Buffalo Bill Cody is one of the most colorful and iconic figures in US History. He was a buffalo hunter and US Army Scout for which he was awarded the Medal of Honor, but mostly he was a showman. Not a huckster like P.T. Barnum, but a man who brought an amazing display of living artifacts from the “Old West” in a show to people in the eastern United States and Europe. His “Buffalo Bill's Wild West” was the most dazzling show if its day. He had real cowboys and real Indians, and personalities right out of the dime novels, like Calamity Jane. On one hand he was not a fraud, when Annie Oakley shot the ashes off Kaiser Wilhelm’s cigar in one famous show, it was no optical trick. When he said the stoic Native American in his show was indeed the real Sitting Bull, he was. But on the other hand his show was just that, a show. His reenactments of Custer’s Last Stand and is presentation of the cowboys and Indians was pure show biz, and he set the standard image for the look of the American Old West that would become “fact” via movies and television to generations of people throughout the world. But, his presentation was stilted, condensed and dramatized so much as to make it anything but a history lesson. It is very likely that by the early part of the 1900’s Buffalo Bill no longer could tell the difference between the exciting story he had created, or the real life he had actually lived during the Indian Wars.
It was quite a show though.
Fast-forward to the early 1960’s to a gritty industrial city about an hour south-east of Chicago. A young minister from Texas had recently become the pastor of the very traditional 1st Baptist Church of Hammond, Indiana. However, this young new clergyman was not a typical pastor who saw his job to minister to the needs of his flock. Rather he had both righteous zeal for his unique brand of Christianity; and he had boundless ambition matched by a vision for what he could achieve. Within a few short years he had purged the congregation of most of its previous leadership and the majority of the members. Then he led the remainder to vote to pull the ¾ century old church out of the American Baptist Convention because it was “too liberal” (i.e. they were supportive of the ongoing Civil Rights Movement among other things). As a brilliant, driven and visionary dictatorial leader of a church freed from all denominational obligations, he was poised to do something spectacular.
Over the next decade this young pastor, Jack Hyles, developed an entirely new model of Christian church. Gone was the passive approach of waiting for people to need spiritual help or even the more active form of one-on-one missionary work. He discovered that success as a minister was in marketing, showmanship and promotion, promotion, promotion. While for half a century prior, this kind of aggressive marketing for Christianity had been done in evangelistic crusades, it had never successfully been translated into a permanent way of life for a large church. The young church leader measured success in terms of how many people he could get to Sunday School, and into the church’s baptismal pool; not in the welfare of his congregants. The way he developed to do that was to create a perpetual carnival-like atmosphere. In particular his target audience was for impoverished children who were brought in from as far as North Chicago via a fleet of church busses. By design the program for children was high energy fun and provided a level of entertainment to which poor inner city children simply had no access at that time. Even the bus rides were programmed with singing and games. Significantly he avoided bringing in children from the bordering city of Gary or and bypassed Chicago’s south side on their way to the city’s north side. In these areas the children there were African-American and were not deemed appropriate to bring to the main church.
To bring in the adults he very much needed to pay for his vision, the focus was on professionalism and production values to give this new form of Christianity legitimacy; and his preaching was dynamic and persuasive. Using this formula, by the mid 1970’s there was an average of 14,000 (mostly children) in Sunday School each week. Plastered across every vehicle in their fleet of over a hundred busses was the boast, “World’s Largest Sunday School”.
Was this P.T.Barnum Christianity? No, I would not say so, that title belongs to the later Prosperity Gospel movement that promises riches from God for giving money to the church (or television ministry). Rather, I believe what Jack Hyles brought to the world was Buffalo Bill Cody Christianity. Jack Hyles brought something real. I don’t mean something spiritually real, but real in the sense of spectacle and the look and feel of something miraculous. Like Bill Cody’ show, truth was malleable as long as the show was entertaining and the crowds kept coming.
I became part of the “Pastor Jack Hyles World’s Largest Sunday School” show in 1981 when I enrolled as a freshman at Hyles-Anderson College. By that time, he had written a shelf full of books, founded my college, was speaking on the road two days every week in churches across the country and hosting two huge national conferences every year so as to spread this new brand of what I’ll call “Showmanship Christianity”.
I was there five years and I distinctly remember the moment I lost the last of my illusions about the real purpose of the church’s program. I realized that there was not even the slightest concern that what we were doing was real, but it was all about the process and the show. When I understood that the leadership clearly understood that what we were doing had no intrinsic value, it was a life changing moment. By that time the busses run by college students were bringing in around 10,000-12, kids from Chicago each Sunday. There were many “services” and at the end of each was an opportunity for these kids to be “saved” and baptized. (No, we never even tried to get parental permission to baptize these children into the Baptist Church). I watched week after week the industrial scale baptisms of elementary school children at a regular rate of two per minute. I never stayed the whole time because every week the baptisms went on uninterrupted for over two hours as different services for the bus kids ended. One day while I watched the procession of baptisms, I quipped to one of my fellow students who was in the baptism team, “I wonder how many have been baptized here before?” He casually said “Some get baptized every week.” So I asked, "How do we know how not to count the repeaters in our weekly total?” He seemed surprised at my question. He answered “It doesn’t matter; we count them all, every week.” It was the surprise in his voice that revealed his shock that I would even ask such a question. Jack Hyles bragged all the time about how much the church does for God as evidenced by the number of baptisms per week, and yet, the officials knew full well that number was bogus. What mattered, like to Buffalo Bill, was the show and the spectacle. The reality was no more important in this new brand of Christianity than it was to Buffalo Bill.
If this new type of Christianity had stayed confined to the evangelical fundamentalist who developed it, it would have been one thing, but it did not. Success is not ignored. While the idea of using busses to bring in hordes of impoverished kids to be baptized did not much go beyond the Independent Fundamental Baptist community; the methodology of aggressive promotion, slick production values and one other innovation are boosting church numbers at mega-churches across the US to this day.
One unique innovation at First Baptist Hammond was what we called “F” Sunday School. Now the letter was simply identification as to time of the service. “A-E” Sunday School met at the main church complex which consisted of several downtown city blocks. “F” Sunday school services were specifically for black children who leadership discouraged from bringing to the church complex. Yes it was overtly racist but I never once heard a word of criticism. The "services" for the African-American kids were held at remote locations across the Chicagoland area. Over my five years in college, I spent three years in the bus ministry, and a year doing “F" Sunday schools in the public housing projects of South Chicago. Additionally I spent a year conducting services for the teenage inmates of Chicago’s massive Cook County Jail.
Interestingly though, there did not seem to be any racial animosity to Hispanics. While most of the people who came to church on the busses were children or teens, a percent or two were Hispanic adults. For them there was a full Spanish speaking ministry team. There were two Spanish speaking adult services each with some two hundred adults each week. To be fair, the work done for the Spanish speaking families who came to church together was significant. The Since the church completely rejected the idea of steering families to government sponsored assistance, the fact virtually all the adults were in the US illegally was never even discussed. Many of those families found community and belonging in the US via the church's efforts. In this way it operated like the dreaded liberal demolitions or even worse the Catholics.
Everyone who came to any service on Sunday that was sponsored by 1st Baptist of Hammond, no matter where it was held, was counted as being present at the church. We were required to keep very careful records as to attendance at all the services wherever they were held. This included the street-side assemblies of children in the all black communities of the area. Looking back it seems peculiar that there were requirements for counting heads, but apparently no interest in the content of what was being taught or how it was being presented.
In total, in the years I was there the church claimed a weekly attendance averaging over 43,000. Of course, it was utterly dishonest to say they came to church, but since when did integrity get in the way of a great story.
The idea of boosting the reach (and numbers) of a non-denominational local church was possible due to both a well-designed, corporate style system of command and control as well as the “volunteer” services of 5,000 college students from the affiliated Hyles-Anderson College (where I was a student). I say volunteer because not only were we students expected to participate, we had to fill out a weekly report of our work for the church to ensure we were participating. Failure to do our part would lead to expulsion, thus I spent on average of ten hours a week, every week, doing work for the church.
This model of labor heavy church worked for Jack Hyles since he had founded his own college drawing zealous young people from across the country to help. However, it was not sustainably replicateable across the country. Thus for most of the 1980’s, First Baptist of Hammond was the undisputed largest local church in America.
From the late 70's until the 1990's, there were efforts by many to use the model to build and sustain church attendance. However, without the access to a pool of reliable unpaid labor, no other church was able to operate on anything close to that scale for a prolonged period. Sure there were TV pastors like Robert Schuller who built the Chrystal Cathedral from the donations of viewers, or Jim Baker who built a whole empire doing the same. But neither could replicate tens of thousands of people coming together each week under the auspices of one local church and pastor. It is the difference between the unique experience of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and the later mass experience of movie westerns.
No other churches were successful in replicating Jack Hyles’s formula until the advent of live streaming video. This technology allowed one pastor (though that belies the meaning of the word) to preach to people a many locations of one church via the web. By this method, a single “mother church” can have multiple “baby churches”. These so called satellite churches have buildings and singing and yes offering time just like a normal church, but the centerpiece is not a minister behind a pulpit, but a man on a screen preaching from the main church many miles away. Yes, I know this may sound like some Orwellian dystopia, but I assure you it is happening today at Mega-Church’s all across the country.
By this method of having a main church and as many as a dozen satellite churches, the leadership can claim a far higher number in attendance than actually go to the main church building. This amounts to a quasi-denomination, but is counted as a single local church. Of the twenty largest local Christian churches in America, nearly all have multiple locations counted in their total. That little trick is right out of Jack Hyles’ playbook. Also from the playbook are three prime components of the modern evangelical mega church movement, very high “spectacle” appeal, top tier production values and constant promotion.
One of the top twenty largest churches is not far from my home. I’ve been there more than once and my wife goes once every few months with the express reason that she likes the music and is entertained. I am with her on that, the experience is as entertaining as any stage show, with higher production values than most. There is lots of great music, laughs and a few emotionally touching moments at each of the four live services at the main church each Sunday. Beyond that it is obvious that the growth of this church is driven by the crassest and most brazen promotions.
One of their most effective promotions has been “tee-shirt day” where they gave out free shirts to everyone who comes on a particular day to the main church or any of the satellite churches. If you go to our local mall you inevitably see the church’s tee-shirts on several people, thus making this promotion campaign into a ubiquitous advertising too. Year before last year for Father’s Day, the church said each father present could enter into a free drawing for a new Harley-Davidson motorcycle. That seemed over the top, but I went with her the a few months later the “sermon” that week was nothing less than an edited and condensed showing of the hyper violent, R rated Hollywood movie Taken. The movie was inter-spliced with four short commentary’s by the pastor explaining that the Liam Neeson character was a type of Christ as he looked for his kidnapped daughter, killing everyone in his way. When I say it was edited, I mean it was shortened to about fourty minutes, but nearly all the graphic violence remained. It was very entertaining (it is a good movie), but I was concerned that the people around me couldn’t see that likening Jesus to a cold blooded killer was appalling. All they seemed to care about was they were entertained and felt good about going to church.
All in all this local mega church looks and feels like something meaningful is going on, but like Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, it is an imitation, an entertaining facsimile of what it purports to be. Don't get me wrong, unlike a P.T. Barnum church, the message at this church near us isn’t entirely phony. Underneath their veneer of “entertainment gospel” the church is, in fact, a Southern Baptist Church, even though they don’t use the word “Baptist” in the Church’s name or promotional literature. They deliberately do and say many things that make it appear they have abandoned the legalistic version of Christianity for which the Southern Baptists are justly infamous. They do not publicly talk about the fact they are part of the same denomination that, in my life time, fought against racial desegregation tooth and nail, and now fights LBGT rights with the same vigor. Their rock music and light show may look like something that promotes liberality and human freedoms, but that is a deliberate deception. Once you look closer, you see that their expectation of conformity from their members reflects the entirety of the Christian Right’s social/political agenda. While it is not the cult-like controlling system that was present at Jack Hyle's First Baptist of Hammond , Indian; but it is close.
If you live in a metropolitan area of the US, there is likely that there are a good many Buffalo Bill Cody type congregations just like this near you, and if you are in the South or Midwest, at least one mega church version. If you want a good show, you might want to visit one.
To the outsider it is hard to know if these churches are legalist wolves in a liberal lamb’s clothing, or if the wolf is actually becoming a lamb. From my interactions with the leadership of some of these churches I can tell you most are wolves. But from my interactions with the congregants here in the south, they know full well the church is still just as committed to the legalistic form of evangelicalism as the rest of the Christian Right, but they like to feel liberated. I have had some success leading these people to be lambs (in this I mean non-legalists that see the message of Jesus as love not law) while remaining in good standing at these churches.
In short, this type of church’s Buffalo Bill showman style of Christianity hides their true beliefs so well that only when a church attender seeks to become an official “member” they find out the church’s core legalistic beliefs. Many are shocked when they are told they cannot officially join because they don’t live by the church’s unpublished code of conduct. For instance at our local mega church couples are explicitly told they cannot become full members if they live together but are unmarried. Even more in the code of conduct for members they must pledge not to look at "pornography" of any kind. Yet, like I said the church showed most of a hyper-violent "R" rated movie without seeing the inconstancy.
Perhaps I need to take up a concerted “ministry” of teaching these people to be confident and secure in the knowledge that being a gentle and loving as a lamb is what Jesus said Christianity should be about and the ravenous wolves are well….. wolves.
So what does this mean for the kind of Christianity that focuses on a modest display of love for one’s fellow human being? Sadly, it is hard for the quiet inner life of the Jesus philosophy to compete with Buffalo Bill, but in truth, the very idea of a competition is the root of the error these churches represent.