The post-rapturous vision: empty mega-churches

Archie Poulos has been wondering why Sydney doesn’t have Anglican mega-churches here. While over here, Joe Johnson has an exhibition of photos of empty mega-churches (if you can’t see the pics, look under artists for ‘Joe Johnson’. Aren’t the interwebs full of strangeness and serendipity?

Mega-Church, HoustonGenerally, I’d say that mega-churches exist for the same reasons that people exist: for transcendence. The dominant intellectual story that we’ve been telling ourselves in Western societies is pretty thin stuff when it comes to spirituality. And frankly, people can’t exist without believing in something bigger than themselves. Even hard-core reductionist-materialist-Atheists become quasi-religious about their position given opportunity. Anything, or anyone, who can offer and deliver an experience that lifts us beyond the limits of the normal, and particularly any thing that challenges the dominant materialism of our cultural discourse will be a winner.
Mega-churches are winners because they have generally offered either Big Sound, Big Gestures, or Big Words – but most important: a Big Narrative.
Of course, the decline of Church, has been paralleled by the rise of alternative places to get these experiences. Mega-churches exist (partially at least) because they need to compete in a more densely contested marketplace. There are far more people at the Cinema and the Sports Stadium on any given weekend than in churches (and more than ever if you can unite a Big Sporting contest with a Big Narrative like that provided by Anzac Day).

I think you’d be misreading our culture though, if you think that mega-churches are really where everything is heading. The genius of modern Western societies has been to embrace pluralism in a way never seen before. Particularly in areas like subjectivity and transcendence, the presentation of plural forms and opportunities to find satisfaction prevents the overall architecture of the system from ever facing genuine radical challenge.
So it should be no surprise that just as many people are on the lookout for Small when it comes to transcendence: small community, unique, unrepeatable experience, hand-made, organic, natural fibre.
The photographs of the empty mega-churches, with all the wires, pulleys, cameras and leads exposed, are an attempt by Small to subvert and expose Big. It’s a classic move, it’s like that moment in the Wizard of Oz when they pull back the curtain and show that the Big Wizard is just a little man playing tricks.

These photographs are a move in the endless power play by which our society exists. There are lots of teams, lots of games, but there’s probably only one Game, and most importantly, if that game ended nobody would have won – we would find ourselves in a reinvented world.
That might seem all a bit esoteric but there are two important points for Christians who are thinking about Church:
1. Don’t be too quick to hitch your wagon to someone else’s team: don’t forget that eco-villages are just as much a part of the cultural landscape as mega-churches.
2. More interestingly, Joe Johnson’s photographs makes use of the absolute silver bullet argument for our culture. If everything is experience, if transcendence is a form of The Good that exists in plurality, then the Ultimate Critique is ‘authenticity’.
Whatever you do in Church, it better not be fake or feel fake. If you are fake you will die.

I wonder what sorts of practices and beliefs would actually challenge The Game, if possible?

pic by flickmor
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2 thoughts on “The post-rapturous vision: empty mega-churches

  1. That is a truly wild sentence. Care to unpack it?
    Church is a fractal in the sense that it consists of a constant, stable pattern of relationships which are replicated all the way down from the universal Church to the gathering of two or three believers?

    I'm sensing that your reference to 'the fractal is a person' might be a reference to Christ, but is it that case that every person mediates transcendence by virtue of their personhood, i.e., that to be a person is to be more than the total of my encounters with the world? The fractal is a person in the sense that an individual is also a constant, stable pattern of relating to others and through this pattern of relating and individual identity is established and communicates transcendence?

    If so, our hunger for transcendence doesn't arise from a genuine impoverishment, but from an inability to see the manifestations of the transcendent in the everyday interactions we have with each other. Likewise, our desire for 'spiritual' experiences doesn't arise from an absence of Spirit in the world, but from a wilful blindness to the manifestations of the Spirit in the life of Christ and in us as churches and individuals who are united with Christ?

    Am I close?

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