Mega-Church Series Part 1

Mega-Church Series Part 1

I have been getting some feedback about past posts regarding my thoughts on mega-churches. So it’s time to come clean and let you know where I am on this topic. I am going to post about mega-churches over a number of weeks.

To get the ball rolling I am going to give you a few basic assumptions and thoughts that I have about mega-churches.

All forms of the church are okay by me
First, I do not think that there is any one form of the church that is “biblical” or somehow more accurate scripturally than another. I would define a local church very simply:

  • The people see themselves as a church and they meet together in some regular way
  • They have recognized leadership
  • They observe the sacraments (Communion and Baptism – you may include others)
  • They do their best to follow Christ together

That, my friends, is a very broad definition. It also fits pretty much everywhere in the world I have seen the church at work.

You might have many other things to add to your definition. Whatever. That’s fine, but I don’t think you can substantiate too many more things. For example, some suggest that a local church “Practices discipline.” Well, if that’s true, there are many church in the US that aren’t churches.

There is a lot of sloppy ecclesiology out there
One of the tragedies of the English language is the word “church.” It’s like the word love, which means everything from sacrificial love given toward a son or a daughter to the act of sex. The word “church” means both the local representations of the body (what we call “local churches”) and the church universal. Most of the time that there is chest thumping about what rightly “belongs” to the church, people are talking about the local church. For example, a pastor recently said to me, “Parachurches aren’t the church!” What he meant, of course, was that they aren’t the local church. Of course they are a part of the body of Christ (the church universal). The fact is… most New Testament references to the church are not focused on single local churches. They more often refer to the Kingdom of God or the church universal (which, in my view, have great overlap but that’s for another blog post).

This point is important to me because I think that many local churches assume the role of the universal church. An outcome of this is the idea that the church is at the center of all God is doing. Well… yeah, but not YOUR LOCAL CHURCH. You are just one small slice of the pie.

Forms have consequences
If we like to have huge mega-churches with $38 million dollar buildings we can. But that will effect the end result of how we do ministry, how the world sees us, who is attracted, who is repelled, etc. The mega-church form has big implications for what the gospel representation in a community might look like.

Forms shape meaning. They are important.

The mega-churches are God’s churches
I remember a time when I was a young missionary recruit, fresh on the field. I was being critical of the few churches in the place where I was living. My mentor (and boss) said to me, “You had better be careful about criticizing the church. It’s the church that God has placed here.” Wow. That set me back a bit; and it was true.

What is happening in American evangelicalism is that the largest churches and the smallest churches seem to be where there is growth and vitality. The number of large churches is growing. This is a movement and significant change in how we do church in the United States. We must accept and recognize this movement as from the Lord.

Leadership counts
How we do leadership matters more than just about anything else in ecclesiology. As a missionary in a foreign country one of my primary jobs was to understand the leadership dynamic in that culture so that I could plant a church that would be effective in that culture. Of course, one can choose to change culture as well. It might be best to abrogate the cultural norms if they don’t reflect the Kingdom of God.

In a future post, I will flesh out what concerns me about the leadership paradigm of the mega-church movement. Let me “seed” the topic by asking you to reflect on this question: “How many people would it take to lead a spiritual movement in the United States that transforms our country of over 300 million people?

Bigger is not always better
Many of us will agree this statement. However, our culture tells us that successful churches are big churches. When pastors meet, the first question that gets asked is, “How big is your church?” I think it is very difficult for us to separate size and success when it comes to churches.

An assumption we have is that a pastor of a large and growing church is a successful pastor. It is hard to escape the vortex that says, “a big church means ministry success.” I disagree with this. Perhaps large size is an indicator of something wrong in the “eccliosystem.”

Missionary work is about getting people to change their worldview from a non-Christian view, to a Christian one
The word “missions” means just about anything in the church today. For this discussion, I am going to agree with Rodney Stark’s view that missionaries are about getting people to become Christians. Feeding the poor is great, but it’s not missionary work. Doing community development is great, but it’s not missionary work. Supporting the local pro-life center is super, but it’s not missionary work. I could go on.

I know that Francis of Assisi has said, “Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words.” I say bunk to that view of mission. When a church categorizes something as the responsibility of the missions team that doesn’t mean that it becomes missionary work. Missionaries are supposed to convert people.

Whew – that was a lot. Please give me your thoughts by commenting if you would like!

10 thoughts on “Mega-Church Series Part 1

  1. I want to take issue with your restrictive definition of missionary and suggest that it damages our ability to recruit and combine varieties of people, ministries, and resources into a cooperative effort to evangelize an unreached people group. I doubt you would send infantry soldiers into combat on the front lines without support from artillery, aviation, intelligence, communications, and so on. And I doubt you would suggest that all the mechanics, aviators, engineers, signalmen, artillerymen, and others who are contributing to Army operations in Iraq and Afghanistan are not really soldiers. Just like infantry soldier missions are enhanced by contributions from other kinds of soldiers who shape the battlefield, world view changes are enhanced through a combination of tools and efforts that shape the environment and impact the target audience. Just like modern combat happens in a “combined arms” environment, so modern missions happens in a “combined ministries” environment. The word missionary means “sent one.” It does not only mean “evangelist.” By definition, missionaries should include all those *sent* across an ethno-linguistic barrier who are contributing to evangelization of that group on the other side. Some contributions will be direct and some contributions will be indirect. All contributions by “sent ones” are missionary.

  2. Interesting thoughts. And timely. I visited a new megachurch on Easter and left empty and my ears hurt from the loud music. I am longing for a non-megachurch, one where the Bible is taught and people worship and fellowship. But you are correct in that we tend to think that a church that isn’t huge must be doing something wrong. It’s a dilemma. I really wish the megachurches would just streamline. Cut back on the drama, the huge theatrical productions, the sound systems. I don’t want to watch people dance. I can go to the Bob Carr for that stuff. Why can’t a megachurch just be one where thousands of people come to read the Word and be taught and to worship together through prayer and congregational singing. Now THAT’s what I am looking for. (then maybe I won’t have to put my fingers in my ears when the music starts because of decibel overload!)

  3. Thanks for the responses.

    Justin, I appreciate the point you are making, but I do think you are reading more into my statement than it says. I am not suggesting that the gospel is only words as the title of your blog post suggests. The gospel is, however, some words. There is information there that must be communicated. Without getting into a debate on universalism, let me suggest that a better title for your post might have been “Is the gospel more than just good works?” I think you would agree with me that it is. I am also not suggesting that every good work be followed up with a gospel tract as if that somehow sanctifies them. All I am saying is that, in the long run, missionary work is about getting people to change their religious worldview. There are a myriad of strategies and methods and many of them are holistic.

    Bruce, I am not specifying roles here. I personally work in a support role, for missionaries who are on the front lines. I value those roles and they are a part of the missionary enterprise. i think what is happening in the mega-church movement is that many large churches are doing cross-cultural work but it is predominately focused on people that are already Christians. This is where I will be taking this point in a future post.

  4. plug and shine. great sharing. taknhs for the personal notes about what it means to you, and your personal versions of the ideas. gives some more context so we can imagine our versions in our lives too. danke schoen aus deutschland.

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