W. Kamau Bell, United Shades, and Megachurches

by Ken Howard

I don’t often recommend to our readers videos that they would have to pay to watch. But the season premier of W. Kamau Bell’s United Shades of America was so thought-provoking that I just have to recommend it. (And seeing as how it’s only $1.99 to view if you don’t subscribe, I don’t feel so bad.)

This particular episode of United Shades was entitled “Megachurches” (click here to view). In it, comedian and activist Bell goes to the birthplace of the megachurch movement, Texas (with the highest per capita in the US), to the city with the country’s highest concentration of megachurches, Dallas.

There he visits three megachurches and interviews a half dozen megachurch pastors, members, and, in some cases, former members. 

One of the most eye-opening things we learn from this episode is the diversity between (though not always within) the megachurches of Dallas:

  • Black megachurches and white megachurches.
  • Straight megachurches and gay megachurches.
  • Conservative megachurches and liberal megachurches.
  • Prosperity-preaching megachurches and simplicity-seeking megachurches.
  • Politically active megachurches (both conservative and liberal).
  • All-but-endorsing-candidates megachurches and those who consider that anathema.

Check out this clip for excerpts from Bell’s interviews with two very different megachurch pastors.

One myth this episode busts is the common misconception that only conservative churches grow. Membership numbers of the megachurches Bell visited are high: in the tens of thousands. 

On the other hand, large numbers can be deceiving. Recent research has shown that growth overall in the megachurches has plateaued and is in many cases falling. And many of them, while they manage to remain amazingly large, maintain their high membership despite heavy turnover, with many leaving because they want a more intimate experience with greater depth, and conservative evangelicalism being hit hardest by the departure of younger members (according to the Pew Foundation’s 2019 study of the religious landscape of America).

Bell’s sense of humor and politics (and sometimes humorous politics) may not be for everyone. On the other hand, he is so teddybear warm and so self-effacing that most people find him hard not to like. 

And he manages to broach all of the unspoken, uncomfortable questions (the 800-lb pound gorilla in the pulpit questions, as one review called them), like asking each of the pastors, “Do you feel weird about the money?”

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