Orthodoxy and the Megachurches

“When [the founder of Willow Creek, the first megachurch] did a door-to-door survey to find out why suburbanites were staying away from the church, he found they didn’t like religious symbols—crosses and icons—anywhere in the church. The building itself looks like a corporate office park or even a suburban shopping mall with a food court” (The Genius of Evangelism, p. 242 in “The Life of Meaning,” Seven Stories Press)

I confess it. I’m envious of the megachurches. A priest friend said his cousin is one of six full-time ministers to a 5,000 member phenomenon not far from one of our largest Orthodox Church in America parishes, with membership only in the mid-hundreds. I learned what they do to reach out to the public when I was into a post-graduate course in a Protestant seminary a generation ago. They sell Christianity as a product. They research the public and seek ways to provide innovation. They strive to find the latest approach to communicate to the masses. They stress grace and ignore repentance, that startling term which begins the appeal of both St. John the Baptist and our Lord Jesus Christ. Rather, they find out what the public wants to hear and they say it.

There’s another way to look at it. I remember being in the Soviet Union before the fall of communism. I experienced something similar over there; Pentecostals and other sectarians yearn to enter that land precious to so many of us and to be given the possibility to go among the Orthodox Christians and proselytize. Who was I to resent that “sheep stealing”? And yet it bothered me to see it happening. With the fall of the atheist regime, my fellow Orthodox Christians who had borne the brunt of the persecutions would be subjected to another challenge to the Holy Church worse than from the non-believers.

I recall one wise bishop who took me aside once before the liturgy. He wasn’t much older than me at the time, but even at forty he had a decade of maturity and probably twice that in experience that came from persecution and suffering. He explained that even proselytizing was part of the plan of the Almighty. It seemed to him that the spread of evangelicals and Pentecostals throughout the land might just be a preparation for the later assimilation of the deeper, more profound and challenging worship and theology that is part of our Orthodox Church. They were, in his thinking, a first stage of learning, a primer of Christianity getting them ready to take on the wisdom of Orthodoxy. Once they assimilate the Bible they will see how Orthodoxy expands it.

I nodded politely and pretended to agree with him; however, that wasn’t how salvation history was understood by the Baptist minister with whom I had several conversations in my pilgrimage through the land of my ancestors. He thought of our Orthodox faith as a prelude to the “true acceptance” of Jesus Christ by adult baptism and mature grasp of the Bible. Orthodoxy was for him a crude, primitive passageway from paganism, many gods elevated to sainthood, idolatry in the form of icon veneration, and a priesthood of men not worth imitating.

I don’t think that the megachurch ministers or devotees would agree with the Baptist minister, or really care much about relating to other Christians as long as their “needs” were being cared for. For them it’s not a matter of doctrine, probably not even of meaning—other than satisfying emotional desires at a comfort level. And I’m not sure they fit into the category of being an American version of what the Russian bishop felt to be the case in his country. I’d like to think that those who attend the megachurches will graduate into a deeper, more meaningful quest for Christ and the urgings of the Holy Spirit within them. But in today’s culture one must be careful not to rush to make ponderous statements that pontificate on the transient nature of our society. Even religion is in a free-fall state.