In the beginning, revival preachers used their dynamic voices and dramatic sermons -- framed with entertaining gospel music -- to attract large crowds and to pull sinners into the Kingdom of God. This formula worked in weeklong revivals and, when tried, it started working in regular Sunday services. Big preachers drew big crowds and created bigger and bigger churches. Then along came the big media, which helped create a youth culture that exploded out of the 1950s and into the cultural apocalypse that followed. Church leaders tagged along.
"In the '60s and '70s, we started drinking deep at the well of pop culture and we've been doing it ever since," said church historian John Mark Yeats of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Tex. "The goal was to use all of that to reach the young. Evangelicals ended up with own youth subculture."
Big churches created bigger stand-alone youth programs and then children's programs wired to please these media-trained consumers. Youth programs developed their own music, education and preaching, all driven by the style and content of entertainment culture.
Then these young people became adults and began to build and operate their own churches, argue Yeats and his seminary colleague Thomas White, in their sobering book, "Franchising McChurch." For churches that want to grow, the evolving approach to faith that White and Yeats call "theotainment" seems like the only game in town.
"Think of countless children's ministries across the United States. … Most children's Sunday schools quit reading and studying the Bible long ago. Instead, children view cartoon adaptations of the text along with numerous activities that keep them entertained while Mom and Dad worship without distraction," argue White and Yeats, who have worked in local churches, as well as classrooms.
This strategy is cranked up another notch in youth ministries. In many communities, the "religiously oriented youth, savvy shoppers that they are, simply attend the church that has the greatest concentration of entertaining events. … If they buy into Christianity through entertainment, the show must go on to keep them engaged."
This has been going on for decades, noted Yeats. The "Jesus rock" of the '70s moved out of music festivals and into Sunday services. This created a "Contemporary Christian Music" industry that helped churches hip-hop from one cultural style to the next, while striving to find their stylistic niches -- like stations on an FM radio dial. Sanctuaries turned into auditoriums and, finally, into theaters with semi-professional sound systems and the video screens preachers needed to display all of those DVD clips that connected with modern audiences.
That was the '90s. Today's megachurches offer members new options.
Grandmother may attend a service with hymns or -- as Baby Boomers turn 60something -- folk music or soft rock. Pre-teens will bop to Hanna-Montana-esque praise songs in their services, while the young people get harder rock. Over in the "video cafe," evangelical Moms and Dads can sip their lattes while musicians build the right mood until its time for the sermon. That's when the super-skilled preacher's face appears on video monitors in all of the niche services at the same time.
This trend -- multiple, niche services on one campus -- requires changing the traditional meaning of words such as "worship," "church" and "pastor."
But it is one thing for a single megachurch to offer its members a "have it your way" approach to church life at one location, said Yeats. The next step is for the "McChurch" model to evolve into "McDenomination," with the birth of national and even global chains of church franchises united, not by centuries of history and doctrine, but by the voice, face, beliefs and talents of a single preacher, backed by a team of multimedia professionals.
This trend is "very free market" and "also very American," he said.
"In these franchise operations, you don't say you're a Southern Baptist or a Methodist or a Presbyterian or whatever," Yeats explained. "No, you say you attend the local branch of so-and-so's church. The whole thing is held together by one man. That's the brand name, right there. ...
"If your church joins one of these operations you get the video feed, you get the media, you get the music and, ultimately, you get to listen to the dynamic man himself, instead of your own sub-standard preacher. It's a whole new way of doing church."