Longread: megachurches, the best business in America

In our turbulent economic times, no business is safe. With the possible exception of nail polish retailers and megachurches.

A recent Leadership Network survey shows that large churches, or churches with more than 2,000 members, are weathering the recession quite well. While only 20% of all Protestant churches are growing in membership, 77% of large churches are. Staff size and pay are growing as well – 74% of large churches are planning to increase their staff salaries this year, by a median of 3%. (This is actually fairly similar to the average raise in the world of American business). 75% of large churches plan to hire new staff in the next year. And this is the case even though 84% of large churches give 10% or more if their revenue to ministry outside of the church. How many businesses can boast of that? (Answer: only about half a dozen, and they all get some serious tax rebates out of it).

So, why are these large churches succeeding? Basically, because they have borrowed the practices and philosophies of successful modern companies. Political theorist and author of Capitalism and Christianity, American Style William Connoly has described how Capitalism and evangelical Christianity “resonate” with each other: although they develop and grow independently, elements of both “infiltrate” each other, making a Capitalism and a Christianity that often draw on similar tropes. Indeed, you see the language of business becoming the language of the church. The modern church band is called the “worship team” – and the language of “team” comes straight from the language of management fads. And we see religion and business more and more linked every day – from books like Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life, to more wonky stuff like Jesus, CEO and What Would Buddha Do at Work? No wonder megachurches feel comfortable using the language of business – spirituality is connected to success in American culture.

“And Jesus Wept, for profits were down 12% from last quarter, and there had been an accompanying drop in stock price”.

The megachurch, was, after all, conceived by a survey. Willow Creek Community Church founder Bill Hybels famously went door to door, asking people what they wanted out of church. Nobody could agree on what they wanted, but they agreed on what they didn’t want: boring sermons, irrelevant theology, a stiff, formal atmosphere. Hybels’ brilliance was how he synthesized a church from these complaints. Willow Creek Community Church, the first modern megachurch, was a smash hit, growing from one hundred twenty five members to two thousand in two years.

And it pays off, particularly for the guys on top. Although another Leadership Network’s report is quick to distance the average megachurch from the exorbitant excess, of, say Jim Baaker, salaries are still pretty high. For example, over 80% of head pastors in churches of 2000-2999 members (the smallest looked at in the Leadership Network study) earn more than $100,000 a year. This salary increases by $8000 on average for every 1000 additional attendees.

If you don’t believe that the guy at the top is making a lot pretty much universally, consider this Huffington Post article, which lauds megachurch pastor Charles Blake for his modest salary of $227,750,

Blake explained that for many years he was grossly underpaid, nevertheless, he and “Lady Mae” worked tirelessly because of their love for God, the church and the community. “More than once I’ve contributed an entire salary back to the church. As one expected to lead in the giving, whatever the pastor receives, sometimes, a greater portion of it goes back into the church” he declared. In fact, it was only after a bank’stipulation that required Blake to remain as pastor of West Angles during the life of the loan, did Blake receive a significant raise. A CPA firm was retained to valuate an equitable compensation package for an executive with Blake attributes and responsibilities. Consequently, in 2001, Blake accepted a package that was still 1/3 less than was recommended. According to his son, Elder Charles Blake Jr., most years, despite the enormous wealth and generous spirit of some of the members, Bishop Blake is the leading financial contributor to West Angeles. “In order to be credible, the pastor needs to lead the congregation in contributing and thus, must himself be on the frontline and cutting edge in giving.

First off: I wonder how much he makes in speaking fees? Second: It seems that Charles Blake was actively trying to not get paid, to give plenty of money away, and that he still makes hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. He’s not exactly Saint Antony.

In my view, it is a problem to have a Christianity that is so tied up in Capitalism, not simply because religious institutions focusing on money is hypocritical in a very basic Jesus-in-the-temple sense, but because religion is supposed to provide a counterweight to a Capitalistic system. Indeed, my problem with megachurches is not that they have a lot of money – churches always do – but that they don’t spend it well. Sure, Protestant churches do a lot of charity, but charity does not prevent poverty, it only treats its symptoms, like cough medicine. Kim Bobo, director of interfaith worker justice, sums up the cultural problem of American megachurches succinctly,

Years ago, I had some email communication with several chaplains at Tyson Foods. The chaplains challenged my criticisms of Tyson for not paying its workers for all of the hours worked and suggested that my workplace concerns were not valid moral questions. While I respect the chaplains’ work to support Tyson workers struggling with family and personal issues, the questions of justice in the workplace—fair payment and decent wages—are valid, and quite significant, moral questions. Faith cannot be relegated to only the personal and private.

Bill Hybels, founder of Willow Creek Community Church

Andrew Sullivan (who I normally don’t cite) warned in an article published today that unmitigated Capitalism will work against what conservatives value,

[Daniel] Bell was right. Capitalism destroys the very structure of the societies it enriches. But I doubt even he would have anticipated the sheer speed at which this is now happening. It makes the conservative project all but impossible, if still necessary. It does require a defense of the family, of marriage, of personal responsibility. But it also demands a compassion toward the victims of this economic and social change, an understanding of their bewilderment – which can often express itself neurotically in fundamentalist forms of religion or culture.

Okay, so I still hate Andrew Sullivan, because I don’t think fundamentalism is a product of some sort of Freudian neuroses. I think business-evangelism is not merely a symptom but the problem: it actively resists positive change for the lives of poor working people, rather than working to help them. Imagine what could be done if churches across the country made efforts to, instead of feeding the hungry, set up programs by which they might gain employment. If churches, instead of frittering their money away on charity, undertook pseudo-welfare programs: helping people get jobs, providing ex-cons with money to start their own businesses, investing in sustainable energy that will help create jobs, etc. But churches have failed to really help their communities for the  exact reason that modern unmitigated Capitalism doesn’t help people: they share the same sort of hatred of the impoverished.

Religions, after all, are supposed to instead provide a model of the world that makes us realize that Capitalism is not an end all, be all, but at best, a thing that should be limited to certain realms. Jesus threw the money lenders out of the temple. This doesn’t make Jesus a socialist, but it does show he saw the value in keeping religion very separate from the market. Some intermixing is inevitable, but it should be an antagonistic relationship, not a codependent one.

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