Saturday, July 31, 2010

We Did It to Ourselves

America’s megachurches have it all—huge crowds, upbeat music, huge TV screens, and high profile guests, and dynamic speakers. This is an approach that reaches thousands, perhaps millions, of people every week. I am always a bit amused when I hear mainline clergy decry the success of this approach because those of us who consider ourselves mainliners were there first.

The roots of the megachurch movement can be found in the methods embraced by mainstream churches, especially through their student and collegiate ministries, to reach youth and young adults beginning in the 1970’s. In response to the emerging counter culture and the growing Jesus Revolution, those of us involved in ministry were ready to try new and creative methods to reach and involve a younger generation.

A prime example was Mission ‘70, a conference held in Atlanta on December 28-31, 1969. The initial idea was birthed by several denominational leaders including Lloyd Householder, Glendon McCullough, and Jesse Fletcher. The Southern Baptist Convention agencies involved were the Brotherhood Commission, Foreign Mission Board, Home Mission Board, Student Department of the Sunday School Board, Vocational Guidance Department of the Sunday School Board, and the Woman’s Missionary Union. Ed Seabough served as the Executive Coordinator for Mission ’70, and Lloyd Householder was the Chairman of the Full Committee. The meeting attracted almost 5000 college students, seminary students, and young adults.

Mission ’70 was a truly amazing meeting, put together through the cooperation of six different agencies (that may be the most amazing part!). The focus on vocation and a call to make a difference in the world was effectively communicated through music written especially for the event, original drama, and speakers like Coretta Scott King and NBC commentator John Chancellor. Participants also had the opportunity to engage in workshops, discussion groups, and hands-on ministries.

I attended as a third year divinity student, a married Vietnam veteran with one child and another on the way, who was ready to engage in campus ministry. This was a great networking experience but also an opportunity to experience a new paradigm for ministry. The event encouraged those of us entering ministry to try new approaches to reach and involve college students.

My contention is that efforts like this set the stage for the type of cultural engagement that has flourished in the megachurch movement. The theology of the players may vary, but the approach is the same—find the things that will attract, engage, and challenge your target audience. This means that one must be aware of the culture in which he or she attempts to communicate a message. We communicate only when we use the language that people can understand. This is a lesson that the church must continue to learn.

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