My husband and I went to a lecture at Chautauqua in western New York a few weeks ago, with very low expectations. In fact, we sat near the edge so that we could make our escape as soon as boredom or eye-rolling set in. As you might already suspect, we didn’t leave. In fact, we made a point of meeting the speaker afterwards and thanking him for his honesty and insights.
Samuel Chand, President emeritus of Beulah Heights University in Atlanta, has an amazing story to tell. He is an immigrant from northern India who first worked as a janitor at the very institution where he later served as President. Beulah Heights is a Christian-based institution, historically African-American, and Dr. Chand now works primarily with leaders of those mega-churches that mainline denominations fear or envy or dismiss. Churches which have an average size of five thousand members, he said.
Dr. Chand named some of the things that he finds are common among the churches where he speaks and works as an advisor. They include these observations:
1. The tools for delivering church are changing with more emphasis on social media and other forms of instant communication. They are multi-sited institutions with a dependence on preaching that comes from satellite locations. There are fewer “star” preachers talking to more people in other words.
2. Growing churches offer many options – he likened it to stores where you get your oil changed at one end and your groceries on the other. In fact, he compared successful churches to Walmart.
3. There is a sense that people don’t necessarily want a home church, but several nomad churches where they are non-member regulars. He believes that churches which depend on establishing membership will continue to decline.
We found the speaker to be engaging and informative, and it wasn’t until I wrote the outline above of some of his points that I realized that I don’t actually agree that the value of church is found in anything he said. In fact, I don’t recall Dr. Chand mentioning God or prayer at any point in his hour-long talk. I am certainly not questioning his spiritual integrity or motivations, but he wasn’t describing a place that would feed my faith, personally speaking, nor was he describing places that, I suspect, will be around in 160 years (like St. Alban’s), much less 1,000 years (like Chartres Cathedral). The real lessons I can say I took away from this lecture were the reminders that it’s not a bad thing to wrestle with ideas you don’t agree with and that good public speaking is a powerful tool, even in this day of ubiquitous online communication.
I’m sure the mega-churches he describes as churches that “work” in the 21st century have done much good in the world, connecting people more deeply to God and preaching God’s word with fire and clarity. But at the end of the day, I think there is probably a segment of the population that really does want to put down deep roots and which doesn’t want to go to Walmart for church.