Missions of Nonbelief: The Growth of Atheist Megachurches

Religion in American History

Repost from my blog at Religion in American History.

Can I get a ‘Dar-win’?


Former preacher Jerry DeWitt engaged in this unusual call and response with participants at a recent Freethought Convention that I attended at a local university. This meeting was the first annual secular convention to take place in East Texas and it attracted hundreds of folks from the region who came to commune with likeminded atheists/secular humanists/skeptics. I went to observe and to hear a bit more about a new interest of mine: atheist megachurches. I’ve read a bit about atheist congregations in the news (the NYTimes had a good article last year) and growing international organizations like Sunday Assemblies (recently covered in Salon), which actually engage in missionary work to promote godless congregations. Evangelical atheism is hipster chic and oddly Christian corporate. And it’s just a little complicated. Are they “churches” (which is something that is debated within secular circles) and how do they fit in to the traditional concepts of “congregations” and “fellowships”? Much of their success stems from their emulation of popular Christian church designs—their services mimic Christian worship and congregations provide a sense of community and support for members. The difference is they do all of this in a “godless” environment. And that’s a big difference.

In the southern states, the approach to organized atheism makes a lot of cultural sense. The atheist preacher I heard, DeWitt, runs Community Mission Chapel in Lake Charles, Louisiana. He is a member of a cohort of former Christians who have left the faith and adopted a secular humanist worldview. The atheist congregations that they construct or join are described as an attempt to bridge their atheism with a culture that revolves around evangelical Protestantism. DeWitt (a former Pentecostal preacher) argued that there is so much pressure in the Bible Belt to belong to a church—business relationships are formed in Sunday School classes and friendships in the sanctuary pews—that the irreligious need a space, too. His chapel carves out that space within a society that often excludes non-believers. It also offers a support network for congregants because they do not have connections to the care and service of local Christian churches. DeWitt contends that his chapel removes a lot of pressure for attendees who are often asked which church they belong to. If they are not “out” as atheists in the conservative, religious culture of Louisiana, then claiming membership to the innocuously named “Community Mission Chapel” can help them maintain their atheist anonymity.

Certainly, secularism is not a new force in the American religious/intellectual sphere. Susan Jacoby has written at length on secularism as a major influence on American public life. I found some passages in Philip Hamburger’s Separation of Church and State interesting as I was poking through the literature to investigate historical touchstones for the present phenomenon. Hamburger’s description of the evolution of the National Liberal League and American Secular Union in the 19th century struck me as eerily similar to the current atheist movement. DeWitt can count himself as part of a preaching tradition that includes figures like Samuel P. Putnam. In the 1880s, Putnam was dubbed the “Secular Pilgrim” and he traveled as an atheist itinerant, “preaching the gospel of Humanity.” He led services at a festival given by the Chicago Secular Society, which met in a repurposed church building and opened their services with a choir greeting the congregation. Putnam was one of several secularists who created churches and Sunday Schools aimed at combatting the pervasive Christian influence on the republic (see Hamburger, Separation of Church and State). Christian forms for atheist missions—it’s starting to sound familiar, no? I’d also reference David Hempton’s Evangelical Disenchantment: Nine Portraits of Faith and Doubt here because it seems to have particular relevance to folks like DeWitt who exited Christianity to form their own chapels of nonbelief. Current atheist churches might not have the same goals as past freethought missions, but they do share the notion that there should be space in the public sphere for the irreligious. I’m looking forward to hearing more from Leigh Schmidt, too, on the subject of public atheism, as there is much more to the history here that needs to be explored. (See Emily’s post from last year.)

While DeWitt’s chapel reflects southern evangelical trends (it’s a smaller congregation, the services include exhortations, singing, and a sermon delivered with a recognizable Pentecostal fervor), Sunday Assemblies draw on the practices and promotional activities of Protestant megachurches. Sunday Assemblies hold weekly meetings in cities across the United States and Great Britain. They have also reached into Belgium, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Canada, France, Hungary, Germany… it’s a massive movement. The organization professes to be a “godless congregation that celebrates life.” They want to encourage members to “live better, help often, wonder more.” While they do not have a doctrine, their charter is organized like a church doctrine and their services include liturgy, singing in unison, and a message. They don’t accept tithes, necessarily, but they do engage in fundraising through indiegogo and through their own website. And that swanky website appears to be very consciously designed to look very much like some of the major megachurch websites. (I’ll draw your attention to a past post by Kate Bowler on this fascinating subject.) By adopting similar advertising patterns and offering comparable amenities and community-building activities, the assemblies are taking on mega status. I’m curious to look further in to the pop culture references they make in their services and compare those to the messages of evangelical pastors like Matt Pitt and Ed Young, Jr (which I’ve written about here and here and… more places).

As the movement grows, I’m interested to see if and how it takes on cultural patterns of other megachurches. Will they continue to advertise the same way? How much influence will popular culture have on both secular and spiritual megachurches? And how will Christian churches respond to the growing appeal of atheist congregations? While secular churches have been around for a while, it appears that the strategies utilized by Christian megachurches have established successful patterns for the growth of atheist congregations, which might (should) make Christian leaders question whether it’s the method or the message that is drawing so many new members.


Hobby Lobby in the Huffington Post

Religion in American History

I’m late on posting this, but I offered my opinion of the Hobby Lobby ruling at the Huffington Post. It was also picked up by AlterNet. Reprinting here for anyone who missed it:

It was the most difficult job I’ve ever had. I’ve been a history professor for years, toiled as a graduate assistant before that, and even did a stint as an IT technician. But the three months I worked at Hobby Lobby stocking googly eyes and framing baseball cards takes the cake. I wanted a break from academia but it ended up not being a break at all. I found myself deconstructing and analyzing all aspects of my job — from the Bible in the break room to the prayers before employee meetings and the strange refusal of the company to use bar codes in its stores. (The rumor amongst employees was that bar codes were the Mark of the Beast, but that rumor remains unsubstantiated.) Three months was enough to convince me that there is something larger at work and the SCOTUS decision only confirms my belief that corporate Christianity (and Christianity that is corporate) has made it difficult for Americans to discern religion from consumption.

As a scholar of religious history, I observe the way that faith intersects with culture. I study and publish on megachurches and my interpretation of this week’s events is informed not only by my experiences as an employee at Hobby Lobby but also my knowledge of recent religious trends. My biggest question after hearing the decision was not about the particular opinions or practical repercussions (which are significant and have far-reaching and dangerous consequences). Instead, my first thought was: “What is it about our cultural fabric that enables us to attribute religious rights to a corporate entity?” In the United States we have increasingly associated Christianity with capitalism and the consequences affect both corporations and churches. It’s a comfortable relationship and seemingly natural since so much of our history is built on those two forces. But it’s also scary.

Hobby Lobby is a for-profit craft chain, not a church. I’m stating the obvious just in case there was any confusion because — let’s face it — it’s confusing. It’s as confusing as those googly eyes (do you really need three different sizes, Hobby Lobby, really?). Today, we see giant churches that operate like corporations and now corporations have some of the same rights as churches. Many megachurches adopt “seeker-sensitive” approaches to attract members, relying on entertainment and conspicuous consumption to promote their services. After a while, the spiritual and secular lines start to blur and the Christian and corporate blend. Ed Young, Jr.’s Fellowship Church, for instance, started a “90-Day Challenge” for members. The church asks congregants to pledge 10 percent of their income and promises “that if you tithe for 90 days and God doesn’t hold true to his promise of blessings, we will refund 100 percent of your tithe.”

Megachurches advertise on television, billboards, the Internet. They have coffee shops and gift stores. Some feature go-cart tracks, game centers, even oil changes. Many are run by pastors that also serve as CEOs. So when Hobby Lobby seeks similar religious rights as these very corporate churches, we have to reconsider our definition of religious organizations and maybe even say “why not?” We have normalized corporate Christianity to the point that the Supreme Court deems it natural for businesses to hold “sincere” religious beliefs. The religious landscape in the United States, including our familiarity with megachurches and celebrity pastors, certainly contributes to the acceptance of the church/company conundrum.

The “why not” can be answered, however, with the real costs of the decision. Women’s reproductive rights are compromised. The religious freedom of employees for these corporations is compromised. The sanctity of our religious institutions is also compromised. To protect religious pluralism and freedom of the individual we need clear demarcations between what is spiritual and what is economical. Otherwise, we sacrifice the soul of American religion and all that makes it good and why I study it on the altar of industry. I can’t get those three months at Hobby Lobby back (or the praise muzak out of my head) but I can see more clearly the dangers of allowing corporate Christianity to become the norm. Without clear boundaries, we risk distorting the very idea of religious freedom and the rich, diverse religious culture that makes us who we are. And that’s tragic — maybe not as tragic as praise muzak, but tragic nonetheless.


I’m Too Sexy for My Church: Observations on Ed Young, Jr.

Religion in American History

At Religion in American History, I discussed Ed Young, Jr.’s Sexperiment in the context of evangelical trends.

I’ve got sex on the brain and I blame Ed Young, Jr. I’ve been watching way too many podcast sermons from this dynamic senior pastor and it’s starting to affect my work. Literally. I’m researching and writing a chapter on megachurches and sexuality and keep coming back to Ed Young, Jr.’s teachings at Fellowship Church in Grapevine, Texas. I’m trying to put his approach to Christian sexuality into a larger context of historical evangelical rhetoric and practices and it’s getting tricky. Young replicates the heteronormative religious teachings of the past (and present) but he does so while openly addressing sexuality and encouraging congregants to think and talk about sex in pretty explicit terms. In other words, to me it’s the same rhetoric that has dominated mainstream evangelicalism for decades but taken to another, overt level. Or, as Young himself says, “a whole nutha level!”

It all started with the Sexperiment. In 2008, Young encouraged congregants to engage in “Seven Days of Sex,” challenging his married church members to have sex every day for a week in order to improve their relationships, their jobs, and their Christian walk. A charge by a pastor to engage in sex (and this is for all married couples—including those dealing with adultery and needing to find forgiveness) is an interesting one, to say the least. Then, in 2012, Ed and his wife Lisa published a book on how married couples can strengthen their marriages through sex and, in turn, help build healthier congregations. To promote the book, the couple held a 24-hour “bed-in” on a rooftop. They stayed in bed all day (to the detriment of their health–the rooftop was not the best place to hang out for 24 hours) and were filmed answering viewers’ questions about sex and relationships. The purpose of the book and an accompanying sermon series are, according to Lisa, to learn how to “have sex His way, and… understand what it was meant to be.” The sermon series features Ed and Lisa Young talking to congregants from a king-sized bed about the church taking control of sexuality. Using the Bible as “God’s Sex Manual,” the couple explains how sex is not just physical but is spiritual. Young argues that sex is God’s idea and should be openly discussed by the church so that it can define the discourse (rather than letting the larger, secular culture control things). Recognizing that the church has often focused on the “prohibitions,” Young turns this idea around and describes what is permitted or encouraged by the Bible within marriage.

That last clause is important. While the Youngs openly discuss the sensitive subject of sex, they constantly refer back to a heteronormative, marital model. There are “no escape clauses, no fine print,” Young says, that indicate that sex should be anything other than between a husband and wife. In another sermon series (I told you… eventually these Ed Young, Jr., sermons will crash my computer), Young explains what Jesus would say to Ellen DeGeneres: “You’re awesome, but homosexuality is not my ideal.” The Sexperiment does not emphasize prohibitions in a direct way, but the undercurrent is to undercut other sexual choices/lifestyles. In other words, this part of Young’s message is very much in line with traditional mainstream evangelical teachings on homosexuality.

Since they are constantly a touchstone of mine (see book), I can’t help but think of how early Baptist and Methodist ministers would react to Young’s methods. There would be agreement on the heteronormative, marital emphases, but the message would most likely be shocking and disturbing. Young would be radical, would be disciplined, and would lose his position in the church. In fact, some of these ministers (especially Methodist itinerants) struggled with marriage and whether a pastor should have a helpmate. Could they afford a wife? Would a wife distract from their ministry? (Lyerly and Heyrman describe this issue and Bob Elder examines women’s roles in evangelicalism.) It’s interesting to see a shift over the past 150 years to pastors needing wives and then to Ed and Lisa Young sharing the pulpit to discuss the intimate subject of sex, while sitting on a giant bed no less.

American religion, however, has not always eschewed the subject of sex. There are well-known (and mostly ill-fated) religious groups in the United States that emphasized the importance of sex among congregants. The nineteenth-century Oneida Community comes to mind as well as the more recent Warren Jeffs’ FLDS compound. In both of these instances, however, the religious leader arranged partnerships and dabbled in, erm, the very illegal. What I’m getting at is this: There are occasions where religious groups will discuss sexuality in an open forum or encourage marriages and sex to promote the growth of their spiritual community.

Let’s be clear, Young is not creating anything like these communes. There is, however, something seemingly scandalous about talking about sex in church—and the mode of delivery used by the Youngs definitely garnered mixed reviews. And Young is not simply describing “healthy” sexual partnerships, he is also encouraging sexual acts among congregants, which does touch on some of the tactics used by other historical religious groups.

Speaking of scandal, another megachurch pastor’s words on the subject of sexuality made national headlines in 2006 when his own actions did not match his teachings:

In this sermon, Ted Haggard presents a traditional argument that the relationship between a man and a woman is intended by God to represent the union between Christ and the Church. Young is borrowing from this same reasoning but adapts this teaching in his Sexperiment: Not only does God desire a relationship between a man and a woman, but he desires a lot of sex in that relationship and not just for reproduction. God created sex for married men and women, he created it to be passionate, and he created it to strengthen the church. And Young created Sexperiment for me to have plenty of fodder for a chapter. So I guess it all works out.


More than Hobby Lobby: My Take as a Scholar of Religious History

Religion in American History

My blog this month at Religion in American History

Hobby Lobby was not my favorite work experience—it required long hours, ridiculous record-keeping, exposure to monotonous Christian muzak, and putting up with some creepy coworkers. It was, well, retail. Also, I worked there for all of three months. I’ve been a religious historian for far longer and thought I’d share my thoughts on the current case and the evolution of corporate Christianity in general instead of dwelling on those three months of stocking googly eyes. Huffington Post and Businessweek both interviewed me regarding the current SCOTUS case and, while they had good questions, I think that there are some points that have been missing from the discourse. Namely, how is Hobby Lobby related to larger trends? What is actually happening to evangelical religion in the United States? And why are reproductive rights/contraception at the center of this struggle?

Much of the discourse surrounding Hobby Lobby is, necessarily, about corporate Christianity. Of course, Hobby Lobby is a great example of this particular phenomenon and contributes to a larger

narrative of the blending of the corporate and religious that has been a theme in American religious history. As our own Darren Grem pointed out, “Religion has been a part of corporate America for quite some time.” I’ll leave this territory to Darren and fellow business and religion scholars—it’s an exciting field and there is obviously much relevance in this work right now. From my own developing research on megachurches, however, I’m considering a slightly different perspective on current trends.

Hobby Lobby may win this case because of the pro-business and conservative nature of the Roberts Court, of course, but there’s a larger cultural phenomenon that might be influencing public and political opinion as well. The case is significant because it represents the blending of corporate and Christian—and one very visible sector of American religion that mixes the same stuff is the rapidly rising megachurch movement. The public and our leadership have been primed to consider the religious rights of corporations because of the general growth of Christian industry and that industry is manifested in tax-free organizations like megachurches. In other words, megachurches and seeker-sensitive churches, in particular, are assisting in blurring the lines between business and religion so that it is difficult to determine where one ends and the other begins.

Recently, there has been some (additional) attention on how much money megachurches bring in as a result of the recent robbery at Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas. The thieves took $600,000 in cash and checks from the vault, which were the tithes from one weekend’s worth of services. Some folks started doing the math and estimated that, conservatively, the church brings in $32 million a year not including extra donations made on holidays or electronic donations or bookstore sales. Lakewood should not be specifically targeted for these large numbers—many megachurches bring in large amounts through tithes, donations, and sales throughout the United States. And it is largely due to the fact that megareligion has adapted so well over the past few decades to this mingling of the corporate and the Christian.

Megachurches and megareligion (a term I use to include televangelism and webcasts that incorporate even more followers into a congregation or movement) incorporate so many elements of business with marketing, advertising, entertaining, congregation studies, etc., that they confuse corporate Christianity and Christianity that is corporate for the larger culture. If a church is using flashy advertising, powerful

websites, is selling merch with their logo on it, then it’s acting like a business. And if businesses are promoting a specific religious doctrine and claiming exemption from laws as a result, it’s behaving like a church. They have blended the corporate and Christian beyond earlier permutations and the current religious landscape has allowed for it. This negotiation of corporate/religious boundaries leads to complications: If large organizations that pull in a lot of money are able to have their religious rights protected, then why can’t others? The difference is that some of those large organizations are churches and others are retail stores.

That begs the question [scandalous and hyperbolic question alert]: What is the difference between Hobby Lobby and some megachurches, other than tax status? I know, I know, a lot. But at a core level, is there a similar history there that ties these types of organizations together? I’d argue yes. Both have strong doctrinal beliefs, both spread those beliefs to the masses (either through broadcasts and services or through products and business practices). The difference, of course, is that megachurches evangelize in an open, intentional way and corporations like Hobby Lobby are more slippery in their approach. They want to be religious organizations but without the pulpit (or fancy glass podium that can be removed for the massive praise band, if you want to get technical).

Huffington Post reported that the “overt Christianity” of the Hobby Lobby environment “shocked” me when I worked there. But what’s missing from this observation is the fact that I was not shocked on a personal level. It was not a personal offense. It was really interesting to me as a scholar of religious history. Evangelical Christianity has taken some divergent paths in the 21st century. Many denominations (UMC, for instance) are becoming more open to cultural differences and others are more steadfast in their rejection of pluralism. Hobby Lobby, a corporate institution that relies on a diverse group of customers to succeed (supposedly), is blatantly disregarding the religious pluralism that has gradually consumed large parts of 21st century American society. While corporate Christianity has a long history in the United States (as correctly pointed out by my colleagues), the 21st century is a different era with increased diversity and different demands.

Some of that diversity also stems from sexual and reproductive preferences. By fighting over birth control options, Hobby Lobby is indicating that it rejects the notion that employees should/would have alternative beliefs on the subject. The corporation’s “religious rights” are superseding the employee’s rights, in other words. It’s the company’s religious rights (which are constitutionally debatable, obviously) versus women’s rights over their own body and reproduction (which we’ve dealt with in previous decades). While we discuss the shifting sands of corporate/religious identities, it’s also worth exploring the place of women (particularly their reproduction and sexuality) within this constellation of tricky constitutional issues.

I keep conjuring the visage of Ed Young, Jr., explaining the “Sexperiment” to congregants when I think of this tension, too. Young encourages married couples in his church to have sex as much as possible and in “Sextember” to have sex every day. One wonders where the pastor lands on the birth control debate, considering his desire for frisky congregants. If it’s Hobby Lobby’s approach hopefully his Fellowship Church has a large nursery facility. All kidding aside, there are some pretty serious issues at stake with the Hobby Lobby case and some interesting correlations to blooming megachurch culture in the United States. It’s worth exploring.


Meyer, White, and Women of the Prosperity Gospel

Religion in American History

Here’s my blog for March on megachurches, female pastors, and the prosperity gospel. Dig it.

Meyer, White, and Women of the Prosperity Gospel

This is an idea that I am playing with for my manuscript on megachurches. Any comments/suggestions/ideas are, of course, welcome.

It is time for the truth to be told and for people to realize the attack on women is actually from Satan himself.” Joyce Meyer makes this provocative proclamation in her 2006 book The Confident Woman, in which the celebrity preacher argues that women are equal in God’s eyes and must fight for their rights within the church and society. In fact, often men’s “egos” prevent women from fulfilling their calling to minister or teach. “Historically, women have often been allowed to do a lot, if not most, of the praying and servant-type work in the church,” she points out, “Meanwhile, the same men who refused to let them preach or teach stay home and rest.” This dichotomy is unacceptable for Meyer who believes that churches rely on women to fill certain “feminine” roles while preventing them from realizing their full potential. She contends that men abuse the Scriptures (like Paul’s writings in II Timothy) to hem women in, when those teachings were written within a certain cultural context—women today should not be punished for the unique circumstances of the past. 
This focus on women’s rights and empowerment, however, is blurred with other passages that detract from Meyer’s seemingly feminist perspective. The bold female pastor also makes note that women bless the world by being “creative, comforting, sensitive.” They can also follow the model of the woman described in Proverbs through creative cooking. “I fed my family hamburger 1,001 different ways,” Meyer recalls, “I must admit I wasn’t too creative… our lady in Proverbs challenges us to go the extra mile and make things as good as possible.” And even when women feel called to church leadership, they still should allow men to become the spiritual head of the home, without opposition. The Confident Woman reveals the curious contradictions inherent in female prosperity preaching as embodied by Meyer and fellow female evangelists like Paula White. This kind of rhetoric raised some questions for me as I dug deeper into the messages and histories of these women. Are Meyer and White models of postfeminist preachers? Does the prosperity gospel actually help ameliorate the contractions that these postfeminist preachers present in their sermons and writings? This potential connection (between postfeminism and prosperity teachings) is one dichotomy that I’m toying with in my current manuscript about megachurch culture. 
The prosperity gospel seems to provide an interesting cohesion for the messages of some female
megachurch leaders. It directs both their strong emphasis on women’s leadership and their constant stereotyping of women’s roles in the home and consumer culture back to the notion of God’s blessings. Paula White, in particular, demonstrates an ability (unconsciously or not) to blend the theology of Kathryn Kuhlman and the charisma of Sister Aimee Semple McPherson with a modern postfeminist message and consumer focus. A self-proclaimed “former messed up Mississippi girl,” she uses her tragic childhood and even present-day troubles (including a publicized affair with Trinity Broadcasting star Benny Hinn) to minister to women about overcoming the devil’s influence in their lives and increasing their prosperity. Like Kuhlman, White emphasizes the power of faith healing and leads Charismatic services, relying on the power of the Holy Spirit to fill her services and to give her prophesies. Breaking from Kuhlman’s commitment to leave men in lead pastor positions, White leads her own congregation—New Destiny Christian Center, a megachurch in Apopka, Florida with membership in the thousands. She actually first became a senior pastor in 2009, when she took over her former husband’s position at Without Walls International Church. Since she entered into the spotlight, the “Mississippi girl” has demonstrated the power of prosperity preaching when wielded by a woman.
White’s prosperity gospel is saturated with gendered anecdotes and analogies, which she uses to make the message relevant to diverse or largely African American audiences. Men and women alike are attracted to the energetic blond, who at once plays into the stereotypes of southern femininity but breaks through traditional barriers of female leadership. She openly references her father’s suicide (often labeling this event as the source of her “daddy issues”), being sexually abused as a child, and former struggles with anorexia and bulimia, using past troubles to contrast current blessings. At the same time that White preaches about spiritual empowerment and confronting the past to achieve present success, she impresses upon her followers the need to obey male authority within appropriate boundaries. “When I give honor I fill the terms of my commitment,” White teaches, “All of us have a father. So all of us have an obligation according to biblical standards and principals to honor our father. Now maybe you lost your father and he’s not living but you have a spiritual father (for me it’s Bishop Jakes). You have someone in your life that’s a figure of authority. If not, you have anarchy.” White presents an interesting blend of traditional evangelical motifs (the spiritual father is a figure revered since the revivals of the early 19th century) and modern consumer religion that promotes self-help and fulfillment.
Blessings are a constant thread that runs throughout White’s sermons, which rely on consumer culture as reference points. In one 2010 sermon, for instance, White compared God’s blessings to a shipping company, confiding in her audience that she “orders a lot through the mail.” When she wanted “cute shoes for a conference,” she was not there when the company tried to deliver them, much like God tries to send messages to his followers but they do not always receive them. As a result, her shoes, and God’s plans, can be delayed. “The enemy has been trying to discourage you,” she exclaims, “make you disbelieve by DELAY. BUT DELAY doesn’t mean denial.” By comparing God’s blessings to modern consumerism, White makes the prosperity gospel relevant to many women in her congregation but at the expense of playing into and promoting dominant gender stereotypes. At the same time that she admits to her shopping habits, she also presents her destination as that of a conference, indicating her professional status. 
Joyce Meyer breaks from the healer/prophet identity promoted by women like White. The St. Louis
preacher focuses on building women’s confidence and health as a reflection of God’s favor. Like White, Meyer often references consumer culture in making the gospel relevant and she has published over forty books that are largely Christian self-help. Meyer also manipulates common female stereotypes but uses them to try to build women up, concentrating on self-esteem and how women can better manage their marriages and households. Meyer has gained a large following by speaking to notions of female empowerment and expanding the concept of prosperity beyond finances into areas like relationships and having a positive attitude. Her writings and sermons are predicated on the contradiction inherent in postfeminist rhetoric, however, as she often argues that women have unique weaknesses in an attempt to help shape female behavior. In her series the “Confident Woman,” for instance, Meyer argues that “women have more of a tendency to be emotional where men are more logical” and the devil can prey on these emotions. She also contends that dominant social attitudes also diminish women’s abilities and talents, destroying their confidence. Meyer’s expressed desire is to “release women to be all that God wants them to be.” Thus, while contradicting traditional cultural restrictions on women, the preacher actively relies on negative stereotyping to make her argument. This dichotomy is also present in her challenge to women to find fulfillment and independence by increasing their dependence on the patriarchal figure of God.
I attended a sermon given by Meyer at Lakewood Church in Houston (Osteen’s congregation) back in February 2013. The message was about complaining. Meyer listed reasons why should could have complained over the past two months, ranging from spraining her toe when it got caught in her underwear, losing her pants at the spa at a five star hotel, her staff not being able to find an open Starbucks for her morning coffee, and receiving the wrong bedspread that she ordered through the mail. Meyer’s message focused on the problem of the modern Christian constantly complaining but her larger point was muddled with references to her economic status, consumer culture, and gendered notions of beauty. She bragged about looking younger than her age and the number of squats that she can do at the gym, giving God praise for her physical body. Christians should not complain about their houses are cars because they asked for them and God gave them those blessings. “If gas prices rise, believe God will give you money to pay for how much you need to get to where you need to go.” Meyer uses neo-Pentecostal touchstones of “name it and claim it” (like claiming the gasoline or a house or car) theology but incorporates her own, almost boastful, praises to help build her image as a successful and confident woman.  
Like with Meyer and White, as I explore the lives of more megachurch leaders (including Matt Pitt, Joel and Victoria Osteen, T. D. Jakes, and Ed Young, Jr., among others) I’m looking for ways that their rhetoric reflects and interacts with secular culture and larger social movements. There are some excellent studies out there on some of these pastors (I’m looking at you Shayne Lee and Phil Sinitiere) and on the prosperity gospel (and you, Kate Bowler) and on megachurches, too. I’m hoping to connect some of the dots in the literature—just some of them—to try and discover how megachurches were made and why they are consuming the religious imagination of the nation. I’ll keep you posted.

Adventures in Christian Retail #tbt

Religion in American History

Digging through old blogs, I ran across my “Adventures in Christian Retail” series from a couple of years ago. Hope you enjoy on this Throw Back Thursday.

Adventures in Christian Retail Part I

Adventures in Christian Retail Part II

Adventures in Christian Retail Part III

Part I

Disclaimer: This is a teaser. I’m working on a larger piece about experiencing employment at a Christian retail chain this summer. I took on the job because 1) we needed the money and 2) I was curious. I have been documenting my day-to-day life there as a full-time employee and am working up a full-length piece with an academic emphasis and analysis of marketing with religion, the gender politics of the place, as well as how they handle money and workers’ rights. Enjoy.
I worked retail this summer. “Christian”-run retail. When I walked into the interview for the position at the local store that is part of a national chain (we’ll call it “Christian Chain” or “CC”), the manager was a bit baffled by the Ph.D. sitting in front of him. “Honestly,” I assured him (and meant it), “I want to work here and my family needs the income.” I (naively) believed that CC, a company that nationally proclaims its Christian values and give generously to conservative Christian causes/movements, would provide a good work environment and would reveal to me how Christian employers manage the workplace. It would give me insight into the world of Christian retail. And it has. Plenty of insight. So here’s a taste of what I witnessed in terms of the corporate model CC follows. The larger piece will include issues of sexism/sexual harassment and employee’s work schedules/worker’s rights but, like I said, teaser.

On money and mythology at CC: This company handles its resources in the most Luddite and inefficient way possible. There is one computer in the store where I worked. It was locked away in the back room and was used only to make/print out weekly schedules. All ordering is done by hand using a pencil and three-ring binders and a complicated system of “base” numbers and “minimum” orders. The poor soul who works in the back room has to then take all of the binders from each department and enter them into the one (aged) computer before a deadline in order for stock to come in.

There are no SKUs–no barcodes–no scanning devices. Thus the hand-written ordering. This is where the mythology comes in. I inquired about the lack of computers in the store and the ancient cash registers that required each item to be manually punched in and discounts to be manually entered as well. I was told that the cash registers WERE NEW. The explanation varied based on who responded to my questions. Some employees (especially those higher up) explained that it was just CC’s way. That it had maintained the same system since its birth (over 20 years ago) and that CC does not change. I found this idea interesting for several reasons. It requires more work from employees, thus costing the business more money. It is a business after all and so shouldn’t it be concerned with profits and losses? But it may also connect to the idea that workers should have sweat on their brow constantly in order to truly earn their wages. The Protestant ethic, so to speak. Work for work’s sake.

Several other (lower-paid) employees told me that the lack of barcodes was CC policy because barcodes represent the mark of the beast. Wha?! I know, this seems far-fetched. But this is a widely held belief amongst employees and thus should not be discounted. Some are dissatisfied with this reasoning but accept it, again, as being CC’s way so it cannot be questioned. (More on this in the longer article.)

Another strongly held belief is that the company does not have barcodes because then it does not have to have uniform pricing. Sales, then, do not have to be reflected at the register unless the customer notices that they are not receiving the discount and asks for it. A few employees see the lack of technology as a ploy for the company to make extra money.

There is an odd dichotomy at work at CC: they are focused on saving money (they are very concerned with hours and wages and do not move an employee to full-time unless they really need them and the employee makes enough demands) but they use a system that ultimately costs them money because it requires employees to work double or triple the hours at a task that in other stores is not nearly as involved and grueling.

Ultimately, what I’d like to consider in a larger format is what does it mean to be a Christian-run corporation in the modern marketplace? CC has held on to antiquated ideas regarding its particular brand of commerce, and the reasoning for that steadfastness varies based on what myth or history an employee chooses to subscribe. Also, the Christian values on which the chain claims to rely are not reflected in its treatment of employees or the employee’s treatment of each other. This begs the question: how much are “Christian” businesses relying on the image of being Christian without truly employing (or even hinting at employing) Christian ethics in their stores. This I will explore in more detail in the article with a discussion of sexual politics at CC and the overextension of employees to the point of completely disregarding their rights. Good times.

Part II

Muzak. Bad muzak, but also an excellent indicator of the spiritual/secular influences on (what I’m teasingly calling) “Christian Chain” (CC). One of the things that customers constantly complement store management on is the “acoustic” music that streams incessantly over the speakers in the store. They say that it is soothing and that its Christian message is something that keeps them in the store and also keeps them coming back. It’s a very clever marketing gimmick, ultimately. But there are a few surprises that I encountered when I listened a bit more closely to what consumers were actually ingesting on their visits to CC.
Most obviously, the store pipes in the now-common coinciding traditional hymn and praise music combo that many churches have incorporated into their repertoire. Contemporary praise and worship has become so commonplace that many song melodies are as recognizable as Wesley’s hymns. While “Amazing Grace” is a muzak mainstay, so are songs like “I Could Sing of Your Love Forever,” “Our God is an Awesome God,” “Father I Adore You,” “Tear Down the Walls.” Hillsong United, Integrity Music, and other major praise and worship companies have obviously cooperated with CC to provide some of their more widely used songs in instrumental versions. They are pumped through a station at some headquarters whereby shoppers and employees at all of CC stores will have a uniform muzakal experience. It’s a strange collective experience, especially as the hours in your 12-16 hour shift wear on and “Above All” is ringing in your ears for the seventeenth time (no bitterness here, no sir–and more on the shifts and work schedules as well as my current dealings with OSHA in the next post).
What strikes me as interesting is that by making the music muzak, instrumental by nature, CC is relying on the customers’ knowledge of Christian music and the familiarity of the melodies to the general public (or at least the public that they are serving). They are also probably avoiding a ton of royalty fees, but Darren will certainly be able to better speak to that issue. But what they also do is reveal the secular nature of CC’s commercialism. In addition to Christian-themed music, the stores also have an odd array of non-Christian songs (in fact, some songs used are by nature not conservative or Christian at all). This fact first struck me as I was stocking merchandise and immediately recognized the butchered version of “Imagine” that suddenly began playing over the loudspeakers. “Imagine”? “Imagine no religion”? When I finished my task and returned to my department I asked another employee about the song–how could this store be playing that song (as happy as I was to hear it and for the respite from “Awesome God”)? I was confronted by a very defensive fellow worker who explained to me that “Imagine” is a Christian song and that John Lennon and the Beatles were all Christians. I tried to throw down some pop culture knowledge but eventually gave up and logged the event as singular. Maybe the higher-ups are under the same impression and honestly believe that “Imagine” is a Christian tune. Whatever. But it did make me listen a little more carefully to the muzak from then on and I discovered that the instrumentals that the customers so loved because of the Christian inspiration they received while shopping (no irony, none at all) did not adhere to any real ideology or logic whatsoever. Rod Stewart, Sting, John Mayer (“Your Body is a Wonderland”), all showed up in their repertoire. The Beatles are a favorite.
My sense is that as long as the tune is registered by the typical consumer’s ear as something that they know, that’s how it made the cut. So praise and worship and traditional hymns are recognizable, just like “Imagine” and “Broken Arrow.” In other words, commerce is king in the CC muzak department.
Part III
The one good and seemingly Christian thing about CC (“Christian Chain”) is that it is closed on Sunday. Until it’s not. One of the aspects that many shoppers find appealing about CC (in addition to the P&W muzak like “Awesome God”—that’s for you, Paul Harvey) is that it openly states that it treats its employees well. It’s right there on the door as soon as you walk in: “Closed on Sunday for Worship and Family.” The store is technically closed on Sunday, but it must be for customers’ worship and families because oftentimes employees are called in on Sundays to stock shelves, clean the store, hurriedly ready it for an upcoming visit from management. So what is at the heart of the work ethic of CC? Is it a Christian calling or is it corporate pressure, or both?
A striking element of CC’s character is it does have many long-term employees—individuals who have been working there for several years, some almost a decade on and off. Why do they stay and why do they agree to work Sundays? Why do they keep working until 1 AM on some nights to get the stock on the shelves when their shift was over at 5 PM? Why do they maintain 14 hour days when they are making part-time pay with promises of full-time benefits eventually (oftentimes promises that go unfulfilled)?
I’ve considered many options and overanalyzed the answers to these questions, I’m sure. If one took a Weberian approach, the answer may be that the employees see some greater meaning to their work. They see their employment with the company as part of their larger role as members of God’s Kingdom and doers of his will. And some of the workers at CC may very well view themselves this way. Case study: an older woman, well beyond the age of retirement, comes to work every day and puts her all into her job. She sees the work as necessary for her family and also productive in and of itself. She keeps a Bible at her station and often shares passages with coworkers and customers. Mrs. Mary (as she is affectionately called by everyone, including the manager) is not content in her employment (she often talks about how she wishes that she could go home early or how her feet hurt), but she does engage in it as a result of a compulsion to work for a higher good. God wants her to work and she sees God’s hand in her work.
What undermines this Weberian perspective are the other employees. Sexual harassment is rampant at CC as well as a general desire to goof off. In other words, Mrs. Mary is not the norm. The sexual harassment is particularly distressing considering the said mission statement of the company. There is, however, internal arbitration for any complaints. (Sorry, but a “yeah, right” is due here as anyone who has dealt with “internal arbitration” before can probably attest.) I witnessed male employees taking pictures of female employees rear-ends and bragging about it, female employees grabbing each other’s crotches as a joke, and constant back-and-forth sexual teasing. I was once asked by a male coworker if I would ever cheat on my husband. All this being said, the sexual harassment and general malaise of CC employees completely detracts from whatever Weber would say about the company and the employees’ drive to work with a godly ethic. That ain’t happening.
In the middle of the two extremes is the “false idol” worship that is incorporated into every day dealings with employees behind closed doors. At every staff meeting the manager insists upon a prayer before getting down to business and the prayer always begins by thanking God for the owner of CC and asking God to bless the owner as the owner has blessed each of us. Creepy? Yes. Christian? Uh, no. I welcome analysis of this feature of CC as it was one of the more baffling. Perhaps it is a derivative of the Prosperity Gospel—the idea that the owner is making millions because of his commitment to God and that through trickle-down Prosperity Gospel we were somehow benefiting from it? Again, I welcome ideas here, especially from you, Deg.
Ultimately, I’ll lean on Marx (as usual) for an explanation of why employees remain in this environment (and don’t flee and file complaints with OSHA as I did). Opiate of the masses. Class. Take your pick. Religion serves as the opiate of the customers more so than the employees. Consumers come into CC with an understanding that it is a Christian company, that it is run on Christian values, that they will get soothing Christian muzak (sort of) once they enter the doors. Employees are force-fed an odd Christian message at staff meetings and through the general material culture of the place while not experiencing it in their interactions with other workers and managers. It is simply class status that keeps them there. They cannot find other employment because they have neither the skills or the education to do so. And if they do have skills/education there are other barriers: the market is terrible, one guy had a felony under his belt for domestic abuse, etc. It is mostly the ones who need the job who stay—they simply don’t have a way out. Another case study: I ran into a former CC coworker the other day. (She hardly recognized me out of uniform.) She has been at CC for over 2 years now and I never got close enough to her to tell if she was content or merely smiling because her job depended on it. Well, away from CC I found out. As soon as she saw me she ran up to tell me how much she and other coworkers wished they could do what I had done and quit. She wants to find something else but there just isn’t anything else out there. She is Pentecostal, lives by Christian virtues, and does not buy into CC’s message of Christian retail. Not after the way that she’s been treated as one of its employees. Her final message to me before we parted ways was “You go, girl. You did the right thing and stood up for yourself. I just wish I was in the position where I could do the same thing.”
Ultimately, it’s class that keeps CC’s employees there. Not some religious work ethic or “time for worship and family” on Sundays. They are there because they need the money and their families could not survive without the extra income.
My final thoughts on my experience working for CC are this: not all Christian-run retailers are the same, but the social expectations for them are. American consumers who purchase items because they believe that the corporation is working for some higher cause should question the company’s motives (key word: company) and should research what they are really selling. I think they may be surprised. I sure was.

Methodist Discipline, Gay Rights, and Church History

Religion in American History

My blog this month focused on a case in which a gay choir director had to resign from a UMC congregation. I discuss how the Methodist Discipline and culture adapts over time in this post.

Open Hearts. Open Minds. Open Doors.

“Discipline” sounds so ugly. I pride myself in being a bit of a rebel, and I just don’t like the word. It brings forth images of rulers smacking knuckles or a New Year’s diet routine. If only you had more discipline, you could resist that Frappuccino and make it to the gym today. But for Methodists, Discipline is what holds everything together. Since the founding of the Methodist Episcopal Church, the Discipline has served as the unifying document of rules and regulations that keep the clergy and congregations in step—they must abide by the same moral code or face correction by the church. I’m not sure of the last time you walked into a Methodist church and heard a sermon on this very technical piece of denominational policy, but I’m betting it happens with the same regularity that you resist those Frappuccinos. This week, however, the Methodist Discipline received way more attention than it has in a long time and I can’t help but see some historical parallels to a current controversy facing the church.

Adam Fraley resigned from his position at United Methodist Church in Alexandria, Indiana. Until recently, he had served as choir director of the small congregation but a new pastor forced changes in the church and altered Fraley’s work environment. Fraley is gay and the change in pastor indicated a shift in attitude towards his serving in a leadership position. Although he is not openly homosexual, his partner did attend services with him. According to interviews, Fraley resigned because “of a heavy workload and his own personal discomfort with the new leadership.” The new minister did not approve of Fraley holding the choir director position (which he had been in for six years), and the situation culminated in a need for the young man to resign.

What’s interesting is that the current Discipline does not stipulate that Fraley cannot be choir director because of his sexual orientation. The 2012 edition includes statements that reflect the “Open Hearts. Open Minds. Open Doors.” motto of the UMC: “The United Methodist Church acknowledges that all persons are of sacred worth.” Everyone is welcome to attend, worship, be baptized, receive sacraments, no matter what they look like, where they live, who they love. The limitations on homosexuals in the UMC really have to do with ordination and marriage. The church will not ordain or marry gay men or women. Fraley did not ask for either of these things, but he also wasn’t corrected or condemned by the UMC. Instead, a local minister personally fought his serving in church leadership. It’s one of those ambiguous cases where a person is “disciplined” but not formally so the denomination is not directly involved. If the Discipline stated that all persons could not be discriminated against in the church, we may have seen a different scenario unfold.

Methodist Discipline and culture are malleable things. They shift and move with the larger social demands and adapt to the needs of church members and ministers alike. In my work on nineteenth-century Methodist ministers, I see a lot of cases where the norm for the clergy changed over time. The two areas that were particularly controversial were slavery and marriage. Slavery is the obvious one, and created a schism between northern and southern ministers. Marriage, however, turned out to be a real struggle for many clergymen because the church forbade the kinds of things that nudge men into matrimony. No frolicking, socializing, dancing, flirting—none of those frivolous activities that would actually land a person a wife. The early Methodist church in America did not ban the marriage of ministers (they did have to consult with their brethren before taking a wife), but it did make it very difficult for them to find and keep a partner.  Financially, ministers found it very difficult to support a family and had to rely on the charity of others. The Discipline noted that “the impossibility of our enriching ourselves by our ministry, is another great preservation of its purity. The lovers of this world will not long continue travelling preachers.” Today, most ministers are married and single pastors actually have a rough go of it. A while back, I wrote about the perils of being an unmarried pastor in today’s ministerial marketplace. But the church’s embrace of pastoral marriage represents a change since the early-nineteenth century brethren sported dusty black coats and froze to death on their circuits. Early ministers did not make enough money to have a family and, if they did, that family usually experienced many hardships. The shift to encouraging and actually desiring married ministers happened over time and because of social pressures and an expansion of church resources.

With their relatively new message of inclusion, the UMC has made great strides to grow its evangelical reach by extending its membership and services to everyone, without restriction. If you put the 1798 Discipline of the MEC and the 2012 Discipline of the UMC next to each other to scan for similarities, it’s astounding to see how Methodism has adapted over time. In the case of Fraley and homosexuality in the church, it will be interesting to see where things go from here. According to many reports, eighty percent of the members left the congregation after the choir director resigned. “We have a lot of people,” the church’s lay leader explained, “especially a lot of elderly people who are lonesome for their church, but will not feel comfortable to come back with a minister who will not accept a man who we really liked as our choir director.” This case is a test of the power of the congregation and of American culture to affect church policies and practices. If the past is any indicator, that power is greater than any Discipline or ministerial prejudice.