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Don't believe the lie that growing megachurches tend to avoid politics
An NPR article suggests avoiding politics plays a role in the growth of some megachurches, but that's just not true
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NPR’s Scott Neuman published an interesting article today about how evangelical megachurches are getting larger even as many churches across the country are shutting down. (Weekly church attendance among Catholics has also plummeted.)
The average Christian congregation in the U.S. is in precipitous decline, with just 65 members, about a third of whom are age 65 or older, according to a 2020 pre-pandemic survey. By contrast, a separate 2020 study found that three-quarters of megachurches were growing, many at a rapid clip.
What are the megachurches doing “right” that so many other churches aren’t able to replicate?
In short, they’re using their scale to draw in new younger members. They provide in-person community. They offer “barbecues, pizza and movie nights.” They’re casual enough that you can wear flip-flops to church. Coffee is a given. They’re fun!
Not every megachurch operates the same way, but you can see why Liquid Church, the New Jersey-based church that’s the focus of this article, is appealing to so many young people. They won’t hear fire and brimstone sermons; rather, they’ll hear a Jesus-infused TED Talk while the church finds additional ways to keep them in the fold the rest of the week. (Even during the pandemic, when church attendance necessarily took a hit in most places, these megachurches already had the infrastructure in place to offer high-quality digital services that looked sleek and professional.)
There are plenty of problems with megachurches, too, and some are mentioned in the article. I won’t go into all of that here. Still, I was stunned by one particular passage in the piece. When discussing how these churches are attracting so many new members, one theory was that politics never came into play:
Liquid Church also steers clear of politics, [Pastor Tim Lucas] says. That's common in most megachurches because they are more diverse, according to Scott Thumma, a professor of sociology of religion at the Hartford Institute for Religion Research. "The vast majority of them have nothing to do with politics," he says.
They have nothing to do with politics?!
Most of these megachurches play politics. Some are just more explicit than others.
Let’s assume Lucas sincerely believes his church steers clear of politics. The good faith interpretation is that the church doesn’t endorse candidates, and members won’t hear “Republicans” or “Democrats” in the sermons, and pastors try really hard not to demonize people they disagree with.
But this church is absolutely political even if Lucas won’t say it out loud.
Consider LGBTQ rights. Does this church have a stance on marriage equality? They do. They believe God wants “One man. One woman. One marriage. One sex partner. One flesh. For one lifetime.” In a older sermon on “The Gay Debate,” Lucas himself made all that clear. It was the age-old line about how acting on homosexuality is a sin… but aren’t we all sinners? In 2005, Lucas and his church made an appearance in a New York Times article about how gay people simply didn’t trust Christian outreach at a Pride event, and the piece noted that Liquid Church “is part of a conservative Baptist church that considers homosexuality a sin.”
Simply put, a same-sex union doesn’t fit into their conception of what God wants, and that means politicians who support those rights are implicitly promoting sin. If you attend that church, you’re going to come away with a clear position on how God wants you to vote: Republican. Always Republican.
Lucas may not tell the congregation how to vote, but that’s not synonymous with avoiding politics.
We could do this with trans rights, or abortion rights, or sex education. Name the culture war issue, and they likely have a firm position on it… even if they go out of their way to hide all that on the church’s website.
I’m not even trying to pick on Liquid Church here! The same rules apply to megachurches everywhere. They deliberately hide their most controversial positions in order to draw in as many people as possible. They only reveal what Good Christians™ must believe after new people have been sucked into the system and it’s much harder to walk away.
Even when megachurch leaders do everything in their power to avoid discussing those hot-button issues, the moment they have to say something, the truth comes out, and it’s always on the side of bigotry.
You know how some people claim to be “independent” voters who insist they have no party affiliation? Or how some news outlets promise they’ll play it straight down the middle, without giving preference to one major party or the other? And then whenever you dig down into their actual beliefs or coverage, it always leans Republican?
That’s what these kinds of megachurches are doing.
Guys like Pastor Tim Lucas insist their churches are not political, but their views always align with conservative Christians and the Republican Party. Through their sermons, they indirectly make clear which way people ought to be voting. They don’t have to be explicit about it. It’s not hard to read between the lines.
And every now and then, a reporter will just parrot that message for them without offering any useful context.
Unless pastors openly and proudly declare that their churches support LGBTQ rights, abortion rights, gun safety measures, access to “controversial” books, or anything else right-wing politicians oppose, it’s a safe bet that they’re on the conservative side of those issues. The fact that most of these megachurch pastors avoid doing any of those things should tell you they’re either cowards or bigots. Take your pick.
Pretending their churches don’t take political positions isn’t just a convenient way to avoid alienating potential members. It’s a straight-up lie. And in the minds of these pastors, Jesus has no problem with that.
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