Why I Changed My Mind: The Perils of Highway Charisma and the Megachurch

I had a tip last week that former Meeting House pastor Bruxy Cavey had been arrested for sexual assault and today it’s all over the national news. He has been released with conditions and will appear in court June 27th.

I’ve written at length about megachurches and charisma, and tried to resist common biases in my research. But as the list of imploded megachurches continues to expand with revelations of scandal and abuse, I’ve changed my mind about my posture towards them. I still refuse to take the easy academic prejudice against populist culture, which reflects a secular elitism. I prefer to come with an ethnographer’s curiosity and willingness to learn about the peculiarities of people. But the liabilities of this gargantuan institution are mounting, and that deserves some pause and re-consideration.

Large churches have always existed in Christianity, from the early church basilica in Antioch, through the ancient looming cathedrals of Europe, to Charles Spurgeon’s Metropolitan Tabernacle in London (late 1800s) and Aimee Semple McPherson’s Angelus Temple in Los Angeles (early twentieth century). Now advancements in amplification technology, architecture, and the advent of the automobile and its accompanying asphalt urban infrastructure have led to the proliferation of megachurches and their development as a widespread religious form, alongside the development of megacities, megamalls, and the ubiquitous electronic media. Megachurches are the contextualization of traditional church to modern and postmodern social and institutional shifts.

Jesus does appear to throw up his hands in frustration in front of this megachurch north of Cincinnati called Solid Rock Church. One of Jesus’ arms caught fire and burst into flames in 2010. (“King Of Kings” by Joe Shlabotnik is licensed under CC BY 2.0).

Every era has its ecclesial patterns. Cultural change happens and religion adapts. I wrote a book critiquing those armchair sociologists and theologians who sat back to decry the success of the megachurch as “consumeristic,” “cults of personality,” “cruise ships of religion,” “McDonaldized faith,” “Disneyland church,” or “Walmart religion.” It just seemed like academic name-calling, or even the envy of sour grapes wrapped in social theory language. The facts are that church adapts to culture, and if you actually live among megachurch attendees for a year or two, you’ll see these epithets don’t capture the whole picture. At least not for all megachurches, as they are all so different.

In fact, megachurches are as different in character as other-sized churches. I actually lived among megachurch attendees and their leaders for over two years, observing, listening, and documenting what I saw. What I wrote was not a distanced armchair critique but an intimate portrait of life on the ground derived from attending the theatre sites and numerous small groups. I interviewed 82 attendees, including Cavey and Tim Day and a number of site pastors. In particular, I looked at how the lead pastor’s charisma worked in the lives of the attendees and the staff. I saw that charisma works as a community production, not just an individual’s personality trait; in other words, it’s a cooperative construction amplified by a technological infrastructure.

For my three dimensional summary of charisma, see this post at the Flourishing Congregations Institute.

I still believe ethnography is the best way to study any social institution. I still hold that the dedication and compassion I saw within the attendees, small groups, and multiple campuses of The Meeting House in southern Ontario was real and meaningful to those I interviewed. My book was not a defence of megachurches but the (dare I say!) loving characterization of life within one of them. And it was as mixed in trouble and triumph as any church of any era. But I did not know what sort of twisted relationships were going on beneath the surface of the church’s playful banter and subtle self-congratulation. It appears now as the sad revelations come out a whole other hidden subculture was in parallel operation.

At this point Cavey is not convicted of a crime; but he has confessed last March to sexual misconduct and a third party investigation has given his admitted transgression the label of abuse of pastoral authority amounting to sexual harassment. This arrest could be something apart from that. We will see what the courts decide.

This all has me reflecting a little deeper, and I feel that the (post)modern structures and processes of a mega-sized church are similar to other industrialized and electronic realities that are polarizing, polluting, and making life on the planet unsustainable. I’m now more closely connecting mega-sized and electronically dependent church as part of the excitement and pathology of modernity. This is not a blanket rejection, but a much deeper awareness of the liabilities of mega-life.

Here is the insight: Christians need to admit some things are deeply wrong and need mending in modern church life today. The community of Jesus can and should be better than this.

The Highway Speed of Charisma

The prefix “mega” suggests a focus on matters of scale, and while large churches have been around for millennia, they were not built with the speed and capacity that megachurches have today. Electronic media accelerates the rate at which charisma can travel, and I would argue it is not a healthy human speed. A depth of awareness for the perils of such highway charisma is necessary for faith institutions to be healthy and sustainable, because the rate of change, growth, and expansion that comes with megachurch charisma is more than most leaders or boards can handle with grace. Furthermore, the social and spiritual power that comes with it is intoxicating and corrupting if not held in check by a sober humility and enforced sabbatical practise.

I’m using the term “highway charisma” to draw attention to the speed at which this mega-institutional charisma travels. Cathedrals took sometimes hundreds of years to build. But a megachurch today can explode from a living room gathering to a crowded auditorium in just months by the force of instant celebrity. This technologically enhanced charismatic growth can be as fast, ubiquitous and episodic as internet video and often comes with a similar precariousness. Highway charisma is an apropos term because megachurches are incredibly dependent on highways to attract the crowds: both the information highway and the asphalt highway. Furthermore, “highway charisma”—like highway robbery—often happens on the open road, outside of the boundaries of normal ecclesial structures, such as denominations. Even if they have affiliations to wider structures, they are loose and characterized by exceptions to rules due to their apparent success and unusual size. They are—more than the average church—free-market religious groups.

The reverse is true: they are generally not a church for the by-ways: not for the down-and-out, the urban slums, or the rural poor. Yes, they have home churches (small groups), but those I witnessed are often gatherings of the middle-class or upper middle-class and form common interests. Megachurches operate through global networks and they connect with equally influential partners. They bring in the big-name speakers, they have the high-tech equipment, and they move alongside large-scale venue events. They have high visibility, high income, and high emotions. This intensity is why James Wellman entitled his book on megachurches High on God. They generate the excitement, privilege, and speed of ecclesial highways. Speed is a drug.

I have often said there are 1800 megachurches in North America and only the tragedies make the news, which are few and far between. What bleeds will be what leads in the headlines. I also have said that we have no statistics to show that megachurches are more corrupted than other sizes of church, or that their leaders fail at higher rates than other churches. This is all true. Let me be clear: sexual transgression is not a problem peculiar to the megachurch. The heart wants what it wants,” confessed Woody Allen when he started dating his foster child.

Put differently: you can’t easily structure your way out of temptation, but hearts are shaped by structures and practises and there are better and worse ways to build community. Policies, practices and positions shape and direct the heart. Not perfectly, not always to the same effect, but they are one significant factor to consider. Both virtue and vice can be schooled, and the structure of many megachurches seems to lead to trouble. Do they groom for temptation? More specifically, for narcissism, as Chuck DeGroat has written?

Consider this: all the early models of megachurch have ended very badly. In Korea in 2014, the famed megachurch pioneer David Yonggi Cho was convicted of embezzling $12 million USD in church funds. In California, Robert Schuller’s ministry ended in family squabbles, board dismissal, bankruptcy, and the sale of the Crystal Cathedral to the Catholic Church. Other paradigm setters that crashed and burned include the ignominious end of Bill Hybels at Willow Creek, Chicago; James MacDonald’s firing from Harvest Bible Chapel amidst bullying, sexual harassment, financial mismanagement and other accusations (also based in Chicago); Mark Driscoll’s implosion and fall from Mars Hill in Seattle; and now here in Canada Bruxy Cavey’s disgrace marked by sexual transgressions, which may include a crime.

The Reformed Church in America’s Crystal Cathedral towers above a giant parking lot in California It was the home of Robert Schuller’s Hour of Power. It’s now owned by the Catholic diocese. (“Garden Grove Cathedral” by Edgar Zuniga Jr. is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.)

There are many, many more to name which I cover in more detail in my book The Subversive Evangelical. This book, however, was released before all the improprieties came to public attention at The Meeting House, the megachurch that sits at the centre of the book with its formerly celebrated “beta male” pastor Bruxy Cavey. Needless to say, these recent events have prompted a re-thinking of my work. How could someone profess so much gentleness and generosity and at the same time—for years and years—be abusing people under his pastoral authority? How could someone under so much surveillance (he lived in front of a camera) perpetuate so much hurt without the alarms being rung?

In recent Town Halls at The Meeting House they admit the would-be whistleblowers were frustrated, sidelined, and silenced. The system that promotes charisma protects it. Too much is at stake. Pride in success refuses self-examination. To preserve the good they cover up the bad. Megachurch success becomes a juggernaut, out of control, and the casualties rise. Not in every megachurch, and not all the time. But the centralization of power is a significant structural, and spiritual, problem.

Take note: my theory says charisma is a community job. This means that Cavey’s demise, to various degrees, implicates a wide swathe of folks besides just Cavey. I would even include myself in contributing to his highway charisma and all the liabilities that come with it. I gave him my full academic attention. Furthermore, I suspect the closer anyone was in relationship to Cavey in the structures of The Meeting House, the more secrets and shame you will find. The corruption is not only about sexual acts on Cavey’s part. Centralized power has spiritual, relational, and organizational liabilities.

I recently met the daughter of a well-known Christian academic who said her father had crossed some sexual boundaries many years ago. It devastated all who knew and respected the man.

“The truth shall set you free,” she insisted, then repeated, “The truth will set you free.” Carrying sinful secrets is a drag on your health, relationships, and your joy.

I am reminded of Scott Thumma’s dissertation about Chapel Hill Harvester Church/Cathedral of the Holy Spirit, a church where Earl Paulk was former pastor. This 1996 academic work traces the rise, growth, and shocking scandals that erupted out of this charismatic megachurch. It’s a story that deserves wider attention, as it offers ethnographic detail on the dark underside of highway charisma. The revelations of misconduct came to light as Dr. Thumma was documenting the life of the church for his PhD.

A more recent investigation was the podcast The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, which was produced by Christianity Today and which I described in a review as “a train wreck in slow motion.” The detailed analysis on this podcast is enlightening, as are the commentaries on it. The shadow side of the megachurch seems to grow larger by the year, and some of the failure is nothing short of monstrous. The podcast declares at one point, “We all did it.” Celebrities do not make themselves.

The Malaise of the Model

There is no dispute that these ecclesial giants served as the models of success and relevance for most denominations in North America. My own fold, Reformed/Presbyterian, have been leaders in this mega-world, as Robert Schuller (RCA) began the megachurch model, Bill Hybels mainstreamed it (CRCNA background) and Mark Driscoll (“Reformissional” and “New Calvinist”) masculinized it, to name some of the larger personalities. But it wasn’t just that these celebrities had large churches: They set the pattern that smaller churches longed to follow and invested millions of dollars to try and replicate. Congregations all over the world, including many here in Canada, sent their elders and pastors to the first two churches in airplane loads to learn from their model. These delegates came back from their mega-experience to spread the good news of relevant discipleship for a postmodern culture. They were not always greeted with eager hearts upon return, but they were often inspired and became agents of change in their congregations and denominations.

Stephen Ellingson investigates this migration of megachurch formulas in all their ambiguity in his 2007 book The Megachurch and the Mainline: Remaking Religious Tradition in the Twenty-first Century. He said the delegates would often construct a sense of crisis in their congregation and then provide the megachurch formulas as the promising antidote, all at the cost of a congregation’s institutional ballast–its tradition. Its local culture. Its unique character.

The tragedy of all this ecclesial effort and funding lies in the very foundation of this megachurch model: you cannot replicate charisma. It can’t be transplanted, cloned, photocopied and still flourish in a different configuration because it’s not just a formula, a vision, or even a person. It’s a whole collective production, guided by a team, within a certain cultural context that makes it especially coveted and relevant. That’s the heart of my thesis.

And such charisma is meant for the highways of modern life, not the byways. It works fast, and you can’t keep up with it. Many before me described it as a roller coaster experience: radical ups and downs. The excitement comes and then goes, and in part because it’s hard to handle the speed of change and the demands of celebrity. You get the speed wobbles, and then the crash.

Marti and Mulder’s The Glass Church: Robert H. Schuller, The Crystal Cathedral, and the Strain of Megachurch Ministry (2020) carries on this critical take of megachurches and their personalities. They explain how the pressure to expand constituencies, pump up charisma, and gather in more capital produces “an especially burdensome strain” on leadership. I’m arguing this strain suggests an unbearable weight but also an inhuman speed. It’s the speed of modernity, the speed of machinery that no flesh-and-blood human or community can keep pace with.

Mulder and Marti’s book opens with the telling quote from Robert Schuller: “The more successful we became, the more problems I had.”

Maybe that quote should be on the front door of every megachurch. As a prophetic warning. Keep up your ministry going as best you can, but if you are riding on highway charisma, watch out for the big trucks of trouble. Maybe a good sabbatical rest will allow time for the human heart to catch up. Think slow.

Think slow or you may be in for a forced sabbatical. Your church is made of glass, and it can shatter in a moment.

To be fair, all churches are made of glass: stained glass in every sense of the word—precious, fragile, and tainted with various colours of temptation, pride, and manipulation.

I have an old theology book written by a Japanese missionary to Thailand called Three Mile an Hour God: Biblical Reflections. He writes: “Love has its speed. It is a spiritual speed. It is a different kind of speed from the technological speed to which we are accustomed. It goes on in the depth of our life, whether we notice or not, at three miles an hour. It is the speed we walk and therefore the speed the love of God walks.”

Does love have a speed? Whatever range that speed is, it must be a human speed, the pace set by the Spirit, and it must also travel to the byways where many former megachurch pastors now reside. While our technologies certainly have their gifts, we must be more aware of their liabilities, as we don’t want to misplace our faith in what does not last—or what cannot hold the tragedies that mark our human existence on this side of heaven. We need to stop, pull over on the side of the highway and reflect on the mess we are all in.

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