I suspected that something had gone seriously wrong when I saw the publicity for a “Christian concert” at First Baptist Church. They were selling tickets! It signaled a new and great divide between those preachers and musicians of my youth who would practically pay people to listen to them and present-day preachers and musicians who require payment before allowing anyone to hear them. As Evangelical Christians, we were called to evangelize. That meant bringing people in to hear the Gospel Message, free of charge. The more hospitable, but arguably less profitable, old-fashioned system for hosting guest speakers and musicians went something like this: before inviting a guest, the church would comb through the budget to find funds for the guest’s transportation, and, if necessary they would take a special offering. Some families would volunteer bedrooms and breakfast. Other families would have the guests in for other meals. During the special event, a love offering would be collected, and that was the guest’s payment for his or her services.
Then someone realized the limitations of love offerings and the profit potential of organized “ministry,” and foundations were set up to churn out books, audio and visual material with superfluous costly “teaching guides.” These ministries promoted authors, motivational speakers, musicians, standup comedians, and even exercise gurus to the status of Christian celebrities, charging hefty fees for guest appearances, and paying them generous stipends. This tax-exempt enterprise also required well-paid administrative staff to keep the machines running and the cash flowing. In churches, pastors with entrepreneurial visions and marketing skills replaced the servant shepherds of older times, although the catch-phrase “servant leader” was thrown around as a euphemism for “CEO pastor.”
Free coffee stations to comfort believers and welcome seekers morphed into profit-generating Starbucks-type coffee shops with bar stools, free wifi, and background music–soft rock in the Christian flavor. Book-and-pamphlet stands were turned into bookstores with overpriced books, Bible-themed toys, and all kinds of cheap imported kitsch with a tacky Christian veneer. Places of prayer and worship were replaced with giant theaters or stadiums, venues for ever-more spectacular events proffered by the mushrooming “ministries.”
It was the beginning of the end for the church of my youth and childhood.