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Mega Churches Steal Sheep: My Ongoing Debate With Ed Stetzer

Last week Ed Stetzer, whom I love, executed an all out assault on the Megachurch “sheep stealing critique.” This critique argues that the mega church congregations of our day are made up of largely Christians moving from one church (usually smaller) to another. It says that a mega church, with its array of programs, worship production and the charismatic personality as the teacher/preacher, draws people largely due to people coming from other churches that don’t have these things. The “success” of these mega congregations is not due to mission, engaging those outside the faith, with the gospel. It is nothing more than musical chairs among Christians within a large geographical area. As a result, it creates competition among churches for the remaining Christians and a consumer mentality among Christians. This works to undermine Mission not advance it. I admit, I’ve been one of the people saying this. Ed and I have been at this one before.
Ed debunks this argument in a post titled Debunking Megachurch Myths: Especially the One About Sheep Swapping. Using an impressive display of statistics, Ed shows that mega churches are not doing sheep-stealing near to the extent they are accused of. Indeed they are doing it at about the same rate as small churches. The sheep-stealing accusation therefore is not special to mega churches, it is characteristic of churches in general. It is what churches do.

In response, I have three comments:

1.) Ed’s Statistics are Suspect. I suggest there’s a lot to question in these statistics.  For example, Ed’s numbers could be interpreted to show that the mega churches’ congregations are at least 90% transfer growth (not 44%).  I add up distant church transfers plus local church transfers plus dechurched transfers (people have left another church, it’s just been a while) and it comes to 90% of people who are coming to this church from another church in some way. Organic growth could also be transfer growth, people coming from another church that were just invited through relationships. I admit I don’t know the specifics of these categories, but there is at least reason to suspect these numbers, as some people take note in the comments. More information is required.

 2.) Ed is Right, Mega Churches Are Not Going Away. But He Ignores the Macro-Picture and what this says about mission. The real proof that mega churches are merely playing in a game of Christian musical chairs is the fact that on a macro basis, the percentage of Christians attending a church over the whole country is still on a slow decline. Despite the success of mega churches, the number of practicing Christians is not growing overall. By default, this means, again, mega churches are playing in the wider game of Christian musical chairs. So when Ed says that mega-churcheas are not going away, I suggest he is right. But what this means is that overall we are closing more and more small community churches and the Christian population as a whole is being consolidated into larger and larger churches. I have seen statistics within my denomination and other evangelical denominations that illustrate this. We are closing small churches faster and faster, and our mega churches are growing but we have much less of them. What is going on is consolidation, not mission. And the result is more and more consumerist kind of Christians as a result.

3.) Ed is Right, All Churches Are Doing It. Ed correctly observes that both small churches sheep steal as much as mega churches. Perhaps, to some extent, this is a good thing because stale dead churches need to be revived, renewed and engaged and new churches is one way to do this, including some of our better mega churches. But often what happens in the sheep stealing is that leaders organize and build their churches to “attract” as many sheep from other places as possible. We begin to craft an appealing worship experience, a full array of religious goods and services to attract that Christian looking to “fit in” some Christianity into their daily lives. We even build a justice center where you can “fit in” 2 hours a month for some justice project and feel better about yourself.  And before you know it, Christianity has become about offering a little painless surplus enjoyment to make you feel as if you’re being a good Christian. I contend this kind of consumerist church organization undermines the formation of God’s people into His Mission. So what concerns me is not that small churches do sheep-stealing as much as mega churches. What concerns me is that mega churches DO SHEEP STEALING BETTER THAN SMALL CHURCHES.  In the process they exacerbate the bad formation that has become American evangelical church musical chairs. And in so doing, they are taking the malformation of the church for Christian discipleship/God’s Mission to a new level.

In my upcoming book with Geoff Holsclaw coming in March, we talk about a different vision for Christianity in North America for reaching post Christendom parts of North America. The book is suggesting we take the church we have now and begin to shapes it/lead it out of this consolidating attractional pattern. It calls all churches – small, big, mega, smega, into a discusssion to learn from each other how to change these patterns so as to shape a vision that engages neighborhoods, crosses boundaries, brings the presence of Christ, the good news of His reign into an increasingly post-Christendom culture. To do this, we have to change the sheep-stealing dynamic FOR EVERYBODY, including small churches! So my buddy Ed, would you like a copy? Review it maybe?  Peace bro, You know I love ya!

What do you think of Ed’s post? How do you analyze the statistics? What conclusions do you draw?