The Megachurch — A Good Trend?

20 Feb

Reading an article from Ed Stetzer this morning got me thinking again about the megachurch and its growth in recent years. The number of megachurches (traditionally defined as a church with more than 1,000 in weekly attendance) in America has grown amazingly in the last decade. In fact, Stetzer says there are more megachurches in the Nashville, TN area today than were in the whole country in 1960. What accounts for this and how should this trend be evaluated?

Why are megachurches a trend?
I have not researched this the way Stetzer and others have. I am just giving you gut impressions based on outward observations.

First, I think megachurches are part of what we might call the “Wal-Martization” of America. Mom and pop stores that specialize in a few things have given way to the giant big box that can offer everything. And in church let’s face it; a small congregation will rarely have the “whole package” that a megachurch can offer. Things like programs for kids, youth ministries, quality of singers,quality of preaching, facilities, and other things will usually be more complete and more high quality within a megachurch. In other words, where you could find all of those things and more with some degree of quality in a megachurch, in a smaller church you are more likely to find only one or two of those things done well and the others may be done in such a way that cause you real consternation. In a small church aunt Maude with the nasally voice may sing the offertory every six weeks or the kid’s workers may have less training and less organization. So for many believers in our day who are in smaller churches, there can be an appeal in leaving for the megachurch, going to a place where things are generally done with more excellence across the board.

Second, megachurches are exciting. Who doesn’t want to be a part of something that seems to be flourishing? When space is tight and parking has to be directed and services are being multiplied, this is exciting to most people. We all want to be part of a place that we see as alive and many megachurches project that image. Since megachurches tend to have more younger attenders, even just sitting in the service can give one the feel that there is life here as opposed to most smaller churches which are composed of more gray (or bald) heads.

Third, megachurches provide stability. On one level this would not seem to be the case because of their rapid growth and frequent change of facilities but on the other hand megachurches provide stability in that one bad apple (unless it is the senior pastor or someone involved in criminal activity) can generally do less damage than in a smaller church. Conversely, one good family leaving generally makes less of a mark than in a smaller church. Additionally, the overall programming in a megachurch with its measure of excellence provides a sense of stability.

Fourth, megachurches are more likely to speak the language of the culture. This can be a good thing or a bad thing but megachurches are generally better at it than smaller churches. Megachurches tend to connect more effectively with people at their points of need, offering services to people in a variety of life stages and not erecting barriers for people based on tradition. The ethos of a megachurch is often outward whereas the smaller congregation is often inward-focused. Again, this is not altogether good. Sometimes marketing trumps the work of the Spirit but in the same way in smaller congregations sometimes tradition trumps the work of the Spirit. So both types of congregations have their challenges.

I am sure there are other reasons the number of megachurches in America is growing rapidly but I see these as four big reasons. What I do not buy is the common assumption that people go to megachurches because they want to be anonymous or because they want to be uninvolved. This simply does not accord with my experience at all. Most megachurches have some sort of small group ministry and usually this is more expansive than what is found in smaller churches. In addition, megachurches often focus on connecting people in a way smaller churches do not. Megachurches are intentional about follow-up and devote serious resources to plugging people into places of service. There is much to do and so even beginners can help with set up of the worship space or can direct parking or help with childcare. In the smaller church places of involvement are often shut off by people whose identity is wrapped up in their place of service. So a new person may want to help with childcare but this is the domain of the same three ladies who have been doing it for thirty years so there is no room for someone new. The smaller church feels the need to keep workers in positions of service so this often shuts off new people from involvement. And my experience as a pastor in a smaller church has certainly taught me that people can be just as uninvolved as an attender in a smaller church as they can by going to a megachurch.

So do megachurches get a bad rap? Yes, I think they do. They are often doing many things well. They are not perfect, no church is, but there is much to commend in the megachurch. Still, I am cautious in calling the megachurch a good trend. I would rather refer to it simply as a trend.

Why am I hesitant to identify the megachurch as a good trend?

First, there is danger in the megachurch of thinking kingdom growth is happening when the reality is that it’s just sheep that are being shuffled. How many smaller churches are having to close or merge because their older people died off and their younger people moved on to the megachurch? How many smaller churches lose good members to megachurches not because the smaller church was being disobedient to God’s call but simply because they can’t compete with the scope of ministries and opportunities available in the megachurch? We need to consider who megachurches are reaching before we jump too strongly on the bandwagon. Of course this is going to vary from church to church but I heard a megachurch pastor point to this very idea of sheep shuffling at a recent conference so I think it is something many megachurch leaders recognize.

Second, the great strength of excellence can quickly devolve into the tragic flaw of performance. The slick packaging of church life and the careful organization can become the thing in itself, draining a church of true spiritual life while projecting an image of spiritual vitality. When everything is done well and excellence becomes the measure, something of the reality of our “earthen vessels” existence is lost. The apostle Paul came with “weakness and trembling” to his ministry. This kind of approach would be dismissed in many megachurches.

Third, leaders with charisma and talent can often mask serious spiritual shortcomings. Some of the largest megachurches preach a prosperity gospel of health and wealth that is out of touch with the gospel of grace through Christ. Many megachurches promote unbiblical practices and get away with it because their leaders are powerful, persuasive people who know how to move people emotionally and manipulate them spiritually. Sometimes large movements of people into a church has nothing to do with the Spirit of God and everything to do with a cult of personality and the raw talent of leaders.

Fourth, people in megachurches can often begin to identify more with their church than with Christ. When the church begins booming and programs are launched and buildings are built and lots of people are becoming members the temptation can be strong to derive our joy from the church rather than from Christ. Our identity can be wrapped up in church activities and Jesus is given lip service but the real thing we love is our church. This can happen in smaller churches too but I think the temptation is particularly strong in the megachurch because we can impress people around us when we tell them what is going on in our church in a way that people in smaller churches can not.

Finally, and most significantly, I can’t identify the megachurch as a good trend because God is bigger than the megachurch. His kingdom is not a “one size fits all” thing. There are wonderful churches of thirty and forty people. There are tremendous congregations of 100, 200, 400 or any other number. God works among all sorts of groups of people. So the important question is not, “How big is it?” The important question is, “Is God at work?” That is not always easy to discern. In the megachurch, it is hard to discern because everything is often done so well it’s difficult to know if it’s real. In the smaller church, it’s hard to discern because you can see people’s warts so clearly that you can’t tell if they’re struggling but growing or if they’re just a lost cause.

I want to conclude this much longer than I intended article with a few points of application . . .

Let’s be thankful for good megachurches. Smaller church pastors, I am especially talking to us. We should not be jealous of megachurches or try to compete with them. We should pray for them and be thankful for the places where God is at work. God is in control. He’ll take care of us whether our attendance is trending up or down or whether or not we feel like we’re on the right track. Don’t fear the megachurch, small church pastor. Instead, fear failing to minister faithfully in the place God has put you.

Church members, bloom where you are planted. Every church setting has its challenges. If you are in a place where the Word is preached, people are seeking to grow and you can connect to people for fellowship and encouragement, stay there and minister faithfully in the place God has put you. The grass is always greener on the other side. Some people spend their whole lives in a state of perpetual dissatisfaction with their church. This is not God’s intention for His people. If you can’t bear it because it is so far gone spiritually then you may have to leave. But consider that if you’ve left one church after another for years the problem may not be the churches you have attended, the problem may be you. There is no such thing as Utopian Community Church. You’ll have to make the best of it this side of heaven putting up with some things you don’t like. Maybe God wants to teach you to be gracious. In any event, don’t sit and stew. Talk with your leaders when you have concerns. They may not satisfy you with their answers but at least you’ve been open. Don’t be one of those folks who nitpick churches of all sizes to death until they settle on Bedside Baptist and the snooze alarm every Sunday morning because no one out there is up to their spiritual standards. Megachurch or not, plug into a local group of believers somewhere and be a blessing to others.

Finally, let’s understand that Jesus is building His church. Trends will come and go. The megachurch may be replaced by the online church or by some other work we haven’t even thought of yet. God will use it all and satan will seek to twist it all for his own purposes. The important thing is that we trust God to work and that we seek to be part of His work in the world. The harvest is plentiful. The opportunities are great. So let’s forget about whether we are mega or mini and just get about our Father’s business for His glory and for the joy of all those with whom we share the good news of Jesus.

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