Recently, a friend of mine shared a satirical article about Steven Furtick, a pastor in Charlotte, North Carolina, signing a six-year $110 million contract to preach at Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church in Texas. Of course, Furtick didn’t sign any such contract and isn’t going to Texas, but when my friend posted it, it caused a stir among his relatives who didn’t know that it was satire.
The story also caused me to remember my long-time ire of megachurches. Furtick founded “Elevation Church” in North Carolina, which hosts 20,000 people each weekend in 15 locations. The Church of the Highlands in my state of Alabama hosts 40,000 people in 16 locations.
I’ll admit off the bat that not everything about megachurches and their pastors is bad. Many, like Furtick’s church, are known for doing a ton of service work (but not Joel Osteen’s). Some of them have pastors with actual theological training (but not Joel Osteen). Some of them have pastors that live like normal people instead living in mega-mansions (but not Joel Osteen).
But megachurches also have a lot of big issues seriously affecting Christianity in America. Joel Osteen’s “prosperity gospel” is an unadulterated heresy that has taught millions of people that material wealth is a reward for spiritual greatness. The unbelievable personal wealth amassed by megachurch pastors is seriously disconcerting, and an abrogation of Christ’s “poor in spirit” message. But the big thing—the thing that always bewilders me—is the tendency of many megachurches to have a dozen or more satellite campuses.
The satellite campuses are strange for a specific reason. It’s not an attempt to make a new ecclesial community fifty miles away. The pastor uses video technology to livestream his sermon to the new campus, in an attempt to merely extend the existing church community. Thousands of people walk into an auditorium on Sunday morning to watch a preacher on big screen from a different city.
I feel like there’s a monumental hubris involved to feel that you have to be live-streamed to another auditorium and another group of people. Most people respond best a person in the room, but these churches and these pastors have decided that nobody else can preach as well as them. Nobody else can take the Gospel to the next town or the next neighborhood. They have to go themselves, despite the fact they can only go by video.
They send an assistant minister to tend to the needs of the flock, but don’t let that person preach, because the preaching comes from the TV. They are essentially saying that this assistant being sent is good enough to do the heavy lifting of helping you through difficulty in a marriage, or helping to form your children in the faith, but the pastor doesn’t trust them to preach. The pastor has to get the notoriety of preaching to huge crowds and won’t share it.
I spent a long time wondering why anybody would put up with a satellite church experience. The focus is apparently on a big television screen. This can’t possibly be nourishing anyone in the same way as a person-to-person experience.
Then I realized why these churches do this, instead of sending a real-life minister: that famous preacher is the glue holding that community together. Some will argue that it’s Holy Scripture that’s the lifeblood of the community, but that’s a bit of an overstatement. All of the Christianity shares the New Testament, along with Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Seventh Day Adventists, and we are all far from being one people. These megachurches also lack ingrained traditions—concrete actions divorced from particular individuals—by which to affirm their unity. They do not gather around an altar for the sacrificial offering of the Eucharist, as do Catholics and Orthodox. The substance of these ecclesial communities is the preacher and his preaching.
I don’t think poorly of anyone who is making a concerted effort to know the Lord Jesus Christ. But the Church founded by the Christ is real, and it’s more than a persona projected on a screen. The Church is the The Person of Jesus Christ, not a person on a stage. Demand more! Demand God at the center of your Sabbath experience, not a celebrity! At the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, it is obvious who is most important. His Body and Blood are on the Altar. The Church needs Christ, and bringing Christ means coming in person. No satellites!
*I have real hang-ups about Joel Osteen on just about every level. He’s a poor representative of Christianity and probably will merit a post all his own in the future.