Thursday, March 10, 2016

Trump, Evangelicals, and the Mega-church

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. 


Jeremy B said...

I think there's also this, also discussed here where I first heard about that article.

A cult of personality definitely contributes, and definitely so with evangelicals, but that could probably be said, though to a lesser extent, of anyone running for President of the United States of America.

Lee said...

I see the point in the article you link, but I still don't think it captures is. Open boarders means open values is an intriguing thought. But one problem I have is it does not really account for the rejection of Ted Cruz. Cruz is pretty hard line on the boarders. He opposed it at every turn and exposed it on the floor of the Senate. He does not come out and claim he is going to make Mexico pay for the fence, but he should fit that same ethos described in the article. Yet, evangelicals pick Trump.
Something has to help explain why an evangelical voting against "open boarders and values" would choose one who seems to have embodied or supported open values for so much of his life over the other candidates that also oppose open values. Trump has been pro-abortion, divorced, bragging about past sexual exploits, and a large donator to sanctuary cities among other things that should make evangelicals cautious that he is really open values. I guess I still lean toward the evangelical movement to personalities over doctrine as a reason to explain that problem.

Jeremy B said...

Here are some additional thoughts on Trump's Evangelical Base

Lee said...

I still think that article supports my position. The author is really trying to show Trump supporters are uneducated racists, and is trying hard to prove it. However, if you look at the actual graphs they don't support what he claims. More weekly church attenders support Trump than Cruz. Weekly church attenders still ranked jobs and economy higher than moral values. Not at as high a rate as the seldom church attenders, but they still did. While the article might be proof that too many people claim the name evangelical, and that the gap between Trump is not as large as it is reported because of these people, evangelicals still support Trump more than Cruz and Carson combined. Even if weekly church attendance is required as part of the definition of evangelical.
Also not discussed is why so many infrequent church goers call themselves evangelical. Could it be they pop into a mega-church from time to time and feel it is enough since there is no church discipline, sometimes no membership, and no real ability to oversee the church in mega churches as opposed to traditional churches? I think it could be.

Jeremy B said...

Not arguing, just additional thoughts, besides I already voted Cruz!