Thursday, March 07, 2013

Stetzer and Fitch debate megachurches and "sheep-stealing", Bill Kinnon and Dan at City of God consider the factory farming church

A sort of interesting back and forth here.

First, I think, Ed Stetzer has explained that most megachurch growth is not really from local transfer growth.  We may agree that the percentage that is transfer growth ought to be 0 but he seems to feel that 44% is not as bad as the percentage critics of megachurches often imagine.

David Fitch doubts the reliability of Stetzer's statistics and points out that regardless of how you finesse the percentage of megachurch growth metrics to show that it's not as much transfer growth as you think the overall trajectory for church attendance is decline.  Wenatchee has a few atheist friends who will surely not face that trend with any handwriting.  :)  Fitch proposes that while Stetzer may be right to say all churches of every size could be accused of sheep-stealing that the megachurches are better at it.  Maybe not in every single case, I suppose, but I've seen people flock to the local megachurch because it has a better show, a livelier showman, and has some more resources. 

So ... like Bill Kinnon I lean more toward Fitch than Stetzer on the matter of sheep-stealing.
Bill also jumps into the matter of how modern writers on pastoral work and sheep seem to talk about sheep as a whole.  You would think that sheep are not valued so much these days. 

Sheep were highly valued. Then.

Think of Jesus’ story of the one lost sheep, and the shepherd who left the 99 to search for that one.

How quaint.

I would suggest we view sheep with much less value today — if we view them at all.

And what of the shepherds? Well, then they were were possibly the lowest of the gainfully employed. (Think of Jesse not even considering having his youngest son, David, the shepherd, come to be consecrated by Samuel.) Shepherds lived with their sheep. They smelled like their sheep. They knew each one by name. A single shepherd tended no more than 100 sheep in New Testament times.

Today, returning to the church livestock metaphor, a shepherd (or pastor, in its latinate form) with only 100 sheep would be considered a failure. And how could any “successful” shepherd be expected to know all of “his/her” sheep.

Might I suggest the metaphor breaks down in its present usage within the church. And that this misused/misunderstood metaphor is responsible for much damaging separation between those who call themselves shepherds and “their” sheep — as if the shepherds are their owners. (Sheep cannot be stolen — except from their owners.)

Might I further suggest that the use of the phrase “sheep-stealing” is particularly bizarre amongst those who call us to be missionally-minded.

The reality is that we are all sheep. Or none of us are. (Shall we save the goats for another conversation?)

Dan over at City of God went to town with sheep and production metaphors. We have long since passed into the age of factory farms which may, I suggest, explain why we're incapable of appreciating some of the pastoral metaphors and herding metaphors in biblical literature in a way that would have been readily grasped by readers and listeners in other times. Dan states that this factory agriculture isn't just true of our farming but is basically the operating mode of churches, too.

Dan mentions the following, which is worth quoting at length:

In both cases, even if these appeals to necessity are correct, there are some disturbing side-effects:
  • Monoculture: In industrial farming there is usually only one breed or a handful of breeds that are raised. This is usually the breed that grows the fastest and has the highest yield. There is however a danger to it in that if that one breed is susceptible to disease, that disease will much more quickly wipe out the whole farm. There is a real value to sustaining heirloom breeds as a hedge against some kind of unforeseen disease or genetic defect destroying the herd. When there are only handful of models for church, only a handful of preachers that are admired and whose methods are copied, what happens when something imperils them?
  • Toxicity (?): Industrial agriculture uses a range of growth hormones and other chemicals to achieve their results. We are told these are safe, and the big agriculture conglomerates have studies that claim that this is the case. Still, many of us are uneasy about some of the practices of industrial farming and there have been battles in many jurisdictions over whether or not we should require food labels to state the presence of genetically modified ingredients. It seems the message is that industrial farming practices are safe but that we shouldn’t think about them too much or ask too many questions. The same thing might be said about megachurches, their practices are said to work, said to be healthy to Christianity, but then we keep hearing stories from various survivors of spiritual abuse that this is a real danger at megachurches. Again, I’m not in a position to assess this, but I think it is a fair question to ask about megachurches.
  • Appearances: Appearances can be deceiving. The food that comes from industrial agriculture looks and tastes great. Better than homemade even. Everyone loves Chicken McNuggets, right? Looks, smells, tastes better than anything I can make on my grill at home. Except that they used to go through a process where they look like this (link is not safe for lunch). This is what I keep in mind when Ed says that megachurch attendees are more likely to read their Bibles, go to Bible studies, be involved in church activities and so on. Is this a genuine good fruit or just a large scale organization that is able to generate the right appearance. Is there any pink slime going into making megachurch believers? I think it’s a fair question.
Adding a few thoughts, a risk associated with monoculture is certainly in problems of immunity, the mass-produced breed may prove susceptible to unforeseen diseases.  To play with another agricultural analogy, megachurches may be likened to farming methods that aim for growth at the expense of roots.  It's true that some megachurches have made much of sowing seeds for the Gospel in rocky and hostile soil, so to speak, and it's that lack of root that can cause some of those seeds to wither.  Growth in some megachurch settings may not be the beginning of some new revival on the order of some anticipated Third Great Awakening, it may be that even if such a revival comes that it will create a new and more vast Burned Over District, only this new Burned Over District will spread like wildfire with the help of the very social media and branding techniques that some of the megachurches have eagerly and even ably appropriated.

For toxicity ... some megachurches grow in a way where the shortcomings in their doctrinal and confessional positions are highlighted in bluntly practical ways, perhaps faster than the megachurch is even capable of diagnosing the nature of the problem or observing that there is a problem at all.  Not everything that replicates and reproduces is alive in a healthy way.  Cancer cells are alive, in their way.  It's not a foregone conclusion that all levels or metrics of growth are indicative of real longterm health.

Not too many thougths to add for this one, this is sort of a Linkathon with more commentary than usual.  Some day, perhaps, Wenatchee The Hatchet can pay a visit to the blogging friends in Canada for some in person conversation.  If that doesn't happen at all, or happen for a while, the blogoshere is still friendly enough a place to discuss things.

1 comment:

Andrew said...

At least this Canadian would like that visit to happen very much. :)