The great Saddleback debate

It often makes me
sad that Christian fundamentalists have commandeered the phrase, “What Would
Jesus Do?” It’s disturbing because it could be a useful perspective to consider
how the historical Jesus — a complex mix of prophet, rabbi, leader, rebel, and
feminist — would respond to contemporary situations. Here’s a prime example: Rick
Warren is interviewing presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain. As a self-described
Christian preacher, Warren is charged with carrying out the mission and
ministry of Jesus. His decision to insert himself into the political fray
really does beg the question, “What Would Jesus Do?” Should Rick Warren engage —
and implicitly endorse — political candidates?

It’s a complicated
question. The complication, though, is less about politics and more about Rick
Warren. As the head of Saddleback Church in California and the author of the bestselling book, The Purpose Driven Life, Rick Warren has a significant following. Depending
on the source, estimates of his church’s membership varies from 23,000 to
80,000. Surely, this man must possess great theological truths that he shares
with his followers.

Warren’s theological positions are not what draw thousands to his church. In
fact, you’re hard pressed at most mega churches to even find solid theology. From
the moment they are built, mega churches are designed to draw in, not spiritually
transform, the public. Overwhelmingly, the physical design, art, music, and
schedule of programs and services are all constructed to bring in the masses.
Generally, a mega church determines its target audience, and then decides which
approach it will use to attract and retain members.

Marketing and the megachurch 

Why does this
approach work? One might think that either church attendance is on the rise
(it’s not) or the messages of Warren and other like him must be very special. That’s
not it either. Rather, commercial churches deliver the message the listener
wants to hear. Some commercial church leaders, like Bill Hybels – the founder
of Willow Creek Church in Illinois — have gone out and polled their neighbors about what they wanted
in a church and then created a church to meet those expressed needs.

Despite their
unique evolution, let us not underestimate the growing importance of commercial
churches. In 2005, Peter
stated that the mega church is the most significant sociological
phenomenon of the 20th century. These churches and their leaders are clearly a
force to be reckoned with. It’s not like Senators McCain and Obama are heading
to a mainline Christian church, mosque or synagogue. Instead, they chose the
largest non-denominational church they could find.

churches – and their leaders - understand that their livelihood depends on
getting bodies in the seats and their mission and ministry is to bring in those
bodies. That pesky guilt and obligation that many of us grew up with in church
is nowhere to be found in commercial churches. And, while that may be deserving
of a hallelujah, you’re also not likely to find genuine discussions of grace, mercy,
love, forgiveness and sacrifice.

In their mission
to keep the bodies coming in, commercial churches often attempt to engage every
aspect of their congregants’ lives. Day care centers, medical centers,
employment agencies, coffee shops, banks, and more are often housed in mega
churches. Is it good to bring people together to share fellowship in these
areas of their lives? Sure. But, from a commercial perspective, it also makes
good business sense. By attending to members’ every need – social, physical,
psychological – the church keeps the faithful, well, faithful — at least to the
church. Even more, they keep their dollars in-house. 

Massaging the message 

By now it’s easy
to see some parallels between mega church leaders and politicians. Like many
mega church leaders, politicians, too, design their campaigns and platforms
around what their constituents hope to hear. We’ve seen both Obama and McCain
“nuance” their message in response to the reactions of their constituents and
the polls. Like church leaders, they certainly know their audience and plan
their interactions in ways that are least alienating. Politicians understand
that their livelihood depends on getting bodies to the polls and their mission
is to bring those bodies forward. How then can we expect Rick Warren to inform
the public in a political debate when he and his political mate basically share
the same agenda?

You see, there
should be one stark similarity between the Rick Warrens of the world and our
political leaders. The public has a right to expect to hear a prophetic voice
from both religious and political leaders. Not a voice that predicts the
future, that’s not really prophecy. A prophetic voice speaks out against
injustice, laments the status quo and speaks truth to power. Even more, a
prophetic voice provides the energy and encouragement to help others, like us
average Janes, to go out and change the world; authentic prophecy incites
action towards freedom and justice. When you hear “prophet” think Martin Luther
King Jr or Mahatma Ghandi.

Where is the prophetic voice? 

Clearly, we should
expect or even demand such a prophetic voice from our political leaders. No
matter which side of the aisle one sits on we should expect our leaders to
stand against injustice and give a voice to the voiceless. We should demand
that our commander in chief encourages all of us to take action to improve not
only our own lives, but the lives of those around us and around the world. That
would be a prophetic political voice. Don’t expect to hear that during the
upcoming forum, though. When Harry Smith on the CBS Early Show asked Rick
Warren why he’s engaging the candidates, Warren’s response was that they (Obama
and McCain) are “both friends of mine” and they trust him to “ask civil
questions.” That’s not exactly fertile ground for prophecy to emerge.

And yet we must
expect our religious leaders to be prophetic and speak truth to power. They
should challenge our political status quo; demand that change be defined and
liberating, and that cries for victory at any cost be challenged. For Rick
Warren to share a stage with Obama and McCain should necessitate that Warren
challenge them: to demand that they let go of what is comfortable and take on
the mantle for genuine change. Warren should demand that our political leaders
articulate a vision and a plan for bringing about social justice. It’s not
enough for Warren to bring each of these men forward and to allow them to simply
espouse their beliefs. And yet Warren won’t do any of these things because,
like them, Rick Warren is about pacifying the nation, not transforming it. At
the end of the day, Rick Warren, Barack Obama and John McCain must do what for
them is the impossible: speak out against the very systems of which they are
surely a part.

Surely that’s what
Jesus would do.

Mary Hinton, PhD, is an assistant professor of
religious studies and director of the core curriculum at Misericordia
University in Dallas, Pennsylvania. Dr. Hinton received her doctorate degree from Fordham
University after completing her dissertation on mega churches in America. She
is currently preparing a manuscript titled, “The Commercial Church: The New
Face of Religion in America.”


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