The Daily Oklahoman announced today that Lifechurch.tv, the hydra-headed megachurch based in Edmond, Okla., will be adding another campus to its mini-empire of 16 campuses in five states. I have long since stopped caring about the theological content of what Craig Groeschel does via video screen every week. As a former believer, I simply don't care all that much about in-house disputes over ecclesiology unless they impact the larger culture. This is Oklahoma City, so virtually (ha!) everything LCTV does impacts the larger culture. The source of my irritation today is the ham-handed way The Oklahoman handled an obviously important religion story.
Full disclosure: I used to write a weekly Faith and Culture column for that paper when Bobby Ross was doing a fine job as religion editor. He moved on. His successor and I didn't see eye to eye. It did not end well. Since then, I have regularly accused the paper of running PR for Jesus instead of actual journalism.
Let's juxtapose two things from the story and then I'll break down what I really think is happening. Lori Bailey is the communications director for LCTV. She is quoted as saying: "“We've been looking at this particular area for some time since many people who attend our other campuses can easily access this new location.” The writer, Richard Mize, follows that quote immediately with this piece of purple prose:
It's a gritty part of north Oklahoma City, an area of socioeconomic extremes. Neighborhoods have high unemployment, low homeownership, high crime and gang activity among other social ills, as well as TV and radio stations, prominent office buildings and other business development.
Bailey then makes an innocuous comment about "making a difference in the lives of people" in surrounding neighborhoods. This is not what LCTV does, by the way, but more on that later. Now for some background for our out of Oklahoma readers.
The corridor chosen by LCTV for this new venture is the primary artery between Edmond, our most affluent suburb, and downtown Oklahoma City, which is still the hub of business and culture in this sprawling metroplex. Every day, tens of thousands of cars make the approximately 10-mile drive between Edmond and downtown using this corridor. The new campus will sit about one mile east of Nichols Hills, one of the most affluent neighborhoods in the city. It will be surrounded by a smattering of industrial parks, medical businesses, and damn few neighborhoods. The area is sparsely populated both in terms of businesses and residences.
The Oklahoma Department of Transportation is about to complete work on a $24 million series of improvements to that traffic corridor. Unless you haven't been paying attention to the I40 crosstown improvement, infrastructure upgrades always precede economic development. That corridor is next in line for gentrification. A massive amount of vacant acreage sits on both sides of the corridor, making it a perfect location for apartments and condos and businesses midway between Edmond and downtown. The improvements make access to the area far more convenient than they have ever been. It's a good move for Oklahoma City, and I suspect LCTV's leadership team is well aware of this. Craig was a finance major before he went to seminary, after all.
In no particular order, here's what I don't like about the new campus moving there:
- It's bad for the city's economic development. The overwhelming majority of churches, as a rule, do nothing for a neighborhood except exist tax free and create demand for more parking. Whatever size building LCTV opts for, they'll need the parking around it to be four times the size, wasting valuable property that could be providing tax revenue for growth and development in the corridor.
- Oklahoma City needs another megachurch like we need another NBA franchise. The market is saturated, folks. We already have church attendance above 80 percent. Churches already exist in that area, and they are actually incarnational churches, as in they aren't beaming the pastor's head in from thirty miles away to display on a 30-foot video screen.
- The PR around this smacks of paternalism. Is LCTV better equipped to reach those scary gang members? (Why didn't he just say black youth? Seriously.) What can LCTV do that black churches in the neighborhood aren't really doing? Will a local Crip give his life to Christ once he sees Craig's annual series about the movies and the Gospel? Will LCTV include a "Spike Lee joint" so as to be culturally relevant? Do predominantly black neighborhoods need white churches to move in so as to save them from themselves?
- All that is moot. This area will not be predominantly black if I'm right about gentrification. The neighborhoods are set back away from the corridor, anyway, so it will be easy to pretend they simply don't exist. If they are established enough, the new development will just happen around them, which is what I expect for the older neighborhood off NE 63rd just east of Broadway Extension.
- LCTV is terrible at incarnational outreach anyway. It's not what they do. What they do is preach a truncated version of the Gospel that is nothing more than belief-based (as opposed to action-based) metaphysical therapy.
- Bailey gives away the real reason for the move when she says they are expecting people who have been driving to their other campuses to drive to this closer campus. Parsing that statement, she means people who live in midtown or downtown (and The Village and Nichols Hills?) who have only had the choice of the I240 or NW Expy campuses. Also, as everyone knows who pays attention to these trends, the denizens of Frontline and Bridgeway are right up LCTV's demographic alley: 20 and 30 something professionals and tons of young males. Tons, especially at Frontline.
- This sounds like I'm implying that LCTV is expecting an influx of people from other churches to help populate this new one. I am. That is how megachurches grow, after all. (For the naysayers out there, I fully admit it's only one way that they grow, but it's a substantial percentage of membership.) The new campus will be a stone's throw from Bridgeway, and this is exactly what LCTV is doing in Norman with their move to be Journey Church's neighbor. LCTV is determined, it seems, to be the CVS to everyone else's Walgreen's, ecclesiologically speaking.
It's never safe to speculate about motive, but it's also never reasonable to be too much of a Pollyanna. This will be an interesting couple of year's in LCTV's branding strategy.