Big Oil, Big Food, Big Pharma, Big Church

October 12, 2011

I’d like to coin a new term.

Last week, I went to the Catalyst conference for the third time.  And while I’m always inspired and challenged, I’m always a little bit uneasy.  Catalyst is just so huge.

I go there to hear from people who are way more experienced and accomplished than I am.  And I’m not trying to be the one lame guy who’s gotta be negative about everything.  But the halls of the arena are filled to the brim with Christian entrepreneurs, and despite all the positivity and free Chik-Fil-A, I wondered what Jesus would’ve said about it…or would he just let his whip do the talking? 

Last week, I dropped in a little phrase in a blog post that I’d like to make a part of the official Church of No People dictionary.

“Big Church.”

Not like a church that’s large.  I mean like “Big Oil,”  capital ‘B,’ capital ‘C’ – Big Church, a bloated corporate enterprise that people protest and picket, but in the end, they can’t live without it.  Big churches aren’t necessarily a part of Big Church.

I’ve got lots of examples of “Big Church.”  Let me name a few for you.

Empire Ministries

Last week, I talked about Ministries that aren’t ministries at all, but empires.  The example that comes to my mind today is the Crystal Cathedral.  It’s a fat, bloated corporation that churns out all kinds of commercial Christian crap.  Literally, every week, it’s some new precious piece of junk that you can buy to support their television ministry.  It’s a massive machine that seems too big to fail.

Oh, and wouldn’t you know, this example of Big Church even needs a massive bailout!  The Cathedral is broke, after years of the church being too damn big for the faithful to support, much less have any leftover money for actual ministry.  Pleas to sympathetic Christians to help the corporation…er, church pay off its debt fell short.  It raised less than $5000 of the necessary $50 million.  Looks like tithers as well as tax payers are sick of bailouts.

And Now a Message from Our Messiah

If you haven’t noticed, our culture is full of advertisements.  And if you haven’t noticed, I envy you.

And it seems like Big Church thinks the only way to get Jesus’ message out to a culture that is saturated with ads and gimmicks is…ads and gimmicks.  In the old days, God didn’t have to work so hard to get people to notice Him.  A dusty Bible, a couple of gospel songs, and bam!  God had a tent revival.  But with the advent of modern entertainment, God has fallen behind.  We practically have to parade poor Jesus around like a circus chimp to get anyone to notice anymore.

The problem with advertising is that it has diminishing returns.  People learn to tune out ads.  We insulate ourselves from them so we don’t go crazy and fill our ear holes with cheese just to shut out the noise.

And Big Church just does what the world does, but in a crappier way.  Big Church tries to shout over all the noise, and come up with flashier gimmickry.  People say it’s all the cost and effort is worth it if just one person comes to faith in Christ.

I wonder if the hundreds of African villages that could’ve been fed with Big Church’s annual advertising budget would agree that the money spent was worth it, so one more American can come to Big Church and feel good about himself for an hour a week.

What if we tried doing what the Bible said, and let our actions speak louder than our advertisements?

Jesus Is Enough…But More Is Better

And yes, pastors are not immune to advertising.  Why do you think they keep using it?  Someone advertised to them.

Christian faith is an industry, and nowhere is that more apparent than Catalyst.  It’s a brilliant setup, really.  People go to hear the speakers, and are challenged and encouraged.  But at the same time, you really can’t help but feel kind of crappy about yourself in the presence of all this face-melting awesomeness.  Everyone on the stage is bigger, better, and more successful than you, and they probably smell better too.

But wait!  Just outside is a myriad of enterprising Christians who can help “unleash” your potential and make you the Chuck Norris of Christianity.  All you have to do is buy this book, that product, and these programs.

I cannot possibly know how much money is exchanged during Catalyst’s 48 hours.

But I got out having kept every dollar I brought with me…

…Besides, I can always get that book I need on Amazon.

What do you think?  Can we officially define “Big Church?”  What else do you think is an example of Big Church at work?  Or is all the Christian industry a sign of good things?

47 responses to Big Oil, Big Food, Big Pharma, Big Church

  1. I really don’t like the “If just one person gets saved….” excuse to justify unnecessarily expensive or ridiculous outreach efforts. Here is what I wish I could say to some of the people who use it-
    – God is gracious and keen to save people. Sometimes he will do it despite terrible methods. The fact that someone was saved in proximity to something you did doesn’t necessarily prove anything about your methods being good or appropriate.
    – Yes, one person might have got saved, but chances are you aren’t going to hear from anyone you caused to have a bad impression of Christians or the gospel. It could be more than you had a positive impact on.
    – First impressions stick. If what you show people at the start is expensive spectacle and shallow pep talks that is what people will keep expecting you to provide. Kept on a diet of that, people will stay immature or fall away. Change to what you should have been doing from the start and they’ll feel deceived.

  2. 1. “The best sermon is one that is lived.” My grandmother.
    2. “Preach always, use words when necessary.” St. Francis of Assisi.

    Faith is a grace and advertising does nothing but add to the roles of your roster. Our free will is to accept that grace of faith or to not accept it. You cannot blare people into faith. It makes me wonder why really is the motivation of those who advertise?

  3. Hi Matt,

    Just commenting to let you know I read it.

    I really have nothing to say about this subject.

    Lots of us suffer from Steeple Envy.

    John Cowart

  4. Dude, I have to admit that I have steeple envy, and wish I was part of Big Church. There, I said it. I wish I was the pastor of a growing church, or heck, a church at all. Outreach Magazine, by the way, is a big culprit too.

  5. Funny you should post on this today. I just spent last evening writing a post (which won’t show up on my blog until next week) about Christian culture, and now following Jesus seems to come with a lot of accessories. I often wish He would just show up with the whip again!

  6. Big Church is like Big Government, everyone tries to decide how to spend the money; backing their views by slinging a few Bible verses around. The difference between Big Church and Big Government? Nothing. It should be Jesus, but the wheat grows up with the tares.

    I have no problem with the Christian Industry – well, if it is God. There are lots of speakers, churches, even writers like you that have talent, but is that what God is doing in their (your) midst? I am not challenging you, personally, but if is God for you to do TCNoP, then why wouldn’t it be the same for the Crystal folks? Is it the amount of money, the number of supporters or attendees?

    We must hear God, that is the difference between relationship and religion.

    Religiousness is a sign of Big Church. It is filled with marketing plans, rules, regulations, a corporate ladder and motivational meetings. It decides how others should be godly.

    Are we going to have an Occupy Church rally in revolt? Maybe we should.

  7. I always felt like these events were like body building competitions; the big boys come out from behind a curtain, flex their muscles, and then say, “you can be like me if you use my product.” Then 10,000 99 pound weakling pastors go home and split their churches!
    Steeple envy is a competitor for my heart. My church facilities are old, outdated and frankly, ugly. My town is old and outdated and stagnant. We have to scratch for every soul we win. The Big Church in town advertises everyday on TV. I think that they are advertising to get other Christians from other churches to attend, not the lost! They have new stuff, new facilities and a big budget. It is a daily discipline not to compare and compete against them.
    Good post.
    And by the way, you church planters who want to be the next big thing, stop stealing our people to build your empire!

  8. I run from churches when they start getting “big”. Nobody wants to hear me say no, especially since I am a woman. The male pastor must know more than I do, right? So they go on with their “big” plans. And I run off. At this point, I just want Jesus. I hope people can see Him in my life somehow.

    I don’t mind saying “it is worth it if it helps one person” when we are talking about my pain. I want the pain I go through to be “worth” something, so if somebody else learns from it or benefits somehow in God’s economy, that is good. But becoming “Big Church” on the excuse that we might reach one person seems like faithlessness. If you don’t trust the Gospel to bring them to God without adding in all the shiny crap, then maybe you don’t really trust the Gospel. Just a thought.

    • Mmm…good point. We always think everything is worth it when it’s for us, right? :)

    • I hate big church. And yet I see a few, a smattering here and there, that actually do good things with the resources they have… like children’s safe houses, and businesses for which they hire people in need of jobs, etc. It seems to be very difficult to do right, and so I wish fewer did.

      I find myself less and less happy as our church grows bigger and adds more stuff. I’m yearning for something simpler and less focused on programs… more focused on Jesus.

      But like Carolyn said, my one voice doesn’t carry much weight.

      • “I find myself less and less happy as our church grows bigger and adds more stuff. I’m yearning for something simpler and less focused on programs… more focused on Jesus.”

        I suspect Jesus has that same yearning, and I’m also coming to believe that it’s not so much the size of the church as the form of the church.

        I don’t agree with everything he writes, but Frank Viola’s Pagan Christianity has some valid points addressing that form and its origin.

  9. I love how even the almighty Catalyst isn’t sacred for you. This post is bold and brilliant. If I could, I’d give you a Big Hug.

  10. if i could make those little hearts like you see on Facebook, i still wouldn’t do that because it’s dumb, but the sentiment is the same.

    this is bold, matt. and accurate. well done.

  11. I agree with every thing you said in this post. And you’re right to call it Big Church, because it operates like a business and not like people who love and trust Jesus. Years ago, I lived in Southern California and worked near the TBN “station.” It made me sick to my stomach seeing how much wealth was being squandered on meaningless crap. I feel the same way about “ministries” that care much less about the lost, the orphans and widows, the poor, and their own flocks than they do about their salaries.

    As I’ve mentioned before, I attend a small, simple Bible church. It’s old school and without gimmicks of any kind. (Well, we do have a screen for the words of praise songs and scripture, but that’s not a gimmick right? haha) And the funny thing is, even though my church lacks anything that would make it appealing to someone’s flesh, it’s growing rapidly. People are hungry for spiritual meat.

    It’s true that a big church isn’t necessarily part of Big Church. Times Square Church in New York comes to mind. If you haven’t heard/seen it before, you should definitely check out a portion of a very powerful sermon called “Run” by Pastor Carter Conlon.

  12. “If just one person gets saved….” – assumes that the evangelist, witnesser, or soulwinner (name your title) is the person in charge of who gets saved or not.

    I still maintain the following – “God uses us to lead people to Christ because that’s how He wants it done, but it is not our fault if someone goes to hell.” Until we escape that guilt-based complex that leads to frustrated “soul-winning” and start truly LOVING the people that God puts in our lives, the message of Christ is going to continually be cheapened into the trickery and showmanship that we currently regard as evangelism / witnessing.

    We are not “required” to spend the entire budget of a church in the name of “one soul getting saved.” Money is not a part of salvation, and the sooner we remove stage lights, million dollar sound systems, and Les Paul guitars from the salvation process itself, the better off we are.

    That said, I love lights, sound systems, and guitars. But claiming that we do all that “so one person will get saved” is really a big old crock. We do it because we LIKE IT, and we need to be honest about it.

    • Anyone giving up Les Paul guitars (Gibsons only!) at church send them to me. They would look great on the altar of the man cave!

  13. I spent 20+ years with my back firmly turned against the Lord. I was 39 when He decided enough was enough. Did He call me to a church building, Big or small? Was I impressed because some Christian loved me and was nice to me? Nope. Here’s how it went down.
    – The company I worked for was sold out from under me.
    – With some savings, I decided to finally become a writer, and bought my first computer. (for the techno-geeks, this was 1993 and a state-of-the-art 486)
    – After a few months of actually writing and earning some money, I decided to have fun and go online. The only way at that time was through AOL or CompuServe, and both were long-distance phone connections, an expensive toy. I chose AOL.
    – In February of 1994, I was in the thirtysomething chat room, flirting madly, and eventually went into a private room with a man, to flirt some more.
    – After 3 days of chats and emails, he reluctantly mentioned God. Suddenly I was begging to know how to return to the fold.
    – I was born-again on AOL, through a phone line and a man 1200 miles away, both of us crying our eyes out.

    I often wonder if God chose this man because He wanted to give him a blessing – or if He just couldn’t find anybody closer to help me.

    God needs a heart willing to obey when called. All the rest is man trying to feel important.

  14. how captive we are to our culture…
    and how easy it is to confuse cultural metrics with God’s yearnings for us…

  15. Love this, Matt! Well said.

  16. “…despite all the positivity and free Chik-Fil-A, I wondered what Jesus would’ve said about it…or would he just let his whip do the talking?” Love it as well as the steeple envy references.

    I guess the difference between “Big Church” and big church is the heart: are they trying to bring more people into THEIR church to prove how awesome it is, which sometimes involves drawing people away from other churches or are they trying to reach out to people who need Jesus? It is the difference between pride and humility.

    I have a feeling that when we get to heaven, most of the conversion stories we hear will be about one person talking to them, not about going to church because they were attracted to an advertisement. My husband’s testimony involves one person inviting him to church. Mine involves my grandparents talking to me. Last night, a friend’s mother asked Jesus to be her Savior because her daughter talked to her about Jesus. Praise God!

  17. A year ago, my wife went to Women of Faith (TM). She felt exactly like you did with Catalyst. Every great speaker was followed by an advertising pitch to buy some beauty product. Needless to say, she didn’t go back this year.

    I think another attribute of Big Church is the assumption that more people equals favor from the Lord. This is true of chruch attendance, blog followers, books sold, etc. One church looks at another (steeple envy!) and says “they are more blessed because they have more people” yet the Mormon Church is the fastest growing in the world and Big Church would deny that they are even Christian. So it’s a double standard used to justify big programs, big marketing, big spending… Big Church.

  18. I totally agree. Big Church is a problem. People brought it into the church because it worked out in the world. And since we bring broken people into the church, broken people bring broken practices.

    Until we realize that it’s not about us, we won’t stop doing what used to work, what use dto make us feel good, what used to get us attention. Big Church is what we know when we don’t yet realize what a Big God is all about.

  19. I remember hearing a church pastor talking about a huge million production they put on every year for the Passion Play. The pastor’s neighbor, who wasn’t a believer, came to the event. He then said, “having him come made the whole event worth it.”

    Our pastor responded by saying, “It would have been a lot cheaper and easier if you had just invited him over for dinner.”

    Enough said.

  20. Well done. Big Church is a clone factory. Clones are similar but of a lesser quality than the genuine article. They are usually jacked up in some significant way.

    I have a category on my blog called Jesus Junk (stolen from Jon Acuff) filled with ridiculous hypothetical products for the Big Churcher.

  21. Great post. Exactly what I’ve been feeling & could be said as John Eldredge says, “It’s the Gospel AND…” Adding the “and” gets us in trouble.

    To be quite honest, I’m only visiting your post because I’ve been told by endless tweets, literary agents, “experts,” that I need to build my “following” if I want to get my book published. One way is to post comments like this. I’m quite happy to comment here, because I have something to say to it. But the truth is, my book speaks to the fact that Jesus met me in the middle of a barren field, on the other side of the world, surrounded by Hindu belief. He can change a life without anything.

    So… that’s my quandry. Seems as though I need parts of this Big Church to get the word out that Jesus doesn’t need it to do His work. Rather ironic.

  22. You are right on with this!

    Big Church seems so wrong to me on many levels … so my solution has been to avoid church, even Sunday morning church services. I prefer to go for a walk or run in the woods. I know, I know … that’s not the best solution, but it works for me right now.

  23. I like this term– “Big Church” when it is held in the light of “Big Oil” etc.
    I think it is problematic when people start confusing Big Church with large churches.
    I like what was said about the difference being heart-the difference between pride and humility, the difference between existing to serve and existing to grow and be served.

    There’s been a lot of talk about whether a church and all that it does is worth it “to save one soul”.

    I really like tandemingtroll’s comment about how most people are brought to a saving knowledge of Christ through one person or a few people.

    I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that the place of the church is not to save people, but to disciple people and to model love.

    If we are modelling love, and teaching those in our midst to love, then (as that commercial says-love is louder) Love–God who IS Love– will speak through us.

    so maybe you’re a church with 10 people meeting in a house. If you live and model a family that is dedicated to eachother, show up to the 16 year old’s volleyball games, host a dinner party to celebrate Janet’s coworker’s new baby… etc… you are serving and modelling love within your means–and this draws people into relationship… and in relationship, this is where we encounter our relational God.

    or maybe you’re a church with 1040 people. If you live a model love as a church, seeking to bring out the gifts and talents in your congregation, helping people to be who they were created to be, and live love in your “community” your calling will look a little different that the church of 10 people.
    10 people’s “community” may be smaller-the people they know an work with. 1040… as a church family, you may have the unique opportunity to serve a more global community. – – big churches with the right heart have a vital place as well, because they can impact things in big ways. maybe your larger budget gets to be a part of funding a public school in a poverty-stricken neighbourhood where children are otherwise without access to quality education.
    (public school might not be the right word, as there are government implications in that, but I mean a school that is free, and offers high quality education.)

    Matt, in your orginial post you did describe the difference between Big Church and large churches…
    I just think it is important to re-iterate that big churches are not necessarily Big Church.

    and I think we need to be careful not to judge things that we feel are extravagant as signs of Big Church.

    A church may have worship led with a Gibson Les Paul because their music leader owns a Les Paul–not because the church has purchased it– and even if they have we must not be to quick to judge this as a matter of misplaced heart.

    I know of an incredible church whose primary focus is music. So sunday morning is rife with incredible musicians and worship that is enhanced with phenomenal harmonies and sweet tones and clear notes from beautifully crafted instruments.
    And during the week, these same musicians host free rock concerts for the street youth in their town. These kids walk in off the street into a church-where they would never otherwise set foot–and they have a place where they are welcomed and where they belong.
    These musicians hang out and build relationship with these kids after the concert… kids who would pay no attention to “adults” who represent authority–if those adults hadn’t first demonstrated that they “get” them–entered their world in a language they understand.

    it’s a matter of heart.

    I guess for me it all comes down to Matthew 7
    13-14″Don’t look for shortcuts to God. The market is flooded with surefire, easygoing formulas for a successful life that can be practiced in your spare time. Don’t fall for that stuff, even though crowds of people do. The way to life—to God!—is vigorous and requires total attention.
    15-20″Be wary of false preachers who smile a lot, dripping with practiced sincerity. Chances are they are out to rip you off some way or other. Don’t be impressed with charisma; look for character. Who preachers are is the main thing, not what they say. A genuine leader will never exploit your emotions or your pocketbook. These diseased trees with their bad apples are going to be chopped down and burned.

    I’m sorry-this became a bit of an essay of it’s own. . .

    • Some great points there, especially the one about the musicians using that to reach those kids. I think the tough part comes in making sure that the music (or any part of this “Big Church” thing) doesn’t replace Jesus in the equation. There are definitely folks that do it well. But they have to be “better Christians” than me in order to not mess it up, because I’m pretty sure that I would. And have.

  24. Big Church is a result of the original sin: pride. We all fall prey to it and some of us in a “little church” have the same pride in our “littleness” and how much better we are. The culture has crept into the church, Big or not, and we do our best to be sober and alert, knowing that the devil is prowling around to take us out. It is good to point to the error, but only gently, looking to ourselves, lest we fall into the same error or an even worse one. The people of God are imperfect, with plenty of blind spots. Don’t write them off too easily. I dare to say that Jesus weeps over each one of us at times. Colossians 3 is a chapter that would transform the Church should we all memorize it and live it out.

  25. I love posts that stir the puddin’ and generate discussion. To me, it’s sad that “Christians” (in quotes intentionally) have come to the point of “Big Church”. Why? Just out of curiosity, what would happen if for just one MONTH – yes, a month – if all churches dropped all the advertising, media (audio and video), big bands, etc. For that period, focus on learning about Jesus and what we are called to do. Even better, get out of the protective shell of a building and actually try to meet the needs of people in the community. What would happen? How many “Christians” would be left at the end of the month?

    Are we there to follow Jesus or to be a part of a club?

    We started a House Church/Home Fellowship network in January. Some have tried it and left to go back to “Big Church”. Fewer have stuck with it. It’s different. We do use video teaching so all locations have a common theme to discuss, but other than that, we spend time in the community. No, no AWANA, no Sunday School, no midweek “events”, no nightly Bible Study groups.

    My wife and I were heavily in involved in specific ministries and media. The simplicity is welcome. My focus is coming back. Sadly, we were volunteering so much (b/c no one else would) that we began to feel like unpaid employees for a company.

    • Good for you! I think it’s a step in the right direction. When you feel really brave, instead of using video teachings, try just getting together and letting Jesus pick a topic. He’s more than able. :)

      • That just might happen! Right now, the different locations do come together a couple times a week (one for Student Group time) and one for volunteering at an inner city ministry to kids. We wanted to give people a common topic/sermon to talk about.

    • check out this church…

      It’s a church I had the privilege of being part of for many years… their focus is getting out of the safety of a “building” and serving the community.
      If you happen to attend on the first sunday of the month, your worship will take the form of participating in one of a variety of projects designed to reach out to and serve the community of which they are a part!

  26. I would rather be skinned alive, dumped into a big pile of salt, set on fire, and have it put out by being beat with a shovel than go to something like Catalyst. With tools like Skype, Twitter, and blogs I think there is no need for the format, just host it online for free like The Nines. Use the money for those African Villages you mentioned.

  27. Perfect article for a guy who blogs and leads a small group.

  28. phenomenal blog, matt!
    your thoughts and reflections are truly prophetic… i could write long here… i just commend you for having the guts to write your heart out… God bless you, as you continue to share what God shares in the silence of your heart.

  29. Great post. I’ve been calling it Chuch, inc. I left a church last year that decideded to go from being a mobile church to putting up a building. They hired a marketing consultant for $40k and started asking for millions in donations. In one “service” they used every marketing gimmick out there, it was a veritable marketing 101 class. Along with this idea of Big Church is the church franchise. We’re not seeing many HolySpirit inspired missionaries anymore, but rather ‘get your church franchise’ job opportunities.

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