Sunday, March 27, 2005

Bodhidharma had only two disciples

And one of them had only one arm...


In his recent book ''The Transformation of American Religion: How We Actually Live Our Faith,'' Alan Wolfe, a professor of political science at Boston College, writes that ''American faith has met American culture -- and American culture has triumphed.'' Radiant [Assembly of God Church in Surprise Arizona] seems the embodiment of this assertion. And yet not exactly. [Pastor] McFarland's long-term plan for his congregants involves much more than playing video games and eating doughnuts. He says that his hope -- his expectation, really -- is that casual worshipers will gradually immerse themselves in Radiant's many Christ-based programs, from financial planning to parenthood and education, until they have eventually incorporated Christian values into every aspect of their lives.

This is the vision of the new megachurch, and it's far more expansive than those of yesterday's megachurches and today's smaller churches. ''The larger church expects a much higher level of commitment,'' says Dave Travis, who runs Leadership Network, a strategic consulting firm for megachurches. ''The larger church expects you to be a more passionate follower of Christ, not just in the church, but in your community, your workplace and your home.''

As an evangelical strategy, it seems to be working. Weekly attendance at most American churches has either plateaued or is declining. But megachurches continue to expand -- and multiply. (According to John Vaughan, who runs the Megachurch Research Center in Bolivar, Mo., there were 10 non-Catholic megachurches in America in 1970. Today there are 282.) McFarland is clearly doing something right. There are now 27 other churches in Surprise, but none of them are growing at anything approaching the pace of Radiant. One day in Surprise, I met a pastor who moved there four years ago with his wife and children from Kalamazoo, Mich., to plant a church. After drawing fewer than 10 people for about a year, he folded up shop. When I ran into him he was auditioning for a part-time job with Radiant's band...

Expanding the flock through evangelism is a core principle of Christianity, but the modern church-growth movement traces its roots to Donald McGavran, a Christian missionary who worked in India during the first half of the 20th century. What McGavran discovered and articulated in his 1955 book, ''The Bridges of God,'' was that churches can't operate like mission stations, rigidly insisting upon their ways and inviting people to come to them on their terms. Rather, they had to go into villages and make followers of Christ. There was simply no other way to build a dynamic Christian community, which McGavran considered a prerequisite for reaching the unchurched.McGavran's words were written for overseas missionaries who would be encountering people who knew nothing about Jesus, but they resonated powerfully in America. As the 60's progressed, a new generation came of age, one that felt increasingly alienated from the churches in which they'd been raised. At the same time, more and more families were relocating from the cities to outlying areas. It was clear to church leaders that if they wanted to capture these new suburbanites (and a little later, exurbanites), they were going to have to go after them on their turf. The problem was that most pastors had been taught plenty of theology at seminary, but very little about how to actually build a church. So church leaders turned to McGavran for guidance. A nascent industry of church-growth experts adapted his model, encouraging pastors to engage their local communities by treating potential worshipers as consumers.

The modern master of church growth is Rick Warren. In the early 1980's, Warren, a fifth-generation Southern Baptist, applied McGavran's philosophies to his Orange County church, Saddleback. Warren's community was cut from a very different cultural cloth than his own family's; things like altar calls, a Southern Baptist staple in which worshipers are exhorted to come to the front of the church and accept Jesus, would never play in the wealthy suburbs of Southern California. Instead, Warren set about building a profile of ''Saddleback Sam''; once he had a sense of his average worshiper's likes (i.e. contemporary music) and dislikes (preachy, guilt-inducing sermons), he built Saddleback to accommodate him. A result was the so-called seeker-sensitive church.

There has been extensive adaptation of Buddhism for Americans, although many Americans wouldn't know it. Despite that, the main point of Buddhism, especially in its Zen form is still there: the emphasis on focusing inward, as opposed to drinking in and introjecting somebody else's message as your own.

Maybe it's my ex-New York Catholic upbringing, but so much of this "seeker sensitive megachurch" stuff just rings so phony to me; when you market to me you lose any authenticity about you.

We let true Dharma continue by being ourselves. If you want to know about Buddhism, I can tell you my experience with it, but if you don't want to know, it is better for me to focus on my practice rather than trying to fool you with slick advertising and marketing techniques to try to get you to practice something for which you don't see a need, though you suffer.

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