There is something about institutions that Westerners in general and Americans in specific find comforting. While simultaneously bemoaning the death of the intimacy and connection of the Mom and Pop stores on Main Street, Americans overwhelmingly shop at big box stores and in online stores like Amazon because they offer both convenience and value. The big box stores are falling one by one, but online retailers are booming.
In the fourth quarter of 2015, Amazon reported $35.7 billion in sales. That was an increase of over $6 billion from 4Q2014. They doubled their net profits from $214 million in 2014 to $482 million in 2015. If anyone wonders about the ubiquity of the service, just consider that Amazon has 304 million active customers. That is a global customer base nearly the size of the United States. And that is just one of the big retailers. Apple generated twice the revenue that Amazon did.
These are extraordinary numbers which show just how pervasive “big” retailers are. I grumble about not having the personal touches as much as anyone else does. I recently bought a new guitar, a significant investment. The sales person I worked with could not have been less interested in my questions. He saw only the hefty commission check he would collect at the end of the week. Part of my longed to be able to purchase my instrument from a local shop – but none of the handful of local shops deal in the brand I wanted nor could they have possibly matched the price point I found.
Mom and Pop stores still exist, and if they are able to keep costs down, they can even thrive. Small businesses like restaurants and specialty stores still manage to stay above water, thanks largely to working with distributors and vendors who utilize better infrastructure for inventory management and staffing. They can survive, but there is no doubt that institutions are ruling the retail sphere right now.
The same thing can be said for the Church. Institutional Christianity, whether in the form of aggressive denominational structures or independent megachurches, are dominating the Christian world. While many of the people who participate in megachurch environments express a desire for intimacy, the truth is that this has to be manufactured in an institutional setting (Hinkly 2006). It rarely occurs organically. When you are pressing hundred or thousands of people together for a worship gathering, one cannot expect to develop lasting relationships. There is no sense of “we always sit next to Bill and Mary” or “see you after service.” Things are programmed and planned, orchestrated for a single purpose.
Therefore, megachurches have to engineer community. It does not happen organically. One might threfore eventually find some kind of relational connection through a small group or fellowship event; but the truth is that there is little room for “accidental” connections because things are institutionalized. This is the price of thinking big.
Extraordinarily, although megachurches seem to be on the rise in America, the average size of congregations is actually falling (Chaves and Anderson 2014). The percentage of Americans who self-identify as Christians has not changed significantly in the past twenty years, and yet megachurches keep springing up everywhere. How can this data be reconciled? The truth is that institutional Christianity threatens smaller congregations, and the growth seen in the institutional congregations is not equal to the shrinkage of smaller congregations. In other words, megachurches have actually had a net negative effect on the state of Christianity.
Why then do they continue to gain popularity? At least a part of the reason is the same as the reliance upon big box stores and now online retailers. There is a comfort in an institutional provider. Megachurches present a brand, a recognizable and reliable identity. You can “trust” them to handle things correctly. The relational sacrifice is a minor one. What is more, the removal of intimacy is something of a self-preserving act. If one does not have to engage others intimately, then one does not take a risk on those relationships.
For me, the whole institutional thing holds little attraction anymore when it comes to the church. I have no problem with it as a retail model, I suppose, since I spend a lot of money on Amazon; but that is very different from a spiritual community. Can we really afford to put so much energy and money into creating institutions which service a “religious need” but do so at the cost of the real foundation of Christian fellowship – intimate relationships?
I am musing aloud at this point, without any real intent to the whole chain of thought, so if you’re a big church person, don’t get mad at me. It just seems like many of Paul’s letters address issues that came about as churches got too big to manage – leaders without accountability, abusive elitists who exalted status above charity, pseudo-religious leaders who offered alternative gospels that were more individualistic and self-serving. So many of the challenges facing the modern church seem to stem from a desire to “be bigger” at the cost of organic relationships and intimacy.
Chaves, Mark and Shawna L. Anderson. “Changing American Congregations: Findings from the Third Wave of the National Congregations Survey.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 53, no. 4 (December 2014): 676-686.
Hinkle, Bart. “Small Town Religion: How Megachurches Create Micro-intimacy.” The American Enterprise 17, no. 4 (May 2006): 28-32.