Worship Local Vol. 1: How Walmart Ruined Church

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As the phone conversation ended I was left with an unsettling feeling in my stomach. I had just  been in a conversation with a person from a local mega church about possibly helping out with a function at another church. It was during this conversation that I realized we had completely different ideas about church. For them, putting money in the plate for special causes and signing up to help at the church’s annual camp was enough.

As I pointed out that only a handful of people with a miniscule time commitment could make a big difference in a local neighborhood, they again pointed to the work they were doing at their church.

It was as if the mega church had become a cure all. Simply attending and supporting would fill a person’s quota for doing good work, and anything outside of that church or their ministries was of no concern.

What is shocking to me is that large churches are planting campuses and expanding bringing in more and more money and people, meanwhile little struggling churches in rough neighborhoods doing incredible work cannot pay to keep the lights on, and the mega churches and their people are oblivious to the world around them.

***

I have changed names dates and places…to protect the guilty.

These are the facts:

I currently work at a church that is one third homeless. We have about 80 people on a Sunday. Every month we lose a few thousand dollars (which means it costs more to have one fulltime pastor, an intern, and a part time office worker that actually works in exchange for studio space rental). There is a ministry at our church that feeds 150 or so homeless people every Sunday that is funded entirely by outside funding (i.e. private donors outside the church).

We are “revitalizing.” This means that our church was on its last leg for a long time, but we’re hopeful that it can be turned around. We actually believe that a community of people that deeply believe that Jesus is Lord should make a difference in one of the poorest neighborhoods in my town. We actually believe that meeting together regularly to worship and read scripture and serve the poor, drug addicted, child molesters, sex offenders, and homeless in our midst is actually a good thing.

These are more facts:

Just across town from our church is another struggling church. This church is also “revitalizing” (see above). At this church the urban gentrification has forced poor families to move into the neighborhood. As this cultural shift has happened a number of issues have emerged in the neighborhood. On several occasions the pastor of this church has had to pick up burned squares of tin foil left behind by meth and crack users that use on church property.

This church has chosen to reach out to their neighbors. They now serve a meal for anyone in their neighborhood. They have reached out to and have regular contact with drug users and dealers.

This summer this church is putting on a vacation bible school. Since they have even fewer people than our church and about as much money (read: none) they will be using VBS material from a few years ago that has been through a few churches before it came to them. Last year they did not have much time to plan or promote their VBS and they had 60 neighborhood kids. This year they are expecting at least a hundred, but because they are a small church they are worried they will not have enough people to handle the number of kids that will come.

The questions these kids face on a daily basis are: will there be food to eat? Which route to school or the park will take me past the fewest drug houses? THESE ARE KIDS!!!

Now, the obvious question: how has Walmart ruined church?

Not far from both of the aforementioned churches are several mega churches. These churches have thousands of people and millions (that’s right millions of dollars) and more staff than they know what to do with.

These churches have no presence amongst the poor. One is located within spitting distance of a prison and has no prison ministry. These churches often brag about the large amounts of funds they are able to collect for various causes.

Are these churches members our cities homeless coalition? No.

Do any of the homeless people our church serves know who they are? No.

How many other church campuses* have these churches planted? Several.

It is at this point that I think it is prudent to point out that the church I work has to rely on outside funding to pay the bills. Some of that outside funding comes from a gentlemen who sells alcoholic drink mixes to bars and some strip clubs. An alcohol supplier that sells to strip blubs has heard about the work a church in another state are doing and are compelled to give what little money they have (we iron out the wrinkles) to help poor and impoverished people they may never meet.

These two churches have received little or no help or aid from any of the so-called mega churches listed above.

This raises the obvious questions: how exactly has Walmart ruined church?

Walmart has one thing going for it, much like McDonalds: brand loyalty. There is comfort in the name. Americans in other countries feel safe and get excited about eating McDonalds after days or weeks of eating “foreign” food. What is interesting about this phenomenon is that, I would argue, both Walmart and McDonalds are the lowest denominator of American culture.

This cultural dependence on mega corporations have made their way to America’s favorite knock off producer: the church. They have come to fruition in the form of the “mega church.”

It is a large faceless organization that provides a product (worship) at a consistent (even if it is consistently awful) quality for a reasonable rate (often little or no commitment). It is the perfect commodification of the sacred and the profound.

The most beautiful, mysterious, life and world transforming truths have been reduced to a drug that mega churches can offer once a week. You go. You know no one, you don’t have to commit, you don’t have to change or be challenged. You get what you came for, maybe put a dollar or two in the plate (y’know just reasonable compensation for a mediocre show), and you are out.

AND when your particular church is deemed “successful” enough, (you know what time it is) it’s time to franchise. Never mind getting serious about the good work going on all around you. It’s time to spread the brand name and make merchandise: t-shirts, bags, books, pamphlets, VBS material. It is also time to upgrade: better sound system, better screens, hipper clothes for pastors, more cushioning for seats.

It’s a total world take over.

What is so fascinating about this phenomenon is that it makes life worse for everyone.

The illusion becomes that God blesses through people and money. Since God blesses in this way mega churches are the most blessed. Which means that it is entirely ok that churches…like the ones listed above…cannot keep the lights on.

The illusion goes further, because if God is only at the mega church, then God is not anywhere else. Church attenders interpret this fallacy as a license not to look around to see the needs of people outside the church or one of its ministries.

It’s inoculation.

Jesus, that’s the guy that started this whole church thing, started a revolution and ascended to the throne of the Universe with 12 people and no money. He healed and taught in small towns in an occupied territory in the Roman Empire.

Mega churches inoculate people into thinking that they are powerless outside the mega church and the money they give to it.

The final illusion is that the mega church is what everyone should be striving for.

At the VBS mentioned above it would take 30 people to change the lives of 100 at risk kids. 30 people (I’ve crunched the numbers) that’s 1/6 of 1% of the mega church’s regular attendance.

***

At a local bar I sat down to get my customary PBR (that’s Pabst Blue Ribbon, I only drink the best!) and I ended up in conversation with a construction worker that attends another large young church.

As he talked about his church he said, a bit uncomfortably, “like, we do all this work in Haiti, which is awesome and I’m totally for that, but out church is in Felony Flats (a nickname for the neighborhood in Spokane right by the prison with a high crime rate), and we don’t even do anything with the prison or the poor folks in our neighborhood…(sips beer)…and I just don’t think that’s right…”

What would happen if we all began to be as honest with the voice inside of us as this construction worker?

What would happen if the inoculation wore off? What would happen if people woke up and saw that there’s plenty of work for them? What mega churches saw discipleship as being a blessing right where they are with the churches already in existence? What would happen if we saw worship not as a product but a mysterious beautiful way of encountering God?

I believe it can happen. I believe that the Jesus movement will not be stopped no matter how hard people try.

Jesus is Lord.

The Tomb is Empty.

Is there a way to find enough confidence in the gospel announcement that we can lay aside insecurity, jealousy, and the imperial patterns of this world and worked together instead of against each other?

Would it be possible to find 30 people to work at a lowly VBS?

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*A church campus is different from a church. It is a “satellite” location where a sermon and presumably worship are broadcast from a main location to another location. The assumption is that if the product (insert celebrity pastor and or musician) is the main draw and no other human being on earth could possibly be a substitute, and it would be a good use of God’s money to build buildings and fancy projection and broadcast equipment to spread the personality cult…I mean church.

I just want to be clear on this point: hundreds, if not thousands of people will gather at a particular time and a particular place to watch a video…not a live human being…talk for 30-40 minutes. This to me is the equivalent of showing a home movie to 10,000 people, or watching a bootlegged movie filmed with a cam-corder.

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6 Comments on “Worship Local Vol. 1: How Walmart Ruined Church

  1. I am eagerly awaiting part two! Ryan, you are and your church are doing great work.

  2. GENIUS! My parents had a tent ministry on the side of the highway and they served a very similar population and dealt with a lot of the same issues that you do. They dealt with a lot of people who had been shunned by society at large and to me it was miraculous because here is an all black family in e. TX, with a tent from Fred’s on a corner of a rich family’s lot. After a few years, they had to move the services to our living room and at some point one of the family’s was blessed in a big way. They acquired a building downtown and moved into part of it while turning the other two sections into a homeless shelter and a sanctuary that they GAVE to my parents. it was one of the family’s that they had served. Be encouraged because what you are teaching is reaching far, far into the kingdom even though you might not see it yet.

  3. I went to one of these Mega Churches for years before joining our struggling mission based church and it is not the leadership’s fault, they try… It is the membership that is apathetic, the pastor did a whole sermon series on the Hole in the Gospel to get people out and serving in their communities and even did an alter call for serving in outside organizations and small groups to study the concept and plan to serve together…and in our small group of 12 I had 2 that actually served with me in our project or even had any interest in serving…So I left….and joined a church that was all about serving…I think it is the nature of the people a mega church attracts…the fence sitters, the lukewarm. But we all have to start somewhere and the mega church has great resources and education for baby followers of Christ, but eventually you must “graduate” from the mega church in order to grow spiritually….

  4. I think you miss that the mega church is mediocre. Actually their shows, talent, sound system, lighting, esspresso bar, playground, facilities and production are top notch. That’s the draw after all.

  5. I like what Rachel has to say…not as easy to place the blame on any one factor here. At the same time, great post and brilliant insight as usual!

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