The Factory Farms Of Christianity

There was some back-and-forth last week between Ed Stetzer and David Fitch about megachurches, their perception, and what statistical research suggests about them. Inevitably in these conversations the idea of transfer growth or “sheep stealing” comes up, at this point, Bill Kinnon chimed in,

“I would suggest we view sheep with much less value today — if we view them at all.

And what of the shepherds? Well, then they were were possibly the lowest of the gainfully employed. (Think of Jesse not even considering having his youngest son, David, the shepherd, come to beconsecrated by Samuel.) Shepherds lived with their sheep. They smelled like their sheep. They knew each one by name. A single shepherd tended no more than 100 sheep in New Testament times.

Today, returning to the church livestock metaphor, a shepherd (or pastor, in its latinate form) with only 100 sheep would be considered a failure. And how could any “successful” shepherd be expected to know all of ‘his/her’ sheep.

Might I suggest the metaphor breaks down in its present usage within the church. And that this misused/misunderstood metaphor is responsible for much damaging separation between those who call themselves shepherds and ‘their’ sheep — as if the shepherds are their owners. (Sheep cannot be stolen — except from their owners.)”

This lit up another thought in my own mind, we don’t have shepherds watching 100 sheep any more, almost no one in professional farming has a grouping of only 100 animals anymore. We are now, for better or worse, in the age of factory farms, and so perhaps we need to ask: are megachurches then merely the factory farms of Christianity?

Now here we can draw some interesting parallels, the proponents of both megachurches and factory farms will likely tell you that, yes, their model does not fit into some naive, romantic view of what happened in days gone by, but that it is not only beneficial but also, in many cases, the only realistic alternative. In the case of factory farms the argument is that the population of the world simply demands that we mass produce food in ways that educated, urbanized westerners might find repulsive; the alternative is either a radical rise in food prices or mass starvation or both. I don’t know enough about biology, logistics, or economics to properly evaluate something as complex as global food supply. In the megachurch we don’t try to avert a global starvation crisis, but there is still this idea that with people moving into denser urban centres, the economies of scale realized with a megachurch enable the church to, if not really grow, at least sustain itself in a more efficient, effective sort of way.

In both cases, even if these appeals to necessity are correct, there are some disturbing side-effects:

  • Monoculture: In industrial farming there is usually only one breed or a handful of breeds that are raised. This is usually the breed that grows the fastest and has the highest yield. There is however a danger to it in that if that one breed is susceptible to disease, that disease will much more quickly wipe out the whole farm. There is a real value to sustaining heirloom breeds as a hedge against some kind of unforeseen disease or genetic defect destroying the herd. When there are only handful of models for church, only a handful of preachers that are admired and whose methods are copied, what happens when something imperils them?
  • Toxicity (?): Industrial agriculture uses a range of growth hormones and other chemicals to achieve their results. We are told these are safe, and the big agriculture conglomerates have studies that claim that this is the case. Still, many of us are uneasy about some of the practices of industrial farming and there have been battles in many jurisdictions over whether or not we should require food labels to state the presence of genetically modified ingredients. It seems the message is that industrial farming practices are safe but that we shouldn’t think about them too much or ask too many questions. The same thing might be said about megachurches, their practices are said to work, said to be healthy to Christianity, but then we keep hearing stories from various survivors of spiritual abuse that this is a real danger at megachurches. Again, I’m not in a position to assess this, but I think it is a fair question to ask about megachurches.
  • Appearances: Appearances can be deceiving. The food that comes from industrial agriculture looks and tastes great. Better than homemade even. Everyone loves Chicken McNuggets, right? Looks, smells, tastes better than anything I can make on my grill at home. Except that they used to go through a process where they look like this (link is not safe for lunch). This is what I keep in mind when Ed says that megachurch attendees are more likely to read their Bibles, go to Bible studies, be involved in church activities and so on. Is this a genuine good fruit or just a large scale organization that is able to generate the right appearance. Is there any pink slime going into making megachurch believers? I think it’s a fair question.

I don’t know what our readers think about this, but I’d like to hear your thoughts.