I sometimes find myself in the uncomfortable position of critiquing the megachurch in public settings (hopefully gracefully, theologically and for the purpose of the furtherance of Christ’s kingdom). I often get a response that goes something like this: I know many souls who came to Christ because of the mega church. I know many local groups gathering in the neighborhood who are doing all the things you talk about and they are part of the megachurch. The local megachurch gives more money to the causes of social justice than any other evangelical church I know. And a litany goes describing all the good things God is doing at the mega church.
I have no doubt, and I believe with all my heart, that THERE ARE GOOD THINGS, AMAZING THINGS, INDEED KINGDOM LIFE CHANGING THINGS, GOING ON IN THE MEGA CHURCH. And I also believe that not all mega churches are the same.
Nonetheless I still contend that we must question the nature of Kingdom work being furthered through the megachurch phenomenon of evangelicalism in America. There are important questions that need to be asked concerning a.) how the structures/rituals of megachurches form Christians into passive observers, consumers of entertainment and gospel information, b.) the inherent structural encumbrances which are enormous hurdles to overcome in actually being the living, organic “body of Christ” in the sense that the pages of the NT call us to, and c.)the challenges structurally to overcome in simply maintaining a leadership that is in integrity with what it means to be a servant in the sense that our Lord himself calls us to. All of this I have written extensively on in the book The Great Giveaway. I have no intention on rehearsing the arguments in that book.
None of these issues are negated in their importance by the fact that “GOOD THINGS ARE HAPPENING AT THE MEGACHURCH!” Again, I have no doubt that “GOOD THINGS ARE HAPPENING AT THE MEGACHURCH!” My two cautions regarding all the “GOOD THINGS ARE HAPPENING AT THE MEGACHURCH!” is”
a.) Let us not extrapolate from some good things happening in individual lives, or in a number of small groups in the M-church’s neighborhood, that these things are happening across the entire spectrum of the 18-20,000 people coming to the megachurch. For as I contend in the first chapter of The Great Giveaway, a legitimate question to ask of all the activity generated by the mega church, say 15,000 people coming every week, is how much of this is actually Kingdom activity. Is the mega church of 20,000 really a embodied Christ-people of 1,000 with a lot of other activity going around it with its concurrent huge costs in finances, staff and facilities? There are studies that suggest something close to this (read this) If so we ought to ask for whom and why are we spending all this money and activity? As I said in the Great Giveaway, we may “â€¦ be building something akin to a Hollywood Western movie set – its exterior looks real, big and impressive, but what is actually there is a lot less than meets the eye.”
b.) Let us recognize there is an unintended tendency within the mega church to make what’s happening in isolated parts of the mammoth organization seem a lot bigger than it actually is. This then generates the buzz necessary to raise (divert?) huge funds towards building things bigger. An isolated 15, 20 stories of individuals being saved and initiated into baptism (great stuff in themselves!!) gets produced in a video production of Disney style excellence complete with music and plasma screen hyper-reality (the famous baptismal videos), wowing the emotions and sense of everyone in the 15,000 seat audience. The effect is to make it seem like this is happening everywhere? The effect is to make it seem like this is much bigger than it actually is? Where in fact the same, maybe more per capita, salvation-baptisms are happening in much smaller social bodies having spent a lot less in resourses and activity? The same holds true for local small groupings of megachurches and their work in the neighborhoods. For mega churches take a few great stories of things happening, and highlight them via a produced video. It makes it seem this is happening everywhere throughout the megachurch. The truth however may be that the mammoth size of the mega organization works against the engaged mature leadership necessary for this to happen in the neighborhoods. It takes organic engaged leadership for this to happen and only so much of this can happen in a church of 10,000. What about a mega church which gives 4 million to social justice but has spent 85 million in the last three years on a building. Sure it’s great that a mega-church gives 4 million to social justice causes. But stacked next to mammoth other budgets, is this really as significant as its sounds?
In truth, anything that happens positively in the mega church gets caught up in the magnifying effects of the mega machine, and makes it seem 100 times bigger than it is. But what if we took 15 or 20 thousand people gathered in smaller church bodies across N. America, spending much less time and energy on facilities, salaries, management, and add up all the salvations, engagements for Christ’s justice, WHICH WOULD BE BIGGER? I want to plead for some sanity in the way we think about success in the N. American church context.
After traveling and talking around the country for 2 years, my tentative conclusion is: per capita, per person, per dollar spent, the really significant impact for salvations, justice and outreach are exactly here in these organic, non-produced, non attractional missional communities emerging all over N. America. I am not asking that all mega churches cease existence. I am just suggesting that denominations and seminaries not get mesmerized by mega-strategy when assessing missional strategies going forward.
For Christ and His Kingdom