BIG THINK has displayed a taste of the astute social commentary of Robert Putnam–the man who was so worried that so many Americans were bowling alone.
The success of the megachurch, Putnam explains, should be integrated into business models, combining, as it does, impressive overall size with consumer-centered niches that provide senses of community or belonging.
Those churches, to be sure, combine Christian belief with contemporary culture in ways attractive to the young. So they often seem, from the perspective of more traditional Christianity, to be aesthetically challenged. But “contemporary Christian” music is hugely popular, outselling most of its secular rivals.
From even contemporary standards, that success can’t be attributed to the actual quality of the music. As Hank said to Bobby on King of the Hill (after dragging Bobby home from his adventure with a “Christian rock” band): “Son, you’re not making Christianity better, you’re making rock and roll worse.” It’s something about the words, far more than the music, that’s attractive to the young. The young, as the megachurch pastor Rick Warren wrote, are all about “purpose-driven” lives. And they hunger to combine purpose with personal love.
Putnam’s expectation is that the megachurches will continue to become more market friendly by abandoning “hard right” politics. There’s probably some truth in that unfriendly or even self-righteous observation. But surely churches lose their efffectiveness if they become too market sensitive. As Tocqueville explains, religion in America does our people good only as a countercultural force, one that gives people, and especially the young, a point of view by which to resist being fashionable–to resist being carried along by libertarian narcisssism and impersonal public opinion. Anyone with eyes to see knows that America’s genuine counterculture today is found among observant religious believers.
If it weren’t for those believers, for example, we really would have a birth dearth. They’re the ones having the kids who are so important for securing our future, for, for example, saving Social Security and Medicare.
Not only that, they’re the source of the under-noticed and underrated American virtue of charity. The film The Blind Slide displayed American charity–or loving service to others out of love of God–in a way that moved more Americans than the fuzzy pantheism of Avatar ever could. The Taco Bell tycoon and his wife were raised above the vulgarity (and racist exclusivism) of the southern, suburban McMansion by the Biblical view that every human creature is unique and irreplaceable and infinitely lovable.
Putnam has the opinion that being against abortion or being pro-life is “hard right” and so unattractive to the young. But surely anyone filled with personal love–beginning with the personal God–has to be pro-life, every life. And studies really do show that young people these days are more pro-life than their parents. Rick Warren, in my opinion, stung our president more than any of his other critics in the 2008 campaign when he got him to say that it was “above my pay grade” to wonder whether the unborn have rights.