Bill Bishop writes in The Big Sort:
The strategy was as simple as like attracts like. The new and crowded megachurches were built on the most fundamental of human needs: finding safety within the tribe. … (159)
Bishop relates a narrative that begins with 20th Century church growth guru, Donald McGavran. McGavran was as Disciples of Christ missionary who held degrees from Yale and Columbia University and spent most of his years in India. While the missions he was a part of often offered wonderful social services, he wasn’t saving many souls. He began applying anthropological/sociological insights to church evangelism in a culture deeply divided by economic class and caste, and he was successful. Upon returning to the United States in the 1950s, McGavran become convinced that his insights were needed to deepen and grow the American church. He was widely ignored.
The 1950s and early 1960s were the pinnacle of bi-partisan homogeneity. McGavran’s insights seemed pointless in a cultural that was unified behind Public Protestantism (church as a means of cultural transformation and cohesion) and Private Protestantism (church as a means saving souls and transforming individuals) was marginalized. But as we have seen, the cultural consensus began to break apart around 1965. Many became disillusioned with societal institutions, including the Mainline churches, and the previously isolated Private Protestants became sufficiently distressed that, after decades of exile, they began to make themselves known in the public square.
Suddenly McGavran’s ideas came into vogue. Drawing on aspects of McGavran’s teaching, notable pastors like Saddleback’s Rick Warren began employing McGavran’s insights to develop and grow his church. In Purpose Driven Church you will find Saddleback Sam and Saddleback Samantha described. These are fictional characters that exhibit lifestyle traits that would be typical of the people Saddleback wants to reach. This couple is to be kept firmly in mind in developing and executing every bit of work Saddleback does. This is, of course, borrowed directly from market segmentation efforts in the marketing world. Others predated Warren in this strategy and countless others have followed but without out a doubt it has created a large number of churches that are well attended.
The disappearing middle kept on disappearing over the last forty years and congregations in Mainline denominations began to succumb to the same segmenting principles. Many now gather around a collection of social justice causes (with politically left solutions), gay inclusion, or being green. I find that many of these congregations and their denominations hold themselves out to be ecumenical and to be seeking diversity, yet the only partners they seek out are those who also share these values and share a similar politically left orientation toward societal transformation. Ironically, embrace of “ecumenism” and “diversity” has become one more social segment around which to create a politically left homogenous community. And not being politically left means (in their eyes) you are opposed to God’s mission of societal transformation.
“Churches were once built around a geographic community, [Martin] Marty said. Now they are constructed around similar lifestyles.” (173) Bishop points to Martin Luther King’s observation that 11 o’clock on Sunday morning is the most racially segregated hour of the week and declares that now it is also the most politically segregated as well. He isn’t suggesting that most people look for a political position held by the congregation but rather they are looking for a church that comports will with their lifestyle; and political views correlate highly with lifestyle factors.
Bishop cites Eddie Gibbs in noting that McCavran’s views were never fully understood in North America. Bishiop writes, “Whereas McGavran was a missionary building bridges from castes or villages to Christ, today’s churches define tribes in the same way people are attracted to different sections of a shopping mall.” (179) Bishop also notes political scientist James Gimpel’s observations:
Bishop closes Chapter 7:
I might phrase Gibbs last observation a little differently. The church competes in a marketplace of idolatries and communities based on those idolatries. The church has no choice but to “market” itself in the world … not in the mistaken sense of equating marketing with advertising, but rather in the sense of being cognizant about the market and being strategic within the market. To do this well you must be crystal clear about the “product” you are promoting. If the product is Kingdom communities where there is “neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, and male and female,” then a marketing strategy that segments the church and intensifies divisions isn’t going to be successful. The church has had no choice but to market, but the American church (both Public and Private versions) has not understood the product it was to bring to market.