Thoughts On Megachurches

About 20 years ago or so was when I first started noticing “megachurches” (the term commonly used to describe any church that averages over 2,000 in Sunday worship services). Maybe there were a bunch of them out there before that but I guess I wasn’t paying attention given that most of my church experiences involved an Episcopal church in Alabama (the denomination and location lends to a weekly attendance of maybe 300 at Easter) and a series of Bible churches (generally the type of places that don’t use programs to draw large crowds, so any growth is slow and allures those looking for “depth” from Scripture). The biggest churches in my city usually had First Baptist in front of the name or the big Presbyterian church that had a dynamic pastor.

Over that time frame experts who’d been involved in planting churches that grew into megachurches wrote books and sponsored seminars which instructed people on the things they did that encouraged explosive growth. Naturally, when those arena-sized churches began popping up all over America, the critics started writing.

Some of the things the critics wrote, I agreed with.

Others, not so much.

Eventually, the experts involved began doing studies on their effectiveness and leveled criticism of themselves as well as plans to fix those flaws they found in their findings. Tough to disagree with them on their own findings, eh?

So, I tend not to bash the megachurches. I mean, much of what they do isn’t my cup of tea. If they want to drive a tank on stage to discuss spiritual warfare, well, it seems to me that if they can blow it by God, then I’m the least of their worries. Even if I find it hokey and their marketing methods derivative, some folks are coming to Christ and thriving in those environments. Lots of money and resources are poured into missions work and programs that serve people in all sorts of states of life (think single moms and divorce support and addictions, etc.). Rock on, megachurches.

I also have seen the flaws, too. If you treat worship as a show or a program, well, expect that people who attend will become spectators or audience members. And, we all know that a lecture hall of 6,000 people is pretty ineffective as a discipleship tool. But it isn’t like I’m telling tales out of school. Willow Creek’s own research in 2004 revealed that church activity and programs didn’t do much for true spiritual growth. So, like I said, they know their own flaws.

They’re working on them. The same study included Willow Creek’s resolve to get back to exegetical teaching of Scripture as well as focus on small group discipleship.

But I’ve come to the conclusion that the era of the traditional megachurch is pretty much over. The focus on building a megachurch in a “just-add-water” kind of way in which you couldn’t tell if the method was creating the crowd or the Holy Spirit was at work has crested.

And a couple of things stood out from this morning’s Dallas Morning News article: First, the average age of a regular attendee of a megachurch is 40. Think about that for a second. 40-somethings are average in these places. I think that means that those of us who grew up in youth ministries where current megachurch worship services look a lot like our old youth group gatherings during the Golden Age of Youth Ministry (where all these things were fresh and new) are comfy in these environs, but the polish and flash is lost on those younger.

Second was that nearly 45% didn’t get involved in anything other than the service itself. They didn’t give financially, either. Again, you put on a show, expect the crowd to be passive. Even if you stress that growing is important and service and ministry are vital the the Body, well, they tend to ignore those but keep showing up.

As I see it, the megachurch research is right when it points the way toward the attempts to change their culture:

Teach the Word of God, exegetically, in context, wherever you have teaching opportunity–from nursery workers to retirees, in large and small group settings.
Provide meaningful ministry opportunities for people to use their gifts, talents and passions.
Corporate worship is NOT the best place for long-term growth through teaching, but rather through collective experience of God together as a family. We’ve got to stop reducing worship to song alone…we can learn a lot from liturgy and the practices of the Church throughout centuries.
Small groups are the best environment to experience family and love one another to the full.
We need the older and more mature leading the younger and growing, from nursery workers to retirees.

And I think all of those things can be true if your church seats 16,000 or meets in a living room.

But it ain’t rocket science, folks. That’s for sure.