May 24, 2019

Thom Rainer on Megachurch Trends

The churches in the U.S. that get the most public attention are the megachurches. Dr. Thom Rainer, the president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources (SBC), is a leader in a denomination that has always put the spotlight on large and growing congregations. In a recent article, Rainer listed seven trends he sees in megachurches today:

1. Further consolidation of people attending church in megachurches and other large churches. Currently more than 50 percent of church attendees attend the largest 10 percent of churches. Megachurches continue to draw people from small and mid-sized churches.

2. A significant increase in the number of megachurches in America. There are about 1600 megachurches in the U.S. today, compared to 50 in 1970. The rate of growth has recently been decreasing. Will this trend continue?

3. An increased interest in the long-term sustainability of the megachurch. Rainer notes that the ten largest U.S. churches in 1969 are not among the largest today. Will the megachurch model be sustainable?

4. More youthful megachurch pastors. The average age of a megachurch pastor today is 47. Twenty five megachurches have pastors younger than 38. In contrast to the older pattern of pastors climbing a career ladder from smaller to larger churches, today there is a definite movement younger.

5. More multi-venue, multi-campus churches. “Large” doesn’t necessarily mean large at one location. Rainer sees churches building smaller facilities, but more of them.

6. A greater interest in groups. Small groups of various kinds continue to play a key role for assimilating people and getting them involved in megachurches.

7. A greater interest in the source of growth of megachurches. Rainer suggests that megachurches will do even more in-depth analysis of how and why they are growing. Is it transfer growth? Unchurched Christians returning to church? Evangelism growth?

* * *

I think it is fair to say that many of us who write, read, and comment here on Internet Monk are not big fans of megachurches for a variety of reasons. In our discussion today, I’d like for us to try and avoid blanket critiques. Instead, let’s think about these congregations and why they continue to multiply and grow and have influence in our culture. Share some thoughts about the megachurches you have observed in your own communities. What is happening in them, and in what directions do you see them heading?

I have special interest in the question of sustainability. What do you see megachurches doing to ensure their survival and continued relevance over the long haul?

Comments

  1. I should be in bed…especially with everything that has just happened.

    BUT…let me take a crack at this….

    I’ve been away from the mega church scene for nearly 4 years. The last time I stepped foot in one was in 2009. When I was involved in mega churches what drove me nuts was their obsession with growth. People would be falling through the cracks, they couldn’t get invovled in Bible studies, mission trips, etc.. And I would go to church and hear “growth, growth, growth…” Execuse me McLean Bible but why should you grow more in the Washington, D.C. area when you arn’t even taking care of the problems you have now? What you think those problems will disappear with more growth? No….they intensify.

    Why are megachruches focused on growth. In the words of that famous porn charachter Deep Throat infamous in leaking iformation to Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post during Watergate: Christianity..

    “Follow the Money..”

    I think many mega churches are fixated on growth becuase they want more money. They can get that through new members who can tithe. It works like this…mainstream evangelicalism in mega churches encourages mega chruch growth so as to get money through tithing and new members. Whereas the neo-refromed do chruch plants in white, afflunet areas becuase they also are addicted to money, and with their authorterian tithing policies they can hold more people by their…eh well. Use your imagination! 😉

    Another trend I saw when I was in the mega church movement was their duplication of American business practices. Mega churches reminded me more and more of business franchises. They operated as a business model, looked at the bottom line, focused on numbers of people, how many Bible studies, etc.. It was similar to what I saw when i worked Marketing and Sales in the automotive industry. Worse…some churches like Groescehll’s actually CUT the bottom 10% of people who are not productive. That reminds me of the infamous GE CEO Jack Welch who cuts the bottom 10% each year. And this was in a produtive, and highly competitve corporate culture. Some of the people I knew worked at GE..and they didn’t kick up their feet and drink coffee. No they were workaholics trying to make sure they were not in the 10% but they never knew.

    • Eagle, I’m not sure you were if you were in the hospital when this broke, but the whole “Spring Training” message from Mark Driscoll is exactly what I hear you saying. I still know people who have been changed for the better at the local mega church, but overall…I’ll have to agree with you.

      It’s a temptation I face at my small church. Not just in my own heart but the heart of our long time membership. “We need more money to do more ministry so we need more people to come to fund our ministry, so we can reach more people…etc.,etc.”

      hmmm

    • Kathy hickey says

      If you are referring to Craig Groscell, I recently attended a Life Church in Oklahoma City (NOT in an affluent part of town). When it was time to take up the offering, the campus pastor (Chris Bealle), announced in an understated gentle way, “If you are in need of food, shelter or clothing, please take what you need as the bucket passes by you.”

      I don’t think money is the bottom line for THAT church!

    • I agree, Eagle. Too many churches (even some of the small and medium sized ones) seem obsessed with growth, which is not, ironically, good for growth in the long run.

      I don’t go to local churches much anymore, but I watch a lot of Christian television (I don’t agree with most of it, since most TV Christianity is Prosperity Gospel false teaching), but I’ve noticed that the pastors who are interviewed on Christian TV harp on endlessly about growth, how to attract new people, winning souls to Christ, and how to reach the youth.

      Obviously, the Bible says Christians are to spread the Gospel to the unsaved, so that is fine – but – when a church is absolutely fixated on growth, or only on converting the unsaved, or even on meeting the needs of the unsaved (such as operating a soup kitchen), they tend to ignore those who are already members, which causes the older (as in age 35 and up) to leave church.

      This is a huge problem and is discussed in the book “Quitting Church” by author Julia Duin. People now in their mid 30s and up who have been attending churches for 10 – 30 or more years are fed up and stop attending.

      All the “seeker friendly” gimmicks do nothing to mature or to elp Christians who are already mature in the faith, who may be struggling with problems or doubts about God, and the preachers of “seeker friendly” churches offer watered-down, “basic Christianity 101” sermons. That stuff is fine for “baby Christians” who have just converted at the age of 20 or 25, but what if you are 35 / 45 / older, and you are having a faith crisis or some kind of trouble, such as imposing divorce, you can’t get a spouse, you have been diagnosed with cancer, whatever? You need and want to hear more serious sermons of substance.

  2. What is the difference between a megachurch with multiple “campuses,” and a denomination? Is the worldwide Catholic Church a mega-church?

    • No. Catholic Churches are set up as parishes, and their placement determined by the controlling Diocese (these have a Bishop in charge, and can be large and spread out…such as in Montana……oour smaller and dense in highly Catholic areas such as the northeast).

      All Catholic Masses use the same readings and format, but otherwise parishes have their own sense of community and culture, from the large old fashioned parishes with dark wook, stained glass, and a conservative vibe, to those that have blond wood and a very friendly, laid back vibe. Much has to do with the choices and preferences of the assigned Pastor.

      Megachurches with multiple campuses have the same pastor, who is usually video-streamed into the smaller, new church. Here in my town, we have one of the grandaddy of the megachurches (Thomas Road Baptist, the Falwell legacy) and they have a satellite about 65 miles south of here.

      • Definitely on different parish cultures. It’s why it’s so traumatic when they have closures and mergers. Stats seem to show an average of a 10% dropoff in attendance among those whose parishes are closed/merged. I’ve seen it much higher in one case of a particularly poorly done merger.

    • This, exactly. There is well defined curriculum in services, education, and small group formation. There are well defined processes for handling any number of situations. Many megachurches are rightly defined by their head pastor, who is seen as a near-prophet and revered.

      My point would be, any organization that grows beyond “small” must formalize policies and practices and engage in a certain level of bureaucracy. Along those lines, I cannot fault larger churches. Willow Creek, whose main campus I attended for a number of years (ended being more for positive social outlet than Christian growth), managed to handle the policies and procedures while still fostering a nice sense of family. The turn off for me was that there WAS a defined curriculum to get “plugged in” (their term). Did I enjoy services? Yeah? Then go to the small group formation event! That’s the next step! I considered such a formal structure to be odd, given my upbringing in a relatively charismatic Lutheran church.

      I did also see the undue reverence towards Hybels and his inner circle of pastors, but was not directly involved in his services and largely ignored it.

      I attended Willow (and Harvest Bible Chapel, coincidentally) shortly before they began their “planting” operations, so I don’t have too much insight on that trend, other than to note that it obviously has taken off. Is this any different from how Wal Mart found success? They formalized policies and procedures proven to work well, and spread like wildfire finding success everywhere (nevermind the “poaching” effect they had on small local business).

      In this sense, megachurches are several years behind the trend which is now very much AGAINST corporate spread. The trend now in society is much more towards local sustainability (been to a Farmer’s market lately?). In a few years’ time I think this will happen with the megachurches as well. We’ll still see plants but likely “marketed” to look and feel like small town, local churches.

  3. From watching my local megachurch, a lot of attendees seem to like the sense of belonging while STILL being anonymous and not required to “do anything” except show up and be moved, entertained, and have an emotional expereince before lunch on Sunday. (For the homebound…or lazy…., the service is on the church and university’s cable TV channel for later viewing.)

    Every year there is a new “push” or theme, and members get the appropriate bumper stickers for their cars. [This year…..”Not I, but Christ”] It almost seems, at least to me, like joining a social club, and the bumper stickers are the ‘secret handshake”!

    • Pattie, you point out “a lot of attendees seem to like the sense of belonging while STILL being anonymous and not required to “do anything” except show up and be moved, entertained, and have an emotional expereince before lunch on Sunday.” This strikes home since I attended a morning mass a couple of weeks ago where I was the only one attending. The priest still conducted the entire mass — for me — and I suddenly had to be sure I knew what I was doing and why I was doing it rather than just coasting. It was very challenging being put on the spot, but it was also a good thing. It drove home to me the cliche that if I had been the only one in the world, Christ still would have died for me. It was in all ways the opposite of a megachurch experience, I suppose.

      • Very nice, Damaris!!

      • Yes, very nice, Damaris. The experience of having a priest conduct an entire mass for ONLY YOU…wow, I imagine that must’ve been extremely profound and humbling.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          Something similar happened to me at AnthroCon many years ago. Can’t remember the year, but it was the last AC held in Philadelphia before the con moved to Pittsburgh.

          Mass celebrated in a small function room off the main hotel lobby by Fr Kamau (not only a diocesan priest on the East Coast, but a historical re-enactor, fursuiter, volunteer fireman/chaplain, model railroader, and later a Navy Reserve Chaplain). Looked like one of the Three Musketeers in a furry-art T-shirt topped off by a liturgical stole.

          Total congregation: Three — me, Cmdr Kitsune (at the time highest-ranking fursuiter in the USN), and a Lutheran writer friend.

          • Yes, but you haven’t REALLY had a “personal Mass” until you have had one with you and the priest/chaplain in camo vestments on the hood of a jeep out in the desert!! Makes it raw and so real…..

            Damaris, I so feel the same as you….tiny Masses really do make me recognize that God would have done all of this just for ME!

            Sorry I can’t remember the source, but it is so true that “God loves each of us as if there were ONLY one of us!!”

      • Very nice! Thanks for sharing this story. One of the things that drove my wife and I nuts at our last “wanna be” mega church was a Sunday morning in whch our kids Sunday School class was cancelled because only a handful of kids showed up. My wife rightly asked, “so it’s the amount of kids that matter, not the kids themselves?”

    • I kind of agree with you Pattie, but not totally. I do see that there are some Christians who like to attend a church but want to remain anonymous and not actually serve. However….

      I’m an introvert and don’t feel comfortable doing the usual sorts of things Christians want and expect other Christians to do, efforts which involve being around people a lot, such as volunteer at soup kitchens, which means being around people all day long (which I tried and hated).

      When I do volunteer my services to local churches, they don’t take me up on the offer – and I’m not alone in this. In the book “Quitting Church,” the author interviewed people, and one theme she picked up (and experienced herself at her own church) is that churches do not and will not use people, even when they volunteer to help and serve.

      This phenomenon is especially bad if you are a female Christian.

      A lot of churches limit what and where and when a woman can serve because they have very strict gender role views, which they believe is biblical. As the book mentions, women who are college educated, who are CEOs or lawyers, when they tell their church they want to use their talents in some way for the church, are unbelievably told by churches to change diapers in the church nursery, or work as a receptionist, or something of that nature. These women (their skills, education and talents) are being under-used or not at all.

      I’m a Christian woman who is not interested in kids at all, but any new church I go to assumes all women love kids, and they always want me to do kid-related things.

      As for wanting to remain anonymous, that may be partly to do with how American culture is these days. But I suspect it may have to do with another issue. I think a lot of people want to be known and be involved with other believers, but one reason some don’t integrate themselves more into a local body is that, like me, they have been hurt or let down by other Christians.

      I’ve tried to be vulnerable in small church groups, only for these people to turn around later (when I told them of my personal pain and struggles) criticize and judge me over those struggles and pain, or say insensitive things to me, such as give me platitudes. So I’ve learned not to be transparent or to share who I really am with other Christians in face- to- face meetings, which entails having to remain rather anonymous, or aloof and superficial, if I do attend church anymore.

  4. Our churches often pattern themselves after our other cultural institutions. We have massive hubs and warehouses, consolidated school districts, huge factories rather than cottage industries, farms of thousands of acres, universities the size of cities with multiple campuses across the state, chain restaurants and stores — and our churches reflect the same trend, because that’s what we think is normal.

    Not to be too much of a Luddite, but not only do I dislike megachurches, I don’t think our warehouses, schools, factories, farms, universities, restaurants, and stores are doing the right thing either. We have to recognize that the hypertrophy model is predicated on unrealistically cheap costs of transportation. Once we realize what the real costs of doing things this way are, we will have to change. I expect — not to be too cynical — that megachurches, when they die, will die for economic reasons, not theological.

    • Wenatchee The Hatchet says

      A chunk of that cost of transportation isn’t money but time. People who have disabilities that preclude driving get to weigh whether making it to church during a snowstorm is worth the hours of being potentially stuck in traffic. Think the snowstorm from Seattle around `08 and the hardcore of the hardcore. Some of us had smarter things to do than to go into a snowstorm unable to drive and with a visual disability.

      That said, the more modern approach of having content available for listening can be a positive benefit to people with disabilities. Too many of the Luddite types who inveigh against all the elements of technology have not spent their entire lives dealing with disabilities. There, I said it. Be considerate of the possibility that what “normal” people assume pushes people further apart (social media and technology) is more a reflection of their own hearts than the uses to which the disabled and shut-in can put the same tools and thereby get help in times of desperate need. That said, I’m no fan of the multi-site megachurch model these days.

      • WTH…

        I think much of evangelicalism has programs that work against people with disabilities. Many youth programs, Bible studies, etc.. really don’t make a lot of accomodations for them. That said – to be fair – I think socity still has leap years to go when it comes to disabilities.

      • @ Wenatchee The Hatchet. I don’t have any physical disabilities, but I’ve seen people bad mouth technology on other forums and blogs, sometimes secular ones, and it drives me nuts.

        Some scream and yell about how social media has caused people to be more lonely, or that it interferes with relationships.

        There is a very loud, vocal group of people on the internet who complain about the internet all the time (ironic they use the very medium to bash the medium they claim they dislike. If they dislike it so much, why are they using it at all?). I don’t think technology is evil or that social media is totally to blame for failing marriages, difficulties in making friends, etc, as is so often posited at other blogs and sites.

        Even before the internet became main stream, people were already having a tough time making and keeping friends, people were having affairs, people were ignoring people, people felt lonely and excluded, etc. It did not take the internet to do any of that.

  5. One thing that attracts people to megachurches is just being around other people. What I mean by this is that single people often want to go to a church were there are a lot of other single people, young married people where there are other young couples, parents with children at home where there are other families with children at home. I’m just speaking from my own experience, but where I live it is a major factor for people aged between 18 and 40 or 50. And this really puts smaller churches between a rock and a hard place. For instance a young family might move into a community and go visit the local church one Sunday. The word of God is preached, the people genuinely worship, they are friendly, but there are no young people. So the young family decides to drive thirty minutes to a large church were they can find young people. Or one of the few youth in the old church gets married to a youth from the megachurch, and the youth from the megachurch can stand the idea of going to the old church, so the new couple attends the megachurch and the old church looses one of the few young people it had. I’ve seen this happen time and time again.

    • Sorry. In Christ there is no Greek or Jew, slave or free, male or female. We live in diverse communities and megachurches — which are overwhelmingly white and middle-class — do not reflect that diversity. If I drive 30 minutes to be with people like myself, I’m going right past a neighborhood church where my widowed Hispanic neighbor gets food from the pantry and the black kids around the corner get after-school tutoring. Is anyone going to say “I drive ten miles to a white church to be with white people?”

      • Really? Are they overwhelmingly white? There are 2 megachurches within an easy drive of me. One is a majority African-American congregation (about 80%) that used to meet in a mall before building themselves a church behind the mall. The other is an African-American church that built a massive church (looks nice too, none of that warehouse chic look) on some old industrial land. I think they used to meet in an old movie theatre before building their place.

        Could just be where I live of course. Moody’s and Hybel’s place are the only other megachurches I know of in the area.

      • I agree. Although the mega-church may have more and more of an attraction to that widowed latino, given that the ethos (if not the explicit preaching) is often one of prosperity and success, which are implicitly equated with the size and polish of the church. That this ethos begins to attract poor & minorities who fall prey to success-mantras, isn’t actually a mark for diversity. It’s a mark against it, insofar as the minority population is merely being assimilated into a dominant culture and its values- mainly the whitebread, well-manicured, happy-face values that are pre-requisites for pulling your way up the ladder- be it a church ladder or a economic one.

        I don’t want to make this a blanket judgment (per the post’s request), but I would assume that a church that attracted a wide variety of races, classes, and ages would be doing so based on the unity of the body in Christ- through the preaching of the Gospel (like I need to say that here). Personally, I have yet to find this in a church that assumes the values of the average mega-church. I could be wrong, but I might be forgiven for assuming it’s basically an either/or proposition- Christ and the unity of the body across all dividing lines, or some version of get-rich-quick churchianity that thwarts this unity (either by excluding, or by including but demanding conformity). You can’t love both, it seems.

      • Matt, I’m not sure if I was clear in my post, but I’m not in favor of people doing this, I was just reporting what I see happening a lot. Personally I believe Christians should worship and be the church in their own community if at all possible. A lot of things contribute to megachurches, and it would be uncharitable to assume all the reasons are bad. Some of the reasons do have to do with the quality of the services and many churches that are mega also do a good job of discipleship and outreach. But it would also be blindness to not notice that some of what draws people to a mega church is a ‘what’s in it for me’ mentality rather than a ‘how can I serve where I’m needed most’ metality

      • @ Matt Purdum, I have to agree with the person you’re disagreeing with.

        I’m between 40 – 45 years old. I’d like to get married. I am not going to get married going to a church where most of the people are married couples ages 60 and up, which has been the case at most churches I’ve attended.

        The church exists for many reasons, one of which is to meet the needs of other people, not just to spread the Gospel or give bread to the hungry. I have needs – one is to get married. If there are no single guys my age at a church, I’m not going to waste my time going there week after week. I do think people of all ages and life stages should inter-mingle a bit more than they do, but I don’t think it’s wrong for someone to want to go to a church where there are people of a similar age/ background/ marital status as them, either.

  6. It’s impossible for small churches to compete with the “excellence” factor that is often true of megachurches. For middle-class families that want excellent kids programs, excellent preaching and excellent worship, small churches will often be outdone. Excellence has its place for sure. But when excellence compromises discipleship opportunities, it’s a problem. When people get overlooked or bypassed because they are not good enough, opps are missed for attention, development and grace.

    • David Cornwell says

      Not to be argumentative, but I think what you are saying is a generalization. It is true that small churches lack the resources for programmed “excellence.” But I personally know of small churches that make up for this in other ways. I know of one city church with an average attendance in the 200’s (this is a guess) that has an excellent Sunday morning educational program for children, plus a variety of opportunities for adults. In addition there are opportunities for bible study during the week.

      Also the reality of Christian community in this church is very real. People love each other and care for one another. Pastoral care is important. There is a level of intimacy that is almost always missing in larger churches. Worship is traditional and liturgical to a degree.

      This church is neighbors to downtown Lutheran (ECLA) and Episcopal Churches, both strong congregations.

      I know I’m expressing one point of view, and, like you say, the larger churches have strengths. I have a granddaughter who attends what I think would qualify as a mega-church (is there mid-size mega?) She likes the emphasis on bible preaching and teaching. One of these days I’ll talk to her more about this church and find out just what is appealing to her.

      Smaller churches also have the opportunity to carry on the real traditions of the Church. They have special ability to pass on the sense of history and connectivity to the past. (Hopefully they do this without living in the past!)

    • If I have excellence, but hath not love…

    • Actually, I agree with this. The “excellence” factor is too stiff a competition, which is why the big box churches are closing down all the mom and pop traditions by stealing all their clientele. But believe you me: there is a high cost to low prices going on here.

      Case in point: The “excellence factor” sends a strong theological message: Christianity is for the strong, the beautiful, those who have it all together and pull off a good show. If Jesus were here today, he’d have his own Saturday night show, killer marketing and PR, and be WAY to busy and important for you (just like your pastor!).

      As they say in my favorite movie, this makes life into one beauty pageant after another. How did church become such a popularity contest? Where’s the safe space for broken people? No, we’re more concerned with being excellent, we’ve become obsessed with our own awesomeness. My not-so-humble suggestion? Jesus has left the building.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        As they say in my favorite movie, this makes life into one beauty pageant after another. How did church become such a popularity contest? Where’s the safe space for broken people? No, we’re more concerned with being excellent, we’ve become obsessed with our own awesomeness.

        More like “How did church become Just Like High School?”

        (Spoken by a high school Omega Male.)

      • Marcus Johnson says

        You’re making a really deep point there, Miguel, so it almost seems trivial to admit that I just have to ask what movie you’re referring to?

        • Since you may not have seen it, I’d hate give such a spoiler, but I’m paraphrasing the “and the moral of the story is” line from “Little Miss Sunshine.”

  7. People want what they want.

    Mega-churches look like (in so many ways) the culture. Big-screens. Rock bands. Auditoriums. Hipply dressed and coiffed preachers. And a list of things to do.

    No pews. No pulpit. No organ. No vestments. No altar. No candles. No stained glass. And sadly, in many cases no gospel. Oh sure, they know it. And they give it. But then they turn right around and take it away again after they give you the list of what “real Christians” should be doing.

    The last thing that people need in church is to be handed back themselves and to look inward. We need that saving Word which is totally external to us and different than we are.

    • David Cornwell says

      “Mega-churches look like (in so many ways) the culture”

      This concerns me also. We seem to be using the marketing technology of capitalism to grow the church.

      • Final Anonymous says

        YES!

        Sorry for the exclamation, but I’ve been saying that for years.

      • But as one administrator told Scott Thumma., “We are a ten million dollar a year church that has to operate like a business”. That is, sustainability means the Church runs on the bottom line like a company.

      • David its not a cultrual issue limited to the United States. There are large mega churches in South Korea, South Africa, etc… So it’s not just an Amercian problem.

        • Really? I had no idea, I thought this was purely an American thing! Thanks for educating me///

        • David Cornwell says

          Sounds like we’ve done some mission work!

        • Eagle said, “David its not a cultrual issue limited to the United States. There are large mega churches in South Korea, South Africa, etc… So it’s not just an Amercian problem.”

          There is also a mega-church in Singapore. The pastor is Joseph Prince. From what little I have read, their church makes millions of dollars per year. Prince’s show is aired frequently on the American network TBN. I have watched many of Prince’s sermons, and I like his emphasis on grace, but, he is also into the “Prosperity Gospel,” “Name it And Claim It” stuff.

      • It’s not purely capitalistic. Successful nonprofits tend to be run along similar lines.

    • As I read your comment, Steve, the thought struck me that mega-churches are built for comfort. But…since when did Jesus want us to get comfortable with His gospel message? Seems to me if we’re reaching out to the needy (spiritual, physical, and emotional), we will be stretched out of our comfort zones. I’ll be rubbing shoulders with those who aren’t anything like me, other than having skin (possibly different color, though) covering a body, breathing air that I breathe. So I guess the question is, do mega-churches = comfort? And if so, are they by nature missing the gospel’s call?

      • “Generally a pastor can define his appropriate target audience by determining with whom he would like to spend a vacation or an afternoon of recreation,” Bill Hybels once announced. That would probably exclude the poor, elderly, confined to wheelchairs, obese, unemployed, disheveled, having crooked teeth, body odor, or whatever curse ad infinitum. We minister to them as arms-length strangers because they have needs. Meaning they have too much personal baggage, distractive image problems, and negligible potential to contribute, to invite them in as part of the body.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          That would probably exclude the poor, elderly, confined to wheelchairs, obese, unemployed, disheveled, having crooked teeth, body odor, or whatever curse ad infinitum.

          Goths, Gamers, Furries, Bronies…

          Just like those campus ministries who target only the Quarterbacks, Cheerleaders, and other Beautiful People/Alpha Males and Females figuring on a “trickle-down effect”. As a former high school Omega Male, all that does is reinforce the high school pecking order with Divine Fiat. God is God only of the Alpha Males & Females, not us losers.

          • With the exception of chruchs that offerred services in the nursing home I stayed in after my hospital discharge. Churchs stayed away from visiting people, being in the room, etc… So I saw this. Why don’t nursing homes have chaplins like hospitals, or why arn’t chruches engage nursing homes more. Becuase it’s too difficult and uncomfortable.

          • Eagle,
            Regrettably, many Christians are out enjoying their best life so much now that they fear death – one could say it is the idolatry of death. The sick and aged in nursing homes live constricted lives which are dependent and static; their close proximity to death is a disease none of us dare catch. They pose a visual affront to us because our own mortality is reflected in their weaknesses. That in my view is one reason why they don’t engage

          • @HUG. I’ve been in nursing homes. I feel sorry for the people in them, who are hurting and lonely, but they are very, very depressing places. I hated every second I was in them, to visit family.

      • Rick,

        Well, there’s not much dying going on there. They are busy trying to make us better. They are throwing gasoline on the fire (of ‘self’).

        We need to die to the self…and what ‘we do’.

      • @RickRo said, “Seems to me if we’re reaching out to the needy (spiritual, physical, and emotional),”

        Don’t forget that the New Testament says that Christians are to help other Christians first, before helping Non Christians (which is mentioned in Galatians, and in other portions, such as Christians are to help other Christians carry their burdens, weep with those who are weeping, etc).

        I kind of have the opposite view to yours, Rick Ro. I see way too much emphasis among American Christians (both mega- church variety and smaller) who are forever going on and on about digging wells for Africans, giving sandwiches to the homeless in America, putting a stop to the selling of girls in Thailand, etc, which are great goals and things to do – but – in the meantime, Christians shoot (or neglect) their own wounded.

        Despite the fact that the Bible says one purpose (of many) for the church is for Christians to assist *other Christians* (financially or emotionally), try going up to another American Christian sometime with a problem you’re facing, and see how much compassion and help you get – it will usually be none.

        Instead, you will be given religious-sounding platitudes; or, more likely, you will be given a mean- spirited lecture where you are told that you need to stop thinking of your own needs, stop having a pity party for yourself, and go out and help starving orphans in India, or go volunteer in a soup kitchen. None of which aids or comforts you, but only makes you feel worse.

        There is a very big disconnect to having loads of compassion for homeless people in America or pagan people in some third world nation, but shunning or shaming the hurting Christian man or woman who sits next to you in church every week.

    • Steve Newell says

      I would assume that such large churches do not have weekly or even monthly Holy Communion.

      • Wenatchee The Hatchet says

        Mars Hill has had communion every Sunday at every service for more than a decade.

        • Yes, but I believe this came about as a result of their (temporary?) involvement with the more Christ-centered theology of the reformed churches. And they are also the exception which proves the rule: The vast majority of mega-churches might do this annually, and many never at all.

  8. I am a recovering mega-church attender;-) I would agree somewhat with the aspect of anonymity. There were times when it was more convenient to be anonymous. Other times, we did “plug-in” with different ministries, but I know many of the people we attended with didn’t want any of that. I also saw lots of people like us, who after a while grew tired of feeling like a face in the crowd, in spite of trying to be involved. We started visiting other churches and ended up at a smaller version of the mega church, although it was not a church plant.

    In many ways, I have seen new small churches replicating all the things I didn’t like about our mega-church. As it turns out many of these places are just a mega-church wannabe’s. Uggh.. Even though smaller, the pastors are primarily “speakers” and not shepherding the flock in any personal way. The focus is on the church, it’s ministries, and its missions, not on the people who attend, or any real focus on serving the community in a real ongoing way.

    At one place we attended, they held member meetings where we were debriefed on what the professional business analysts the hired had to say about the plan for growth. Our current church seemed small and promising at first, but now I’m getting deja-vu. There are the performers and there are the spectators. It seems a core clique of people drive all the decisions, from electing the elders, to choosing who goes on the short-term mission trips, etc. One mission-oriented couple we met in a small group we attended just left because they felt they weren’t close enough to the “inner circle” of things to be really involved. My husband was just unceremoniously ousted from the sound team after 2 years of dedicated service. He was very good at what he did, but the worship pastor wanted “consistency” and chose a professional sound man. I wonder if it’s because this guy also just produced his first studio recording. The last service I attended felt like the grammy awards as we had to endure an entire hour of the live performance of the album. It kind of grated on my nerves to watch him cheesing up there on stage knowing how poorly he treated my husband.

    Is it sustainable? It’s certainly been proven to be a “successful” model. Many people who are looking for a personality-driven, youthful, toe-in-the-water atmosphere will surely continue to be drawn to it. I DO think there will be a growing number of people who are disillusioned with the mega-church mentality. I am hoping so anyway. Maybe we can all do church together.

  9. The sustainability question is a good one. It requires “movements” and riding the waves of trends and always identifying yourself with the groups where all the exciting things are happening. Something always has to be happening to inject some enthusiasm and momentum into the life of the church. To be sustainable – financially and reputationally (not unrelated, of course) – there must always be *seen* an upward trend of vitality among the people. If there is not, then, well, we need to change course and make something happen.

  10. I think the ones that survive will turn into their own denominations. Some of them already have in all but name.

    • Yes, the Calvary Chapels really did carve out this territory…

      • While vociferously insisting that they are “not a denomination”

        • Yup. There’s no such thing as a non-denominational church. It’s like trying to have a non-traditional church. You’re either belonging to an existing one or striking out on your own trying to reinvent the wheel because you think you’re gonna be the first to get it right.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            On the radio in the Eighties, I heard the terms “Non-Denominational Denomination” and “Non-Denominational — that’s Fundamental Baptist with the labels painted over.”

          • Tim Hawkins (the comedian) says “Non-denominational? You’re not fooling anybody. You’re just a Baptist church with a cool website.”

        • Wenatchee The Hatchet says

          There do seem to be a handful of close-case denominations out there these days.

  11. The very nature of mega churches is creating programs based on what people need. This is like creating God in our image, isn’t it? The numbers & growth they seek end up working against them because it breeds shallow theology & performance or consumer oriented worship. Plus, many get themselves caught in the hubris of building to respond to the need for more space. But if you build it, you have to pay for it & pay for it & pay for it which feeds the cycle of needing more people coming in the doors. A modern-day retelling of the rich young man coming to Jesus asking what he must do to get to heaven would have Jesus calling him back to say, “Well, just give away half of your wealth & you can follow me”. It takes real muscle/strength to follow Jesus. Those churches that are focused on developing real disciples could care less about numbers. Can’t serve two masters.

  12. In little in what I know is not the large or the small size where one worships. What is the motive of the individual heart is something to consider. How many times does scripture speak of heart issues? Whether I be with many or few comes the Spirit who searches all hearts. Who knows what is in my heart for didn’t jeremiah say we don’t know our own heart? So God who knows our hearts can be doing good in a large group, a small group or perhaps in myself. If I cling in trusting in God, growing in the faith of the Lord Jesus Christ and do good . . . in me, my family, our faith community where we worship and our community in work and play is what resonates.

  13. I’ve long felt the entire structure of American churches is unsustainable, and anything based on a corporate/business model rather than a New Testament model needs to be simply torn down. As a person who tries to see things with postmodern lenses, I pay no attention to sermons, creeds, or statements of belief, because the real message is subtler, the subtext or takeaway. And the subtext in America’s megachurches is a worship of success, American empire, and our own technological prowess. These all seem to be “pump up” churches with lots of youth-group attitudes, and they have no tools for dealing with real-life tragedy and death. As the young people grow, they’re going to leave, period, and these places become warehouses. We seem so concerned with finding a “nice” church we can “like,” we had better start being concerned instead with finding some needy neighbors we can help.

  14. I spend a fair amount of my time telling nervous young Democrats that they really don’t need to worry about megachurches churning out GOP voters. Certainly I don’t think Hybels is in my area or Osteen in Texas. I think Megachurches may be actually LESS likely to stress the political aspects of Christianity (other than generic civics it’s good to vote type stuff) than smaller churches.

    Why? Well one is purely pragmatic. If you want your bitp quotient to stay high, you don’t want to alienate anyone. Another is that by being so large, one becomes a target and you don’t know if there are people out there in the audience who are political operatives. If you wind up looking bad or politically disingenuous on the news or even youtube, your bitp quotient will go down.

    The other thing I remind people is that the trope of the barbarian (no, really, complete with sword and stuff) entering the front door of the church and leaving in a 3 piece suit is a joke video game from the Simpsons, not reality. Most people enter church with their politics already set and leave it without having them challenged. According to “American Grace” when there is a conflict, it is the politics that wins, not the religion.

    • Sorry about making that one political.

      I guess to make it non-political I would say that megachurches don’t change anyone because they structurally can’t. Now, as indicated, I don’t believe any religious congregation changes people (except perhaps AA, NA, etc), but the megachurch model has additional constraints.

      • According to “American Grace” when there is a conflict, it is the politics that wins, not the religion.

        Cermak, don’t apologize for that. It would have fit in nicely with our discussion about idolatry a few days ago.

  15. ” Rainer notes that the ten largest U.S. churches in 1969 are not among the largest today. ” Not surprised by this in the least.
    The megachurch model depends on being the latest, greatest, coolest, most awesome church in town, but anyone who has teenagers knows that what is cool this year will soon be poison. So any megachurch has to constantly try to find the next wave and get on it. Unfortunately, this mentality filters down to the local smaller church leading many of the congregants to be continually whining about wanting a new program, new music, new ways of doing things. Change is a part of life, but change does not always move people forward.

    Or as Matt Purdum says: “And the subtext in America’s megachurches is a worship of success, American empire, and our own technological prowess. These all seem to be “pump up” churches with lots of youth-group attitudes, and they have no tools for dealing with real-life tragedy and death.” Because real-life tragedy and death will always always rear their ugly heads, won’t they? And that is so uncool….

  16. I cannot speak for all mega churches, but I attend a church of 3-4 thousand people. My church is a acts 2 church. We do promote growth through inviting. I went to a baptist high school and I heard a lot of great things there, but I never left there knowing what a true relationship with Jesus was. I gave my life the Christ April 19th 2012, since then I have either directly lead or been part of a conversation leading someone to Jesus 5 times. I know some churches who concentrate on there congregation only and don’t see that in a year as a church.

    Our mission statement is “Transforming unconvinced people into wholehearted followers of Jesus Christ” we want non believers, seekers, atheists, homosexuals, homeless, addicts, single mothers, women who have had abortions, mixed race couples, and people like me who grew up in church and thought they had it together but never had a clue, to all truly know Jesus.

    We believe that if someone will see Jesus for who he truly is they will want him. And we all know if they run to him they will make it. I believe that most large “mega churches” are contagious because the people who attend them are contagious. Their authenticity draws people on, there efforts to not be judgmental draws people in, their want, need and desire for community draw people in.

    Not to say their aren’t some bad apples out there, their always are.

    • their efforts to not be judgmental draws people in…

      If your church has that down, then I’m impressed. It seems to be the hardest aspect to cultivate in a congregation.

    • That’s probably the first time I’ve heard “authenticity” and “megachurch” used in the same sentence.

    • Transforming unconvinced people into wholehearted followers of Jesus Christ

      Good luck with that, having a whole church full of people trying to be the Holy Spirit.

      …people who attend them are contagious. Their authenticity draws people on, there efforts to not be judgmental draws people in, their want, need and desire for community draw people in.

      Really? I’m sorry, but this does sound a bit like; “We’re not like those judgmental hypocrites in the small churches over there, that’s why we attract more friends than they do.” My experience with many mega-churches is actually quite the opposite. Try and question their methodology, and you’ll receive a primo demonstration of being judged. I’ve found far more authenticity from people who will not go to church anymore than I have from those caught up in the crowd mentality. Everybody wants community. I doubt you are more likely to find it in the mega-church setting, aside from the fact that you are surrounded by like-minded consumers. But I believe the authenticity of the community is a result of what the community is centered on. I don’t see mega-churches as being strong on Christ-centeredness.

      • It truly is like that at my church. I have no problem with smaller churches, if a church is bringing people to Jesus then more power to them, if they aren’t then they either need to repent or close their doors. It isnthe job of the captial C Church to lead people directly to the church, not to make the people who attend happy.

        The fact that you believe Transforming people into whole hearted followers of Jesus need luck, I don’t know what that says. All it needs is Jesus.

        You’d be surprised at the level of authenticity there can be when people are open and non judgmental. We are humans of course we aren’t perfect so I know judgment happens. But I know it is a constant effort for it not to.

        Mega church or small church, all that matters is that people are giving their lives to Jesus.

    • David Cornwell says

      “Transforming unconvinced people into wholehearted followers of Jesus Christ” we want non believers, seekers, atheists, homosexuals, homeless, addicts, single mothers, women who have had abortions, mixed race couples,”

      The categories confuse me. Classifying single mothers, women who have had abortions, and mixed race couples as necessarily being “unconvinced?” Also the homeless and addicts? Come on, that makes no sense. And addiction is a disease, not a sin. Almost anyone can end up homeless. The statement means well but needs some work.

      Actually I don’t like categories of sinners. We all fit in there someplace, don’t we?

      • As a member of a “mixed-race couple” I didn’t think this was much of an issue anymore, at least not in civilized society.I guess some churches are still processing this…

        • You must be living under a very hip rock. This is an issue that grates with many over 30 somethings from all races. It will be another 30 to 50 years and these older generations dying out before it truly becomes a non issue.

          • I wouldn’t have thought so. Interesting, that our experiences should be so different. (And we are well over 30.)

          • For a variety of reasons, mostly related to being self employed, and some related to my previous work which took me to various cities all over the US, I rub elbows with people from various faith and political backgrounds in the US.

            I’ve discovered that most people tend to view the situation of them and their friends and associates as “normal”. They tend to look at those who don’t see the world as they do as not main stream. (This is a general comment, not a knock on you and anyone.)

            This trend, IMO, allows many views that don’t align with our own to almost be invisible as we don’t hand out with or work with people who’s views are very different than our own.

  17. My experience is that almost regardless of the ministry size, most of the work in an evangelical church or parachurch organization is done by 5-10% of the people in that group. In a smaller church, this percentage may be higher simply because of the math, but usually there’s a core group of people who are really committed and “in the know”. It seems that a as church gets bigger, the divide between those “in the know” and those who are simply members and attendees becomes larger. Yes, small groups can change this somewhat I suppose, but even then, I think a church having even 50% of its members involved in small groups would be pretty rare.

    I’ve read and heard numerous times that the maximum number of people that humans beings can really have any sort of meaningful relationships with at any given time is 150. So this would include family members, close friends, friends to lesser degrees, and acquaintances – the relational bonds becoming weaker as the circle gets bigger. So megachurches can’t really help but become clique-based. It’s not even that people try to do it. It’s just impossible to know more than a 150 or so people at any given time. So the flip-side of this is that a megachurch with just a handful of pastors is going to have a hard time making sure that everyone in the church is being ministered to. I don’t consider hearing a sermon the same as receiving ministry. Receiving ministry is more along the lines of knowing that if I have a spiritual need in my life, there’s someone I can call who actually knows me.

    So I guess a megachurch could conceivably exist with a staff big enough for this to exist, but my experience is that most staffs aren’t set up like this. There might be one pastor for every 300 or 400 people, but I’m probably overestimating that even. Sure, I do believe in the priesthood of the believer and that all believers are capable of ministering to someone, but I think there is a time and a place for a dedicated clergy. It’s kind of analogous to the idea that there’s a time and a place for having someone clean a wound and putting a band-aid on it. But for some things, more is needed.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      I’ve read and heard numerous times that the maximum number of people that humans beings can really have any sort of meaningful relationships with at any given time is 150.

      This is called the troop-size limit, and figures into the size of a lot of social groups, from nomad tribes to Army companies. Below this limit, you can see the others as individual people; above it, they’re an abstract whole. It’s why a lot of Big Picture Utopian dreams crash and burn.

      “One death is a tragedy. A million deaths is only a statistic.” — Stalin

      • The Dunbar number, and he (Dunbar) posited that it was a function of brain size in primates. it is the “limit imposed by neocortical processing capacity… on the number of individuals with whom a stable inter-personal relationship can be maintained.” I wish I could remember the name of the book I read recently that gave quite a few examples of this in our personal interactions.

    • So the flip-side of this is that a megachurch with just a handful of pastors is going to have a hard time making sure that everyone in the church is being ministered to. I don’t consider hearing a sermon the same as receiving ministry. Receiving ministry is more along the lines of knowing that if I have a spiritual need in my life, there’s someone I can call who actually knows me.

      So I guess a megachurch could conceivably exist with a staff big enough for this to exist, but my experience is that most staffs aren’t set up like this. There might be one pastor for every 300 or 400 people, but I’m probably overestimating that even.

      A church a group of us left en-mass a few years back had 17 pastors and associate pastors. Regular attendance on Sundays in terms of people in the door was between 2000 and 3000. Our group noticed that not one of us had been contacted by a pastor for anything non business related in several years. If ever. We mostly decided we were their to fund their “spiritual missions”.

  18. It seems to me that most megachurches are intrinsically linked to their celebrity pastor/CEO, often a quite charismatic figure and strong preacher. Once he’s gone (due to death, illness, scandal, or to go to a new church), a large fraction of the flock will eventually seek another church.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Type example: Crystal Cathedral. Went bankrupt after an inheritance feud when founder retired (guy wasn’t even cold), physical plant/real estate bought by Catholic Diocese of Orange for cathedral and administrative center at bankruptcy sale.

  19. The mega-church in our town is doing a fine job of draining the smaller churches of younger members. Our pastor has married 2 couples this year from the mega-church because they did not do weddings . . . so much for pastoral ministries.

    I think that the sustainability of mega-churches rests on three things: 1. The availability of money. Whatever the motives of mega-church leaders,it involves huge amounts of money to maintain their technological edge and “excellent” programming. Perhaps the economic crisis is a gift of God to purify His church? (not claiming to know the mind of God, just a thought) 2. The willingness of mega-church leaders to continue down the road of sensationalism in order to attract people. The current antics include “biblical” sex therapy, or the pastor riding a motorcycle up on the stage, or playing “Highway to Hell” just like AC/DC. The Israelites polluted the Temple of Jehovah with the most perverse idolatry to keep the Jews interested. Just how far will the church go to keep people with base motives involved? 3. Will people figure out that the church has not been gifted to entertain and to gratify my needs? Put another way, will people figure out that the world offers much better entertainment than the church? The Rolling Stones, Boston, and Green Day are really better at rock-n-roll than Christian groups. Hollywood is much better at producing movies than any Christian film-maker out there. With the notable exception of Notre Dame, Christian institutions seldom produce championship sports teams. The world simply offers a better entertainment product, and when people figure that out, there will not be a need for “church”.

    The church should be a place where people come to receive Christ: crucified, risen, and coming again. May God open our eyes.

    • Richard Hershberger says

      “Our pastor has married 2 couples this year from the mega-church because they did not do weddings . . . so much for pastoral ministries.”

      Seriously? I thought I took a jaundiced eye to megachurches, but apparently I have been charmingly naive. I wonder how common this is.

      • I can only speak for the one in my area. It is common for pastors in our area to do weddings and funerals for those in the mega-church. People enjoy the mega-church experience, but they turn to their small churches for these occasions. One complaint I have heard is that people want their deceased relative who previously left for the mega-church to be buried in the church cemetery (a privilege for the members of that church).

        I don’t think people perceive the need for day to day pastoral ministry unless it is in the context of a big moment. They simply do not want it in most cases or they would seek it out.

        • Last year my wife and I were married at my church (seats 300 at the most) rather than her parent’s church, which seats 3,000 at least and has no smaller venue, largely for that reason. I don’t know if her parents’ church has weddings and funerals or not, but how sad would it be to be literally blocked from your church on the happiest and saddest days of your life?

    • Whatever the motives of mega-church leaders,it involves huge amounts of money to maintain their technological edge and “excellent” programming.

      Heck. It requires buckets of money just to keep the roof maintained, electric and water bills paid, parking lot paved, etc…

      If you are looking at a new church and wondering how much money it spends on such ask how much it costs to keep the building open without anyone showing up. If the number scares you maybe you need a smaller church.

  20. Richard Hershberger says

    “…let’s think about these congregations and why they continue to multiply and grow and have influence in our culture.”

    I live in a town with three restaurants specializing in northern Italian cuisine. Two are locally owned independents, while the third is an Olive Garden. The prices among the three are comparable, but the two locals have much better food. I can walk right into the two locals and get a table right away. The Olive Garden almost always has a line going out the door.

    “I have special interest in the question of sustainability.”

    This is really two questions: (1) is any given megachurch sustainable? and (2) is the megachurch model sustainable? That is to say, even if every individual megachurch fails, they might simply be replaced by other megachurches.

    (1) This is a tough problem. Any church which is popular because of the pastor is going to have a huge problem replacing him. The trend toward megachurch pastorates becoming hereditary is a sure sign of this. Charisma is not, however, reliably heritable. It is well known among the mainlines that if you have a guy who is in place for decades and whom everyone loves, when he finally retires his replacement is set up for a fall and will be lucky to last a year. The guy after that has the better shot, as the church is more likely to be realistic about understanding that the new guy can’t be expected to be the old guy. An established mainline church can work through this because it has an institutional identity apart from the pastor. My impression is that megachurches tend to lack the institutional identity needed to keep members through tough transitions rather than wandering off to some other megachurch.

    Which brings us to the second half of (1): finances. My understanding is that megachurches tend to have a tiger-by-the-tail approach to finances: borrow to pay for expansion, which in turn will service the debt, allowing the church to go through another round of borrowing to pay for further expansion. This is a self-inflicted Ponzi scheme, as expansion cannot continue forever. Even if a church breaks this cycle, it suggests an existence constantly on the financial precipice. Can it sustain itself through a few bad years, perhaps when it is finding the right new guy to replace the beloved old guy? An established mainline church with its institutional identity is more likely to have members who will dig a bit deeper to keep it solvent, as their commitment is to the institution.

    Which finally brings us to question (2): the megachurch model apart from any particular megachurch. As more megachurches go into bankruptcy, I can easily imagining lending institutions coming to regard them as bad risks. This will make everything harder to do, as borrowing becomes at best costlier and at worst impossible. The ELCA has a Mission Investment Fund that lends to ELCA congregations. It isn’t a charity: it gives the congregation’s finances a hard look and it charges interest. But it is a sympathetic institution that understands the circumstances of congregations. Is there anything like this in the megachurch world? I am guessing not.

    The upshot is that I think that the overall model is tied at least somewhat to individual cases. A megachurch bankruptcy will make it harder for potential replacement megachurches to take its place. I’m not sure that the model is stable in the long term.

    Finally, cultural trends are the great unknown. Over the past thirty years cultural trends have favored this approach to churches. Will this continue? Heck if I know. I’m not in the business of predicting cultural trends. I stick to safe predictions, like the prospects of the Cubs in the World Series. But if young adults collectively decide that they like to walk to a church where they know everybody, then there will be a lot of empty theater seating out there.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Can it sustain itself through a few bad years, perhaps when it is finding the right new guy to replace the beloved old guy?

      In some of these megachurches, that happens when the “beloved old guy” has more or less than one legitimate heir.

      • I”m not sure if the church I attend could be called a “mega-church”. We have membership of around 1500, which is considered large for Churches of Christ. We have communion weekly, and we do have several places where we can “plug in” (Sunday school classes, small groups, etc.)

        So far, this is the only church I have ever attended where the reason that the minister stopped being the minister is because he retired. He still attends our church–in fact, he is one of our elders. The man hired to replace him has worked very closely with the old minister, and it’s very obvious that they have a lot of respect for each other.

        That said, I think that sort of scenario is rare in churches. Too often there’s more of a power struggle. 🙁

  21. Having never belonged to a mega-church, I am responding simply to the trends noted by Dr. Rainer.

    I think all of them except #6 intrinsically sustain immaturity, and without good guidance small groups could do that too. I think there is abundant evidence for this in the Willow Creek survey of a few years ago; people who “wanted to grow” felt stymied at a certain level in the church. That’s not to say that youthfulness always indicates immaturity, only that it seems like people in the baby boomlet demographic are coming together in churches the same way we baby boomers did during the “Jesus Movement” years.

    Dana

  22. Chaplain Mike,

    I don’t think I’m smart enough to grasp your project: “I have special interest in the question of sustainability. What do you see megachurches doing to ensure their survival and continued relevance over the long haul?” Those seem to me to be the wrong questions. I want to know what the megachurches see themselves doing to follow Jesus, feed his flock and love the people of this world. Some may decide to disband. When I was at L’Abri, I heard Dr. Schaeffer say many times that the Lord could decide to close L’Abri at any time. Perhaps a megachurch can find some health in this perspective.

  23. My husband and I came out of what would be considered a mega-church in our area. We’ll never do that again. The Pastor actually called himself a CEO and insisted we didn’t have Deacons, but a Board. Pretty much what happened there is what some have posted already. Constant pressure to accomplish something big and meaningful and attractive and relevant.

    It grieves me to say this, but it really was more so about money and status and control than Jesus. The pressure to build a new building, the programs, the occasional verbal slap at staff meetings to the worship leader who didn’t preform well enough to get people in the right space-crazy stuff! What we did see is the retention rate was low and the staff spoke frequently about the turnover with attendees (every 6 months a new church directory has to be printed, so many come and go, come back, leave again) and kept trying to come up with new ideas/programs, etc to change that.

    But, it’s not totally the church’s fault. At some point, we have to be accountable for what we believe and act on it, not look for fast food Christianity offering cheap grace. And, yes, because of the mere size, it frequently comes down to that. I remember asking our Pastor once if he wouldn’t rather have half the congregation wanting to be true to their faith than a parking lot full of peeps needing a quick fix? He looked at me like I had grown a third eye. That line of thinking will keep them coming but not for any real substance.

    • Richard Hershberger says

      “The Pastor actually called himself a CEO and insisted we didn’t have Deacons, but a Board.”

      Having a “Board” is not necessarily a bad thing. Many traditional mainline traditions use that or similar language. In the ELCA “church council” is the typical language today, but I have seen “board of trustees” in some old archives. One key, though, is that the council’s responsibility is primarily secular, not spiritual. It is responsible for keeping the place running, meaning the finances and mundane stuff like calling a plumber if one is needed and making sure he gets paid. Its responsibilities certainly run into the spiritual side, primarily via oversight of the pastor, but being on the council is not at all like being a deacon, in the ancient sense of the word. I gather than many Reformed traditions speak of having deacons, but I have never quite figured out whether they are assistants to the pastor or supervise the pastor and how or if this relates to making sure the plumbing works.

  24. Big for the sake of big is not sustainable. But as long as a larger church keeps a solid focus and stays mobilized about a common mission, being about something bigger than itself and working to expand a kingdom outside of itself, than I think believers will continue to invest themselves into these type of discipleship machines. It’s the whole “wise as serpents, innocent as doves” thing. The problem is, I really do not think this describes the vast majority of mega-churches. It seems to me that most of them see the entrepreneurial growth of their own personal ecclesial kingdoms to be synonymous with the Kingdom of God. The best way for you to be a faithful follower of Jesus is to get in line with our organizational agenda. When those seeking authentic, Jesus-shaped spirituality figure this out, they feel burned, taken advantage of, and go off seeking a more Christ centered expression of faith. Or, they begin to feel used and just give up on Jesus completely, because the mega-church catechesis process has no interest in teaching you to distinguish following Jesus from following a celebrity preacher.

    Most people I know who are happy and at home in mega-church environments are such because they have long time friends there. That’s it. The teaching, leadership, mission, and methodology of the church don’t mean a thing to them anymore. They did at first, which is what got them sucked in, but their friends are all that’s keeping them. Their spirituality has been reduced to a social club with occasional social work and Bible “study” or “teaching” that usually has absolutely nothing to do with the message or theme of scripture. Those who fall through the cracks and aren’t successfully plugged in just head right back out through the revolving doors and evaporate.

  25. I attend a mega-church because there no one knows you well enough to hurt you or throw you out for beliefs that don’t exactly line up.

    • I would think that would be true. It just seems a lot less likely that you are going to get the wild tare hunts that you can get in smaller bodies.

    • I have never heard of this happening in the Catholic church, or in the mainlines. If you show up for the service, people will generally just assume you to be one of them, and not show much of an interest in any personal theological quirks you may have.

  26. I have to say this…and this may not be the place to have this discussion. But I keep hearing more and more on Internet Monk about the Lutheran Church being the answer, or Lutheran practices, etc… I think we have to remember and that all too often it’s being forgotten here that Lutheranism or orthodox liturgy is not for everyone.
    For some people here that ‘s how they got away from evangelicalism. But others will take a different route. Some may say, “to hell with this…” and reject all faith. Others may try house churches. Others may stay away and go solo. Others may find a path that I haven’t listed here.

    But Lutheranism is not the answer to this problem for everyone. Knowing my background with Catholicism and evangelicalism I still am weary about faith. However, my recent hospitalization has really challenged some of my pre-conceived notions.

    But I think people here have to remember that some are going to reject Lutheranism just as they reject evangelicalism. I am not a fan of liturgy juts as I am not a fan of mega churches or fundagelical culture.
    And I don’t mean this to be disrespectful…

    • Eagle, “Lutheranism” is not the answer. It has become an oasis in the wilderness for me, but the tradition is not perfect and may not provide refuge for everyone. The “one holy catholic and apostolic Church” is bigger than that and comes in many expressions.

  27. I have a fair amount of mega-church experience. I’ve also attended much smaller churches and have been part of church plants.

    I suppose there might be some truth in the idea of anonymity at large churches, but having been in small churches I’ve also experienced the converse. A kind of full throated pressure to participate at these small churches and take a leadership role. Failure to “get with program” at these small churches is seen as lack of faith, or lack of ownership.

    Having come from a smaller church, where anything less than full involvement was met with disapproval, I can appreciate the grace of being in a larger church. Placed in this environment, I can participate and grow as I feel God leading me.

    Part of the draw of large churches is that they can accomplish some things because of their scale. They have ton of people to work in the children’s ministry, for example. On the whole, I see this as a positive. Also, People with different gifts can a find a place for those gifts to bear fruit. There is a ministry for them to participate in. At the same time, even those large churches can have a blind spot. I once visited a large megachurch, with (I’m not kidding) around 30+ ministries for every conceivable demographic. That said, they didn’t have a single ministry focused on prayer. Personally, I think this is less of a reflection on mega-churches in general, and more a reflection on this particular. In trying to catering to everyone, the leaders of the church missed out on something essential and core.

    I can see the appeal of the large mega churches for the SBC. For a shrinking denomination, the mega church model seems to gives the potental for growth, in part because what you’re selling has less to do with the content and more to do with the packaging. In other words, the mega church model means the SBC doesn’t have to examine itself, and can simply focus on having churches, that are the equivalent of the corner multiplex or shopping mall, with lots of side benefits for people who would otherwise be turned off by their message.

  28. As a contented 75 year old attender of a ‘mega church’, I have two scriptures to consider for the group:

    Both are from the ESV which seems to get traction on this site.

    Matt 7:l Judge not, that you be not judged.
    1 Cor. 10:12 Therefore, let anyone who thinks that he stands, take heed lest he fall.

  29. Concerning sustainability, I have a question for anyone who can answer: is the mega-church only an American phenomenon, or are mega-churches successful and widespread in, say, Africa and South and Central America? Because if they are succeeding there, and a significant part of the enormous spread of Christianity in the global south, then they most likely will sustain.

    • Yes in the case of South Africa. Zion Christian Church (black Pentecostal), headquartered in Limpopo, has a following in the millions. American-style mega-churches would include Rhema Fellowship and LCI.

  30. “The rate of growth has recently been decreasing. Will this trend continue?”

    Given the decline of Christianity in the west, my useless guess would be “yes”, but God doesn’t pay much attention to Barna.

    If mega-churches decline, so will small churches. Don’t expect a reversal of mega-church fortune to result in the reversal of small church poverty.

    One critical unknown is what will happen to religious non-profit and church tax exemptions in the future. If churches are forced to start paying property taxes, then big churches with a lot of parking spaces and athletic fields may suffer. Churches which can rent space in an abandoned strip mall may fair better. Then again, God doesn’t pay much attention to tax codes, either.

  31. …In contrast to the older pattern of pastors climbing a career ladder from smaller to larger churches…

    Is this really how most pastors see their careers? I thought there was some notion of a “calling to serve” as opposed to having ambition for higher and higher numbers. I know the results of servanthood can be higher numbers, but for pastors does the mindset focus more on the service or the numbers? (And in the case of the latter, are they conscious of this or do they believe themselves to be of the former?)

    • I guess I wasn’t speaking of the ambitions of the pastors as much as I was the former pattern of vocational development.

      • Richard Hershberger says

        To expand on this a bit, the traditional situation is that you have the little country churches, the bigger church in town, and the big churches in the city. The young pastor just out of seminary is most likely to be hired by a small country church. An assistant position in a city church is a possibility, but there are a lot more little country churches out there. They will take the guy just out of seminary because, to be blunt, he comes cheap. He comes cheap because he has no experience. The economics are no different from any other entry level position. After he has done a few years in that country church he might move into a bigger church in town, and so on. Why did he leave that little country church to which he was called to serve? Partly yes, it is money. If he now has a wife and kids to support, it is legitimate to want to have the means to support them. But also, most mainline traditions recognize that it is healthy to shuffle pastors around from time to time. This is good for all parties. It means that the young guy considering accepting a call out of seminary isn’t locking himself in for life. It means that everyone benefits by having pastors with a wider variety of experiences in their backgrounds. It means that the individual congregation has an identity apart from the individual pastor. It means that the individual congregation won’t implode when the beloved pastor of the past thirty years finally retires. It means that there is less opportunity for a charismatic pastor to run off the rails and take his congregation with him as he does so. I could go on. The benefits are so great that the Methodists had this institutionalized, with ministers packing their bags every two years and going where their bishop sent them. That is an extreme application, but the underlying principle is sound.

    • Uh, yeah. The ‘calling to serve’ is growth, numbers saved and baptisms performed. I find it interesting when there are not enough people volunteering for the children’s programs, the emphasis is that people need to serve more not the possibility that we may be trying to do too much. Much of this seems to be an unconscious works based theology, the more I do the better the reward.

  32. I have special interest in the question of sustainability. What do you see megachurches doing to ensure their survival and continued relevance over the long haul?

    Without reading any of the comments as I have to catch a flight soon.

    From what I’ve seen most megas are personality driven, not community driven. And way too many don’t do well when the personality has to be replaced. And it is especially troubling to me when the hand off goes to a younger near relative. Or in-law.

    My basic question with these personality driven mega churches boils down to this. Why are people attending or to rephrase in a more blunt form; who is the congregation worshiping?

  33. David L,

    Maybe if you actually attended a mega once or twice, you could get some of your basic questions answered. I doubt whether all of those who attend are Pharisees.

    • Attended one (well a smaller mega) for years. Got burned by the high priest issues of we’re in charge go away when some issues came up. Have been to others as a visitor with thoughts of joining based on recommendations of other. They all seem to be personality driven. Or performance oriented. Or both.