Making Few Demands

Several days ago I blogged that Evangelical churches are successful not because people are attracted to their strong moral stands, but because they, in fact, make few demands on worshippers.

Tony of Catholic Pillow Fight would like to talk about this:

So how do you make few demands on “casual Christians” who come to check things out? Do you not preach uncomfortable truth from the pulpit? Or are you talking about demands made by other members of the community?

I’ve worked in Catholic parishes near evangelical megachurches. Though I’ve never gone spying, I have had reports from people who have attended. And I’ve read a book or two about the philosophy of attracting seekers to bolster the numbers in the seats.

Seeker worship makes no demands on newcomers. They are not asked to sing. Production values are often high: good sound systems with oratory and great music are the norm. Sit back and listen seems to be the way to go once you get there. Although there might be an opportunity to donate money, go up for an altar call, or get invited to a mid-week worship/catechetical event, none of that commitment is mandatory. There might even be a comfort in knowing that if one chose, one could go deeper. But right now, one doesn’t have to.

My sense of mass-market evangelical/conservative Christianity is that the message is generally positive. I think of the best-selling Prayer of Jabez as one example. Billy Graham, from what I remember of his televised crusades, seemed to be another. He spoke of moral values, but he appealed to people basically because God desires them and they were free to respond in love to God’s call.

That’s not to say that evangelical preachers don’t preach conservative values. Graham did. But I suspect they know their audience. I’m not sure there’s much of a problem preaching against gay marriage. Most Americans are against it. I suspect (but I admit I don’t know) that evangelical sermons on abortion are scarce. Again, I’ve heard liberal Catholics preach against it in liberal parishes. I suspect (but again I don’t know) that evangelicals avoid sermons on contraception.

I think evangelicals reel in newcomers slowly. That’s what they say in their books, anyhow. If you went to a megachurch worship on Wednesday, you might hear sermons urging you to take more of a personal stand. However, at some point, such sermons become an exercise in preaching to the choir. A challenging sermon would look different in different communities. If you went to a liberal parish and preached a conservative value or to a conservative parish and preached a liberal one: stuff like that. The commonality for any challenging sermon or homily would be in addressing a shadow in a particular community: racism, alcoholism, a lack of generosity, a lack of welcome, or some aspect of prudential judgment that a preacher felt was getting a particular group of people into spiritual trouble.

A sermon on contraception? Sure, some people might fidget. But it wouldn’t be challenging at all to those who agreed. And the people who disagreed? They probably wouldn’t stand up to challenge the preacher, so the words would remain as they were preached. An effective preacher might make a few converts. An ineffective one would accomplish little or nothing.

In the long run, preachers are creatures of human desires. They would want to be effective in some way in their community. If a preacher felt he could maintain a level of confrontation in a community, I’d applaud his tenacity. If there were a group of people who always loved those homilies and another who felt consistently alienated, I’d wonder if the preacher was really doing his job. You’d have a group of folks who would feel very comfortable on the premises. And that would reinforce my point about preaching a message of comfort, “Thank God I’m not like that dirty sinner …” And what would be set up would be one portion of the community very self-satisfied with their virtues reinforced and their sins ignored. And another who would be alienated to the point of boredom or departure.

So I think conservative preachers often preach what their people want to hear: a message of comfort. The real difference is how much that soup is spiced by a message of challenge. And I suspect that liberal preachers are all over the map just like the conservatives.

That’s enough for now.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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