By Matt Walsh — Feb. 20, 2015
Feel good! Be happy! Be nice!
There you go. I just summed up the message that millions of Christians will be hearing at the megachurches of Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyer, and many others this weekend. If you were planning to go, now there’s no need. You’re welcome. In fact, if you’re driving there and you see a “Don’t worry, be happy” bumper sticker on the back of someone’s minivan, you might as well turn around and head home. That’s about all you were going to hear when you got there anyway.
Sure, they might come up with more compelling ways to communicate it, but in the end, when you dig past the charisma and the personality of the pastors who utter this gibberish, this is all you’re really left with.
An episode of Barney.
Syrup and sugar.
A smile and a pat on the head.
A self-help speech.
Speaking of which, Rob Bell made the news a few days ago.
He was being interviewed on Oprah (who is, herself, always a bastion of spiritual insight) when he said he believes the Church is “just moments away” from accepting gay marriage.
I should back up a moment. In case you’re fortunate enough to have no prior knowledge of Mr. Bell, I’ll give you the basics: he was a famous megachurch pastor who invented his own feel-good teachings out of whole cloth and published them in best selling books (to his credit, at least he didn’t spend $200,000 unethically inflating his sales figures, like certain other former mega church pastors).
Notoriously, Bell claimed in “Love Wins” that Hell only really exists as a state of mind. I know that kind of sounds like a stoned teenager musing theologically in between bong hits – “see, bro, the thing about Hell is, you know it’s like a state of mind, man, you know?” — but in fact this was coming from one of the most prominent religious leaders in the country (I’m not sure if bong hits were involved in the writing of the book, but I wouldn’t be surprised).
The celebrity pastor eventually resigned from his “ministry.” He didn’t say it out loud, but it’s appearing rather obvious that he left in large part because he simply doesn’t believe in the Bible. I’m not sure how else you can interpret these comments:
According to Bell — former pastor and a man who still sells himself as a Christian leader of sorts — the Word of God is “irrelevant” and shouldn’t be considered our “best defense” due to the fact that it’s “2,000 years old.” And why is God’s Law irrelevant? Because our co-workers and neighbors might be gay, that’s why.
And why is God’s Law irrelevant? Because our co-workers and neighbors might be gay, that’s why.
We should calibrate the ancient and eternal teachings of the Church according to the emotional sensibilities of our friends and acquaintances. This isn’t just heresy, it’s outright anti-Christian propaganda. It’s the kind of rhetoric you expect to find on the Facebook profile of an angry 16-year-old atheist, not out of the mouth of a man who recently led a flock of thousands.
None of this is surprising, though. This is the same guy who said in 2013:
The ship has sailed on Biblical marriage because some of the people in contemporary western culture find the concept offensive. In Bell’s world, the teachings of Christ are soluble and negotiable. The Lord is like a spineless and inconsistent parent who makes rules and retracts them whenever his spoiled brat kids stomp their feet and cry about it. That is Rob Bell’s god.
Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that Rob Bell is Rob Bell’s god.
Indeed, something even more disturbing was lost in the outrage over his gay marriage comments. He was talking about marriage in the first place because he and his wife are shilling a marriage book they wrote, called “The Zimzum of Love: A New Way of Understanding Marriage.” Yes, the zimzum of love. Oh, believe me, it’s as bad as it sounds. From the Amazon description:
I hope you’ve learned something. The key to a successful marriage isn’t faith, love, trust, or commitment — it’s “mastering the dynamic energy field.” Coincidentally, that’s also the key to beating the bad guy at the end of “Star Trek.”
We should all take a moment to reflect on what we’re witnessing here. This is a man who used to preach to thousands of congregants, and now he’s on Oprah attacking the Bible and babbling about the zimzum energy field. He has descended past mere Osteen-ish apostasy and into a state bordering on egotistical madness. He is formulating his very own religion, and it sounds like some kind of Buddhist-Scientology hybrid. This, again, from a man who very recently shepherded a flock of 11,000 Christians.
Look closely at this situation, because I don’t think you can find a better illustration of how mega church pastors tend to become something closer to cult leaders than clergy. Yes, there are the sex scandals you often find these televangelists embroiled in, and the financial scandals that you hear about even more frequently, but these, as bad as they are, don’t really demonstrate the danger of the mega church cult.
The real fatal hazard is that their congregants go to hear them, not the Word. They are the stars. They are the main attraction. They are the Church. And after a while, they are voice of God Himself. There is no authority over them. No balance. They are the be all and end all, and that is a perilous dynamic.
Just look at Joyce Meyer. Elevated to celebrity status and adored like an Old Testament prophet, she became so intoxicated by her own hype that she started to fabricate her own radical self-serving theology, declaring at one point that she is not a sinner.
So when Jesus said, “let he who is without sin cast the first stone,” I suppose Mrs. Meyer would have stepped right up to the plate. “That’s me, Jesus!”
This is how it works. They drop a bombshell heresy like “I’m not a sinner,” and
then quickly bury it in mounds of motivational sound bites and slogans. After a while, when all you can see at first glance are the charming self-help morsels, you start to think these people are harmless. “She can’t be a heretic,” you think. “I read her book ‘Look Great, Feel Great: 12 Keys to Enjoying a Healthy Life Now’ and it helped me lose 50 pounds! Would a heretic be able to dispense such quality nutritional advice?”
It’s a sad state of affairs. Read the sermons of the early Church fathers, like John Chrysostom. They wrote and spoke with the spiritual passion, seriousness, and humility of men who knew they were fighting for souls and battling against the Devil himself. Now these televangelists speak and write with the marketing strategies of con artists who know they’re fighting for a spot on the New York Times Bestseller List and battling against, as Meyers puts it, the low self-esteem epidemic.
And so the money pours in by the billions, and soon they’re buying luxurious mansions like Stephen Furtick’s 16,000 square foot castle in North Carolina or Joel Osteen’s $10 million palace in Texas. While the average Catholic or protestant small church preacher makes $25 to 30,000 a year, many of these mega church leaders are multi-millionaires.
Now, I’m a capitalist. I don’t begrudge anyone their wealth. But it’s not hard to see why preaching the Word shouldn’t necessarily be an exorbitantly lucrative proposition. It’s certainly difficult to reconcile a pastor’s mansion, his fleet of luxury vehicles, and his private jet with Christ’s instruction to His apostles to leave all of their earthly possessions behind and follow Him.
“Leave it all behind — except for the 18 bedroom house, the offshore bank accounts, and, OK, you can keep seven cars and, alright, maybe ONE private jet. But JUST one!” — Jesus, apparently.
But the money, the fame, the cult-like environment, and the celebrity status are seriously troubling not merely because they defy Scripture and establish an enormous socioeconomic divide between the pastor and his flock, but because they must all be maintained through mass appeal.
Of course, ultimately, Christianity has an inherent ”mass appeal,” in the sense that it is the Truth and all human beings viscerally desire the truth. Yet Christianity, because it is true, is also something specific, solid, and irreducible. Our job is to bring people to the Faith That Is by changing their hearts and speaking to their souls. The Osteens and Meyers of the world would rather bring people to a Faith That Isn’t But Sort of Sounds a Little Like the Real Thing, because it’s easier to get bodies in the seats, books on the shelves, and interviews with the Oprah.
Admittedly, this is a problem that infects all strands of Christianity. When churches get together to try and figure out how they can fill their empty pews, inevitably many of them decide that the key is to be moderate, watered down, and “contemporary.” So they bring in the acoustic guitars and drum kits, create a more casual environment, and the pastor gets up and rattles off a bunch of sanitized platitudes, studiously avoiding any mention of scary words like “sin” or “morality.”
For regular churches, this tactic is usually an utter failure, but for mega churches it pays dividends. They have mastered the secular Christian experience. They have cornered the market on modernized motivational Christianity. I remember they built a mega church a couple of miles from me back when I lived in Kentucky. For months, my wife and I drove by trying to figure out what it was. A shopping mall? A prison complex? A modern art museum? It was a perplexing structure, without any indication anywhere on the exterior of the building that anything remotely religious might be happening inside.
Eventually, our curiosity got the best of us and we went in to investigate. The thing is, even when I was inside, it took me five minutes to figure out that it was a church. All traces of anything sacred, ancient, traditional, or reverent had been stripped away. What was left was something that plenty of people clearly found appealing, but it didn’t look Christian, or sound Christian, or feel Christian. It didn’t go to any great lengths to identify itself as a church, and that’s all for the best, I suppose. After all, there was nothing about it — aesthetically or substantively — that resembled one.
But it didn’t look Christian, or sound Christian, or feel Christian.
So these places can draw crowds by going all in, fully secularized and modernized. But to what end? What is gained? I might come away feeling happy or even motivated, but have I been given the full Truth of salvation? Do I feel called to walk as a soldier for Christ? Do I feel challenged to reject sin and choose what is right? Have I been equipped with the tools to be a disciple of the Faith? Have I been shown God in His glory? Have I been forced to face myself in my sin? Have I received anything real? Have I been in communion with Him — or just with the motivational speaker on stage?
We all want to feel good. But when feeling good becomes the entire point of our faith, we have lost our faith completely.
We create the Rob Bells by flocking to anyone with an inspirational message, a stage, and a fancy state-of-the-art auditorium. We should demand more than that from our church.
We should desire more than that.
We need more than that.