Karaoke for the Lord The Recipe for Success at American Megachurches

The megachurches mushrooming in the United States are mammoth feel-good temples providing entertainment for one and all. The ministers used to deliver weekly jeremiads excoriating homosexuality, feminism and abortion, but many -- particularly younger evangelists -- are now using the pulpit to preach about Africa and the environment.

What type are you? Are you a talker? A feeler? A doer? Or a thinker?" Pastor Rick asks the congregation of more than 2,000 believers who have settled into his Saddleback Worship Center in Southern California one Sunday morning in October. "Raise your hand!" The preacher pigeonholes humankind into four personality types. Every time he reels off a characteristic, hundreds of hands point skyward. Who would have guessed? Women generally are the "feelers" and men the "doers."

Rick Warren is a jovial butterball of a man who has just turned the wrong side of 50. He sports a twee beard of the sort you might expect to see on a bank teller and is decked out in a pineapple-print, shortsleeved shirt. Looking at him, you'd never suspect he is the most influential preacher in the United States. Warren seems like the kind of down-to-earth guy you could approach on the street, just an average joe, with a divine calling. And that suits the Bush advisor just fine. He doesn't want to scare off the lost sheep that have drifted away from his flock. Warren's manifesto, The Purpose-Driven Life: What on Earth Am I Here For? is the biggest selling hardcover non-fiction work of all time in U.S. book-publishing history - with 26 million copies sold to date. Warren has counseled President George W. Bush, and his Saddleback church is the model for thousands of others in the country.

Warren makes performers of his congregation during the service. There's more to their involvement than having them raise their hands. Half-sheets of paper have been laid along the pews, and followers are asked to fill in the blanks for four statements, just as they would in a school quiz. One of the questions reads: "_________ love God with their hearts." Anyone who has listened to Warren's sermon knows the magic word that completes the sentence: "talkers."

But there's more at stake here than didactic gimmickry. What's really important is that the people feel understood - whether they are talkers, feelers, doers or thinkers - inside this cavernous temple with its wall-to-wall video screens, camera crews, live band and mixing console. Even though it looks more like a concert hall than a place of worship, they feel that the man in the pineapple shirt is looking straight into their hearts.

Warren founded Saddleback Church in 1980 in Orange County, a white middleclass and staunchly conservative area south of Los Angeles. It is now part of an astonishing phenomenon in the long, idiosyncratic history of religion in the United States: the "megachurch."

A megachurch is a house of worship that draws more than 2,000 people each week. Today, there are more than 1,200 in the United States - almost double the 2000 figure. Together, they collected - Praise the Lord! - a total of $7.2 billion in 2005. Because Americans will switch churches when they find one that suits them better (even if it's only the time of the service), the rapid growth rate indicates that these modern cathedrals are meeting a social need - just as Saddleback is. Spread over 120 acres complete with direction signs, the grounds also hold a café, a youth center, 2,250 parking spaces (with shuttle service), and a meandering man-made creek. Special greeters give churchgoers a firm Christian handshake as they enter. Six services are held here every weekend for the approximately 22,000 parishioners. And there's something for everyone - from classical music aficionados ("Traditions," 9 a.m. on Sundays) to rockers ("Overdrive," 9 a.m. and 11:15 a.m. on Sundays, at a second on-site "worship venue").

Megachurches use innovative packaging to sell religion. It's user-friendly, practical, authentic, and modern. The Christian is the customer. They have learned a thing or two from shopping malls and big business. They woo their target group with a heavy dose of entertainment, sophisticated technology, wall-to-wall ideas for success at home and at work, and a spring-inyour-stride message that everything's good.

"I love Saddleback because it's not so religious," says Lisa Volder, a member for three years. At first, she said it reminded her too much of Hollywood. Now she is so taken with Saddleback that she works at an information stand outside for people who want to learn more. She wears a name tag that says, "A fresh start with God." A well-dressed woman in her mid-40s, Lisa joined the church after she moved to the area, and claims that the move was a sign from Heaven: "God knew that I needed to be here."

When Lisa waxes lyrical about Saddleback's understated approach to religion, she most likely means its lack of time-honored rituals: Saddleback has no liturgy, no prayer books, no sonorous minister fiddling around at the altar. Saddleback doesn't have an altar, or a pulpit; just Rick Warren's sermon, interspersed with high-decibel (set at 98-108dbs) blasts of schmaltzy Christian rock. The songs' lyrics are shown on a ticker along the base of the video screens; sentiments like "I can't get enough of your love pouring down my soul." Karaoke for the Lord.

Megachurches sell the Christian faith as the (only) path to a better, happier life. And American suburbia is lapping up this new brand of spiritual comfort food. "The megachurches are very good at meeting human beings where they are, with their questions, needs, and hurts," says David Gushee, a professor for moral philosophy at the Baptist Union University in Jackson, Tennessee.

More than half of these churches, including Saddleback, define themselves as evangelical. In the United States, that translates as ranging from staunchly conservative to far-right and reactionary. The evangelical movement arose from Protestantism in the 18th century. Today, the United States boasts numerous groups that draw fine theological distinctions between themselves, but share core fundamental values and convictions - including the central tenet that believers must be born again and accept Jesus Christ as their savior if they are to be true Christians.

Over the past few decades, the evangelical movement has attracted increasing numbers of followers in the United States. Today they comprise about a quarter of the U.S. population. These born-again Christians include President Bush, who credits God with helping him stay on the wagon. His 2000 Democratic challenger Al Gore and former President Jimmy Carter have also been reborn. In a country where 80 percent of the population believe in God and nearly 60 percent say they believe that the apocalypse - as predicted in the Book of Revelations - will actually happen, the belief in spiritual rebirth almost seems mainstream.

Megachurches Bring about a Sea Change

Politically, the evangelicals are associated with the "Christian Right," whose leaders are the Baptist television evangelists Jerry Falwell (73) and Pat Robertson (76). With a fanatical passion, these conservative firebrands speak out in favor of traditional "family values" and school prayer, and against abortion, gay rights, pornography, feminism, sex education, and stem-cell research. In recent months, they have upped the ante on Evolution too. In the approximately 200,000 evangelical churches, only one party is considered electable: the Republicans.

But the newer, younger figures like Rick Warren steer clear of hot-button issues during sermons. The laid-back style of the megachurches, with their non-doctrinaire approach and advice-based services, has sparked a sea change in the relationship between evangelical Christians and the rest of American society. "I'm so tired of Christians being known for what they're against," says Warren.

"There is a lot of discontent brewing," says Brian McLaren, the founding pastor of Cedar Ridge Community Church in Gaithersburg, Maryland, and an outspoken critic of the cozy-buddy relationship between the evangelical establishment and politics. "More and more people are saying this has gone too far - the dominance of the evangelical identity by the religious right. You can't say the word 'Jesus' in 2006 without picking up an awful lot of baggage."

This uprising in churches and academic evangelical circles is taking place at exactly the same time that the traditional Christian Right is wielding maximum influence on the White House. Even the Baptist televangelist Jerry Falwell, who first politicized the movement by founding the "Moral Majority" in 1979, acknowledges that he "was not at all sure ... that we really could make a difference" back then. Today he expresses his amazement "at how a huge nation like America could be so swayed and even transformed completely by the New Testament church."

The evangelicals' coming of political age began with a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1973 that effectively legalized abortions in America. Prior to this, evangelical theologians like Falwell limited themselves to caring for their flocks' spiritual needs. But after the ruling on Roe v. Wade, Falwell and his cohorts saw the floodgates opening to hordes of godless barbarians determined to strike down every traditional Christian value that Americans held dear. They decided to mix things up in the political arena. There, they were welcomed by a friendly, if somewhat bemused, Republican Party.

It still took years for the conservative Christians to land the right hook that floored the heathen Democrats. At the end of the 1980s, evangelicals were evenly split between both political parties. Today the ratio is 2:1 in favor of the "Grand Old Party." The Christian Right has broken out of its strongholds and launched a bare-knuckled offensive on society at large. The United States could become a theocracy, liberal Americans have warned - notwithstanding the constitutionally guaranteed separation of church and state.

Liberals are warning that the United States could become a theocracy

Things aren't quite that bad yet. But the zealots have certainly fueled the country's ideological division into "red states" (Republican-leaning) and "blue states" (Democratic-leaning). The social and political chasm "would be incomprehensible without the religious beliefs and moral values that flow from that," Professor Gushee says.

The Christian Right, now armed with a technology-packed arsenal, has taken its fight against the imputed decadence of the temporal, debauched and gay-friendly "blue states" to the economic battlefield: When it issues a call to boycott "godless" advertising (showing gay couples, for example), depraved entertainment or religious deficits, it can even send goliaths such as Disney or Ford scampering for cover. The straight-laced doll manufacturer "American Girl" recently found itself facing a boycott: it had made a donation to an organization for girls that supported abortion rights. Last Christmas, huge chains like Target or Nordstrom were faced with accusations that they had sacrificed the Christian "Merry Christmas" for the non-denominational "Happy Holidays" - purely so as to attract more customers. The evangelical critics had no objections to ostentatious holiday spending itself, though.

In addition to landing these populist jabs, the Christian Right has scored some bigger, more tangible victories. The "God Gap," the boost that God-fearing voters give Republican candidates, tipped the scales in the 2004 presidential elections. And George W. Bush has appointed so many dyed-in-the-wool conservative justices to the Supreme Court that Roe vs. Wade faces a rocky future.

Yet all is not rosy in the relationship between the Republicans and the Christian Right. Unwelcome guests are gatecrashing the party: Respected evangelicals are now canceling their unconditional pact with their longstanding political allies, including influential pastor Joel Hunter from Longwood, Florida. In his new book Right Wing, Wrong Bird, Hunter (58) argues that "a voice of biblical values cannot be in the pocket of one party."

Even Rick Warren is flirting with the enemy - he met with former Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry to discuss the environment and poverty. "I'm worried that evangelicals be identified too much with one party or the other," Warren says. "When that happens, you lose your prophetic role of speaking truth to power. And you have to defend stupid things that leaders do."

Gregory Boyd, the founding pastor of a worship center on the outskirts of St. Paul, Minnesota, went one better in the runup to the 2004 election. For six straight Sundays, the 50-year-old stood in front of the congregation at his Woodland Hills Church and preached, well, heresy: The church should keep its nose out of politics and refrain from framing sexual questions in moral terms. He added that the church should stop describing the United States as a "Christian nation" and avoid glorifying American military action. "If the church wins the Culture War, it will inevitably be the loser," Boyd told his dumbfounded Midwestern parishioners.

One-fifth of his 5,000 parishioners headed for greener religious pastures in the wake of the minister's political rebirth. But others were relieved - some to the point of tears. "Most of my friends are believers," said Sharon Staiger. "They think if you're a believer, you'll vote for Bush. And it's scary to break the mold."

Even evangelical foot soldiers are edging away from the GOP camp. Opinion polls in the summer of 2006 showed that the Christians no longer considered their home party as "religion-friendly" as in the past. And when the news broke that a Republican House member, Florida's Mark Foley, had been sending lascivious emails to young congressional pages for years, the evangelicals' allegiance to the Republicans all but collapsed. The "family values" that the party had always sworn to defend seem to have been cast overboard. "Pretty sickening," the evangelical Lynn Sunde (35) said of Foley's penpalling. As a result, the Minnesota resident - who has cast Republican ballots for years - says she may well vote "on the issues" in the next elections.

Young evangelicals are generally more skeptical, even cynical, about politics; they no longer believe that one party has a monopoly on virtue. "People in their 20s and 30s don't think in terms of politics," says megachurch pastor Hunter. "They just want to know: How can we make the world better?"

The increasing doubts, expressed by evangelicals and non-evangelicals alike, about the wisdom of the Iraq war mark yet another step down the path to political independence.

As a result of this shift, three PR strategists have suggested the Democrats recruit voters from the megachurches. Their analysis of the 2004 presidential election indicates that some 50 percent of suburban churchgoers voted Democrat - and, even more unexpectedly, that nearly 40 percent supported gay rights.

But the Republicans are not the only losers. The upper echelons of the evangelical theologians are also taking a beating. "The younger generation is embarrassed by the rhetoric, the style, and the content of people like Falwell," Gushee says. "They are not identifying at all with the rage and fear-mongering." A national survey conducted in the spring of 2004 showed that evangelicals think none too positively of either Falwell (a rating of 45 out of 100) or Robertson (55). Even Pope John Paul II (59) scored higher, although - evangelicals are rarely favorably disposed toward Catholics.

An Internicine Battle

The first real internecine battle is currently being waged - over an initiative to combat the effects of greenhouse gases. At the beginning of 2006, 86 leading evangelical thinkers - including scores of Christian college presidents and megachurch pastors like Warren, Hunter and McLaren - signed a "Call to Action" placing the issue of climate change high on their agenda. This commitment is being brought home to their followers under the slogan "creation care." The idea: It is our responsibility to prevent man from destroying God's Creation.

"The Republican Party is largely serving the interests of the oil, gas and utility industries who pay large donations to Republican politicians," says Richard Cizik, vice president of the main evangelical lobbying group, the National Association of Evangelicals. "Can we expect that party to speak out on behalf of the environment without our political advocacy? Of course not!"

The evangelicals' old guard quickly fired back. There is no scientific proof, their leaders said, that man was causing climate change. Most important of all, they argued, was that human beings - as the highest form of life - take priority. Environmental protection retards economic growth and that is bad for the average American. The initiative's opponents have started playing "dirty politics," one of the signatories said. "There's no place for that in Christian policy."

But the evangelical traditionalists fear more than the climate change initiative. They are worried that their days of gaybashing and ranting against abortion could be numbered in the face of moderate mass resistance. Which is just what the younger leaders are striving to achieve, having realized that they have put themselves into an extremely tight political corner by using what Hunter calls "below-the-belt" issues. "We want to expand our political involvement to issues that are important for all the people," the pastor at Longwood says.

Even evangelical foot soldiers are edging away from the GOP camp

Rick Warren, for instance, has sent Saddleback volunteers to Rwanda as the first step of a global peace project aimed at combating poverty and disease. Their brief is to promote education and build churches. Warren has even established an AIDS foundation. Help to fight AIDS? An evangelical? That's never happened in the United States before. Wasn't it Jerry Falwell who said that AIDS was God's punishment of the perverted?

But the new generation of evangelicals is less concerned about damnation and more focused on caring. According to Warren, the ultimate issue is to "love the sinner, not the sin" - a statement that shows that he and his colleagues have not been converted into liberals overnight. Their rejection of abortion and gay marriage is "not negotiable," as Joel Hunter says. But other rights for homosexual couples, such as inheritance, well, that's not really any of the church's business now, is it? The megachurches represent a catch basin for thousands with radically different convictions; they have acquired a degree of acceptance that earlier evangelical churches simply didn't need.

And if the megachurch managers really turn up the volume, there evangelical movement will no longer be recognizable. Using the Internet, Rick Warren alone reaches a network of more than 10,000 churches that follow Saddleback's lead. Every year he holds workshops for thousands of budding preachers; he widely distributes sermons, teaching materials and advice. And his current bestseller has made him the talk of millions in Christian households. The purpose-driven man from Orange County is probably the biggest mouthpiece that U.S. churches have ever produced. And if Pastor Rick takes up the environmental gauntlet, the White House may have to batten down the hatches.

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