Model Ts, the Modern Nuclear Family, and Megachurches

The emergence of the megachurch onto the American landscape in the 1980s, though seemingly novel at the time, has deep roots in the Protestant movement, beginning in the 16th century when Huguenot architect Jacques Perret envisioned and then constructed a large, multi-functional worship space. Then in the Revivalism of the 1700s, George Whitefield “pioneered a theatrical, engaging form of revival preaching, which attracted crowds of thousands. Best known for his open-air meetings, Whitefield also commissioned a number of “Tabernacles” throughout England, the largest being Moorsfields Tabernacle and Tottenham Court Tabernacle.”[1] This megachurch trend continued in London into the 19thcentury with Charles H Spurgeon’s construction of the Metropolitan Tabernacle.[2]

The 19th century Institutional Church Movement in America, influenced by Charles Finney, further facilitated the rise of megachurches. Buildings that hosted thousands for worship, also housed colleges, gymnasiums, bowling alleys, and ministries to care for the poor.[3] Shifting populations of the 20th century increased awareness of these large communities of faith, leading pastors and ministry leaders to believe the megachurch movement a novel and innovative institution. Enamored with innovation, pastors such as Bill Hybels and Rick Warren thought the movement was unique and considered the model transformative for the American Evangelical tradition.[4]

Megachurches share common characteristics in that they have congregations over 1500 people, “…come out of the Protestant tradition, offer a multitude of programs tailored to people’s needs, and frequently aim to achieve broader cultural importance.”[5] Their rise in popularity parallels the development of evangelicalism and capitalism in both England and America.

In Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture, Vincent J. Miller argues “The most profound problem with consumerism is not the consumption of goods, but the ways in which it trains us to treat everything, including religion, as an object of consumption.”[6] By examining the emergence of consumer culture in the 20th century, he proposes the commodification of culture, fueled by productivism, results in:

“the liquidation of cultural traditions, (where) beliefs, symbols, and practices, are abstracted from their traditional contexts and engaged as free-floating signifiers, put to decorative uses far removed from their original references and connections with other beliefs and practices…(thus making them) less likely they will impact the concrete practice of life.”[7]

Miller highlights how the “Fordist” era of capitalism and the rapid spread of the single-family home contributed to the highly “critiqued aspects of consumerism: inefficient mass consumption, selfish individualism, political passivity, disengagement, and so forth.”[8]

For the purpose of this reflection, focus will be given to the cultural effects caused “Fordist” era practices and the single-family home, both of which are underscored by Marx’s notion of alienation. Alienation “of men and women from their creative power as human beings” is a consequence of capitalism. Alienation, driven by objectification of the worker, happens when the product produced by the laborer is not owned by the laborer, but rather by the employer of the laborer. This objectification leads to “estrangement of workers from the self-realization in their labor” as “the relation between effort and creativity is shattered. Labor is reduced to time and energy exchanged for wages.”[9] Laborers are further stripped of skills by “industrialization and division of labor… (which, over time) becomes drudgery…(done) in order to pay for essentials- food, shelter, clothing.”[10] In short, laborers were stripped of their humanness, or their innate desire to create and produce the means by which to survive.

This stripping of humanness was amplified by the institution of the single-family home where daily tasks of production were replaced with automated appliances and dependent upon wages to maintain security. Increases in living standards and security against risk were positive outcomes of these institutions, while “social isolation, narrowed political and social concern, and the fragmentation of culture” were negative outcomes. Much like laborers being deskilled in industry, women were deskilled within the single-family home, as they were “reduced from an active craftsperson to a passive consumer.”[11] Social isolation ensued, causing the breakdown of extended familial and communal relationships, as well as loss of individual identity. Life’s focus became more about maintaining one’s home and nuclear family, through political and economic means, and less about caring for those in need in the community. This breakdown in the extended family and personal identity resulted in the destruction of traditional beliefs and practices as wisdom was no longer passed down from elders, but instead received through commercial popular culture.[12]

I argue the effects produced by “Fordist” practices and the establishment of the single-family home are mirrored in the American evangelical megachurch culture, where structures are sustained by hierarchical leadership teams whose skills and talents dictate how the megachurch functions. Volunteers, much like industrial laborers, are alienated from their created purpose in life as they passively intake information, and objectified as they mindlessly institute ministries and programs developed and dictated by megachurch leadership. This alienation is most pronounced amongst women in ministry, where voice and agency are often stripped, leaving but a backbone of volunteer labor of which megachurches are built and maintained. These volunteers labor in vain, as the commodification in the megachurch culture creates religious institutions filled with watered-down belief systems, devoid of traditional contexts, and impotent to significantly impact life for the people, individually nor communally.

Like the Model-T and the “withering under the weight of consumerism” nuclear family, the megachurch model is outdated in its ability to effectively disciple followers of Jesus Christ. The Church does not need more commodified converts filling convention center seats, but rather She needs faithful followers who are experiencing profound spiritual transformation and leading the way of shalom in this world.

We exist in a time where evidence of Christian impotence abounds. In his discourse conclusion, Miller shares correctives for the commodification of culture/religion, which include restoring tradition and community, providing solid theological education for leadership and laity, and incorporating historical liturgical practices.[13] While these practices would lead to better stewarding of our Christian tradition, their impact will be unsustainable if people remain stripped of their human agency within their religious and capitalistic structures.

In Soulful Spirituality: Becoming Fully Alive and Deeply Human, David G. Benner notes that “being human is not sufficient to becoming fully human.” Being fully human is evidenced by:

“a well-developed capacity for non-possessive love, being grounded in reality and alive in the present moment, a personal philosophy that makes life meaningful, the capacity for forgiveness and letting go, inner freedom of choice and response, creativity, respect for others, the capacity for reflection on experience, and an identification with all humans, not simply those with whom one most easily identifies.”[14]

For me, this description of actualized humanity sounds much like what Jesus modeled when he walked on this earth in all his humanness. Thus, working to become fully human, to become like Jesus, within these oppressive systems is the true challenge of our generation, just as it has been for generations past and will continue to be for generations in the future.

[1] David E. Eagle. “Historicizing the Megachurch.” Journal of Social History published by Oxford University Press (2015) Abstract, 5-6. Downloaded from http://jsh.oxfordjournals.org/ by guest February 26, 2015 onto http://people.duke.edu/~dee4/articles/eagle_hist_megachurch.pdf. Accessed February 3, 2020.

[2] Ibid., Abstract, 5-6.

[3] Ibid., 8-9

[4] Ibid., Abstract, 1.

[5] Ibid., 3.

[6] Vincent J. Miller. Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture (New York, NY: The Continuum International Publishing Group, Inc., 2005) jacket cover.

[7] Ibid., 32.

[8] Ibid., 32.

[9] Ibid., 34.

[10] Ibid., 35.

[11] Ibid., 48.

[12] Ibid., 50-53.

[13] Ibid., 195, 201.

[14] David G. Benner, PhD. Soulful Spirituality: Becoming Fully Alive and Deeply Human (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2011) 35.

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