Many years ago I served as a student minister for the venerable A Christian Ministry in the National Parks (ACMNP), working in Grand Teton National Park. Most of the employees who worked at the lodge where I was were college students, many of them Mormons. I arrived in mid-May, before the lodge had geared up for its summer season and before the ACMNP program had begun. The nearby campground was not yet open, so the lodge owner allowed us to have one of the cabins to hold a Sunday evening service. Although I was only 19, I was the only “minister” around, so I was deputized to lead a worship time. Everyone was invited, and all of the Mormon kids came (not having anything else), about 20 of us. We kept it simple. I read some Scripture I though everyone would know, Matthew 5-7 (if I remember right) because I knew that the Sermon on the Mount was also in the Book of Mormon.
It was an interesting experience in many ways. I had grown up with Mormon friends in Idaho, so I was not afraid of this. I knew it was more for employee fellowship than anything Christian. The most interesting part, though, was when someone suggested we sing some hymns. We had a box of hymnals that belonged to ACMNP which I handed out. I suggested several traditional hymns to sing, but the Mormon kids didn’t know any of them. I asked them if they could find any hymns in the book they knew … and they did: the Christmas songs. So, on that cold night in May, we, people from radically different faiths who barely knew each other, sang all the Christmas carols in that hymnal.
I mention this because I have had a similar experience in my preaching experiences among various churches. My experience has been in churches that are Christian, not Mormon, but some very different flavors of Christianity. In the last few weeks I have been in a Disciples of Christ church, a Reformed Church of America congregation, and two large suburban Christian Churches. All four were different, but strangely the same. I knew all the songs they sang. Why? Because they sing a lot of the same songs in these churches. The NIV translation was used in all four churches. Why? Because it is the most popular translation in the USA today.
In Russ Douthat’s book, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, he chronicles the rise of “para-church Christianity” in the 1950s through the guidance of people like Billy Graham, Carl Henry, and Bill Bright. The neo-Evangelicalism these guys invented was based largely on ministries outside the control of any local church or denomination. Part of this was the rise of Evangelical publishing houses and the Evangelical music industry. And these are for-profit business, very big businesses.
Now, churches get their songs from CCLI’s Song Select, not a denominationally approved hymnal. Maybe the worship leader first heard a song on Christian radio, perhaps one of the Salem Communications group stations (SALM on NASDAQ). They get their NIV Bibles from Zondervan, a division of the massive publishing conglomerate Harper Collins.
Why is this important? Maybe it isn’t, but consider this: what is the control over doctrinal content from Salem’s stations or Harper Collins’s subsidiaries? One thing cannot be ignored: marketability. These are corporations in business to make a profit. It may be dressed up in pious-sounding mission statements, but the bottom line is the bottom line for these corporations. I would imagine that for every writer-program host-employee concerned about biblical fidelity, there is an MBA somewhere pushing profitability.
This is entrepreneurial Christianity in full bloom, the faithful as a market, an opportunity to make a lot of money. If you need some convincing, watch Christian television shows. Why are they so loaded with prosperity Gospel teachers and preachers? I think it is because that is what people will watch, not someone preaching sober biblical truth. In their own way, they are market driven, too.
This isn’t all bad. We would not have the NIV 2011 if someone had not funded the project. But the result is both a flattening of church distinctives and traditions, and ceding control of a lot of content coming into our churches to corporations.
Nebraska Christian College