On the front page (the front page!) of our local paper there’s a story about a local megachurch which is apparently modeled on Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church, along with the Willow Creek Church, called the LCBC — short for Lives Changed By Christ. It’s in Lancaster County, PA, home of the Amish. I happened to drive by it a few months ago on the way to picking up a car, and was amazed that it had sprung up out in the middle of what used to be a cow pasture. It’s huge! I jotted down the name and looked it up online, because I was curious, then promptly forgot about it. The story in the paper brought it back to me.
You might think, coming from an atheist, that I’d now tell you how objectionable this church is; you won’t be disappointed, but I do have mixed feelings. While I have concerns, they’re not so much with the execution, as with the whole concept of megachurches. On one hand, it seems to be very popular, and people flock to it. On the other hand, the reasons for doing so seem antithetical to optimal human experience.
On the plus side, the one aspect of religion that I cannot pick a bone with is the sense of community the church most likely engenders for its congregation. Looking at the website, and the article in the paper, they seem to go out of the way to create a pleasant experience for everyone, from babies through seniors. Rock music, balloons, a big stage where the service is more showmanship and entertainment than religion, all designed to make the experience easier to digest. Human interaction, where people can get together, create friendships, and learn about viewpoints of others concerning matters that affect everyone in a relaxed setting is always a good thing. I’m sure in the context of their Sunday services, this church makes the congregation feel good about themselves, and there’s really nothing wrong with feeling good about yourself.
On the minus side, it’s the way the plus side is used that bothers me. There is no evidence for the underlying basis of religion – gods – so without that, I doubt you’d find all these people getting together to listen to Christian music (an oxymoron if there ever was one). Take god out of the equation and you still have a touchy feely, happy clappy, rock concert, though I suspect the audience might be a bit more discerning in the type of music.
Look at the church. You can see there’s quite a bit of money in it. Operations like this don’t come cheap. Religion seems to have become a big business, with economies of scale supplanting the original purposes of the religion. Bigger is better, but bigger needs lots of cash, and being a non-profit organization, the only place to get cash is from donations and fundraisers.
How do you get a population that is increasing in numbers, while church membership declines, to fill the church? Make it fun. Mask the religious aspects with entertainment. Get rid of the pipe organ, replace it with rock groups for the younger demographics, organize interesting activities, and hire a charismatic preacher to fill the 115,500 square foot church. Get rid of saying “Amen” after prayers. Introduce Steve Spielberg type graphics and pyrotechnics into the service gathering. Abolish the de facto dress code most churches require. Abolish long boring sermons, and readings from archaic books.
It’s quite deliberately a church for people who seldom went to church.
In short, make it so unlike a church that they don’t feel like they’re at church. The problem is, no matter how you disguise it, the message and underlying assumptions are still the same, and that’s the insidious thing that I find objectionable. They have to keep people believing patent nonsense, because if they don’t, why would people show up? Why would they put their money in the collection plate? Without some positive, consistent reinforcement of the beliefs they were indoctrinated with since birth, there would be no incentive to keep a church of this size alive. Look what a member of the congregation said in one of the online story comments:
The thing that kept me coming back was the fact that for the first time in my life I was actually thinking about God throughout the week.
Now, that’s effective reinforcement.
It’s too bad we have to resort to tricking people to get together and act like human beings by telling them stories about mythical creatures that will reward them when they die. We do it when they are young, with Santa Claus, and whole institutions, activities and organizations band together to make children feel good at Christmas. It’s fun, and innocent, and harmless, but in the end we know what we are doing. We know we’ll have to pull the mask away eventually.
Religion does the same thing the rest of the year, but at what price? With Santa, we drop the charade once we get to the age of reason, but with god we continue the charade, despite the fact that the psychological processes are the same. Lies and bribes. First we lie to ourselves, we delude ourselves that there is a god, then we reinforce the lies with bribes – a promise of life after death. It seems like such a dishonest way of getting people to act like the humans were are inherently capable of acting like, without the lies and bribes. When religion has to go to such lengths to keep people coming in Sunday after Sunday, the whiff of desperation becomes pungent.
Why can’t we create a way to make people feel good about their lives, and band together in celebration of that life, without having to lie to them? We have examples of the ability to do this already in place. We gather together for a lot of things we have in common – sporting events, theater, music – all things we enjoy. We have local community centers that organize all sorts of activities. There’s a whole infrastructure of community interaction waiting to be tapped. Religion has historically filled this need.
We need to take it back. A humanistic approach to community organizing, emphasizing all of our commonalities, could supplant religion. The up side is that it would be more reflective of reality, less dependent on a the supernatural crutch, and more inclusive, since it would not distinguish between “us’ and “them”, Christians and Hindus and Muslims, blacks, whites and orientals, etc. The tribalism aspect of these groups would disappear. There is no down side.
This is where you say “John’s getting all Pollyannish again” and I readily plead guilty. Common sense says this is how it’s supposed to be. Experience tells me it’s problematic, and for the most part a long way off. Religion is so entrenched, there would need to me a massive shift in human attitudes and thinking.
But one can dream.