The Barnabas Ministry
Book Review

Dining with the Devil: The Megachurch Movement Flirts with Modernity
By Os Guinness (Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, MI, 1993)

Dining with the Devil is about the church growth movement and how its approaches often make value choices that are problematic for Christianity. This is not a list of superficial complaints about matters of style, contemporary Christian music or dramatic presentations in church. This is about the thinking and values that control market-driven churches, what kind of Christians result from that sort of approach, and the pitfalls that are awaiting those who engage in these sort of approaches.

Certainly many churches have reached the magic 2000-member mark that makes them an "official" megachurch. There is some good to what goes on in a megachurch-- God can use them to reach some people, and people are certainly helped by various benevolence efforts and the like. These are all great. Guinness isn't against innovation:

In sum, innovation is not a problem. If Christians were to use the best fruits of the managerial revolution constructively and critically, accompanied by a parallel reformation of truth and theology, the potential for the gospel would be incalculable (p. 24).

By "modern" Guinness means tools and approaches based upon modern marketing, management, psychology and communications. Here are some typical characteristics that go with this approach:
  • Churches are marketed to the "needs" and tastes of a certain demographic interest
    • To attract those with bad church experiences, a church might market itself as "a different kind of church"
    • In areas where there are a lot of children, the church might build its entire organization around attracting children to events.
    • To connect with the cultural tastes of its target demographic, a church might emphasize a high-quality worship bands, trendy worship music, high-powered sound systems, dramatic and multi-media presentations
  • Sermons focus on simple, superficial presentations on "felt needs" relevant to the target demographic, generally avoiding discussion of doctrine, theology or challenging topics. Yet, they always manage to talk about people giving money to sustain and expand the operation.
  • The pinnacle of Christian commitment and maturity is "service," which is defined as program involvement

Guinness identifies the six main character types that play important roles in modernity:

First is the pundit, the one for whom "everything can be known, everything can be pronounced on," centered professionally on the importance of information.

Second is the engineer, the one for whom "everything can be designed, everything can be produced," centered professionally on production.

Third is the marketer, the one for whom "everything can be positioned, everything can be sold," centered professionally on consumer satisfaction.

Fourth is the consultant, the one for whom "everything can be better organized, everything can be better delivered," centered professionally on management.

Fifth is the therapist, the one for whom "everything can be gotten in touch with, everything can be adjusted or healed," centered professionally on healing.

Sixth is the impresario, the one for whom "everything can be conveyed to advantage through the presentation of images regardless of any reality," centered professionally on public relationships and "impression management." (p. 69-70, italics in original)

In a nutshell, the problem with this sort of approach isn't what's there, it's what is missing. So when this sort of leadership is running the church, where are the ministers and elders? They aren't there, are they?
Ministers are no longer ministers, they are now program directors, CEO's and/or vision-casters. This illustrates that the "program" of growth becomes the governing rule of the modern church, and "bigger is better" rules the day.

... people and things are annihilated in the process of counting. They lose their true purpose and joy and become mere status symbols-- just as church membership statistics become hollow symbols when used to advertise pastors, churches, and methodologies rather than representing real people with their flesh and blood realities (p. 50).

In the church growth movement, there can be a subtle "bait and switch" going on. It says "Christian Church" on the door, but what's going on inside? The people don't function as the body of Christ but as program pieces. God and scripture are no longer authorities but mere tools to advance the program or a product to be marketed.

Churches may no longer be churches-- they have morphed into carefully crafted church enterprises. And dare I ask, how many contrived things can you have in a church before the church itself is a fake? When there is a battle between the program and concern for the gospel, solid doctrine or exegesis, moral character, true church family or God himself-- in such a situation the program and its experts will prevail. When this happens-- run!

Guinness astutely observes that in this sort of a model, expertise demands control. Control-based approaches increase the dependency, not the maturity, of their adherents. And control-based approaches thrust everything else into the background. Written more than a decade ago, Guinness proves utterly prophetic in discussing how these techniques don't necessarily bring about genuine spiritual transformation in adherents:

Far from leading to an exodus, modern church growth often uses the ideology and tools of Egypt to make the life of the people of God more comfortable in captivity (p. 21).

Two decades ago, baby-boomers were impressed with the glitz and efficiency of the megachurch. I know I was. But after living through a few experiences, I can say that I saw God taking a back seat to the programs and techniques and leadership structures that were in place. And when push came to shove in the battle between the programs and its experts vs. God and the scriptures, I was shocked that the program and the experts prevailed. But I shouldn't have been shocked; that's what values had been advanced all along.

The church growth movement once brought hope of evangelizing our nation, perhaps even our world. But in spite of being out there for two decades or more and the significant increase in the number of megachurches (at last count, 1250 according to one study), the spiritual landscape of the United States really hasn't been as impacted by the movement as its proponents would have you think. What we've seen is a shuffling of people from smaller churches or various old-line churches to the new suburban "mall" churches:

In other words, most of the newly-reached "unchurched" are really spiritual refugees from the collapse of three groups-- legalistic fundamentalism, watered-down liberalism, and overritualistic traditionalism (p. 82).

People who get hooked on the glitz of the megachurch and the charisma and hype of its specialists will eventually demand more glitz, charisma and hype than can be delivered. And people really looking for God may discover that He hasn't had much say in the carefully-programmed "worship center" for quite a while:
  • When people need God but their faith has been placed in a church program and church specialists like Lead Evangelists, Sr. Pastors, Worship Pastors, Fund-Raisers, Marketers and Vision-Casters, God's voice might not be the one that is heard.
  • When people need spiritual guidance and the only tool in the toolbox is a church growth and marketing program, to whom will they turn?
  • When the program and its specialists falter, will people think God himself has let them down? Will God get a "second chance?" Will they need to be converted to Christ after being converted to a program?
  • When Christians who care about God, scriptural fidelity and moral character realize that those things don't really matter in their church, they will be hurt and rightly feel betrayed.
For those who have been touched by any church movement using these approaches, Dining with the Devil will be an enlightening look at how all of these pieces come together.

Interestingly, Dining with the Devil closes with a meditation "The Celestial Railroad" by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Written in 1846, it is an allegorical parable about letting Satan drive the church to heaven, and you'd think Hawthorne had seen and was writing about the modern church-growth movement. If you can appreciate that storyline, you'll love reading Dining with the Devil.

Copyright © 2007 John Engler. except as noted. All rights reserved.

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