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Friday, September 09, 2005

Megachurches: The Concerns

Megachurches Michael Hines has a great blog and he recently did a very well thought-out piece on megachurches.  He listed seven positives about megachurches and seven concerns he has about large churches.  I thought we'd break this down into a two-part series since there is some great stuff here.  Yesterday, we looked at the positives; today we look at his concerns:

1. Large churches are tempted to make "the show" the thing. Can it always be said that a worship service must be a major production of Hollywood quality? I attended workshops at the Ginghamsburg Church, a Methodist mega-church near Dayton, where they gave us insight into worship planning. It came across as a production meeting for a live TV show, which, for all intents and purposes, it was. As a result, what should be a participatory experience of worship becomes a show. I keep thinking about all those passages in the prophets where God lets Israel know he despises their shows (sacrifices and feast days) because their heart really isn't right.

2. Large churches are tempted to "compromise" for the sake of numbers. Whether or not some of our mega-churches have abandoned the Restoration Movement's strong stand on biblical authority, there is a tendency to "soften" the rhetoric. Now that's not all bad, but when the motive for softening the rhetoric is to avoid offense doesn't it become an effort to merely "tickle ears"? Then there is the motive that undergirds the effort. All too often "we want to sound like everyone else" so others will think "we're like everyone else." Israel got in trouble with that when they wanted a king like everyone else. You see, if we sound like evangelicals or good Baptists, the evangelicals and the Baptists will stop accusing us of being a cult or being something really wierd like "water regenerationists." Then everyone will "like us" and more will come to our services.

3. Large churches confuse relationship with discipleship. Sunday School or Bible School is passe at least for adults. The important thing is establishing relationships. The theory is that those who make friends (relationships) stay. Its more than a theory, it is a truth and every church needs to develop means by which its members can develop relationships. But let's be honest about it. The main concern here is "shutting the back door" and retaining members so the numbers look good. Christian formation is a secondary concern. So the mega-churches downplay Sunday School -- after all, building facilities for adult classes is expensive -- and emphasize Small Groups. I am uncategorically for small groups, but small groups are for relationship building and accountability. They do not and cannot teach biblical content nor do they effectively stimulate genuine discipleship. Discipleship has to do with "forming Christ in me." Somehow the early church passed on content as well as developed biblical relationships. How did they do it? The model is found in 2 Timothy 2:2. Somebody qualified taught others. Church leaders and teachers responsibly passed on correct doctrine. Part of that doctrinal teaching had to do with "loving one another as I [Christ] have loved you."

4. Large churches are vision oriented rather than people-oriented. In many, but not all, cases the vision boils down to the ABCs of church life -- Attendance, Buildings, and Cash. The church becomes a corporate structure with directors (elders) and officers (the staff) and a CEO (the senior minister). The vision shapes the programs and the success of the program is measured in Attendance, Buildings, and Cash. The few whose lives really do change become "poster boys or girls" for what the program can do, but the real success is measured by "the many" rather than "the few." What ever happened to the New Testament picture of an elder as a shepherd? The word poimene, or pastor, is a word applied to the elder rather than the preacher (unless, of course he is also an elder). It is time for the church to get back to the biblical picture of an elder as shepherd and care-giver rather than executive. The same goes for the preacher and his staff!

5. Large churches often assimilate their culture rather than affect the culture. Although the early church always faced cultural challenges from without, the wide-spread acceptance of Christianity exacerbated the problems. When thousands poured into the church after Constantine, they brought with them many of their heathen practices and ideas. In many cases, the church merely "baptized" those practices and made them somewhat Christian. Since those days, the church has continued to assimilate the culture. According to Wolfe's The Transformation of the American Church, today's church has become so encrusted with the culture it is hardly different. Barna reports that moral conditions within and without the church are roughly equivalent. Somehow the church has forgotten its calling to be "a peculiar people." We use the culture's music, the culture's methods, and the culture's values to market our product but the product is often confused with that offered by today's cultural gurus.

6. Large churches equate "feeling" with commitment. One of the staff members from Southeast Christian Church told me that when they got into their most recent structure, there was an attendance jump of about 3,000 a Sunday. Those making decisions streamed down the aisle in record numbers leaving those responsible for assimilation feel overwhelmed. When asked why they had responded to the invitation, many of those who came said "they wanted to be part of an exciting church." "Just once," I was told, "I would lie to hear someone say they came forward because they wanted to make Jesus Lord." In my view, that's quite an indictment. You see, the feeling of excitement and the dynamics of a service motivated decision rather than commitment to Christ. We are often told that today's people want to feel God or experience God in their worship. These statements represent an emphasis on feeling rather than commitment. You see, one can go home feeling good, feeling excited, and feeling motivated but when the feelings die then .... You see, there is little genuine contentment in a feeling. In my view, real commitment means accepting a truth and when that truth is accepted and lived out then things feel right!

7. Large churches can become sources of pride. While I rejoice over every individual brought to Christ in our larger churches (or smaller ones for that matter), our tendency to list and display "our mega-churches" is rapidly becoming a source of pride. We are pointing to the fact that Restoration mega-churches, by percentage, out pace the mega-churches of every other religious group in this country. In other words, by percentage of congregations there are more Christian Church mega-churches than Baptist mega-churches, or Nazarene mega-churches, or Methodist mega-churches. We are close to saying, "See what we have done!" Others may think, "God must be blessing us more than others because we have more mega-churches by percentage than any other group." Didn't our chests expand a bit when we heard some of the major media noted that the Christian Churches and Churches of Christ were the second fastest growing religious group in the USA, right behind the Mormons!!

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Some interesting topics. Here's my thoughts:

1. Large churches are tempted to make "the show" the thing.
I think this can be akin to confusing the messenger with the message. The vehicle used in a "show" (I call it "production") format is that taking the time to create weekend experiences (holistic) instead of just weekend services (silo) is the motivation. I'm not suggesting making it "slick". Instead, I'm saying supporting the seamless integration of teaching, music, media and servers (ushers, greeters, hospitality, parking attendants, etc.) so that from the parking lot to the pulpit, the atmosphere is one that engages (participatory vs. passive) the attendee.

When done with the right motivations and in the right context, this type of production mindset allows for a lot of engaging and teachable moments (better retention of the message).

However, it is critical that all involved understand that if the Holy Spirit decides to change things up, we all have to be OK with ditching our well-worked production plans. Said another way: it's easier to ditch a comprehensive plan than it is to create an engaging experience on the spur of the moment.

2. Large churches are tempted to "compromise" for the sake of numbers.
In my experience in consulting with churches of all sizes, I don't see this as the norm. What I see are passionate, focused churches meeting the needs of their community and growing by default. Let's fact it, if you're doing things well, growth begets growth (and this has something to do - but not entirely - with point #6).

3. Large churches confuse relationship with discipleship.
Here my consulting experiences show that this is often true. However, the differences I see are those churches that put an equal emphasis on small groups (cell groups, home teams, etc.) AND discipleship classes led by qualified leaders. It's not an either/or - it's both/and.

4. Large churches are vision oriented rather than people-oriented.
I thought this one was interesting. The ABC's that you describe are accurate for many of the "old" mega-churches (big Southern Baptist ones in particular, from my experience) than the new ones. For example, Seacoast takes the ABC theory and blasts it to smithereens. They don't have big massive buildings. They have lots of smaller buildings!

In my mind, I think this is an old-school vs. new school mentality.

5. Large churches often assimilate their culture rather than affect the culture.
Hmmmmm. Jesus spoke to the crowds in Aramaic - the street language of the day - not in classical Greek. Jesus spoke in parables - stories - whenever he taught.

Jump forward 2,000 years. We're talking the street language of the day - not just using slang, per se, but also speaking the metaphorical language of the day: media. And look at our culture here in the U.S. - it's a COMPLETELY story-driven culture. Movies. TV shows. Talk shows. Even news (tonight's big story is...). Our culture relates - no, EXPECTS - stories. We're much better educated than the majority of people from Jesus' day, but we still like to learn from simple stories. Things that make you go Hmmmmmmm.

6. Large churches equate "feeling" with commitment.
This is definitely a trap that I see a lot of churches - and not just mega ones - fall into. But rather than point fingers and say "Ah-ha! You came forward because you want to be a part of something exciting! You heathen!", what if we allow them to come forward, but then have them go through a newcomers/assimilation class where we make sure they understand the "why's" of joining and of their personal decisions. It's not inherently bad for people to want to join because it's exciting. But it's bad if we stop there without then providing a chance for open discussion and questions.

7. Large churches can become sources of pride.
Yes. Large churches can become a source of pride. But so can small churches, or for that matter, some of the nay-sayers of the mega church/multi-site church movement. Comments like "at our (non-mega) church, we put a lot more emphasis on discipleship. In fact our members are so deep, we often find ourselves...". Pride isn't limited to big. Pride is limited to people.

Good stuff, Todd. Thanks for letting us share.

My 3 cents (increased due to gas prices),

Anthony D. Coppedge

Posted by: Anthony D. Coppedge | Sep 9, 2005 9:49:46 AM

I resisted any comments on the first post while waiting for the second.

I have nothing to say. Very balanced perspective to consider as our church grows. May we take advantage of the postives and avoid the negatives.

Posted by: PJLR | Sep 9, 2005 11:17:05 AM


Thanks much for finally showing "the other side of the coin." Suggestion for the future: rather than putting out purely positive or negative pieces, try to be balanced in each piece (positives and negatives on each topic). Just my 3 cents also...


Posted by: Bernie Dehler | Sep 9, 2005 12:39:20 PM

Anthony - Amen.
#1 Yes, God despised the shows because their hearts weren’t right. But that has nothing to do with mega or smaller churches. It wasn’t the show God despised but the wrong heart – Big difference. This reminds me of those who think the Bible says money is the root of all evil rather than the love of it.

#2 Softening the rhetoric should always have been considered in preaching. Just how many people have come to services through the years to never return because the rhetoric was too hard. It goes both ways. I’d rather have someone come through the door and not be offended. At least then they can be open to the Word... and there is nothing wrong with “they will like us more and will come to our services.” You don’t want that?

#3 Without a long discussion – do you really believe that biblical content & genuine discipleship can’t happen in small groups? You haven’t been in the small groups that I have been in.

#4 Any church that isn’t people-oriented isn’t likely to grow. Being vision oriented and people oriented can be compatible.
Nothing wrong with the shepherd as an example...it was a major ‘job’ then as it is in a few places now. There is nothing inherently wrong with the so-called business/corporate structure. If there was it wouldn’t be used. The staff of mega churches just aren’t that naïve.

#5 I can’t agree that the church has forgotten the calling to be “a peculiar people.” What’s peculiar is that the vast majority of churches are so peculiar they are shrinking in size and many more are closing then starting.... Where's the great commission in that?

#6 It’s well known that churches will have larger crowds when they add a service or have new facilities. Maybe a few people got their feelings wrong ... but that can happen in any size church. My experience with new Christians is that much of what occurs initially is based on feelings. Real commitment takes time. If anyone thinks that any large number of folks accepting Christ at SCC are doing so out of feelings/excitement...then those ‘anyones’ just have not heard the preaching there.

#7 Pride – Any size church can become a pride problem. The structure of the individual churches and certainly the ‘denominations have a major influence on any churches' size. Many churches and some denominations really have been structured to prevent the creation of a large congregation. The Christian Church has been structured to encourage growth.

Posted by: Paul Porter | Sep 9, 2005 1:13:37 PM

You know what would make for a really balanced treatment of the subject? Seven positives and seven negatives of small churches.

Posted by: Gerry | Sep 9, 2005 9:19:55 PM

Gerry wrote:
"You know what would make for a really balanced treatment of the subject? Seven positives and seven negatives of small churches."

Gerry, the alternative to a mega-church is not a small church, but a reasonable church.


Posted by: bernie dehler | Sep 9, 2005 11:23:46 PM


Now earlier this week, you wrote:

"I have no problem with large churches."

Then you tore apart 6 of the 7 positives of larger churches that the write wrote of; and confirmed each of the 7 concerns of the large church.

Now you're saying that the alternative to a large church is a 'reasonable church'.

I'm sorry, I think you DO have a problem with large churches. That's fine... some people just don't like large churches, but at least admit it. And, I think you have to admit too, that some large churches (not all) carry out God's work and are effective in what God's called them to do. Just like many small and 'reasonable' churches do. :)


Posted by: Todd Rhoades | Sep 10, 2005 8:48:19 AM

Bernie, Bernie, Bernie...

I attended Willow Creek for 9 years and found it to be a very reasonable church... grace-filled and with a breadth of ministry that helped me heal through a divorce, a grace and a breadth I have seldom found in smaller churches. You have issues. At least find a small church that can help you deal with them!

Posted by: Gerry | Sep 10, 2005 11:02:36 AM

I attend a large church and was reluctant to do so. Truthfully, the only reason I joined was because that's the one my husband wanted to join. Wow, have I been surprised. There is no watering down of the message or ministry. In fact, the message is stronger than in the small churches I was at before. I believe the allure of the megachurch comes from a society that is ingrained in the corporate work culture. What's comfortable during the week carries over to the weekend. In the large city where I live, that's just the way life is. Small churches don't equate to the way we live our lives around here. I've learned that big isn't necessarily bad.
And I've found my opportunities for ministry expanded beyond anything I'd ever imagined at this church.
Does the large church have faults? Sure, it's run by human beings!

Posted by: Shelly | Sep 10, 2005 7:41:14 PM

A few weeks ago, a friend I worked with stopped in my OFFICE to visit. He started to talk about his church. He spoke of the choir and the awesome Easter pageant they put on last Easter. He spoke of the cruise that the Singles Class was planning to go on and also described the new gym addition they had made to the church. He went on for about 35 minutes, taking few breaths in between sentences. I had to interrupt him, as he was on a roll. I told him he had spent the last 30 minutes telling me about his "church". Now, I wanted him to tell me about his GOD. My friend nervously looked at his watch, stammered and excused himself, something about the time......So much for big churches...Or maybe, too much emphasis on social things and very little on the things of the LORD...Joel Osteen has a very very large church...I like him, he is cute, witty, smiles a lot and very seldom, IF EVER, have I heard him preach Hell-Fire-and Brimstone....He is a Christian "Anthony Robbins". He is a motivational speaker..Which is good, but pink fuzzies won't keep you out of Hell-- they won't get you to Heaven....God is a loving God, but He also is a just God and he will judge each one of us one of these days, no one can get out of that appointment...What do we do when God tells us to depart because He never knew us? I don't think the pink fuzzies, the big church, the little church will help then....Do you? So bickering over big or small churches is not the real problem. We must ask ourselves, "What is my motive?" Our hearts must be right with God...What anyone else thinks is of no consequence...There is consequences with what God thinks though....

Posted by: Anne | Sep 11, 2005 5:53:23 AM

I think that this article would have been better titled "Churches: The Concerns." I don't know why people always try to shoehorn megachurches into a "compromise the gospel to get more people" shoe. I know MORE small churches that have compromised than large. I am from CT, which in someways is very spiritually dead, and the large churches are the ones that are actually doing something. Yeah, churches have problems...but I think once they figure things out, they grow. Look at how many people Jesus taught, 5,000 plus women & children. And I guess people criticized that too.

Posted by: Judah | Sep 13, 2005 10:56:12 AM

I think that this article would have been better titled "Churches: The Concerns." I don't know why people always try to shoehorn megachurches into a "compromise the gospel to get more people" shoe. I know MORE small churches that have compromised than large. I am from CT, which in someways is very spiritually dead, and the large churches are the ones that are actually doing something. Yeah, churches have problems...but I think once they figure things out, they grow. Look at how many people Jesus taught, 5,000 plus women & children. And I guess people criticized that too.

Posted by: Judah | Sep 13, 2005 10:57:41 AM

Most of the comments posted relating to my piece on mega-churches are quite perceptive and all have merit. All congregations have positives and negatives. Part of a minister's task is to emphasize the positive and build on it, then seek to eliminate the negative. Critical guns can be aimed in all directions. It may be that some (or all) of my observations are not true in every respect. Sadly, articles such as mine tend to stereotype because in one way or another the stereotypes often fit. Congregations have to be taken individually just like people! I just assembled a list of what I've seen. No one needs to agree with me in all my observations ... or at all, for that matter.

Posted by: Michael Hines | Sep 13, 2005 8:24:05 PM

I think too many people are jealous because their church or fellowship has not or is not growing like some other church that are considered to be mega churches. I think that a vision oriented pastor can be as effective and can motivate Gods people to be-do- and know what God requires then to be. It is not the size of the church that matters it is the direction in which they are going. And how effective that church is in meeting the needs of its people. Lets get together as a body of CHRIST to learn what e can from each other rather than tear each other down because someone is not like you, or is doing ministry another way....and is effective and successful.

Posted by: Nevalon Mitchell,Jr. | Sep 19, 2005 10:37:06 AM

I appreciated the two presentations aspect of this article.

It is interesteing that people want their experience to be validated. The "first Church" grew without all of the "stuff" that we are told needs to exist for the Church to grow, and be effective.

It seems like it is more trendy to win Man's favor, than to win Women and Men to God. Do Churches with muliti-million dollar budgets make more Disciples per dollar spent than the smaller churches?

Should this be about saving the lost or besting (and boasting) about attendance, budgets, # of Staff, Size of facility etc.

As one point Jesus quit healing people (closed the show), because he had a greater purpose. He waited for just "the right time" and died for all mankind (Humankind).

More fire and less smoke!

I was glad to see that someone is still presenting the Restoration Movement!

Thanks for the articles and link!

Posted by: Mike McNamara, PsyD | Sep 20, 2005 4:29:27 PM


I do and don't have problems with mega-churches. For example, I've never visited Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa, but it might be defined as a mega-church. Of all the Christian denominations, Calvary Chapel is my favorite. Maybe I'm naive, but maybe they are large because they are so right-on.

Gerry, about Willow Creek, I have no idea... no personal in-depth knowledge of them... or Saddleback.

What really sickens me is the churches that want to be large, for largeness sake. There's a lot of false humility and ego problems underlying it all.

Let me boil it down to this mindset: if you want to grow thru multiplication, plant a church. If you want to grow by addition, build a mega-church. What problem do you have with that statement?

Another reason why I tend to HATE megachurches, in general, is because they tend to promote "Churchianity" rather than true Christianity (corrupting the Gospel). Keeping the main institution alive takes so much money and time that outreach is severely affected. Then they bring in false teaching about tithing in order to bring in money, to add insult to injury. From experience, they usually also have a "big tent" mentality, which means tolerating all kinds of evil teachings like the prosperity gospel, because they don't want to offend anyone (the donors).


Posted by: Bernie Dehler | Sep 20, 2005 7:23:12 PM

It would be interesting to really run the comparison between the small churches who cater to the ones who are giving the money; and the large churches who cater to the ones who are giving the money. My guess is (only because I've seen it over and over and over again)... many (if not most) churches are run by two committees: Finance and Property; and those people very much 'protect their own' if you know what I mean. Or if you want to read it this way: they 'protect the donors'.

Posted by: Todd Rhoades | Sep 20, 2005 7:39:58 PM

#1. The Bible calls for the church to have order. I think the mega churches need to prepare for services like a production - it would be difficult to pull off a service that involves so many people and so many aspects unless it is highly organized. As long as the actual service is only like a production in the preparation aspect alone. If properly organized before-hand, the service itself should have the freedom to be a wonderful, Spirit-filled and - yes, flexible - time with the Lord.
#5 I believe our faith and doctrine is what makes us a peculiar people, not the music we use in expressing it or any other cultural aspect - as long as it doesn't compromise our belief system or contradict the Word, it should be okay.

Thanks everyone for such great comments and insight. The Church should consistantly be examining itself to make sure it is without spot or blemish and these were great topics to mull over. God bless you all and thanks for all the great comments.

Posted by: Helena | Sep 21, 2005 10:26:49 AM

There is usually good content in pulpit ministry, especially in larger churches, but the dynamic between Pastor and people is effective if and when the Pastor is visiting his people in their homes and work-places, building relationships and getting to know their needs. Then and only then can sermon preparation/planning/prayer be what it should be. Up-front talent and resulting entertainmentism/cultic Pastor-worship is replacing spiritual shepherding.

Posted by: Charles George | Sep 27, 2005 8:28:52 PM

Being a member of a mega church, I would have to agree with most, if not all of what was said in this article. The one thing I would like to add is that many of the mega churches I have observed are "program" driven. They play to the wants and needs of the people. They are able to offer programs that small churches cannot due to their budget. In a "me" driven society this is very appealing. It is also interesting to note that the Pareto Principle still applies even in the mega church. Twenty percent of the people are still doing eighty percent of the work. People love to say they are members of the mega church, and love what it offers them. However, the problem that exists in churches of all sizes still persists. Until we all come to the point where we say, "I love what I can do for the church and God", and not, "I love what the church can do for me" we will never have strong and vibrant churches that glorify God. In all the comments on this article I rarely saw where anyone argued the fact that God was at work in their church. No matter the size of your church, just allow God to be the focal point and do His work, and not just look busy.

Posted by: Tim | Oct 17, 2005 1:58:59 PM

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