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Monday, April 24, 2006

Left Behind in a MegaChurch World

[The Post and Courier] Ruth Tucker has a new book out entitled "Left Behind in a MegaChurch World:  How God Works Through Ordinary Churches".  Read this review and let's hear your opinions:

Part of what we perceive as failure in the church today doesn't have anything to do with size. The old world of church power, writes author Ruth Tucker, ended on a Sunday evening in 1963.

The setting was Greenville. That night, in defiance of the state's time-honored blue laws, the Fox Theater opened Sunday and seven Methodist teens slipped out the back door of their nearby church to see John Wayne.

No longer propped up by culture or tradition, small, "left-behind" churches now are living in the shadow of the superstores of spirituality: the megachurch, writes Tucker, author of 17 books and missions professor at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Mich.

In comparing the megachurch movement with the small church, Tucker draws on extensive research and personal experiences: as the wife of a minister who pastored small churches and as a seminary professor forced to write her own texts for courses on the challenges such churches face.

Her left-behind profile will sound familiar to the small-church parishioner despairing over dwindling membership, an aging congregation, rundown facilities, committee burnout and the like.

The left-behind congregation, she writes, has a strong sense of ownership and memory and is set on preserving traditions. It has no need for five- or 10-year plans. It knows its future: Rally Day in September to kick off the Sunday school year, homecoming in the fall.

It may nurture a faithful and steady spirit: Someone is always there to fix a squeaky door, and so-and-so can be depended on to teach the kindergarten Sunday school every year. But it's also harder to get fresh blood in key positions held down by longtime, but no longer effective, parishioners.

So why do some left-behind churches thrive and others die? Tucker says some dead churches are dead not by competition, but by cold formalism. Some are slain over internal battles or simply decay from old age. Others suffer from resistance to change or laziness. Neighborhoods change, and churches move elsewhere.

Some left-behind churches are turned into megachurches. Perhaps, some - rigidly fundamental and racist - deserve to die.

As the left-behind churches decline in numbers, they also decline in self-confidence. Enthusiasm evaporates, buildings decay, pianos go untuned. If a small congregation is lucky enough to get a good pastor, it likely will lose him to a bigger church soon enough.

And then there's Goliath. "The Wal-Mart church," Tucker writes, "sometimes sucks the lifeblood out of the left-behind churches."

As she points out, when Wal-Mart comes to town, everyone knows what happens to small shops on Main Street.

The bottom line, she says, is that superchurches have changed the landscape of religion.

A new generation of worshippers no longer is tied to the neighborhood church or to their grandparents' denomination. In a consumer-driven society, churchgoers "shop" for the best deal.

But Tucker offers words of encouragement to religion's biggest losers, stating that the left-behind congregations, living in the shadow of the Crystal Cathedrals, may be doing a better job of following Jesus' Great Commission.

She heaps praise on the hundreds of unsung, ordinary churches she's visited across America that embrace their roles as servants. It is in these churches, Tucker explains, that Christianity is played out in quiet ways, through clothes closets, food pantries and other forms of benevolence. People generally are closer, and there's an authentic sense of family and community. In many rural areas, the church even serves as a community center.

Small-church ministers can find the best opportunities for pastoral care, bonding with and mentoring their flock. Women, too, have more opportunities to take leadership roles, she writes.

One of the most surprising comparisons concerns youths. In the megachurch, young people have their own building and programs created to keep them constantly entertained. But there are some who would question the long-term spiritual benefits. The more deeply youths identify with youth programs, the weaker the chances they will remain in the church as adults, Tucker writes.

While in small congregations, multigenerations sit together in pews. Out of necessity, young people are active participants, serving as ushers, nursery workers, singing in the choir. This gives them a sense of belonging that follows through adulthood.

When you think about it, she argues, Jesus doesn't easily fit into the fashionable, megachurch mentality of the 21st century. "It is possible that a genuine left-behind church in its humble authenticity points to Jesus in a way that no megachurch, with all its user-friendliness, could. The first shall be last."

So Tucker questions whether the issue of relevancy can turn things around and whether smaller churches should replicate the big programs or worship styles, thus serving as megachurch "farm teams."

Instead, she believes survival can be found only in the early church model, the church as an authentic countercultural force that finds a way to bring together social concerns and spiritual fulfillment.

Revitalization, she writes, begins when Christians behave the way Christians should behave, reaching out in love and service to hurting people.

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April 24, 2006 in Megachurches | Permalink

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...oh boy...

Rick Warren!

Bill Hybels!

Andy Stanley!

Purpose Driven Everything!

Quick! Everyone fortify your positions! The naysayers are coming!


....just wanted the first time these terms are going to be used to be somewhat humorous...

Posted by: Matt | Apr 24, 2006 10:24:44 AM

Interesting. As an ordinary church, surrounded by megachurches, there is some food for thought. This isn't an anti-mega article as much as a "smaller church must re-focus" encouragement.

Re: youth ministry. I think the author is correct. By having a seperate ministry, we also segregate it. I have had youth from a megachurch visit our church with friends--they got up incessantly during worship because the youth worship at their church was tolerant of that. i.e., they had no experience in worshipping with the rest of the congregation. Then they hit their 20's, get kicked out of youth worship, and can't find their place in the larger body because of the segregation.

Posted by: bishopdave | Apr 24, 2006 11:25:11 AM

"Revitalization, she writes, begins when Christians behave the way Christians should behave, reaching out in love and service to hurting people."

I agree. And my personal experience with hundreds of churches has shown that many (not all, of course) of the smaller churches - especially the older ones - are more inward focused than outward focused. Therefore, this inward focus, coupled against the resources and typical outward focus of many mega churches, means that more outreach and help for hurting people is currently happening at either mega churches or healthy smaller churches.

Again, I fail to see "either/or" here. It's both/and - we need the small and large churches together to reach out, reach up and reach in.

Posted by: Anthony D. Coppedge | Apr 24, 2006 11:32:15 AM

To start with, this is a REVIEW of the book, right? I'm just wondering if, when & where the person writing the review crosses over from reviewer to commentator? At what point does the article truly reflect what Tucker's written and were is the reviewer reflecting their perception/opinion of the book's subject and information?
Maybe there's more substance to Mrs. Tucker's book but my initial take from the review is that this is just another "MegaChurch, Bad! Walmart, Evil! opinion....(yawn)
I serve in a small church and yes, we exibit several of the characteristics that might place us in the "religions biggest losers" bracket (sheesh) but I don't hate bigger churches and quite honestly, I don't have the time to do so. Whether mega, medium or small, all churches have their issues and problems. Quite frankly, I think we create many of them ourselves through our own personal and/or corporate selfishness. I'm always reminding our folks, this isn't about you or me...it's about HIM!!! There's nothing selfish to be found at the foot of The Cross! Now, if I will start taking my own admonition more to heart...I might could start getting somewhere!
On another point, as jaded as it might sound, I do have my suspicions as to what churches fall into the "rigidly fundimental and racist" that "deserve to die" catagory of either the reviewer or Mrs. Tucker.
Hummmmm...just wondering.
Ben E.

Posted by: Ben E. | Apr 24, 2006 1:01:03 PM

I don't know about the "Mega-Church Bad" and "Wal-mart is evil" view of some. There are healthy mega-churches and healthy small churches. The reality in America is the perception that big is equated with success and small is equated with failure by some.

It is good for someone to study the reality of small church life ... warts and all. The good things that are happening for the cause of Christ can be passed on to other small churches. Maybe a couple books that lay out the pluses and minuses of small churches well written could be the basis of a study in small churches that can be used in self-examination. This could help many small churches over come their tendency to be internally focused and also relieve them of the sense of "failure" they impose upon themselves in the shadows of mega-churches.

Posted by: Dan Moore | Apr 25, 2006 10:50:15 AM

If you are a parent or have a parent, you have probably either said or heard, "If you want to grow up to be big and strong, you have to eat your vegetables." Now imagine yourself as a parent of a child who has been diagnosed with dwarfism (a genetic condition resulting in short stature - http://www.dwarfism.org/ ), would you say the same thing? After all, you know your child will never grow big, no matter how many vegetables he eats. In the same way, some kids are going to grow up to be "giants" (again, I think there's an actual medical condition but I couldn't find it quickly). A parent of such a child would likely never say, "don't eat so much, you'll get too big." Neither being a dwarf nor being a giant is a moral issue; one can do things the other can't, and both can do many of the same things.

Now let's come back to the church world. Size is a description, not a moral issue. I would suggest that when size becomes a value in and of itself, that is a problem (and I have talked with churches that have that problem). But big churches aren't any better or worse than small churches, nor are small churches any better or worse than big churches. Each type can do some things that the other can't, but both can do a lot of the same things.

I don't buy the argument that every church that's "doing everything right" will grow numerically and certainly not that it will grow exponentially or has the potential to be a Willow Creek or Saddleback. I wish we could get away from this emphasis on size and focus on being the people (and the churches) the God wants us to be. That might mean explosive growth for a small church, it might mean reproducing additional small churches; it might mean rapid numeric decline for a megachurch, and it might mean reproducing additional megachurches.

Posted by: Randy Ehle | Apr 25, 2006 12:39:51 PM

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