Donald Trump. He is the front runner to be the next President of the United States. And he is doing so with large evangelical support. This has many baffled and searching for explanations. Is it pent up rage? Is it an anti-establishment mood? People are desperately searching for an answer to the question how could evangelicals vote for Donald Trump?
I have my own theory. Mega-Churches.
I don’t think we should be all that surprised that Donald Trump is winning evangelical votes. The surprise is based off the premise that evangelicals care about spiritual issues, and thus they are not only going to pay attention to issues like abortion, but also pay attention to the content of one’s character. This I think is no longer true. The new model evangelical is a mega-church evangelical. And this model is different.
According to some studies at least 10% of Protestants today attend a mega-church each Sunday. The number is probably a little higher when we limit it to evangelicals and remove the liberal mainline Protestants from the equation. The number is even bigger if you count the churches that are imitating mega-churches, but have not achieved the actual magic number to be a mega-church (which is 2,000). This is a significant number of evangelicals attending mega-churches or mega-churches-lite. What is it then that makes this group so different?
The answer is the mega-churches and mega-church attender are generally personality driven not doctrinally driven. The day of the evangelical choosing based on beliefs is long gone. Today churches are chosen based on the personality behind the pulpit (personality should not be confused with character). Evangelicals choose their church based on names like Andy Stanley, Mark Driscoll, Rick Warren, Joel Osteen, and Craig Groschel. Evangelicals are not choosing churches based on names like United Methodist, Southern Baptist, and Reformed Church in the United States. And these mega-church pastors for the most part are not stopping at one church. No, they have multi-site churches today so that even more people can choose to come to their church even if they are in Seattle and the worshiper is in Phoenix. These mega-church pastors have larger than life personalities, and it comes across in person or through the TV screen worship broadcast. The mega-church is at its base a personality driven phenome.
Just in case you disagree let us just review some facts. Crystal Cathedral evaporated into bankruptcy once Robert Schuller left the pulpit. His own son could not do anything about it. Now the church has been sold. Bill Hybels saw attendance at his church plummet when he stepped back to be the “international minister”. Jimmy Swaggart had 7,000 worshippers on a Sunday before his scandal. After his second scandal the church dropped to about 500 on a Sunday. Now that he is back on airwaves again, the church is back up to about 5,000. Mars Hill did not survive Mark Driscoll’s departure. In fact at least a couple of the satellite locations completely closed as well. One could go on.
So if this is how many evangelicals choose church, why are we surprised this is how they choose a President? Evangelicals are voting for Trump because they are attracted to big personalities and beliefs are not so important any more. Trump is easily the biggest personality of the bunch, and the fact he had his own TV show doesn’t hurt either.
This is the new reality for the evangelical movement. Gone are the days of beliefs, standards, and fundamentals. Here are the days of personalities, controversies, and bombast. The church always leads the way for culture and this disappointing trend is no different.