One day last month, I sat down and sifted through a mounting stack of articles on my desk. I found a number of articles on ‘mega-churches’ all published within a few days of each other. What was most striking was that they were saying incredibly different things. USA Today talked about the decline in mega-churches and the mounting struggles to reach new audiences. The Hartford Institute for Religion Research published a paper talking about the growing influence of the mega-church. Another article picked up on the “fact” that mega-churches are replacing denominations as sources for training and resources, while another article analyzed the phenomenon that many churches are getting “fed up” with the poor quality and questionable theology of the training and resources coming from mega-churches. Having recently visited and interviewed some leaders in a couple mega-churches (not United Methodist… of course “mega-church” and “Methodist” are kind of a contradiction in terms…), I found myself drawing a simple conclusion – each and every one of these articles was right.
How is this possible, since many claims are downright contradictory? Simple. We’re not dealing with reality, but with diverse points of view (POV) – and perception shapes reality. Are mega-churches a good thing or a bad thing? It depends on who you talk to. Scott Thumma and Warren Bird, two of the most enthusiastic and committed supporters of the mega-church published a book last year – Beyond Megachurch Myths– that creatively fashioned “myths” that could be exploded with stories and statistics. The book carefully avoids many “myths” that are more difficult to debunk, but as far as it went, the book presented a compelling case for the upside of mega-churchdom. The downside of their book is a common conceit among mega-church advocates – they compare the handful of successful mega-churches against a host of mediocre and struggling smaller churches. I just wish someone would do a careful analysis comparing healthy to healthy, assessing the best of the biggest with the best of the smallest. The limited work I have done in this area indicates that size doesn’t much matter. A strong, healthy church is a strong, healthy church is a strong, healthy church, large or small.
On the other side, a whole host of books and articles paint a darker, sadder, and sometimes more diabolical picture of the mega-church. By only focusing on the downside, these writings provide a very different perspective. But slanting the perspective is not overly helpful. Just looking at what is right gives one skewed perspective, while hammering on what is wrong gives another.
What I have found to be most enlightening is that the difference of opinion about the mega-church is often greatest within the mega-church. Any survey or report on the mega-church that comes primarily from their pastors should be viewed with more-than-a-little skepticism. I have yet to talk to any pastor (or key staff leader, for that matter) of a mega-church that thinks his (yes, his is intentional – I have yet to meet a woman in charge of a mega-church) church is anything less than the Kingdom of God come upon the earth. This is as it should be. Who wants a pastor who doesn’t believe heart and soul in the goodness, rightness, and lasting value of what he (or she) does? These men would not become the pastors of monolithic congregations if they lacked confidence, vision, high self-esteem, entrepreneurial drive, and more ego than most. Strong personalities create strong organizations – and the mega-churches I visit indeed reflect the strength of character of their key leaders.
When pastors are the primary interpreters of the mega-church phenomena, however, the message one receives is incredibly incomplete. Let me share two stories from my recent visits:
I spoke with the pastor of a 12,000+ member church in the spring that regaled me with stories of the ministry, mission, programs, and services of the church. He gave me the tour of the new broadcast facility, bookstore, and we sipped cappuccinos from the narthex coffee bar while he shared his feelings. “I know this is what God wants. It wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t what God wants. God is doing this, not me. I am a tool – all of us are tools. I never thought I would have a church like this. Who would? I mean, who am I to be blessed like this? I have more money, power, and respect than I ever deserved, but I take it because I know it is from God, and I’d better be faithful or He’ll take it away. Most of my time is spent working with other people to reach our goal – 50,000 members by 2025 – but who knows, God may have even bigger plans for us than that! I don’t want my lack of faith to limit God. He may want us to have 100,000 members and over 1,000,000 million viewers!” This man’s enthusiasm is intoxicating, and there is no question that he believes he is doing God’s holy work. It was interesting, however, to talk with one of the trustees and the business manager of the congregation. They saw things a little differently.
Tom, the president of the Trustees, said, “This is a real house of cards. We have so much riding on the pastor. If anything happens to him it’s ‘game over.’ We really are about as big as we can get right now – we’re actually bigger than we ought to be. We have constant money headaches and we are in debt for the next thirty to fifty years. So much of our assets are tied up – pray the market doesn’t crash! (Prophetic words. This interview happened in March 2008.) And people – we have too many staff and too much overhead. We have dozens of people working around the clock just to keep this thing afloat. Oh, yeah, God is doing a lot for us, but believe me, He’s getting a lot of help…”
Carol, the Chief Business Administrator, chimed in with, “A lot of this is smoke and mirrors. We play pretty loose and fast with some information to keep the message positive. We count investment income and solicitated (sic) donations in our weekly giving to pump up the numbers. We take in new members every week and report those numbers, but we only remove members in February each year. This makes it look like we are growing 51 weeks out of the year. This year we’ve taken in over 1,000 new members, and that’s what we tell everyone. What we don’t tell anyone is that 650 have left. That won’t become “official” until next year. We also repeat count for our attendance figures each week – out total attendance includes over 100 people who are involved in the Saturday and three Sunday services. I am four of the 7,000 people who attend every week.”
I commented that the brochure reports that worship attendance is “12,000 + each week.” Carol answered, “We base that on our March to May count – we only count attendance for 10 weeks each year, but we make sure that includes Easter, Confirmation Sunday, and Mother’s Day. We also try to have most of our baptisms during this period. We learned this trick at a leadership training event at a big Texas church.”
At a Midwestern church fast approaching the 10,000 member mark, the pastor exudes an incredible aura of power, promise, and possibility. “We’re going to change the world. There is nothing my congregation can’t do. I am the shepherd of an amazing flock. I always feared that once we grew to a certain size, it wouldn’t feel like church anymore. Nothing could be further from the truth. I feel so at home here – this is nothing more than a big family. We get criticized for being so big and spending so much money on our campus, but people don’t realize we’re doing all of this for God, and that the more we have, the better job we can do. I am blessed to be here, and through my ministry I am able to bless so many others.” The COO (Chief Operations Officer) doesn’t agree and responds to the pastor’s words this way. “It would be nice to be a family, but most people here don’t know other people very well. Many are lucky to get to know the people in their small group. Size has a definite impact on relationships – we’re too big to spend much time on fellowship.” His wife adds, “Ed (her husband) and I have been here ten years. The pastor still doesn’t know my name. He is a very personable and friendly guy, but he hardly knows anyone here except the handful of people he works with on a weekly basis.” Ed picks up the thought – “We have a staff administrator and an administrative coordinator that actually run things. We want the pastor to preach and to be the face of the church. We really don’t let him mess with the running of day-to-day things. His ‘kitchen cabinet’ as we call it are a group of about a dozen people who he spends the majority of his time with. He doesn’t visit, he doesn’t attend meetings, and he doesn’t even have an office at the church. We want him shaking hands, talking to people, appearing at public events, writing articles and books, and preaching sermons. That’s what we need from the pastor. The rest of us can make the church work just fine. Pastor thinks of this as ministry, but we have to think of it as a business. Pastor casts the vision, but it’s our job to make sure it all happens.”
The worship leader of this church holds a very unique perspective for the congregation. “This whole church is built on our music ministry. We spend almost a million dollars a year on music here, and that’s cheap. People come to this church for the music. People gladly plop down $50 for music of this quality in a concert. They get it for half that – but even giving twenty bucks a week to the church, that means the music raises more than ten times what it costs every year. We’re selling CDs of our choirs and praise band, and a couple of our soloists. We’ve got digital downloads, and other churches in the area are playing our stuff. Our music ministry is the best thing going at this church.” Not once did the worship leader mention the pastor, his preaching, or any kind of larger vision for the church…
Not everyone from mega-churches are enamored with them. Speaking to a handful of people who have left mega-churches recently provides yet other points of view. Here are a handful of opinions:
- “We didn’t leave because we didn’t like it. We just got bored. We found another church that we’re very happy with. To the best of my knowledge, no one even knows we left the last church (six months ago).”
- “It was fun and exciting for awhile. It was easy to slip in when we wanted to, and it didn’t make a big difference if we were there or not. We were part of a ‘cell’ (small group) for awhile, and we liked it, but it just never really meant much to us.”
- “It got to be really phony. It was big and flashy and often felt like a Saturday Night Live sketch – but not intentionally, you know? Cell phones were going off, and all the crap up on the video screens were really annoying. It was noisy, and often really silly. My wife finally told me she wanted to find something more like what she had as a kid.”
- “The longer I went, the more I felt like it didn’t really have anything to do with God. I wasn’t learning anything. Everything was so basic and shallow. I wanted to hear about God and instead I heard about Oprah and Dr. Phil and the Dixie Chicks and all kinds of other s#!&. I just got tired of it.”
- “Actually? I think the church is great and I appreciate what they do, but I have lost interest. I found a group of people a lot like me and we pray and we read the Bible and we have these great discussions and as long as I have this, I really don’t need the church. I mean, I’m getting a whole lot more from my friends than I ever got from the church. I’ve read and discussed the Bible more in the past three months than I did in five years at the church. But I liked it, I really did.”
- “My wife and daughter and I were new to the area. We went to a time-share pitch on Saturday, and we came away with a coffee mug and brochures and refrigerator magnets and a box of candy. We went to this huge church on Sunday, and we came away with a coffee mug and brochures and refrigerator magnets and a loaf of bread. As we drove away my daughter said, ‘So, are we going to rent a church-share, or what?'”
The bottom line is that mega-churches are churches. Some are good, some not so much. Some offer depth, some nothing but shallow surface. Some are growing, some are declining. They are right for some people, but definitely not right for all people. And there is absolutely nothing qualitatively superior about the mega-church in general, no matter what their fans would have you believe. As with any church, it is essentially value-neutral as an organizational entity. What the church is, what it does, how it functions as Christ for the world, and the ways it makes the world more like the realm of God – these determine whether it is good or bad.
The focus on the mega-church reveals a lot about contemporary North American culture and Western societal norms. We are impressed by immense size, pretty colors, loud sounds, abundant wealth, big buildings, and anything smacking of celebrity. Mega-churches feed our insatiable hunger for the noisy, sparkly, flashy, busy, and big. And as long as all this results in a meaningful and transformative relationship with God, fine. However, it is also important to remember that the vast majority of people who speak of deeply transformative and lasting spiritual experiences do not talk about the church – they speak of special people, places, and events where God became real to them. Rarely do these experiences take place in a church building. More often they occur in intimate relationships, special circumstances, sacred spaces, and at unexpected times. It may be a much more productive use of our time to think of ways to build strong relationships and make creative space than to build big churches with highly structured programs.
Hundreds of thousands of people enjoy the mega-church. A growing segment of American culture, however, is looking for something else. Among Christian spiritual seekers currently unconnected to any formal congregation, 81% say they would not be interested in any congregation larger than 75 members. They seek intimacy, rather than anonymity. They want close relationships with partners on the journey of faith, not a crowd sitting near them in an enormous worship space. They want full engagement in formation and service, instead of a passive attendance at a praise service. They seek opportunities to lead, and are not interested in organizations where their gifts aren’t much needed. The reality is that there is not only room for the widest possible diversity of churches by size, shape, theology, and color, but there is NEED for them. Whether or not your church is a good church ultimately boils down to POV.