it aspect. It's pure soft sell, like a Super Bowl television commercial. It's Sunday-supplement religion, comforting to believers and informative to the curious.

--Branded Nation, pp. 91-95

Bready describes how thoroughly corrupt the Church of England had become in the 18th century . . . to the point where he writes the following in the first paragraph of Chapter II in his book:
Anthony Collins, author of Priestcraft in Perfection and Discourse on Free-thinking, on being asked why, holding such deistical opinions, he sent his servants to Church, answered: "That they may neither rob nor murder me!" Lord Bolingbroke, a confirmed Deist, considered Christianity "a fable," yet he held that "a statesman ought to profess the Doctrines of the Church of England." Sir Leslie Stephen in his English Thought in the Eighteenth Century, referring to the later Deistic period, says: "Scepticism, widely diffused through the upper classes, was of the indolent variety, implying a perfect willingness that the churches should survive though the Faith should perish."
I should note that Collins lived 1676-1729; Bolingbroke, 1678-1751. And "the 18th century" is a good general indicator of the Deistic period. Bready notes that John Toland's Christianity not Mysterious, published in 1696, was "the first popular Deistic treatise." And all of the factors that Wikipedia lists as contributing to the demise of Deism occurred in the late 18th and early- to mid-19th centuries.

The Church of England was almost completely and solely a church for the wealthy and the privileged. It had almost nothing to do with people of lower stations in life.


Just thought you might find this stuff interesting.


PS. Oh. The original quote from our website: the poster said it was an April Fool's joke.

Maybe. Or maybe it is a harbinger of things to come.
Tonight I found the original article about the "club card" church was first published in February 2005 in LarkNews, a satirical "news"paper published by Joel Kilpatrick.
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