In the future, the 1990s and early 2000s may well be called the “Megachurch Era” by ecclesiastical historians. Suburban commuter culture, television broadcasting, the Internet, the book publishing industry, the rise of self-help gurus, digital media technology, and the contemporary sounds of Jesus People music all provided essential ingredients for enormous churches with a plethora of programs. All that the ingredients needed were men with the vision, initiative, and charisma to muster together like-minded individuals for a common purpose: planting, building, and increasing a congregation (well beyond the previous conceptions of a “large congregation”).
And those men came. Churches with multi-site campuses, parking garages, jumbo-trons, award-winning praise bands, laser shows, tremendous charities, political endorsements, and even in-house coffee shops sprang up across the nation. Thousands of people—unchurched, disenchanted, or pushed out of liberalizing Mainline congregations (or stringent fundamentalist ones)—flocked to these new watering holes. The droves started having offspring as smaller congregations dwindled away. A new way of “doing church” was in town, and it seemed to be primed for being the ideal model for pastors to emulate if they wanted their congregations to survive the coming millennium.
However, critics of this ecclesiology came to the forefront. They complained of shallow theology, entertainment over discipleship, emotionalism, cults of ego, lack of accountability, giganticism (in terms of architecture, size, and theology), consumerism, the prosperity gospel, lack of reverence, therapeutic spirituality, and a host of other spiritual maladies. Most devastatingly, many of the megachurch’s harshest critics came from its own children. In addition, the majority of Americans that remained in smaller congregations also tended to sympathize with these critiques. Indeed, it is almost a truism now to hear a diatribe about the apparent evils of megachurch-style religion.
The glamour of novelty has disappeared. The very term “megachurch” invokes an immediate reaction in Christians: disgust, a balanced shake of the head, or admiration. And this is where the question lies for the religious thinker, “Has the megachurch lost its luster?” Very few in the United States balk in abject horror or astonished wonder at the idea of the megachurch any more. In other words, the megachurch recoil in the Christian world has finally calmed down. Megachurches are there; we know what they are about; we debate their merits and demerits; we make big life decisions based on our convictions. This does not mean that there is no error here, but it does mean that the megachurch has become a normalized piece of furniture in the room of faith.
So what will be the future ecclesiastical landscape? I think that the megachurch will be a fixture in religion for the foreseeable future. However, it definitely won’t be hailed as the definitive “way of the future” in any sense. Some will continue to function as normal. In the larger scheme of things, some of these will act as “feeders” to other Christian congregations in the area, thus furthering Christ’s kingdom in a more roundabout way. I saw this firsthand in the DC area. Seekers, the curious, and nominal believers can come to enjoy a show, hear a sermon, remain unperturbed in the enormous crowds, and enjoy the energy and facilities of a megachurch. However, if these same people want depth, they will be referred to small groups. But, more often than not, hungry Christians will begin to attend smaller congregations with more robust, less open theologies and more engaged membership care.
It seems that other megachurch congregations will, in fact, transform. As this fascinating Christianity Today article reports, New Life Church of Colorado Springs (formerly under the leadership of Ted Haggard) has begun to alter its approach to pastoral leadership, worship style, churchly layout, and even the methods of charity work. New Life Church is starting to look more like a more traditional “large church,” the kind that was a common sight throughout the church’s history.
Time will reveal the destiny of the megachurch movement. God only know its full fruits and meaning.