Deranged but effective: how megachurches make visitors come back (while UUs make them leave)


I just read (and highly recommend) the book by Rolling Stone writer Matt Taibbi: The Great Derangement (May 2008). It addresses the 9/11 conspiracy crowd, the appallingly corrupt workings of the Congress and Senate, and the phenomenal success of lunatic right wing fundamentalism. For that third topic he went undercover for months and joined a hugely successful if ideologically evil Texas megachurch. (See the linked excerpt article below: “Jesus made me puke”. The provocative title refers to being made to spew out ‘demons’ into a barf bag during a ‘healing service’.)


What fills the pews in those 5000 seat arenas? (according to Matt Taibbi) 

1) People are (as sociologists can prove) lonely and disconnected on an unprecedented scale. (I failed to dig out the statistics that I recently saw, their measure or indicator was how many persons someone had other than spouses or parents in whom they could trust to discuss deep emotional issues. Please respond if you can identify the study.)

2) People are hurt. Financially, emotionally, they suffer from evil jobs, endless commutes, they have little life outside their consuming drudgery. Addiction also figures prominently, as do abuse and bad relationships.

These churches are effective, Taibbi writes, not because of their often ludicrous ideologies but because they offer real support in those areas of affliction. (Whether they support is effective is another question, but at least they offer support, and starting to address a problem is always a step in the right direction).

They are also good at retaining folks because they form small groups inside their larger settings (sometimes called ‘tribes’) where people get connected through bible study etc with a regular subset of the same few people. It combines the pleasure of being part of a large group or movement (I call it the ‘stadium effect’) with the joy of really getting to know well a few people who embark on the same journey.

What can UUs learn here?

If a church wants to grow it must first make a visitor feel welcome as a person and then have a mechanism where s/he gets involved and makes lasting acquaintances. My minister, Peter Morales, explained recently that in his experience (both here at JUC and in congregations he’s visited nationwide) almost all visitors have already thoroughly checked out a church online (read sermons, been to etc) before they step through the door.

So their question is (says Peter): Are these my people? and not: Do they believe what I believe? 

If they are not actively welcomed and made to feel that, yes, there might well develop a deeper connection, they won’t return.

Many congregations apparently fail to make visitors return. Peter Morales thinks it’s not because of intentional snobbery but rather because our culture of welcoming is underdeveloped, too timid, or simply unreflected.

In a recent campaign event he said about the art of welcoming people: “You don’t have to do it perfectly, and we don’t do it perfectly, and the churches that grow like crazy don’t do it perfectly but they pay attention and they care. The first thing is to get people to care and then to pay attention.”

Since this post now has half turned into a campaign pitch I might as well give a direct link – to both candidates!

Don’t miss the candidate forum webcast this Saturday: 6:45 – 8:00 p.m Eastern time (it takes days until it’s available archived, you have to tune in live or you’ll miss it)

4059 UUA Presidential Candidates’ Forum with Rev. Dr. Laurel Hallman and Rev. Peter Morales, Candidates:

The Great Derangement: A Terrifying True Story of War, Politics, and Religion at the Twilight of the American Empire

Note: Our church, JUC, gets small Amazon referral fees when purchases are made through a JUC link. I suggest you look into that for your own congregation. People are slow to pick it up but I spend loads on Amazon and simply bookmarked JUCs referral button and use it religiously



4 Responses to Deranged but effective: how megachurches make visitors come back (while UUs make them leave)

  1. Bill Baar says:

    Why does our Church mean knocking another? There are many faiths that cast out demons. There is a long history of it. It’s not my style but there is something going on for sure with it. I wouldn’t say it’s evil just on the face of it.

  2. juuggernaut says:

    It has nothing to do with “our Church”. I as an individual am knocking other churches, and freely admit to it: My respect for other religious quests ends where I detect obvious fraud, willful deception, financial fleecing, and indoctrination techniques that we rightfully decry in secular contexts. We all condemn hucksters who defraud the weak and the defenseless. I simply include religious hucksters because the damage they are inflicting on societies is infinitely larger that that of your run of the mill snake oil peddler.

  3. Chuck B. says:

    While I disagree with Juugs approach to the issue, I agree with his conclusions on expanding our church. However, I don’t think the issue ends with welcoming them, Juugs. As I say tirelessly (or if you will, nag) we have to do more to both make them feel part of a regional whole while offering them the church as either a supplementary or alternative social construct.

    Very few parents I’ve met want their kids to spend time playing video games and watching the idiot’s lantern. Now, however, enlightened parents have few economic choices. UU’s should be presenting themselves as the place to raise kids who will learn how to thrive in a freethinking creative diversified world. To do that, however, we need to be more of an environment for them to be raised in.

    For every church where Juugs is happy there is at least one for me, and the wonderful thing about being a UU is that an atheist like Juugs and a filthy theist like me can sit down and have a real discussion, agree to disagree and then go out and fight for the separation of church and state together. Even though I may be naive Jesus lover.

    Our problem is that individual churches of 50 or 100 scattered through a region, and operating separately, cannot individually provide visitors the full flavor of universalism that those churches operating together can. That happens after the hello. That’s the follow through I hope Morales is also in tune with.

  4. juuggernaut says:

    Well observed, Chuck. Getting people to return is only a first prerequisite (but one at which apparently we often fail). Obviously, it can’t end there.

    Regional cooperation between parishes certainly can open up possibilities for joint programs which would not be feasible for one congregation alone (because they lack the numbers, the staff positions, etc).

    One big draw here at JUC are small dinners at people’s homes. People of different ages and background are put together semi-randomly, and the conversations are always soo interesting. Might be another idea to include guests from neighboring congregations, I’ll mention it to the organizers and give you credit.

    As for Peter Morales’ take I venture to say that he has a track record here because JUC has hosted and been involved in regional conferences (low budget: held at the church with attendees hosted by members) to exchange ideas, programs and procedures. From the feedback we get those really get results and motivate smaller congregations to adapt programs to fit their specific needs.

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