Every once in a while, I’ll get to listen to Andy Stanley, the pastor from North Point Community Church deliver a sermon from one of his many videos he does. My parents are teaching a class based off of it, and the guy’s leading the second largest Protestant church in the United States. Only Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church is bigger. Both churches combined have many different campuses and ministries, and they have a weekly attendance of 73,000 people.
To be fair, I don’t really listen to the content of Mr. Stanley’s sermons, because the subject matter doesn’t interest me that much. Whatever I have caught of his talks is limited to the usual platitudes I used to hear from other preachers with good bone structure who could get in front of a camera. In fact, it was his style of delivery that first jumped out at me. Like many other charismatic preachers (go look them up on YouTube), he’s able to do things with his voice which keep people awake and listening. Whatever it specifically is, it’s working. Many other churches across the country seem to be coalescing around charismatic figures talking about Jesus.
People who aren’t familiar with Christianity might find this weird.
It would be like drawing 43,000 people a week to listen to someone talk about how Superman has the secrets to healthy living. Unless someone thinks Superman is real or can somehow affect reality, this shouldn’t be happening. Even the idea of believing in Superman as a real person is pretty strange.
Yet it still happens, even in the presence of other Christian churches. Church of the Highlands in Birmingham has been opening campuses all over the state, including one up here in Huntsville.* There is no shortage of churches in Alabama, but people flock to the tune of around 20,000 a week to worship.
The main similarity between mega churches is the charisma of their leaders.
Check out this list of reasons why people join cults. They do it because there’s a message out there that makes converts feel special, which in turn motivates them to do everything they can for their new friends. That message goes down a lot easier if the person giving it is convincing.
Really charismatic pastors also are great at using persuasive techniques. Be likable. Smile. Find commonality with the people you’re trying to convince. Smile. Make it seem like you’re handing out personal attention. Smile. Create a narrative that converts can be the hero of. Remember to smile.
All of this effort goes into selling fiction.
Compared to college professors or boring talking heads, these guys (they’re mostly white men) know how to sell things to people. Joel Osteen is so good at it that his flock has paid for a really nice house:
Not only that, but charismatic pastors can get forgiven for some really awful stuff. Pastor Savage apologized for sexually assaulting a teenager and received a standing ovation for it. Belief in the message trumps facts which might tarnish it.
Facts don’t often get packaged in this way.
Teachers talking about evolution can’t get people on board with the science like pastor Stanley can get people to believe in resurrection of the dead. Personal experience and common sense ought to claim the former is more likely than the latter, but people will maintain the opposite is true. The list of excuses doesn’t end there, and it doesn’t look like it will any time soon.
This doesn’t mean that facts need to become packaged or sugarcoated to be believed. Truth exists in reality, and it shall persist despite how anyone feels about it. If charisma is the means to getting people to believe fiction, perseverance and discipline is the antidote.
*On a side note, that church has a penchant for holding services in local schools when they move to a new community. I am currently unaware of whether the church reimburses school districts for the operational costs of running the facilities.