You knew that already, I bet.
Of course, you know that scads of retailers have gone out of business, while just a couple have risen to the top and consolidated the market. Amazon dominates online retail because they are dog gone good at what they do, better than anyone else.
The food we buy at the supermarket has the appearance of variety, but really the vast majority of foods that we buy come from just a handful of conglomerates. Think you’re sticking it to Starbucks by purchasing the cheaper Seattle’s Best? Think again, sucker. Seattle’s Best is a secret Starbuck’s brand to trick all of their haters.
The vast majority of the news and information we are exposed to comes from just about half a dozen conglomerates a far cry from the thirty or so media outlets of a few decades ago.
And most of our nation’s money goes into the vaults of just a few banks. We saw all of the benefits of that in 2008 and beyond.
So what does all of this conglomer-ization have to do anything?
It has everything to do with the economy of the American church, which just might be situated for economic disaster.
The Economy of Big Church
Like big food, media, money, retail, pharma, oil and all the other conglomerates that make up most of our economy, it seems apparent to me that the American church has become condensed over the last few decades.
Sure, our denominations are still fractured. But what we have is the rise of the megachurch and the celebrity pastor. An 18th century celebrity pastor could be an itinerant revival preacher, reaching a few hundred people. A 19th century celebrity pastor might have a large urban church and have greater influence. A 20th century celebrity pastor could influence still more people with a television or radio ministry. But a twenty-first century celebrity pastor trumps them all. With enough dollars, a media empire can be built, far reaching and much more durable and lucrative than a revival sermon or a pamphlet.
What we are seeing is a great portion of the American church being defined and engineered by a very few number of pastors. I don’t have to name them. We all have at least one who comes to mind. Tens of thousands of American Christians consider a celebrity pastor to be “their” pastor. Tens of thousands of people: all of their energy, their time, their money and their attention, consolidated in the hands of a few mere men.
What could go wrong?
Redefining American Church
It’s a lesson that we do not easily remember: less competition in the market is usually bad for consumers.
The food in our grocery stores is not good for us because just a few companies are deciding what Americans eat. Of course, the cheapest food is the worst for us, crammed full of unhealthy artificial ingredients. Practically everything the food industry makes has some combination of refined sugar, soy or chemical preservatives. Big Food has redefined what food is and there isn’t much we can do about it, except die of diabetes.
In the same way, this is how the American church has been redefined. The most visible parts of the American church are these parts which have the most money and the most resources. And this is how we are taught to define “church” now. The word “pastor” itself has been redefined as some pastors dub themselves “visionaries.” Thousands of people are taught to believe that their pastor is not someone they should expect to see in person, or should have a personal relationship with. A “pastor” is a guy on a screen or in the Sunday School coloring books who has a vision for a great, big, beautiful media empire, and the rest of us live in a church culture defined by celebrities.
The Bubble Always Bursts
This is my biggest worry. Given enough time, every economic bubble pops, right?
And likewise, it is not a matter of if, but when as we think about the next pastor crashing and burning. It seems hard to believe, but I have cleared books off my shelf, written by men that I used to really respect. I just cannot read their books when their ministries are exposed for the hypocrisy they hide. Who would have guessed a couple of years ago, whose ministries would be laying in the ash heap? I sure would not. But that’s what happens when you cover up gross wrongdoing to protect your empire.
Likewise, it appears that we are seeing the slow, sad, and incredibly unfortunate implosion of one of America’s most visible pastors. It’s kind of an annual tradition now, but we are seeing the fallout, yet again, of concentrating so much faith in one man. Accusations are being made, revelations are coming to light. Suspicions are being confirmed. Thousands of people have been hurt. When a mega-celebrity-visionary-pastor crashes, the fact is that he creates a heck of a lot more damage than the everyday brother-joe-pastor in rural Nebraska. We have concentrated so much power and influence in the egos of a few people, that they are bound to do much more damage when they fall, then the good they ever accomplished. It always attracts national media attention. Far more people will be hurt, become disillusioned, abandon their faith, because these men are their singular experience of “church,” while people on the outside of the church will just find more ammo to justify avoiding the whole “God” thing altogether.
I don’t have a great prognosis for the near future or a great solution, except diversify your spiritual investments.
But what do you think? Have we put too much faith in the hands of a few fallible men?