I absolutely loved the first Austin Powers movie. I thought it was a brilliant piece of parody – the fact that it spawned not only the two godawful sequels and inspired a generation of people to start describing things as “shagadelic” are lamentable, but all in all I loved the movie. It’s hard to pick an absolute favourite moment from that movie, but a recent news item kind of reminded me of one particular scene. The story:
In increasingly secular Canada, how do you bring people to God? “Through parking and bathrooms,” says Scott Weatherford, lead pastor of Calgary’s First Alliance Church. He’s only half joking. On Sundays, the evangelical church’s 1,350-spot parking lot is overflowing. The $25.7-million, six-year-old campus feels more like a convention centre than a cathedral. Weekend services are high-tech, multimedia spectacles. The church provides free fair-trade coffee, with cup holders in every one of the 1,704 seats in the sanctuary. Whether it’s the caffeine, the big-screen monitors or the rock band, no one appeared to be drifting off when Mr. Weatherford, equipped with a wireless microphone and an iPad, took the stage at a recent weekend service.
(Canadian Atheist’s server doesn’t like embedded videos, so you’ll have to click through)
I just love how blatant the sucking up is. “What do kids like? Let’s get some of that hippity hop music in here, and some of those Justone Beavers people keep talking about! I don’t care what they are, get fifty of them! And a bouncy castle!” It’s like watching your 60 year-old uncle try skateboarding for the first time to try and impress his midlife crisis girlfriend, or catching your mom shopping at Sirens – embarrassing and a little creepy.
Now, to be sure, if you read the article through you’ll see that they do some pretty great stuff at this church – addiction counseling, child care, oil changes (that one’s a bit odd, but whatever). I have no real substantive quarrel with a church changing up its method of delivering its message in order to get people excited again. Companies do that all the time with a new slogan or advertising campaign. The problem (you knew there would be one) is with this statement:
“God causes a place to boom economically to do the good in the world that needs doing,” the 53-year-old [Weatherford] said. “Most booms are accompanied by great selfishness. Calgary seems to lean into homelessness, drug and alcohol addiction, poverty and immigration with a greater openness and generosity than I’ve experienced in other places.”
Apparently the millions of dollars he’s managed to pry from his parishioners aren’t because of their hard work and sacrifice. They’re not even because he’s hit upon the right message that resonates with the needs and priorities of the community the church serves. Nope, it’s because YahwAlladdha causes a place to boom. Which makes one wonder what exactly it was doing when all those drug and alcohol addictions could have been prevented, or those homeless provided for before they entered dire straits.
My pessimism aside, there are some pretty choice soundbytes coming out of this organization:
“Forget the term conservative Christian,” he said. “The primary characteristic of Christianity is to love God and love your neighbour as yourself. When we forget that, we tend to get weird and make up a bunch of negative rules and cling to irrelevant traditions.”
“I don’t think women in leadership positions would be an issue for two-thirds of evangelicals,” Mr. Schroeder said. “You give me a choice between a gal of character with an authentic love of God or a guy who wants to play the role and is lacking in integrity and it’s a no-brainer.”
“In the States it’s a gong show. There’s an entitlement on both sides that leads to arrogance and polarization,” said Mr. Weatherford. “Part of the Canadian’s natural suspicion of leaders is healthy and a cultural nuance that we need to maintain.”
Whether or not they’ll actually follow through on this rhetoric is an entirely different story, but for now at least they’re talking the talk. Well, except when it comes to supporting their gay and lesbian congregants full-throatedly (sorry, couldn’t resist). We can’t expect the leopard to completely change her spots, but we can at least take some satisfaction at watching her struggle valiantly in the attempt.
Yes, ultimately this is still a story about a megachurch with a budget that easily dwarfs anything that an atheist organization can boast, but that’s okay. I think we should still take some measure of pride in the fact that secular advocacy has pushed churches out of their former mould and forced them to do mostly good stuff instead of simply collecting money in exchange for condemnation and political machinations. The more people reject the old-fashioned hellfire and brimstone model of church and Christianity, the more churches have to reach and compromise like this, until all that’s left is a mostly secular organization that lacks the kind of teeth we’ve come to associate with organized religion. It’s only a matter of time before we triumph completely.
EDIT: Holy crap, I almost forgot the best part of this story:
Deliberately dressed down in jeans and a sports jacket, the former college athlete delivered one of his trademark kick-in-the-pants sermons. One of his favourite phrases is “If it’s going to be, it’s up to me” – a get-it-done message that strikes the right note in entrepreneurial Calgary.
I can’t heard that slogan without thinking of this absolutely terrible 90s cartoon.