December 9, 2013

Has the Megachurch Lost Its Luster?

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.


13 Responses to Has the Megachurch Lost Its Luster?

  1. Pudentiana says:

    To tell the truth, I am so happy to learn that these Behemoths will not devour nearby smaller community centered churches. That is where I find deep relationships, deeper theology, and more opportunity paths of hands-on ministry. Love the local church. God moves big and small toward the Kingdom.

  2. gary says:

    I go to a “megachurch” in Albuquerque, NM and it is so much better theologically than the smaller Methodist church I attended for 15 years. The “gimic” of the megachurch that I go to is Bible teaching. They actually talk about sin and hell instead of trying to make you feel good about yourself and only teaching a social gospel (Methodist church). If you want good Bible teaching in Albuquerque, NM go to Calvary Chapel. It is big (15,000) but you can’t beat the Bible teaching they have.

    • Adrian Croft says:

      I don’t know how often you visit the site, but if you read a lot of the comments, you will notice you are part of the large and growing number of ex-UMs, which may eventually outnumber the UMs. I agree about their churches, for most of them it’s some inspid Kum Bah Yah feel-good thing, with a little political leftism sprinkled on top, so who can blame red-meat-loving Christians from seeking new homes?

    • cken says:

      Obviously we sin and obviously there is a thing we call hell whatever it is. Dwelling on these two issues only leads to guilt and fear and does nothing to enhance one’s spiritual growth.

      • John C. Edwards says:

        I disagree, my brother. It is often guilt and fear of the Lord that motivates us into taking proper action, if we are not too preoccupied with finding a way to justify or diminish whatever sins we are involved in. Jesus himself said to “fear him who can destroy both body and spirit in hell.” The Lord loves us, but also, like any parent, he has expectations of his children. If we rebel against those expectations without guilt or fear, do we, like the prodigal son, get what we deserve in the end?

  3. David says:

    The flaws on the mega churches can be and are nitpicked because their pastors are in the media, (TV and publishing), and everyone’s a critic. But if you go to the smaller churches you can find every flaw, every inanity, every ego,and every manipulation you find anywhere else. Except you may find a ‘small is better’ conceit. Sigh.

    • Jeremy Long says:

      You are so right, size is not the issue, Christians are human no matter how big or small the church is.

      Years ago I attended a Graham Crusade held in a football stadium, which was almost full, and there definitely is a thrill in being in the presence of so many fellow believers (or seekers), and a stadium full of people singing “Onward, Christian Soldiers” does raise a few goosebumps (the good kind). Still, I must admit I don’t have the megachurch gene, don’t need the “mass” feeling every Sunday. I do applaud the more successful megas for placing so much emphasis on small groups, so that churchgoers get the necessary mix of big church and close fellowship. I think these churches will be around awhile, serving the purpose of reminding Christians that, regardless of how hostile the culture is, we are not isolated Christians, we have brothers and sisters in Christ.

  4. Mike says:

    For nineteen years I have been part of what would be called a megachurch. It has been a great experience and is a major reason I have not moved closer to my job or moved away for a higher paying job. The fundamental philosophy is that small groups drive the church and that much of real biblical ministry is in the community: in our jobs, in our schools, in our general lives. Then we meet each week at the church facility to celebrate the reality of Jesus. As a result of this effective philosophy, the church keeps growing and growing and during my time there has morphed from just a “big church” to a megachurch; yet, there is a true spirit of worship when me meet weekly and great fellowship in the small groups. And there is true humility reflected in the leadership. The church is not perfect, of course, but I’m grateful for it.

  5. John says:

    I belong to THE Mega-church – Roman Catholic. I have worshipped both in THE mega-church (St. Peter’s in Rome) as well as in tiny chapels with a dozen people. I think the key is that there are times for both massive congregation and times for more quiet, discrete worship. Our Lord both went up to Jerusalem each year AND spent most of his life in tiny Nazareth and the synagogue there… so rather than ‘either/or’ we should reflect that it can be both/and.

    • John says:

      True “Romanist” have thought this way since the third century but THE Mega-church is all those who have their name written in the Lamb’s book of life.

  6. John C. Edwards says:

    I love my smaller church, where I can find support from my friends over any issue I encounter. The key is to understand that all human beings are sinful, and the sin doesn’t magincally disappear when I walk through its doors. I find mega-churches repugnant because they (a) act as a magnifying glass for sinful behavior and twisted theology, and (b) act as a hiding place for people who want to stay uninvolved but say they belong to a church. I attended a funeral at a mega-church once, and they only let women read Bible verses from the pulpit if a man was standing beside them. My church isn’t like that at all.

  7. Dr. Charles C. Kyker says:

    Is there not a reason why most small churches, over 70% in USA are under 75 in attendance, remain small? Is there not a reason why churches have grown to become “mega-churches”? Your article lacks the most obvious reason why churches grow to this size, as I have visited the largest 25 churches in the USA–,The undeniable passion of the founding or lead pastor to reach lost people for Jesus Christ! Now, what do you have against this? What is your method of evangelism? Practice it not and you will plateau as a church, decline or remain small. Merry Christmas in the name of the One who “came to save his people from their sins”. Dr. Charles C. Kyker

  8. Gary Bebop says:

    To rest and renew in ministry as a United Methodist pastor, my wife attends a vital, hip mega-church in our area about once a month. She immerses herself in dynamic worship and is overcome by experiential joy. Copious, salutary tears flow involuntarily. She weeps openly in speechless gratitude for this life-nurturing Wesleyan holiness mega-church that unknowingly serves as her oasis.

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