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Wednesday, September 22, 2004

TV, the deductive method, and megachurches

The other night I watched an episode of the show _Seventh Heaven_, which I hadn't done for a couple of years. When my wife and I started dating, she was a fan of the show and I watched some episodes with her. But this happened to be the season that all the kids were dating a different person every week (and as likely as not getting engaged to boot, and then breaking up the next week), and I thought it was a bit too ridiculous. It's good when a show is clean and wholesome, but the titillation of a new boyfriend/girlfriend every week is just a G-rated version of the usual dreck. So, at least, I thought at the time.

But the episode the other night was quite interesting. Simon (the fourth of the seven children) is a rather annoying college freshman who has been having sex with a young woman from what appears to be a liberal megachurch, the "Chapel of Renewed Faith." She boasts to his parents Eric and Annie that her church has a class on teen sex that is "accepting," and taunts Eric (the pastor of a small community church of undefined denomination) with the fact that young people from his church are joining hers.

Now my impression of Eric's church has always been that it's decidedly mainline. It's quiet and respectable and generically Protestant. So the impression that the show gives (at least this episode) is that the lively, bustling megachurch with lots of teenagers is liberal about sexual issues, while the quiet mainline community church is conservative (Eric is clearly and decidedly opposed to sex before marriage, and encourages his daughter Lucy to start teaching a class on abstinence at their church). This makes a lot of sense, from an abstract, deductive point of view. You would think that in fact quiet old-fashioned churches that have trouble hanging on to their young people would be conservative, while bustling churches with titles like "the Chapel of Renewed Faith" would be liberal. This, after all, is what prophets of modern enlightenment like Bishop +Spong are always assuring us. If you want to attract the rising generation, you can't hang on to outdated notions of either theology or morality.

But in fact, as most people (but apparently not the writers of this episode) know, the reality is almost exactly the opposite. Far more likely than not, the megachurch with oceanic parking lots and Napoleonic armies of youth is trumpeting the virtue of chastity. The graying mainline church is probably more likely to avoid such a subject altogether, and hence to be condemned as "irrelevant." (Although my wife, who knows far more about mainline Protestants than I do, has just pointed out that in fact youth programs are frequently the most conservative part of a mainline church. Which reinforces my point.)

This is not particularly a criticism of _Seventh Heaven_. I was impressed with the episode, if only because Eric actually used the name of Christ, which respectable pastors in fictional TV shows rarely do. (He tells Simon something like, "You can't go from one casual relationship to another, because you have more than a casual relationship with Christ.") It's quite possible that the writers of the episode are in fact Christians, and that their blunder about the nature of obnoxious megachurches arose from an insider's bias rather than an outsider's ignorance. If I were writing a TV show, I'd be tempted to portray things that way as well. To me, a conservative mainliner with traditional tastes, the contemporary combination of conservative theology and morals with a total distaste for traditional style (particularly in worship) is acutely distressing. Lex orandi lex credendi. If your approach to the Christian faith is fundamentally pragmatic and driven by marketing forces, then you are not truly orthodox, however many conservative doctrines you proclaim. Fortunately, while there are relatively few churches like the Chapel of Renewed Faith, there are in fact a number of churches like Eric's.

The fact remains, though, that churches are far more likely to attract new members, especially young ones, if they are _less_ permissive. This has been shown well by a number of sociologists of religion such as Rodney Stark and Roger Finke. People are paradoxically _attracted_ to a church with high "costs," because it seems worth belonging to. I should add (as Stark and Finke generally do not) that churches can in fact grow and prosper without being conservative in moral and doctrinal teaching. Boldly liberal churches also seem to flourish. (I'd argue that such churches offer different kinds of "costs," and different kinds of rewards. The beloved and successful Methodist campus minister at Duke University, for instance, is an unabashed liberal and inspires college students by challenging them to work for social justice instead of earning millions as corporate lawyers.) The real losers, in our religious economy, appear to be churches that are too "mainline" to be brash about orthodoxy and too timid (or too orthodox) to be flagrantly liberal. In other words, the Chapel of Renewed Faith really might exist somewhere. It just isn't typical. Eric's church, on the other hand, which loses its young people because it is too embarrassed and respectable to talk about sex at all, is a fairly accurate and typical picture.

12 comments:

David said...

I once talked with someone, a Christian, who knew people on the staff of both that show and Charmed. Surprisingly, a large (I don't know how large) portion of the Charmed writers are Christian and a large (I don't know how large) portion of the Seventh Heaven writers are not.

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