By definition, a megachurch is bigger than several towns in which I’ve served…combined. A total of two thousand attendees each weekend numbers more than the populations of East Carbon City and Sunnyside, Fort Jones and Etna, or McArthur, Fall River Mills, and Glenburn. And yet, surprisingly, we have megachurch ministries conveniently available in some of the most remote among those mountain communities—even without resorting to televangelists, podcasts, or road-trip pilgrimages to their Christian Kaabas.
I’m looking for a word to describe this phenomenon as it spreads to more and more rural communities. It can’t be “gentrification,” because that term describes the “economic development” of lower income urban areas into neighborhoods fit for the “gentry” (i.e., middle and upper class proponents of an “urban renewal” that “spells Negro removal in the minds of many African Americans,” according to a Portland, Oregon pastor quoted by Paul Louis Metzger in his post “The Gentrified Church—Paved with Good Intentions?” It’s available here: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/uncommongodcommongood/2014/07/the-gentrified-church-paved-with-good-intentions-2/.) Even where the original families refuse to sell-out, they are often forced out by the resulting rise in the cost-of-living, especially the increased tax burden for property assessed at what it “should be worth,” if it were “improved.”
So the process by which inner-city neighborhoods are destroyed through the displacing of local families, is called “gentrification.” But in rural communities a similar process destroys local churches and community service ministries through a similar displacing of individuals and families. The justification is not “new and better housing and businesses,” as with urban areas. Instead, it is the promise of “new and better worship and preaching.” Satellite campuses simulcast sermons from churches far removed from the local community. “Franchise locations” establish services with professional-quality performers shipped in for the initial marketing efforts. In both cases, exceptional financial investments, however temporary they may be, lure capable volunteer staff from leadership positions within their previous local congregations.
Before dismissing my perspective as the result of “sour grapes,” please understand that the congregation I serve has weathered four such “church-plants” in our area in recent years. Our ministry continues to develop and grow but, as the oldest church in at least the entire county, we are, in fact, the most susceptible to erosion by these “new and improved” innovations. I grieve over those whose former focus on extending the blessings of Christ’s kingdom into the local community has shifted toward the “mother-church” and her “in-house/on-site” ministries (i.e., ministries to Christians, by Christians, for Christians, with any outreach or missions beyond serving Christians primarily evaluated by the way in which they affect Christians.)
As I noted above, regarding these branch-offices and the damage resulting to the local bodies of Christ in rural communities, I agree with my fellow doctoral student that “gentrification” is not the word I’m looking for. What, then, do I call these “attractive new improvements” drawing local Christians to megachurch-sponsored emporiums of religious goods and services? If they were expanding the involvement of Christians in community service ministry, or enhancing fellowship among the local body of Christ, or even maintaining the quality of their performances beyond their initial marketing phase, I might be more charitable. But where they drain resources from the local body of Christ in service of a broader reach and deeper resources for churches serving the needs of other communities elsewhere (and that is a charitable exaggeration in some cases), the word that comes to mind is “arrogation.” I like it both for its proper usage (“the appropriation of, or claim to, something for oneself without the right to do so”) and the implication of prideful arrogance in willfully redefining the body of Christ and the mission of the local church.
I know it’s not “gentrification.” But I still find the similarities to be remarkable.