Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Soldiers of Christ

The Family.

No, not Charlie's Family. We're talking about the truly scary, secretive right wing political "fellowship" in Washington DC, subject of an excellent 2008 book by Jeff Sharlet called The Family.

Sharlet is back on the media circuit talking about the Family to NPR's Terry Gross, timely at present because of their involvement and influence in the current health care debate.

Brother T Tex alerted me to the above NPR piece which is well worth a listen.

And while we're on the subject of Jeff Sharlet, I'd like to point out a monumental article he wrote back in 2005 for Harper's called "Soldiers of Christ: Inside America's Most Powerful Megachurch" about Ted Haggard's New Life Church in Colorado Springs. Unfortunately it's not one of the articles Harpers offers for free, although the text can be found in somewhat random places elsewhere on the internet. The story of Pastor Ted's rise from pastor of a basement church to an advisor of President Bush is fascinating, and the social implications of the megachurch phenomenon are absolutely terrifying:

Which brings us back to "Order." Key to the growth of evangelicalism during the last twenty years has been a social structure of "cell groups" that allows churches to grow endlessly while maintaining orthodoxy in their ranks. New Life, for instance, has 1,300 cell groups, or "small groups," as Pastor Ted prefers to call them. Such a structure is not native to Colorado Springs; in fact, most evangelicals attribute it to Pastor Paul Cho, of South Korea, who has built a congregation of 750,000 using the cell-group structure. American megachurches that have adopted the cell model unaltered have had only partial success.

Pastor Ted's insight was in adapting this system for the affluence of the United States. South Korea, he notes, is on the "front lines" in the war against communism, "so they needed a strong chain-of-command system." But not so Americans. "Free-market globalization" has made us so free, he realized, that an American cell-group system could be mature enough to function just like a market. One of Pastor Ted's favorite books is Thomas Friedman's The Lexus and the Olive Tree, which is now required reading for the hundreds of pastors under Ted's spiritual authority across the country. From Friedman, Pastor Ted says he learned that everything, including spirituality, can be understood as a commodity. And unregulated trade, he concluded, was the key to achieving worldly freedom.
In devising New Life's small-group system, Pastor Ted says that he asked himself and his staff a simple question: Do you like your neighbors? And, for that matter, do you even know your neighbors? The answers he got - the Golden Rule to the contrary - were "Not really" and "No." Okay, said Pastor Ted, so why would you want to be in a small group with them? His point was that arbitrary small groups would make less sense than self-selected groups organized around common interests. Hence New Life members can choose among small groups dedicated to motorcycles, or rock climbing, or home-schooling, or protesting outside abortion clinics.

But Pastor Ted's true genius lies in his organizational hierarchy, which ensures ideological rigidity even as it allows for individual expression. Not just anyone can lead a small group, much less a section; a battery of personality and spiritual tests must be undergone first, as well as an official background check. Once chosen, group leaders meet regularly with their own leaders in the chain of command, and members are encouraged to jump the chain and speak to a higher level if they think their leader is straying into "false teachings" - moral relativism, ecumenism, or even "Satanism," in the form of New Age notions such as crystal healing.

Whether the system is common sense or heresy itself - the Body of Christ atomized - is beside the point; New Lifers have found it powerfully persuasive. Pastor Ted has instituted a semester system, so that no one needs to be locked into a group he or she doesn't like for too long. And since New Life's cell groups don't limit themselves to Bible study, they function as covert evangelizing engines. In return, what Pastor Ted has given his flock are lifestyle choices.

I'd like to point out that you don't have to be a foaming at the mouth atheist to oppose the megachurch phenomenon - probably the best way to fight them is to support smaller progressive churches.

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