Some months ago, I spent a week in Houston on business. Along the freeways, among billboard ads for gentlemen's clubs and vasectomy reversal surgery, I noticed signs plugging ministers and large churches.
Never having had much desire to hang out in bars, (possible exception, Willie G's in Houston's Post Oak district), I spent most of my evening free time surfing through the cable TV offerings in my room. When CNN and MSNBC had been once through their offerings and begun to repeat stories, I scrolled through the other networks and discovered something I thought to be bizarre. Of the thirty or so channels available, nine were devoted entirely to religious Christian programming. There were fire-and-brimstone shouting preachers, quiet conversational preachers, flamboyantly dressed preachers in blue tuxedoes and preachers wearing Dockers and sport shirts. All had their choir, their stunningly beautiful wives (family values, you know) and their calls for donations to help spread their message of love/peace/salvation/Jesus/whatever. All played up-tempo modern music; some even played Christian rock.
Then, on the half hour when secular stations run four minutes of advertising, the Christian ones began their own ads. "Are you seeking spiritual guidance in these troubling times? Tune in to Reverend Doctor James Something-or-Other." Another featured an attractive white family enthusiastically praising the First Holy Roller Church of Christ the Savior or some such fanciful name. Each family member, including the cute eight year-old, told how spiritual and loving and invigorated in Christ's word they felt since joining the Reverend So-and-so at FHRCCS. Clips of the facilities at FHRCCS ran behind them, showing the gym, the playground, tennis courts and packed auditorium where Reverend So-and-so and his lovely wife led the several hundred members in enthusiastic song praising Jesus. Meanwhile, the 800- telephone number flashed at the bottom of the screen. The pitch finished up by urging viewers to call today and join the fastest growing congregation in the area. Not only is religion big business in Houston, but it seems to be a bit competitive as well, notwithstanding the whining from the political Christian right about being persecuted.
More recently, I attended church services in the small town of Greenwich in rural upstate New York. These services were held in huge, beautiful stone or brick churches built in the 1800s with tall steeples covered with slate tiles. Elaborately carved arches support ceilings thirty feet high; stained glass windows light the meeting halls, each able to easily seat two hundred or more worshipers. These architectural wonders were built in a time when the mills along the Battenkill River competed with the area's many large farms for workers. It was a prosperous time in the town's history.
Today the farms and elaborate church buildings remain, but most of the mills have long since shut down. Tiny congregations numbering in the low double digits struggle to maintain their individual legacy buildings while also paying the minister and "doing the Lord's work" contributing to local charities and the requisite national organization and international missionary aid. They are universally losing the struggle as their mostly elderly congregations dwindle.
It strikes me that the small town churches are analogous to the corner grocery stores of a bygone time. They each maintain a proud tradition, keeping the rituals that distinguish them in a small way from the other denominations. Like the small corner grocery, they keep a little of this and a little of that and hope, usually in vain, to retain loyal customers through their proximity.
But Hannaford's and Wal-Mart inexorably shut down the neighborhood stores. Are small town churches likewise doomed to the encroaching supermarket churches of the Swaggerts (yes, that creep is still going strong) and Osteens? What must they do to survive? Consolidation seems the logical path, but will their history and the pride they take in that history allow it? (What did Jesus say about pride?) A few years ago, Greenwich protestants began combining services in summer, rotating weekly from church to church. This first step may lead to more extensive ones, but the arguments against it from national denominational organizations as well as local historical societies will be intense. How the arguments play out will have a huge effect on the religious community, not just of Greenwich, but, I suspect, of small towns throughout the country.
And what are the political implications of the demise of small churches? Religious activism in politics is surely more likely when 2,000 like-minded people gather at least once a week to hear a powerful speaker. And only powerful speakers have a following of thousands. It's no coincidence that the influence of the religious right has coincided with the swell in the size of individual churches.
As J. Cash once sang, "If you ever go to Houston, boy, you better walk right."