by Chuck Gruenwald
If the self-destruction of several televangelists in the late 1980s was a lesson in hypocrisy, then the message that is pushed in today’s megachurches of “God loves you, regardless of your irresponsible and/or selfish behavior”, or “You’re saved no matter what”, is a lesson in shamelessly resorting to the breakdown of self-discipline in order to boost attendance in those message-neutral amphitheaters.
Despite growing up about fifteen miles from one of the most famous examples, I never paid attention to the megachurch movement until the televangelist meltdown of the late 1980s, when high-profile televangelists were caught engaging in behavior that they warned would lead their viewers and fans into eternal damnation.
Perhaps as a result, the megachurch showmen adopted a message that eliminated references to Hell, and replaced it with a new message that is more like an insurance policy; a benign, generic, feel-good message that helps fill lots of seats in a megachurch amphitheater, while giving those showmen an exit if they ever chose to put themselves in such compromising situations as their televangelist counterparts. This also gives megachurch leaders a feeling of accomplishment when they are either failing or refusing to assist followers who seek help for destructive behavior.
Shortly after Bill Clinton’s impeachment proceedings, the Daily Herald printed an article about one of his “spiritual advisers”, Willow Creek Community Church founder Bill Hybels. That column was accompanied by a photograph of Mr. Clinton and Mr. Hybels sitting outdoors and holding hands, while both men bowed their heads as a Secret Service agent looked away. It was the type of staged pseudo-humility that is usually seen on a megachurch Jumbotron, when an attendee is shown with closed eyes, quivering lips, and perhaps a tear; the type of facial expressions that are found on a person who is either pretending to appear devout, or is wishing he knew where the closest restroom is.
Christianity is very complex. Everyone within the hierarchy of Christianity holds their position for a reason. Unfortunately, the megachurch mentality that is embraced by the likes of Mr. Hybels avoids the clutter of history in favor of a message that is “modern, not outdated”, and “breaks with tradition.”
Those who choose to forget history however, will ultimately be forgotten by history.
Mr. Hybels is not the only person whom Mr. Clinton supposedly confided in during his impeachment era. While Jessie Jackson was allegedly counseling Bill as a result of his then recently-disclosed acts of debauchery, Mr. Jackson was quietly dealing with his own marital indiscretions, indiscretions that ultimately resulted in Mr. Jackson’s child with a mistress.
At one of his first appearances after the news of this relationship had broken, Jessie Jackson was greeted with applause in a Los Angeles church. This was not exactly the type of response that a self-appointed moral leader who failed his followers and family deserved. However, by steering clear of a message about self-discipline, Mr. Jackson helped the members of that crowd vindicate themselves for their own immoral behavior. In other words, if the “leader” not only doesn’t judge anyone, but also engages in similar behavior, then that person becomes a more attractive leader, since he or she is “one of us”.
While acting as counselors for Bill Clinton, both Jessie Jackson and Bill Hybels failed him. The need for publicity and a fear of alienating a high-profile source of publicity overrode the need to tell Mr. Clinton what he needed to hear. Instead, he was fed a message that would help him feel good about himself.
The contradictory messages between megachurches and Christianity regarding feeling good and being loved is similar to a big difference between how progressives and conservatives interact with others: progressives want to feel good about themselves and they need reinforcement from others in order to do so. They also take it upon themselves to make other people, such as minorities, feel good about themselves, whether the receiving party wants help from those progressives regarding their self-esteem or not. Conservatives, however do not need to “feel good” about themselves. Instead, they want to love others.
The conservative definition of love is not the same as the megachurch definition. While conservatives view love as something that requires discipline and self-sacrifice, megachurch showmen perceive love as the act of making others feel good about themselves, which is really the progressive method of building self-esteem.
Belonging to a religion requires some level of sacrifice. Believing that it is possible to belong to a specific religion without committing to the required sacrifices is similar to buying a uniform from a surplus store and then wearing it in public, or driving around in a Ford Crown Victoria in an attempt to appear as a police officer. These acts are intended to imitate people who have made commitments and sacrifices, and who have therefore earned a level of respect in the process.
Megachurches act as the proverbial used uniform or Crown Victoria, a place for showmen who want the credibility of a rabbi, priest, or pastor, without expecting commitment from their followers.
Unlike the aftermath of the televangelist scandals, where the televangelists paid the price for their hypocrisy, the victims in the collapse of the megachurch industry will be the followers of leaders who had no message.