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The Mega Church Born Again

September 19th, 2022 | 6 min read

By Matthew Milliner

I arrived in the Thessaloniki airport and passed by the customs office, its door casually propped open, and saw everything I had come to Greece to avoid: a framed reproduction of Warner Sallman’s blonde-haired, blue-eyed American Jesus, testimony to the global reach of that thing we call evangelicalism. I had come to escape all that, to experience the power of ancient icons, and the cheap reproduction in the airport portrait told me that if that was my objective, I had better move fast.

So I attacked the storied city of Thessaloniki with my feet. I was less an evangelical now than I was a jet-setting grad student with a modest research budget, and I was on a mission. Just outside the hotel where I stashed my bag was an ancient Roman agora. I was not interested in the Romans, however, but in those they killed. A block north I visited the spacious basilica of the early Christian martyr St. Demetrios, a son of senatorial privilege whose Christian faith, legend tells us, earned him a spear in the gut. I had been in many an American megachurch, and the basilica of St. Demetrios was the early Christian equivalent, accommodating the influx that came with an increasingly fashionable faith. The five-aisles of the church mirrored the five-aisled modern highways that accommodate traffic congestion today.

Early Christian basilicas like this were patterned after the civic buildings of the ancient world, where statues of the emperor, basileus, would reside. But Christianity replaced this 3D imperial propaganda with 2D mosaics of Christ, deliberately undermining earthly political promises and the subservience that comes with them. The massive sunlit structure of St. Demetrios still breathed this new atmosphere of freedom. Not all of this basilica was ancient though — a 1917 fire had destroyed much of its earliest portions and the reconstructions were obvious. But selections of the church’s original inheritance survived. My heart rate increased as I examined the building’s carefully preserved early Christian mosaics — two bishops and a saint posing as if they were living portions of Thessaloniki’s crenelated walls. One warrior saint was not accompanied by sword and shield but by two innocent children instead, evidence of a military ideology that Christianity had transformed.

The church was filled not with tourists but with townspeople. And there were the icons I had come for, most of them not ancient but freshly painted, tucked in the church’s every corner like flowers waiting to be pollinated. The smell of beeswax votive candles, flickering before the icons, saturated the nave, inviting veneration. I chose to join such venerators, descending into the crypt, crossing myself and bowing at the tomb of St. Demetrios, who remains Thessaloniki’s patron saint. It claimed to be in the very gymnasium, that is, the ancient Roman equivalent to a locker-room, in which Demetrios was killed.

Still, if I am honest with myself, the thoughts I had in this underbelly of the basilica were troubling. The acid of academic investigation had already begun to erode my romanticized vision of the early church. The seminar room and the sanctuary do not easily mix. I had learned that toward the end of the same century in which Demetrios was murdered by the Romans, the Christian Emperor Theodosius had ordered the slaughter of thousands of the city’s inhabitants in punishment for a rebellion. Even if a Christian bishop had disciplined Theodosius for this act by refusing him the Eucharist, there was no memorial equal to the shrine of St. Demetrios for these victims in Thessaloniki. Instead of relying on Christianity’s power to persuade, moreover, Theodosius had effectively canceled paganism — visits to temples were forbidden and the sacred fires were snuffed. This is usually enough to turn people away from Byzantium in disgust, stuffing it back into the “Dark Ages” where many still think it belongs.

The liberation offered by Christianity, in other words, quickly morphed into hegemony. The spiritual freedom of Evagrius of Pontus was overshadowed by the persecutory zeal of Ephiphanius of Salamis, who cataloged divergent opinions with militantly uncharitable zest. Though the scale is different, of course, it is difficult not to compare this to whatever seems to have happened to evangelicalism in recent years. I thought of megachurches I attended in their prime. As a young youth pastor I had once attended a conference at one of the more famous ones, and I could not tell the difference between the man leading the church growth breakout session and a generic business guru. And that is not even to mention the abuse that would later be revealed. Christianity promised liberation from worldly power; but it soon permitted that same power to manifest itself again, poorly disguised by a thin Christian veneer.

Even so, maybe I did somehow encounter St. Demetrios himself in that damp undercroft, because the basilica, to my surprise, was equipped with an answer to these seminar room objections. Climbing the steps from the tomb back to the main church, I entered the building’s unexpected annex. It was a quaint protruding chapel that had been attached to the main church around the year 1300, many centuries after the basilica’s original construction, visible in the upper right of the plan (Fig. 1). Compared to the basilica itself, it is rather modest, even paltry — but the scuffed and weather-beaten late Byzantine paintings in the annex chapel of St. Euthymios are some of the best in the city. They offered a corrective to the imperial faith of Theodosius. St. Euthymius had been trained by a bishop appointed by Theodosius, and had every reason to expect a comfortable administrative career. Instead, he smelled corruption and sought silence instead, fleeing to the Palestinian desert’s humiliating sands. His hermetic hideouts included the cave where David had once fled from King Saul.

Only from this place of self-imposed exile could Euthymios have a healing effect on the Christian empire. The effect is well-conveyed in the miracles of healing displayed in the chapel’s faded paintings, created almost a full millennium after Euthymios’ life. The eyes of these figures were freighted, as if they knew the walls of Thessaloniki would eventually be breached. That said, the saint’s name, Euthymios, means happiness, as if the only happiness worth having comes with power’s surrender, not its grasp. St. Euthymios, and the annex chapel that foregrounded his memory, represented the underground river of contemplation that had long sustained Byzantium, moistening the ground especially when the empire was weak. It was this underground river that had resurfaced in Byzantium’s waning years. How many American megachurches, I thought to myself, could stand to grow annex chapels like this?

And then I found one, or at least I found a St. Euthymios. It was a good fifteen years after my trips to Thessaloniki, at a considerably less glamorous weekend seminar I had reluctantly agreed to attend. Scattered among the participants were leaders that emerged from the fallout of a recent church implosion. It turns out that in the wake of the scandals that rocked that congregation, people either left, or they found depth. This group was composed of the latter. I attended a session led by a woman in her sixties who took us through one psychologist’s outline of the stages of faith. As faith matures, she told us, it hits something called “the Wall,” when the satisfactions of the ego are deliberately starved. No amount of pious intention, let alone intellectual ability can surmount it. Then she read this passage aloud:

[At the Wall] something is always given up. That differs for each person. It usually is something central to one’s identity. Giving up does not mean losing. It does mean release and detachment in whatever form that takes. There may be a prior sense of being unable to cope, of not knowing what to do or where to turn. Finally, in desperation we give up and let God do whatever is right for us.

This woman had a front row seat to the scandals of big evangelicalism, to the collapse of McChristianity, and here she was showing us what prayer in the midst of suffering could look like. Embarrassing headlines connected to her congregation were still fresh at that point, and I was so struck by her demeanor that I asked her directly what was to come of all of it, the victims, the perpetrators. “Many have left,” she told me with a gentle gravity in her eyes, “but many are on the deeper journey.”

I had wandered into the annex chapel of St. Euthymios, healing desert mystic, all over again. Her countenance communicated the same pathos as the late Byzantine paintings in the chapel. Just as the chapel was constructed beyond the original wall of the ancient church, her soul, and the souls of these quiet saints, had been constructed on the far side of “the Wall” discussed in the seminar I attended. The signs of these subtle new supplements to whatever we call evangelicalism are everywhere, moreover, if one knows where to look, though there may not be a Gallup poll, top-rated podcast or a Religious News Service article broadcasting the news. And that is as it should be, for the more attention that is called to these rivulets of renewal, the more easily they become polluted. These renewals should be written about instead in the future, when it is more certain if they really mattered, just as the paintings of Euthymios were made so long after his death.

It is enough today to call attention to ancient patterns: the rediscovery of contemplation in the face of public failure, the deeper journey that follows the recension of public rewards, comparatively squat appendages springing from five-aisled basilicas, pleasing the saint that sleeps below. I’m not sure it has ever been any other way.