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Modern Reformation: Thinking Theologically

The Megachurch and the Politics of Desire

Published Friday, August 30, 2013 By Piotr J. Malysz

Even before I moved to the South two years ago, I was a direct and indirect observer of the megachurch culture. In this article, I would like to venture a handful of observations, crystallized by a recent visit to a Bible Belt megachurch. It is important to note at the outset that no particular church is meant here, though the visit did prove to be a catalyst for this wider set of reflections. Also, what I am about to say should be viewed as a preliminary and rough sketch in need of elaboration, rather than a fully fleshed-out account; as such, the observations offered here are an invitation to further conversation. The approach taken, moreover, is a theorizing one: its goal is to capture the dynamics of the megachurch. It must be kept in mind that theorizing is by definition a universalizing process: it seeks to grasp the essence of structures and processes, but this may be at odds with individual motivations and hearts, which I by no means seek to impugn.

This being said, I seek materially to make two related points: the first concerns the inevitable law-centeredness of the megachurch, and the second its inescapable ecclesiological thinness. This inevitability comes to light when one compares the role of the worshiper in the megachurch with the way Freud conceptualized the role of an individual in civilization. I will use the latter as a useful lens.

Consuming Desire

Just as society, according to Freud, harnesses our libidinal energy for community building, so also the megachurch seeks to tap into something all too natural and already given. It seeks to harness our consumerist energy for the sake of kingdom building. How does this take place?

For Freud, the libido, or love drive, makes us crave the satisfaction of instinctual desire and hence societal companionship. But it has at the same time to be constrained by society for society’s sake. Society, while crucially relying on the libido, cannot afford to allow the libido to run wild. Society must rather sublimate the libido into constructive energy. Thus with its laws that restrict our sexual self-expression and put us to work instead, society, says Freud, inevitably makes us unhappy. (1)

What drives the modern megachurch ethos is eerily similar. The megachurch wishes to cash in on our desire for self-satisfaction. It wishes to harness our consumerist attitude to church, our “church consuming.” This very desire gives rise to the megachurch in the first place. In appealing to this desire, the megachurch reconfigures worship space to purge it of all ritualistic and seemingly legalistic elements in order to allow desire to come to the forefront and flow freely. Thus it becomes possible to preach on the importance and centrality of the cross in a space that does not burden one with the sight of the cross’or anything that might distract me from my own experience, from the satisfaction of my desire, and point to a different character of this space (a space, for example, in which I might have to whisper while talking to someone out of sheer reverence for the place). But in the end, though the megachurch crucially relies on the unleashing of the consumerist drive, it too cannot allow this drive to go unchecked and to remain free-flowing. For this drive can just as easily become the megachurch’s undoing. Consequently, the drive is sublimated into a kingdom-building project, embodied in exhortations and commandments. “We make disciples because it has become our soul’s supreme desire,” David Platt instructs emphatically. (2)

There are several things to note here. First, the megachurch crucially relies on the presence and persistence of the consumerist drive, even though it immediately moves on to capture and reorient it, so as to prevent its own implosion. But it cannot afford to dispense with this drive. This, in turn, underscores the consistently legal character of the megachurch: it is a law-centered structure that operates on the exact same basis as the larger society. Just as society is fundamentally law-textured and can never become anything else, thus rendering the quest for a paradisiacal society futile, so also is the structure of the megachurch. Then, because society must ultimately police our libido, it cannot but create a sense of discontentment and the desire for a happier’thinner!’social order. To prevent this, society puts to shame our selfish instincts, distracts us from them, and harnesses their energy for its own sake. Society crucially depends on being able to generate a sense of guilt in us. Likewise, the megachurch, once it gets one’s desire for consumption flowing, ultimately aims at making one feel guilty about this very desire. Thereupon, it provides legal outlets through which one can undertake to alleviate one’s consumer guilt. Just as society has its inevitable discontents, so also the megachurch must have its unhappy restlessness.

Rootlessness

What is of fundamental importance in the picture just outlined is that transformation can never be so radical as to set aside the original drive, and the fostering of a sense of guilt remains essential to not allowing the drive to get out of control. In theological terms, all that society and the megachurch need is the law, but not the gospel. The gospel is too radical.

But obviously the megachurch markets itself as gospel-centered and operating under the banner of the gospel. And to be sure, feeding the faithful through Word and Sacrament and allowing them rest and assurance in God’s unconditional favor, so central to the church’s identity, are not explicitly or entirely dispensed with. It is interesting to observe, therefore, what happens to the gospel to assure that one’s personal transformation remains thin and one’s sense of guilt operative.

The generic character of megachurch space, as already noted, reinforces one’s focus on one’s own experience, on one’s own church consumption. It enables one to inhabit and be in touch with oneself. What needs to be added here is that it is this singular focus that, in turn, facilitates the deradicalization of the gospel. It enables the absorption of the gospel into one’s experience. What disappears is any sense of God’s work’public work‘in the midst and on behalf of the assembly. Even the presence of God, however unspecified, loses its objective character. What is left of the gospel is God’s impact on me. Thus neutered, the gospel is simply absorbed into the overarching legal framework: the dominant mechanism of controlled release and deployment of the consumerist drive. In consequence, the gospel becomes at best little more than a nondimensional transition point, a hinge that connects overflowing desire to its sublimation in various projects and undertakings. If it now has any external manifestation, this becomes indistinguishable from exhortation. One should note that in this form, it reinforces the requisite thinness of personal transformation. More important, the gospel can now stand side by side with a sense of guilt. In fact, internally it assumes the form of the Freudian superego towering over myself. Of this ego I constantly fall short, and toward union with it I am constantly exhorted to strive. Briefly put, Word and Sacrament’the gospel itself!’become law, my own work, my own transformation of myself, my own never-ending overcoming of the guilt within, instead of God’s work for me in which I can simply find rest. The law-centered identity of the megachurch remains unassailed.

This vertically oriented vacuum at the core of the megachurch is perpetuated further on the horizontal, communal level. What plays into this is the very nature of the consumerist drive. As William Cavanaugh and Zygmunt Bauman both note, consumerism is not really attachment to things but a kind of detachment. (3) It is a spiritual posture that seeks satisfaction not in things but solely in the desire for them. (4) Consumers are not hoarders; consumers are ascetics who cultivate no attachment to anything in particular, at least not for long. Similarly, church consuming focuses not on the whence, who, and with-whom that define people, things, and places. For church consumers following the lead of their desires, locality is determined not by the presence of God giving himself in Word and Sacrament, by God’s own commitment; instead, it is determined by the experience of God within and by the restlessness of desire that quests for this experience. I am the locality of the church on the move; any shopping mall that caters to my desire will do. Multiple campuses, generic spaces not marked by anything, as well as the use of technology’all these only reinforce the sense of detachment from the fabric of the community and of life and feed into one’s focus on oneself.

Unfortunately, this hardly changes when for the sake of its own self-preservation the megachurch sublimates one’s consumerist desire into kingdom building and redirects it toward outreach. (In some cases, we must note, this sublimation is extremely thin, as in the prosperity gospel; in others, it is incomparably more robust.) But not even then, apparently, is it capable of filling the vacuum and anchoring the restless drifters. The reason again is more broadly cultural. It has to do with what the culture perceives as the fundamental problem and how it responds to this problem. As Samuel Wells has argued, modern culture’s meaning-making strategies revolve largely around the problem of mortality. (5) As a cultural response, consumerism enables a posture of personal detachment from specific localities, things, and people, thus allowing one to remain unperturbed in the face of death. In its never-ending pursuit of satisfaction, consumerism also keeps one preoccupied with one’s desire and reorients one’s life away from having to come face to face with one’s own mortality. Lack of entanglement, on the one hand, and keeping busy, on the other, help one deal with the reality of death.

Because the megachurch crucially relies on consumerist desire, it falls into this broader cultural pattern; and it is this that further contributes to the vacuum at its heart, emptying it not only of God’s objective work but also of human work. The megachurch’s fundamental focus is on saving people and reaching out to the lost’and this is, indeed, praiseworthy. But as a sublimation of consumerist desire, it raises the question of what happens once salvation has been “done” for and to a person, when the problem of mortality has been addressed. It appears that the person becomes unessential, insofar as one simply turns to a new disciple-target to “do” a salvation job on. The former target possesses only utilitarian value, in that he is now also, together with one, in the business of the megachurch’s self-renewal. What thus happens is that, even as sublimated into kingdom building, the consumerist desire does not lose its character of consuming as a spiritual practice of detachment: it “consumes” people only for the sake of cultivating a similar posture in them. In all, one’s submission to the prodding of the superego endows one’s life with purpose in the face of one’s mortality, a purpose only strengthened by the conviction that one’s constant busyness has saved others from the throes of death. However, in this cultural approach, the megachurch exists only on the boundary between itself and the world, where salvation can constantly be done to and for people. Its center remains empty.

And it remains empty even when the worshiping crowd splinters into a host of small groups. For those only perpetuate the consumers’ self-interest, as people go in pursuit of whatever interests or entertains them, following their own age and class demographic and the people they get along with. Whether these small and unstable groups truly amount to communities, however free floating’whether they truly embody Christ’s body’is a question that must be pressed here. Besides, there is at least some irony in the fact that the church predicates the authenticity of one’s Christianity on making disciples of all nations, and yet enables one to associate only with people one likes (unless this, too, is seen as an opportunity for desire sublimation)!

Finding Solid Ground

In response, as Samuel Wells has also noted, humanity’s problem is not only the problem of death but also the problem of isolation. To put it more theologically, sin manifests itself not only in mortality but also as godlessness and debilitating self-focus: that is, as isolation from God and from the neighbor. Therefore, the response to sin is not simply “doing” salvation for and to others. The response to sin ought rather to be that of Immanuel: just as God is with us, we likewise are with each other, for better or for worse. What this means ecclesiologically is that the church is locally where God offers himself through Word and Sacrament and, through this work of God outside of us, where the faithful come to rest in the assurance of peace with God and are gathered locally into and constantly renewed as a community. The church does not hover as a generic entity over particular locations, carried around in one’s experience. Rather, radiating from the work of God in its midst, it becomes closely knit as a community, a community that is further grounded in its particular socio-geographic location.

But for that to take place one needs something more than a thin transformation and an ongoing sense of guilt. Not a politics of desire, but a renewal of desire. One needs God to be at work in a way that takes one out of oneself’into God and one’s neighbor. And this, I conclude, the megachurch cannot afford and is unable to do.

  • Piotr J. Malysz


1 [ Back ] Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents (1930; repr. Eastford, CT: Martino Fine Books, 2010).
2 [ Back ] David Platt, Follow Me: A Call to Die, A Call to Live (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 2013), 95.
3 [ Back ] William Cavanaugh, Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008).
4 [ Back ] Zygmunt Bauman writes: "Consumerism is not about accumulating goods (who gathers goods must put up as well with heavy suitcases and cluttered houses), but about using them and disposing of them after use to make room for other goods and their uses." Liquid Love: On the Frailty of Human Bonds (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2003), 49.
5 [ Back ] Samuel Wells, "Rethinking Service," The Cresset 76:4 (Easter 2013), 6-14. This article can also be found at http://bit.ly/12k6zw0.

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