When it comes to churches, Atlanta is a fascinating place. On the one hand, you can visit the old Ebenezer Baptist church and sit before the pulpit that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. cut his preaching teeth behind. I’ve sat in that building and felt the chills of its history and choked on the lump in my throat. You can also find the small Berea Mennonite church that operates a farm in a neighborhood deep in East Atlanta. I have worshiped with those saints as well. And, of course, as with any town there are as many myriad other churches per capita as one might expect.
What I hadn’t prepared myself for before I got to Atlanta was the immense popularity of the “megachurch.” The place is loaded with them. In a galactic analogy, it’s like a stellar nursery of red giant stars, but sick ones, always threatening to collapse in on themselves under the weight of their own structures into theological black holes of inanity…always needing to “attract more ‘butts in the seats’” (as a former colleague invested heavily in “church growth” once so eloquently put it when telling me how to solve all the problems at my church) in order to sustain themselves.
There are white megachurches (always systematically planted in affluent, up-and-coming regions) and black megachurches. Among both black and white megachurches, there are many who are unabashedly prosperity-oriented, and others denominationally structured. And there are megachurches for every denomination, some having grown up organically, often with more traditional architecture, their appearances reflecting the life cycle of their surroundings.
Others were clearly planted using the “church growth” model, having been strategically built, facilitated, and marketed based on careful market and consumer research. This model, having been cursed to us by Donald McGavran and his disciples, has been elaborated on more fully by Paul Axton. At its heart is a narcissistic, consumer-driven ideology, founded on growth capitalism, and modeled after the modern corporate CEO structure. It’s intentionally designed to give religious consumers the “worship experience” they want in a competitive religious market. Customer service can get those butts in the seats. Corporate America can show us how.
I remember being shocked and disturbed the first time I saw a commercial for a church. Worse yet, I remember after an experience we had where we were treated poorly in an application process, telling another minister how hurt we were and seeking solace. I was mortified by his response. “Yeah, we did that to an applicant once. I feel bad about it. I guess we need to spend more time looking to the business world to figure out how to treat people.”
I’m not making that up. A minister of an organization claiming to follow (at the very least) the greatest ethical teacher in the history of the world recommended turning to greedy corporations to learn how we ought to treat each other in the church. Failure.
These megachurches are all over the place, though, mammoth structures where throngs get whatever religious fix they prefer in front of the shiny lights and smoke machines and volunteer baristas, while three-chord guitar players lead them in emo-style, stupid-redundant, romance ballads to a God who calls them only to be more comfortable and fulfilled, while their kids jump on trampolines and play on McDonald’s playland gym sets. And somehow they always leave more biblically illiterate than they entered.
It’s why you can be a part of a “large church” doing some “good things” and not understand that Jesus wants you to care about black people being murdered.
Enter Louie Giglio, white evangelical preacher at the enormous Passion City Church, another big-box, multi-location “Six Flags over Jesus” (seriously, check out the link) that markets itself as an “inner city” church. In the midst of what may be the most profoundly important moment for racial justice since the civil rights era, when after the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Rayshard Brooks and countless others, a slumbering white giant is finally starting to wake up and feel the pain of their “red and yellow and black” brothers and sisters and say, “We’ve HAD it!” and protests are finally becoming harder to ignore, and change may finally be on the horizon again–when the time to stand with our brown brothers and sisters and let them speak and be counted with them came, Louie decided to step in.
You can’t hardly blame him. In a moment with so much attention, it’s hard to pass up the opportunity to capture some of that lime-light. My friend posted an ad for their upcoming Sunday “panel discussion”. Giglio, the Christian rapper Lacrae, and (of all people) Dan Cathy (white, fabulously privileged CEO of Chic-Fil-A) were going to sit with Bernice King (daughter of MLK and head of the King Center), who later (thank Christ) withdrew from the panel.
My conversation with my friend did not go well. The panel went worse. At one point Giglio, free-riffing in front of the only black person on the stage revealed that, in his private conversations with Cathy (a wealthy, white, capitalist) they’ve often lamented that the term “white privilege” (being distasteful to privileged white people) is met with such resistance. Why not call it “white blessing” so they can more readily accept that, although slavery and racism have been a blessing, they were still kind of unfair.
He might as well have said, “I bet we could sell that.”
Giglio, when the issue rightfully exploded on him, has issued an apology. But that damage is done. He said it because he thought it. But I’m glad he said it because it revealed something ugly about his version of the church.
Giglio, on the surface of the comment, is talking about “the cross.” He wants to call people to bear the cross.” But the cross…it’s hard. And in a church culture (like the church growth movement) where the goal has always been to make Christianity attractive in order to attract people to it, one’s goal in preaching the cross is going to HAVE to mean making the cross palatable. But the cross is the cross. “Palatable” isn’t the way it works.
Again, the church growth philosophy and the megachurches are predicated on making Christianity attractive. The problem with the inevitable rebuttal one always hears “But what’s wrong with smoke machines and drum solos” is that it is based on the idea that the form of the message is different from the substance of the message. It’s predicated on the idea that it doesn’t matter how we say it, it only matters that we say it. But the question is, “what is ‘it’ that we’re trying to say?”. Is it true that the form of our lives is different than its content?
What Bruce Gorman’s work can help us see is that Christianity was never supposed to be a message that is divorced from its form. It’s not just a set of belief statements that can be repeated like magic. It’s not just a set of trite religious rituals to be completed to sate a bloodthirsty deity. It’s none of that.
What it is is a cruciform lifestyle of following Jesus. This means that (contrary to well-meaning folks who try to overemphasize following over the content of our faith) what we believe (substance) is vitally important but only because what we believe is what we live (form). It is both form and substance because the form is the substance. When Jesus said “pick up your cross and follow” he wasn’t saying “yeah it might get hard sometimes if you believe in me.” He was saying, “This is what it is like to be my disciple. Come and die with me.”
This means that things like wealth and comfort and self-indulgence and smoke machines and drum solos (though nice at a rock concert) are not worship of the God who submitted to the cross. It means that consumerism and growth capitalism, both of which are contributors to and sustainers of things like injustice and racism and exploitation are absolutely antithetical to the cross. You can’t do the cross AND base your church on a theme park. Once you turn to capitalism (Dan Cathy?) for the answers, you lose the moral authority to talk about things like systemic racism.
Let me take that further: when you’ve predicated your whole approach to church and the Gospel on making the cross look attractive, then you’ve given up any moral authority you had to acknowledge and speak to its inherent injustice. When you can’t speak to the injustice of the cross and our call to bear it because it’s not attractive, then you can also no longer identify with others on their own crosses, such as brown people suffering systemic injustice and violence, without attempting to make that palatable as well.
I used to ask my students: how do you challenge people’s idolatry when you’re using it to attract them to the cross? You can’t. And what Giglio revealed in his Freudian slip was the failure of church growth: that it makes the cross incomprehensible.
If Giglio was concerned with calling people to the cross instead of attracting them to a show, he wouldn’t need to call white privilege something else or try to turn slavery into “blessing” so that his rich white patrons could swallow the idea. If he called people to the cross, then his white members would understand that they’re supposed to be willing to suffer and die with their brown brothers and sisters. Because if you’re willing to die for brown brothers and sisters, then at the very least you’ll be able to bear the hurt of the notion that you have it better than them and that systemic racism and slavery were just bad–with no qualifiers.
But telling rich white Atlantans that the culture that works so well for them is inherently evil is not attractive. The cross isn’t attractive. And that’s why guys like Giglio and others such as Andy Stanley, who may mean well and may even stumble on a nugget of truth every now and then, are ultimately not doing the Gospel. They’re selling a religion that is a different form than Christianity.
And the form is the substance.