megachurches

Yes, it's satire: How to Bee a perfect Christian in a world defined by niche culture

Yes, it's satire: How to Bee a perfect Christian in a world defined by niche culture

When newcomers arrive at a megachurch these days, they face an obstacle course of challenges -- from deciding how much to tip the parking-lot guy to tricking their normal children into looking like cherubs.

Finally, loaded with visitor swag -- donuts, coffee, official church water bottles, snappy Christian t-shirts, the pastor's new book -- they head into the flashing lights, dry-ice fog and pounding pop music inside the auditorium.

Now what? The bottom line: Look spiritual.

"On the powerful choruses, lift your hands high with abandon. On the subtler verses, tone it down a touch," advises the snarky narrator in the new book "How to Be a Perfect Christian," by the duo behind The Babylon Bee, a Christian satire website.

After the guitar solo, there will be a "bridge" that worshippers sing over and over and over: "Go for it with both hands and a feigned expression of emotion on your face. Sway side to side like a tree in the wind. If you open one eye at this point, you'll probably notice that people … are staring at you in awe that they're in the presence of one so holy."

The book's goal isn't to mock Christianity, but to help believers understand that many churches have evolved into self-help supermarkets defined by trends in mass culture, said Bee founder Adam Ford. Often, faith turns into another "niche" product.

"We push back against the commercialization and 'celebritization' of so many aspects of the church," noted Ford, who does email interviews since he struggles with anxiety attacks. "Get a famous pastor with a lot of Twitter followers, host the most carnival-like 'church services,' make sure everyone is as comfortable and entertained as possible, preach a Zig Ziglar-style message, and you'll get more people to come to your church. Like churches are circus franchises or something, with the ultimate goal being more butts in seats."

Ford wanted to become a pastor, but veered into the more private world of digital publishing (Adam4d.com). He founded the Bee in 2016 and recently sold the site, in part because of the hot spotlight caused by its success and a run-in with Facebook over content.

Donald Trump meets worship wars in controversial Kennedy Center, Dallas rites

Donald Trump meets worship wars in controversial Kennedy Center, Dallas rites

Rare is the Church of England worshipper who needs a pew copy of Hymns Ancient and Modern in order to sing No. 578, which is often performed with great pomp -- trumpets and all -- in the rites that symbolize the old glory of Great Britain.

The first verse: "God save our gracious Queen, long live our noble Queen, God save the Queen! Send her victorious, happy and glorious, long to reign over us: God save the Queen."

That works in England, which has a state church. However, some flashy church-state rites at the Kennedy Center recently raised lots of American eyebrows, inspiring online shouts of "Idolatry!" In particular, critics focused on an anthem performed by the First Baptist Church of Dallas choir and orchestra during the "Celebrate Freedom Rally."

The first verse, sung before a speech by President Donald Trump, proclaimed: "Make America great again! Lift the torch of freedom all across the land. Step into the future joining hand in hand. And make America great again."

The Rev. Robert Jeffress of First Baptist, Dallas, was just as blunt during his remarks during the rally in Washington, D.C.

"God declared that the people, and not the pollsters, were going to choose the next president of the United States and they chose Donald Trump," shouted Jeffress, an early Trump supporter. "Christians understood that he alone had the leadership skills to reverse the downward death spiral our nation was in."

Jeffress later defended the anthem, which was based on the Trump campaign slogan. It was not "sung in a church as a worship song on Sunday morning," he told The Christian Post.

However, others were just as offended by the fireworks, flag-waving and political sermonizing during this year's "Freedom Sunday" services in First Baptist, Dallas. A typical response came at the "Ponder Anew" blog in the Patheos public-square forum.

The move to tweak church legal documents in the tense age of same-sex marriage

The move to tweak church legal documents in the tense age of same-sex marriage

Couples looking for a wedding venue in Albuquerque, N.M., used to be able to consider the modern, high-tech facilities at Desert Springs Church.

That was then, before the word "marriage" became a legal landmine.

This is now. This nondenominational flock's leaders recently decided that they needed to update their foundation documents for the age after the U.S. Supreme Court's 5-4 decision legalizing same-sex marriage. Thus, their written policies now specify that the only weddings held there will be rites requested by church members -- as in believers who have vowed to honor its doctrinal statement.

On marriage, that doctrinal statement now reads: "We believe that God created human beings in his image in two embodied sexual kinds -- male and female (Genesis 1:26-27). We believe that God designed men and women to unite in marriage, which is complementary, involving one of each sexual gender, exclusive, and permanent." A detailed support document adds: "Gender is a part of God's good creation and is bound to its roots as a biological reality. It is identifiable at birth. …"

In other words, the church's leadership realized that, in this litigious day and age, they would have to define, in highly specific terms rooted in doctrine, who could get married in their church. That would be safer than trying to define -- in a legal crunch -- who could not hold a wedding rite there.

"In some ways, all of this is a bummer," explained the Rev. Trent Hunter, the church's pastor for administration and teaching, in a telephone interview. "You don't go into ministry to be restrictive. You don't want to do things that limit the scope of your ministry. But we're learning that you can't take any of this for granted, because the government is forcing us to be very open and specific about what we believe and why. …

Southern Baptists without (many) baptisms

Visitors who enter Southern Baptist churches these days will usually see posters and pamphlets for everything from marriage enrichment retreats to tornado-relief fundraisers, from weight-loss classes to drives to find volunteers for African hospitals. But one thing is missing in the typical church lobby or fellowship hall, according to the leader of the denomination's LifeWay Christian Resources branch. It's rare to see appeals for members to join evangelism programs that strive to win local unbelievers to the Christian faith.

"Why is this? It's hard to say what happened to our commitment to evangelism. ... I'm not hearing any answers to this question that go deeper than anecdotes," said the Rev. Thom Rainer, who, before reaching what Nashville locals call the "Baptist Vatican," was founding dean of the Billy Graham School of Missions and Evangelism at Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, Ky.

"It's like our people lost confidence in the old evangelistic programs that our churches had been using for years and years," said Rainer, reached by telephone this week during the Southern Baptist Convention's annual meeting, held this year in Houston. "That's understandable, but the problem is that they never bought into anything new and moved on."

This sea change is directly linked to a recent statistic that should be causing "sorrow and rising concern" throughout America's largest Protestant flock, he said.

Think of it as the Baptist bottom line: Local churches reported 314,959 baptisms in 2012, a sharp 5.5 percent downturn from 2011. Baptisms have declined six out of the last 10 years, falling to the SBC's lowest number since 1948.

While hotter issues -- the Boy Scouts of America and homosexuality, for one -- will grab most post-Houston headlines, Rainer posted a pre-convention essay online seeking candid discussion of this painful question: "Where have all the baptisms gone?"

"Baptisms are our way to best estimate the number of people we reached for Christ with the Gospel," he wrote. "When someone declares that he or she is a follower of Christ in our churches, that person is expected to follow through with baptism. ...

"Of course, baptisms are an incredibly important metric for us in the SBC. We use that metric to see how we are doing on eternal matters. Yes, the metric is fallible. ... But that does not explain why we mention it less and less."

So what has happened in recent decades?

* The decline can, in part, be explained by the fact that nearly 20 percent of the convention's churches have stopped voluntarily reporting some, or all, of their annual statistics. "We don't know if some churches have stopped sending in baptism numbers because their annual number is zero," said Rainer.

* It's impossible to ignore the fact that the fastest rising statistic in American religion -- among those who attend church -- is the percentage of people who attend nondenominational Protestant" congregations. In previous generations, some of these megachurches would have had Southern Baptist signs out front.

The charismatic flocks in the Assemblies of God are growing as well, noted Ed Stetzer, president of LifeWay Research. Meanwhile, evangelism efforts remain strong in the SBC's growing number of African-American and Latino congregations. "It seems that the decline is largely in our predominately white churches," he said.

* Southern Baptists are strong in the rural Sunbelt and, while population growth in Southern States remains strong, Americans are increasingly moving to big cities and their suburbs.

* A key question Stetzer and Rainer agreed deserves study: How many SBC churches have stopped requiring baptism by immersion for those who move their memberships from churches that use different baptism rites?

* Another unanswered question: To what degree have birthrates fallen in Southern Baptist congregations? A decline would affect the number of baptisms among children and teens.

* SBC leaders would, if pressed, have trouble finding as many as 6 million of the nearly 16 million people whose names are on membership rolls in their churches. Why? Too often, churches have focused on mere "incantation evangelism" that expects people to recite a few "magic words" that prove they are Christians, said Rainer. That brand of faith is not enough.

"We have baptized too many members who seem to show no evidence of salvation," he said. The millions of missing members are "certainly not the kinds of believers who win other people to true faith in Christ."

Making a case for the common hymnal

There was a time when the faithful in the heavily Dutch corners of the Midwest would not have been able to sing along if the organist played the gospel classic, "Precious Lord, Take My Hand." True, some may have recognized the hymn that Mahalia Jackson sang at the 1968 funeral of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., since this was the civil rights leader's favorite: "Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me on, let me stand. I am tired, I am weak, I am worn. Through the storm, through the night, lead me on to the light. Take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home."

But, by 1987 this beloved African-American spiritual had been added to the Christian Reformed Church hymnal. A generation later, it has achieved the kind of stature that puts it in the core of the "In Death and Dying" pages of the church's new "Lift Up Your Hearts" hymnal.

"When you're creating a new hymnal, you know that you have to retain all those heart songs that just can't go away," said the Rev. Joyce Borger, editor of the 1,104-page volume, produced in collaboration with the Reformed Church in America. "We're talking about the hymns that you cannot imagine living without, and 'Precious Lord, Take My Hand' certainly falls into that category now. It has become one of our songs."

Research indicates the average church may have "a repertoire" of 150-plus hymns -- not counting Christmas carols and seasonal songs -- that worship leaders can list in the Sunday bulletin and know that most people will sing them with confidence.

The challenge facing teams that create hymnals is that "core songs" will vary radically from flock to flock, depending on where they are located, the dominant age groups in the pews and the cultural backgrounds of the worship leaders. The favorite-hymn list of a World War II generation pianist from rural Michigan will overlap some, but not much, with that of a Generation X guitarist in urban Detroit.

Also, while it's impossible to ignore classics from the Dutch Reformed tradition, Borger said "Lift Up Your Hearts" also needed to acknowledge the growing diversity found in today's churches, in North America and worldwide. In the age of increased contact between believers around the world -- not to mention YouTube -- it's common for suburban American teens to return from church trips to Africa or South America with notebooks full of new hymns they now cherish.

Then there is the surging popularity of pop-rock "praise choruses," which rise and fall in popularity from year to year, if not month to month. Also, the larger the modern church sanctuary, the more likely it is to feature video screens on which lyrics are constantly streamed into view. Why would digital worshippers want to tie up their hands with analog hymnals?

The pace of musical change is one reason hymnals are being now being recreated every generation, as opposed to remaining intact for a half a century or so as in the past, said historian John Witvliet, another member of the "Lift Up Your Hearts" team who leads the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich.

Recent decades have seen a number of other factors that have caused musical earthquakes, he said, including a multimedia revolution in worship facilities, the global surge of Pentecostalism, the rise of seeker-friendly "megachurch" congregations that value relevance over tradition and increased ecumenical contacts between Catholic, evangelical and liberal Protestant churches

Thus, the 965 numbered selections in this new hymnal include 137 selections from its 1957 counterpart and 302 from a 1987 volume. However, it also includes at least 100 contemporary "praise choruses" and 50-plus hymns from around the world, with texts translated from 30 different languages. Every hymn in the book is annotated with guitar chords.

"There is no period of time in church history -- ever -- in which there have been this many waves of change shaping Christian worship at the same time," said Witvliet. "A generation ago, we assumed that the hymnal in the pew WAS a church's musical repertoire. No one assumes that now."

But no matter how rapid the changes, he added, hymnals are symbols that the "church needs a common body of music to help keep it united. There must be some ties that bind."

Talking to real, live 'Nones'

Like many computer pros whose lives revolve around the Internet, Marc Yoder eventually created a weblog in which to share his views on life, technology, faith and other cultural issues that happened to cross his path. His "Marc5Solas" site -- the musings of a self-proclaimed "nobody from nowhere" -- drew a quiet hundred readers a week.

Then the 42-year-old Yoder wrote his "Top 10 Reasons our Kids Leave Church" post, based on dozens of face-to-face conversations with college students and 20-something agnostics and atheists in San Antonio. He offered them coffee, the occasional lunch and a chance to vent. They did just that.

"We all know them, the kids who were raised in church. They were stars of the youth group. They maybe even sang in the praise band or led worship," noted Yoder.

Then they vanish. About 70 percent slip away somewhere between high school, college and the office, according to researchers. How many return?

"Half. Let that sink in," noted Yoder. "There's no easy way to say this: The American Evangelical church has lost, is losing and will almost certainly continue to lose OUR YOUTH."

Before he knew it, 500,000-plus people had visited the website and his manifesto went viral on Twitter and other social-media platforms. Then the agonized digital epistles began arriving. A few religious leaders started looking for the man behind the brash post.

"There was lots of church bashing, but I expected that," said Yoder, reached by telephone. What hit him hard were the "worried voices" of "people concerned that something fundamental had gone wrong in modern churches and they couldn't put their finger on what that something was," he said.

What Yoder had done was tap into one of 2012's hottest cultural trends, which was the rise of the "religiously unaffiliated" -- the so-called "nones." The key numbers emerged from research backed by the Pew Forum on Religious & Public Life and the PBS program Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly.

The study's findings have loomed over a variety of news events in recent months, from debates about gay marriage to the challenges facing a new pope. The key facts: One-fifth of the U.S. public -- and a third of adults under 30 -- are now religiously unaffiliated. The ranks of the unaffiliated have risen, in only five years, from about 15 percent of American adults to nearly 20 percent. This trend appears to be accelerating.

What is happening with the dropouts? Among Yoder's blunt observations:

* Churches offering the atmosphere of Starbucks/Dave & Buster's "knockoffs" are no longer cool for the young. "Our kids meet the real world and our 'look, we're cool like you' posing is mocked. ... The middle-aged pastor trying to look like his 20-something audience isn't relevant. Dress him up in skinny jeans and hand him a latte, it doesn't matter. ... The minute you aim to be 'authentic,' you're no longer authentic."

* Many young people have never been to a real church, since they were raised in multi-media nurseries and then taken into hip church services built around jumbo video screens and rock bands. "They've never sat on a pew between a set of new parents with a fussy baby and a senior citizen on an oxygen tank," he argued. In short, many have never seen faith applied to the full timeline of real life.

* Rather than teaching tough truths about tough issues, many religious leaders now sell a faith rooted in emotions and pragmatism. "Rather than an external, objective, historical faith, we've given our youth an internal, subjective faith. The evangelical church isn't catechizing or teaching our kids the fundamentals, ... we're simply encouraging them to 'be nice' and 'love Jesus'," he said.

* Young people are also supposed to be winners all the time and there is little room for "depression, or struggle, or doubt" in many big churches, argued Yoder. The bottom like: "Turn that frown upside down or move along."

It's hard to talk about sin, repentance, grace and forgiveness in that kind of happy-talk environment. Far too many of what Yoder called the "big box" churches are not the kinds of places in which young believers learn to wrestle with the timeless tragedies and modern temptations of life.

"The church," he said, "is simply a place to learn life-application principles to achieve a better life. ... You don't need a crucified Jesus for that."

Xmas is fake, so deal with it

As the Christmas pageant dress rehearsal rolled to its bold finale, reporter Hank Stuever found his mind drifting away to an unlikely artistic destination -- a masterpiece from the Cubist movement.

The cast of "It's a Wonderful Life 2" reassembled on stage at Celebration Covenant Church, a suburban megachurch north of Dallas. There were characters from a Victorian tableau, along with Frosty the Snowman, young ballerinas and children dressed as penguins. Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus were there, too.

Then, entering from stage right, came "an adult Christ stripped down to his loincloth and smeared with Dracula blood, dragging a cross to center stage while being whipped by two centurion guards," writes Stuever, in "Tinsel," his open-a-vein study of Christmas in the American marketplace.

"Here is where the Nativity, Dickens and Burl Ives collide head-on with Good Friday, as Jesus is crucified while everyone sings 'Hark the Herald Angels Sing,' ending on a long, noisy note: 'newborn kiiiiiiiiiiiiiiing.'

"Then they freeze.

"Hold it for applause."

The scene was achingly sincere and painfully bizarre, with holy images jammed into a pop framework next to crass materialism. For millions of Americans, this is the real Christmas.

"I wrote it in my notes, right there in that church," said Stuever. "I wrote, 'It's Picasso.' ... I just couldn't believe it."

There is nothing new about a journalist "embedding" himself to experience life on the front lines. Rather than heading to Iraq, Stuever moved to the Bible Belt. He lived in Frisco, Texas, for six months in 2006, then made 12 short follow-up trips during the next two years.

The veteran Washington Post reporter convinced three families to let him see Christmas through their eyes, from the Back Friday craziness to the somber trashing of mountains of ripped wrapping paper. The book's credo is voiced by Tammie Parnell, a 40-something business dynamo who decorates McMansions for women who are too busy to prepare for a Texas-sized Christmas.

"Fake is okay here," she tells Stuever. "Diamond earrings. Christmas trees. If you want me to prove that fake is okay here, let's you and I go to the Stonebriar Country Club pool one day and check everyone out."

The bottom line? Most Americans say they want Bethlehem and the North Pole, but the truth is that they invest more time, energy and money at the North Pole. That's fine with Stuever, who is openly gay and calls himself a "Christmas loser" -- while wrestling with the lessons of his Jesuit education and the loss of his Catholic faith.

"A dip into even the most reverent inquiries by Bible scholars," he argues, "easily leads to the conclusion that there was no actual manger scene in Bethlehem, no shepherds dropping by to see the baby, no star in the east, no Magi, no frankincense, no myrrh. ... Many scholars have concluded, some more gently than others, that the Christmas story is intentionally fictive, written by the earliest, first-century evangelists to beef up Jesus' street cred as a believable Jewish Messiah. Like any superhero, Christ needed an origin story rife with the drama, metaphors and the meaningful symbols of the era."

Thus, "Tinsel" seeks the meaning of Christmas in the material world itself, in the blitz of shopping, in houses draped in high-voltage lights, in the complex joys and tensions of family life. Stuever argues that the binges of shopping and feasting are as ancient -- and more significant today -- than the rites of praying and believing.

For Stuever, Christmas is fake, but that's fine because fake is all there is. He argues that millions of Americans struggle to find the "total moments" of nostalgia and joy that they seek at Christmas because they are not being honest about why they do what they do during the all-consuming dash to Dec. 25.

"It's so easy to see all of the craziness on TV and say, 'Oh, those poor, stupid people,' " he said. "But when you get down there in the middle of it with them and listen to what people are saying and try to feel what they are feeling, you realize that all of that wildness is not just about buying the new Wii at Best Buy. ...

"It's a religious experience for them, even though it couldn't be more secular. They're out there searching for transcendence, trying to find what they think is the magic of Christmas."

McChurch history 101

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."

Nailing the evangelical fads

The upperclassman sat across the cafeteria table from freshman Joe Carter and, in a matter of minutes, asked The Big Question -- a question about eternal life and death. As any evangelical worth his or her salt knows, that question sounds like this: "Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?" Super aggressive believers prefer: "Are you saved? If you died tonight, would go to heaven or hell?"

Carter remembers replying: "I'm, yeah, actually I have."

What happened next was strange. The young man was "visibly disappointed" and "wore a look of minor defeat" because he wouldn't get to save a soul during this lunch period. He ate quickly and departed and, this is the crucial detail for Carter, they never spoke again.

The evangelist wasn't looking for a friend or dialogue with a believer. He wanted to carve another notch on his Bible, using techniques learned during a soul-saving workshop. If his blunt approach offended strangers, or even strengthened their "Fundie-alert systems," that was their problem, not his.

Every decade or so there are new, improved techniques for making these spiritual sales pitches, each backed with snappy catch phrases and, these days, with hot websites, books and videos. Then everything changes again a generation later, noted Carter. What you get are stacks of leftover "Left Behind" video games, "What Would Jesus Do?" bracelets, "emerging church" study guides and copies of "The Prayer of Jabez."

It helps to know that Carter is himself an evangelical who is concerned about evangelism issues. As a journalist, the 39-year-old former U.S. Marine has worked for a number of conservative causes, including World Magazine, the Family Research Center and the presidential campaign of Mike Huckabee. He recently finished helping build Culture11.com, a right-of-center forum for evangelicals, Catholics and mainline Protestants interested in discussing how religion, culture and politics mix in daily life.

That website's future is uncertain, but before his recent departure Carter nailed a manifesto to that cyber-door -- dissecting 10 fads that he believes are hurting evangelical organizations and churches. While most conservatives have been arguing about their political future, in the Barack Obama era, Carter decided to focus on faith issues.

It's a list that will be puzzling to outsiders not fluent in evangelical lingo. The "Sinner's Prayer, which reduces the quest for salvation to a short "magical incantation," made the list, as did the emphasis on "premillennial dispensationalism" and other apocalyptic teachings in some churches.

Carter is also tired of long, improvised public prayers in which every other phrase contains the word "just," as in, "We just want to thank you Lord." He would like to hear more sermons focusing on the life of Jesus, as opposed to preachers and evangelists focusing on their own dramatic life "testimonies." And while he is in favor of growing churches, Carter is worried that the "church growth movement" has evolved from a fad into a permanent fixture on the American scene.

"What most people call the church-growth movement is something that grew out of business principles, instead of growing -- organically -- out of the life of the church," he said. "People started trying to figure out how they could change the church so they could get more people to come inside, rather than doing what the early church did, which was going outside the church and reaching people by actually getting to know them. ...

"It's like people started saying, 'What kind of music do we need to play so that more people will join? What do we need to do to the preaching? What kind media can we add to the services?' "

But the thread that runs through this online manifesto is that Carter is convinced that evangelicals need to spend less time striving to make quick conversions and more time training disciples who stay the course.

In the end, he said, techniques will not carry over from one generation to another.

"Part of the problem is that evangelicals really don't have traditions," said Carter. "Instead, we have these fads that are built on the strengths and talents of individual leaders. ... But a real tradition can be handed on to anyone, from generation to generation. It's hard to hand these evangelical fads down like that, so it seems like we're always starting over. It's hard to build something that really lasts."