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The Seductive Power of the Super Church

Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” with its dramatic portrayal of Jesus’ death and suffering, has dominated the box office for weeks. But it isn’t the only religious art making the rounds.

The world of mega-churches, the interplay between power and religion and the unique vagaries of Southern Baptist polity and theology take center state in David Rambo’s “God’s Man in Texas,” which comes to Birmingham, Ala., March 19. <?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />
 
The play premiered three years ago at the Actors Theater of Louisville, Ky., to strong reviews. Since then it has been produced in various theaters across the country. When it premiered at the prestigious Florida Theater in <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />Jacksonville, it won the Carbonell “Best Play” award.
 
The story is based loosely on a series of events which took place in 1990 at the First Baptist Church of Dallas—one of the largest Southern Baptist churches in the world. The trouble started when legendary preacher and Southern Baptist icon W.A. Criswell decided to hand-pick his successor. The mantle was offered to Joel Gregory, then pastor of Travis Avenue Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas.
 
Even though Gregory was already serving a mega-church with a congregation of over 6,000, he could not turn down Criswell’s invitation. Unfortunately, the offer came with some complicated strings attached. For one thing, Criswell did not actually retire. The pastor of 50 years remained an active presence in the church, insisting that everything–including Gregory–operate according to his dictates. After two years of this Gregory resigned. He eventually chronicled his experience in a book titled Too Great a Temptation: The Seductive Power of America’s Super Church.
 
Rambo’s play illustrates this seductive power in some funny as well poignant exchanges between the main characters. In doing so he offers a not-so-subtle critique of the mega-church phenomenon. The story reveals an all-too-common preoccupation that some church leaders have with “nickels and noses.” After every sermon depicted in the play, someone is heard asking, “Numbers—where are the numbers?” Success is measured by how many people were in attendance, how much they gave and how many walked the aisle.
 
Rambo also hones in on “worship as entertainment”—a trend that characterizes much “big church” Christianity these days. On three separate occasions one of the characters is heard to say as a service is about to begin, “Let’s get this show on the road.”
 
But all of this is mere backdrop for the real story Rambo wants to tell. While the two main characters fight it out for control and influence in the church, there is a third character, a lesser light, whose personal drama stands in stark contrast to the power plays going on around him. The struggle of this character becomes the stage where the authentic purpose of faith is brought into sharp focus.
 
Rambo’s play offers a clever warning to the church that in trying so hard to reach the masses sometimes yields too much of itself to popular culture. When that happens, as is true for all entertainment-driven media, the church becomes a caricature of its authentic self. The play also suggests on a more serious level that as churches vie for power and influence in our world they sometimes forget about the “least of these” among us.
 
Forgetting about them, Jesus said, means forgetting about him.
 
James L. Evans is pastor of Crosscreek Baptist Church in Pelham, Ala.